How small firms look big by making most of resources

This is the first article in a two-part series. To read part two, click here.

High-tech innovations level the playing field

Innovative small law firms are using widely available technologies to compete with bigger firms. Robert Half Legal noted this trend among the key findings in its recent white paper, “Future Law Office: Technology’s Transformation of the Legal Field.”

In some cases, small outfits use technology common to firms of any size. In others, they use insights garnered from other industries. In all cases, they’re building big-firm auras using small-firm resources.

Eliminate paper

Mark Hayes, managing director of Heydary Hayes PC, produces professional-looking soft copies of documents using widely available tools for both writing and setup. “When I first started out, I had a dictation program so I didn’t need to dictate to a secretary,” Hayes recalls. “I dictated direct to my computer and edited everything on-screen.”

Dominic Jaar, national leader in information management and e-discovery with KPMG, honed his technical knowledge during three years as principal of a consultancy (since bought by KPMG). Jaar says Adobe Acrobat Pro is “one of the few tools I can’t live without” since it lets users do things like annotate text, sign and encrypt documents and create digital binders.

Real estate lawyer David Feld of Feld Kalia, annotates on-screen when he reviews documents with clients. Documents then “get sent to the builder after we discuss them, to make requests for changes — all done paperlessly.”

Feld believes the process helps him build rapport with clients. “It lets the client get more involved with the file, to connect with it, and to know that we’re connected with it too.”

Feld has a blanket policy to “scan, PDF and file all incoming correspondence” to help keep his office paperless. “Clients get answers fast because staff can find information fast,” he adds.

Faxes never clutter Feld’s office, because they arrive and leave via an online fax service.

Cloud systems

Cloud-based services make sophisticated tools accessible to lawyers on tight budgets.

They offer other advantages too. People are “no longer tied to a physical server in their offices,” says Dave Iverson, a senior manager, specialist advisory services for Grant Thornton, “so they don’t have to maintain an IT service.” Iverson adds that online services keep software patched and current, and upgrades are usually included in monthly fees.

“Lawyers should be aware of their ethical responsibilities when selecting a technology that will handle confidential client data,” adds Jack Newton, founder and CEO of cloud- based practice management system Clio. “Cloud computing has been approved by a growing list of regulatory bodies, with a general consensus that lawyers must take ‘reasonable care’ to ensure the safety and confidentiality of client data stored in the cloud.”

Hayes recognizes both sides of the argument. “It’ll only take one data breach by a cloud provider popular with lawyers before people realize the issue. But security is a concern when you have your own servers too. Thousands of hackers try to get into our server every month.”

Because all systems suffer multiple intrusion attempts, Hayes advises that “you need to make sure you’re not the easiest target out there.”

Adding components to cloud systems is getting easier thanks to collaboration between cloud service providers. For example, online legal assistance service My Legal Briefcase integrates with Newton’s Clio to help Clio users with small-claims litigation.

Virtual offices

“The use of ‘virtual lawyers’ gives us greater capacity to expand and bring more lawyers into our group, which traditional offices simply cannot do given cost constraints,” says Omar Ha-Redeye, principal at Fleet Street Law. “The two main budget line items for any law firm are rent and salaries and we’re attacking both of those costs head on.”

Ha-Redeye says the firm currently uses PC Law Practice Suite, which he considers a great resource for small firms because it includes practice management tips for some of the main practice areas.” But he does offer one caveat about the software: “One of its major shortcomings is that it is not cloud-based, and this is becoming increasingly important as we operate out of multiple offices.”

Invoicing

Firms generally use computer systems for time capture and billing. Certain systems perform ancillary tasks like sending follow-up emails for unpaid invoices.

Monica Goyal, sole practitioner and founder of My Legal Briefcase, uses the Canadian service FreshBooks. “It helps keep track of who has done what on what files,” she says, “and it automatically generates invoices with everybody’s times. People can pay you online. There’s a polish to it.”

Outsource when necessary

Technology can’t scratch every itch. For instance, solos who do a lot of litigation can find it challenging to produce all required documentation. Hayes advises finding “a reliable copy shop that can turn out documents, bind them and make them look professional. Depending on your practice, you may not need these services very often.”

Collaborate with colleagues

To improve knowledge management and collaboration, Goyal brought Yammer, an enterprise social network service recently acquired by Microsoft and made part of its Office division, into My Legal Briefcase. She created different groups within Yammer corresponding to groups in the company, but says it’s “also completely open and transparent to everybody.”

Digital fridge magnets

Feld’s website features a Residential Closing Cost Calculator, which quickly tells clients the cost of using his firm’s services. Feld presumes that clients want a clear idea of how much they need to pay. “Everything should be simple from the client’s perspective,” he says.

Law firms have been publishing their own mobile apps for several years, but Garry Wise, founder of Wise Law Office, isn’t impressed by what he’s seen so far. “The law firm app must go beyond being a vanity project or digital business card in order to have staying power,” he says. “An app has to allow users to do something that they want or need to do.”

Wise recently published the WiseLii app, which “permits optimized search and retrieval of all Canadian statutes, regulations and case law on the iPhone or iPad” using CanII, he says, adding:

“From a marketing perspective, the mobile app is the digital fridge magnet of the 2010s.”

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. For a PDF of the article, click here.

4 Comments
  1. Any thoughts on confidentiality and attorneys moving to Office 365, Google’s various apps, etc.? Clio is designed for attorneys and quite conscious of the confidentiality requirements, but how about these generic others. What are the risks?

    • Hi Dan,
      Thanks for your comment.

      I actually covered this thought in a couple of articles I submitted last week. Lawyers Weekly will publish them in March or April but, in the meantime, here are two main points to consider:

      Security can actually be better using a cloud service than an in-house server. To a degree, a cloud service replicates the old mainframe relationship to dumb terminals, which could not store anything. This isn’t entirely true for ALL cloud services so you need to read the fine print, which leads me to my next point…

      Lawyers who choose to use cloud services really need to read the service level agreements (SLAs), or end-user license agreements (EULAs) for consumer-grade services like DropBox. Until legal regulatory authorities step up and draft guidelines for lawyers to follow when shopping for cloud service providers, lawyers must read the SLAs before clicking “Yeah, sure, I read the SLA/EULA.”

      I tried to demystify the reading with my SLA article, due to be published in a few weeks by Lawyers Weekly.

  2. You missed voip telephony. . Internet marketing… meeting by Skype and so much more

    • I agree, Roger. This topic merits a book (and books have been written about it) while I had to stick to a limit of 1,000 words.

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