When it comes to law-office technology, there are the must-haves, the don’t-needs and the wish lists.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing something flashy and imagining how it’s going to make your firm more efficient,” said Michael Brennan, owner of The Virtual Attorney, which provides various business-law and estate-planning services largely over the Internet.
But for attorneys, figuring out which technology will actually work depends on the type of law you practice.
“It’s easy for young attorneys hanging out their shingle to get overwhelmed finding out, ‘Do I need video chat? Do I need calendaring? What am I doing to do for billing? How do I store my documents?’” Brennan said. “But ask yourself, ‘What do I need to just open the door?’ I need to communicate with clients. I need to manage things clients send me, and I need a way to do my work, whether that’s in an office or on the road. And you build from that. But starting small is the key.”
For more established attorneys, Brennan suggested turning to their pasts.
“Look at the core of your practice,” he said. “What’s important to you and your clients? Are you working with them over email a lot? Are you meeting a lot in person? Are you in person frequently?
Are you exchanging documents, and what’s your internal practice for managing your firm? Looking at the core of how your practice is structured enables you to define what you’re looking for and do your research from there. Keep it simple.”
For Brennan, an estate-planning and transactional-business attorney licensed in Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, keeping it simple meant keeping it mobile.
“I don’t have the brick-and-mortar office. I don’t have the office furniture. I work out of the second bedroom of my home or a coffee shop. My office fits in my computer bag,” Brennan said. “So I started with my website and I started with my practice-management suite, and I put the two in sync and built off that core.”
Zeshan Usman does have a brick-and-mortar office — two, in fact — but his operation is similarly slim.
“My basics are a phone — a cellphone or a landline phone — a computer, external hard drive or online backup service and all-in-one printer,” said Usman, a personal-injury and debt-relief lawyer in Madison. “Maybe a scanner, too? Those are the basics. Those are the bare minimum you can get by with.”
Brennan and Usman got together this past year at a state bar conference and chatted about their experiences. When it came to using computers, both suggested laptops with an additional plug-in monitor.
Brennan also suggested cloud-based systems for practice management. He uses MyCase, but said Clio and Rocket Matter are also good options.
“A new one comes out every three months at this point,” Brennan said. “But for a new attorney having a laptop, having a good practice-management suite that’s essentially going to act as their virtual office, even if they have a brick-and-mortar space, will help them manage the paper.”
Often, figuring out what you need also means figuring out what you don’t.
“I guess that depends on your perspective,” said Brennan, who has been practicing since 2010. “For younger attorneys who are starting lean and trying to create something that’s flexible, things you don’t need — a copier is probably becoming obsolete; fax machine, there’s no need for a fax machine, there are numerous e-fax services you can sign up for $10 a month; on-site servers are a big expense that I think solos, for a long time, have been shying away from. And I think even larger firms are looking to remove them. And I think we’re only a few years from being cloud-based; and desk top computers — I don’t know anyone who has one anymore.”
Management suites that track sales and clients can also be unnecessary.
“I think there are other ways to do that, even if it’s just plugging into a spreadsheet,” Brennan said.
For accounting, programs such as QuickBooks and Wave, a free cloud-based program, are a step up from the more popular options such as Quicken for invoicing and tracking numbers from day to day.
For invoicing, Usman suggested FreshBooks, which can automatically send bills to clients.
When it comes to phones, Brennan downplayed the need for an elaborate system, especially in the age of smartphones.
“Google Voice is my office number, and it forwards to my office phone. I get a text when I get a voicemail,” Brennan said.
Even email can be done in new ways. Instead of Outlook, or even free services such as Gmail or Hotmail, Brennan suggests getting a custom URL that ties back to a firm’s website.
When it comes to wish lists, Brennan and Usman agree that the Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner should be at the top of any list, since it offers double-sided scanning, text recognition and digital copy printing.
“It might be better than a copier,” Brennan said.
Usman also loves his Dymo label maker, which he uses to address mail and print postage.
Neither Usman nor Brennan has staff, but Brennan said a so-called virtual receptionist — a person who answers calls coming into a firm but does not work onsite — can be a great help. And websites such as Calendly can assist with scheduling since they allow clients to log on to see when an attorney has time to meet and to make appointments.
Usman suggested Apptoto, a Google Calendar-compatible scheduling service that confirms appointments using text messages.
“It’s like $10 a month,” he said. “It scans my calendar for me, and it’s cut down on clients missing appointments.”
For attorneys who are often working out of state, an online notary service with a webcam can also be helpful, Usman said.
As for paying for these not-quite-necessary upgrades, Usman, an attorney for nine years and a solo for eight of those, suggested going slow and making smaller upgrades from year to year. Also, he said, larger purchases should be tied to tax deductions to maximize the financial benefit.
Beyond that, Brennan said, getting gear for a law office comes down to your own preferences.
“I think we’re all kind of in the same boat trying to do what’s best for the consumer and best for ourselves. The point I always make is to embrace what’s out there and find what works and what doesn’t,” Brennan said. “I just try to make technology central to the way I practice.”