Hi-tech tips for small firms

This is the second of a two-part series. To read part one, click here.

You might think small law firms have small budgets, but they don’t all act like it. Thank technology, which is getting better and cheaper all the time, for letting savvy lawyers build big-firm presence using small-firm resources.

In this column, we’ ll look at innovations in client relations and efficient ways to handle social media.

Collaborate with clients

Dominic Jaar simplifies document and project management by creating a Microsoft SharePoint-based extranet for each engagement, giving clients user names and passwords and turning them loose.

“Whenever people create a new document or update an existing document, all parties receive an e-mail containing a hyperlink to the document so that they can see what hap- pened,” says KPMG’s national leader, information management and e-discovery.

He especially wants to avoid ending up with 25 versions of the same document. “With SharePoint, we always look at the same document at the same time,” he says. “Clients don’t have to manage documents, they always know where their documents are, and they can access them any time.”

Train clients

Jaar eases clients into technologies he knows they’ll find useful. “When I set up SharePoint sites for clients, the only things clients see are a folder structure with documents inside, he says.”

He teaches clients how to share documents and explains e-mail alerts sent when documents are added or changed.

“When people feel comfortable in a simplified environment, you can add features,” he says, noting that shared online calendars prove useful.

“Most clients see this as added value. Clients don’t get this from most of their providers. They enjoy this.”

Client data storage costs

Jaar figures client data storage costs increasingly eat into law firm margins. So he got clients to perform their own data retention.

During his three years as head of a small consultancy (since acquired by KPMG), Jaar did not charge for faxing, printing, scanning or similar tasks. Instead, “I charged clients a hosting fee for the data they had in the SharePoint environment, as well as user licences,” he says. Clients did not object to monthly hosting bills during engagements.

When bills arrived after engagements ended, he reminded clients “that I was hosting their documents,” Jaar continues. “I didn’t have to make the uncomfortable call to the client asking to cut access and to return data to the client. Instead, clients called saying a file had been closed, noted that they were still receiving a bill for access and asked what to do next.”

Stay in touch

Some of solo practitioner Monica Goyal’s clients regularly ping her on Skype. “People want that instant feedback — not everybody, but a certain group of people do want it,” she says.

Mark Hayes returns client calls the same day. “If you can’t offer that, your clients will go somewhere else,” says the managing director for Heydary Hayes PC.

Before the mobile phone era, Hayes worried during vacations about issues he couldn’t deal with away from the office. Now he takes vacations with more peace of mind. “I know that if something comes up, I can take care of it wherever I am. For me, that decreases pressure.”

Faxes and voice mail

Several fax and voice mail services deliver incoming messages of both types attached to e-mail, so lawyers need only check their inboxes for digital messages of all kinds.

Internet access

To ensure connections, cellular service providers offer modems on USB sticks. Certain phones can tether computers to the Internet. Jaar thinks these might be good investments. “As people use hosted environments more, they need to be able to connect at any time, since they have less and less information on their hard drives,” he says.

Manage client relationships

David Feld takes notice of companies that strive to earn client loyalty. “I look at BMW,” says the real estate lawyer. “When I take my car in,I get an e-mail a few hours later saying, ‘I hope you enjoyed our service. Would you take this survey?’ They say, ‘Happy Birthday.’ They remind me when my car needs service. If I book an appointment, I get an e-mail containing a calendar invitation. It’s just beautiful. I look at them and think, ‘I have to do that too.’”

In his view, this involves timely communication with clients and offering them some autonomy. “Wouldn’t it be nice if you could simply check the status of your file right now? You could see where we are, what we need from you right now, what we’re still waiting on.”

Using social media

When appearing at conferences, Omar Ha-Redeye and his associates usually tweet proceedings. They also preserve content, parts of which they offer online.

Social media activity like this enables “individual lawyers or legal teams to highlight their expertise,” says Connie Crosby, principal of Crosby Group Consulting. “It also allows for direct communication with the general public or specific industries, raising one’s profile while putting a human face on a legal practice.”

Blogs and newsletters

Jaar blogged nearly every day to his WordPress-based site. To offer a monthly newsletter, he used a WordPress plug-in called Easy Automatic Newsletter that automatically generated a newsletter containing blog posts from the preceding month.

Publishing to social media

Simply creating accounts on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter et al. isn’t enough. Those profiles need to show activity, since few people stay on profiles where they see “digital tumbleweeds.”

Social media “dashboards” like HootSuite.com enable people to both post and schedule messages on multiple social media accounts at the same time. This means the account holder posts only from one web page, not one for each account. Dashboards also offer a quick view of streams from each account and the ability to participate in conversations.

Podcasting

Today’s clients might find lawyers by using referrals or business listings, but “many people now jump directly to YouTube to look for information or answers, and having a presence there can raise a firm’s profile,” says Crosby.

Concerned about the time needed to learn how to podcast? Crosby suggests engaging a professional production company, at least at the start.

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

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