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Hanging up on the traditional phone system

When Michael Berger and his partners started business law firm Aluvion Law, they deliberately made what might seem a strange omission: the firm has no phones.

“Desk-based phones are costly,” says Berger. “In this day and age, they aren’t necessarily required.”

Aluvion runs lean, and its partners structured it for growth. At time of writing, it comprised three partners, one associate, one articling student and one “virtual” lawyer. Growth plans hinge largely on adding more virtual lawyers who might rarely see the office.

“People don’t have to be in a physical office space,” Berger says of his non-traditional law firm business plan. “Lawyers can work from wherever they are with full access to our systems.”

David Feld, who has an office and staff, made the same no-phone choice when he recently switched phone systems. Feld, a partner in residential real estate law firm Feld Kalia Professional Corporation, wears a Bluetooth headset that connects to his iPhone (on which he handles most of his calls) and his other computing devices. Staff make and receive calls using software on their computers while wearing headsets.

Feld admits some staff initially balked at this unconventional setup. His argument? “If you use two hands for typing, you get stuff done twice as fast. I only discovered that later in life.”

Both firms chose a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) system. VoIP calls travel the same networks built for data traffic, not the plain old telephone system (POTS). VoIP phones, for people who buy them, look like traditional phones, and VoIP systems offer all features of traditional systems.

Their digital nature means that VoIP systems also offer features not usually found on POTS-based systems, like: auto-receptionists; voice mail delivered as sound files via e-mail (so people need not log in to voice mail every day); reception and transmission of faxes; and the ability to add extensions and set the phone system’s behaviour.

Aluvion’s system provides what Berger calls a “centralized look and feel” comprising a main phone number and all the extensions they need.

Omar Ha-Redeye’s phone system includes virtual faxing. The principal at legal incubator Fleet Street Law receives, generates and sends faxes without touching paper. In his words, virtual faxing “lets us enter the 21st century as we continue to use 20th-century technology.”

VoIP systems work best on “business-class” Internet connections and hardware, since it occupies more bandwidth than text and static images. It also requires a higher quality of service (QOS), meaning it must be given high priority on data networks. While some latency (the time required for a data packet to travel from source to destination) is tolerable for text and images, it won’t do for phone calls. That’s why some VoIP systems require QOS fine-tuning so that, for instance, text and image transmissions can be paused while a voice call is in progress to protect the quality of the call.

Ha-Redeye notes he chose high-bandwidth Internet service for his office to prevent latency during calls. Feld went further. He maintains two Internet connections, including one dedicated to phone service.

All three lawyers chose mobile-friendly phone systems. Berger and his partners took a platform-agnostic approach towards mobile phone usage. Aluvion lawyers can access the firm’s phone system using Android, BlackBerry and iOS.

Ha-Redeye has office phone calls routed to his mobile phone, so he only gives his office number to clients.

“This system lets you control when you’re available and when you’re not available,” he says of this client management tactic. He adds a caveat: some of his colleagues who practise in other areas of law, like criminal, give their mobile numbers to clients, telling them to call in case of emergency.

He also blocks his number when calling clients to protect his mobile number. Otherwise, “clients may bypass your office number and call or text your mobile directly” at all hours, he says.

Ha-Redeye considers video conferencing a desirable “next-generation” phone technology. He notes that “seeing counsel’s face helps, even if it’s on a screen” since that visual can help callers understand one another’s tone and intent.

When Aluvion lawyers videoconference, they primarily use GoToMeeting. “You can share documents, see people you’re talking to without physically being in the same space,” Berger notes.

Support for phone systems is never optional. Reputable service providers tout their support offerings, whether they be small and growing like the VoIP provider Aluvion chose, or the larger and more established companies Ha- Redeye and Feld use.

Ha-Redeye used support more when he first switched to the service to figure things out, “when we hit speed bumps” in learning, he says.

Speed bumps in phone connectivity hurt lawyers, Feld notes. While he’s open about his passion for the latest technologies, he scratches his head when he calls other law offices and encounters “voice mail that sounds like it’s from the ‘70s. You need a good, easy-to-use phone system,” he insists.

Feld admits his new system costs more, but “if you get one or two extra clients a year because you’re responsive to client needs, that will pay for a better phone system.”

VoIP phone systems offer features that traditional systems don’t, thanks in part to the fact that VoIP calls travel the same networks as a firm’s other data. Sharing that network also means easier integration with other systems lawyers use. For instance, the time, duration and numbers used for phone calls can be automatically recorded by time and billing systems. Staff who make calls from Feld’s office usually auto-dial from contacts in Outlook 365 or Salesforce.

“The ideal scenario is to integrate your phone, task management, billing and other apps on your phone and computer,” says Berger. “That’s where we’re trying to get to.”

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. To view the print version, click here.