How solo and small law firms can leverage technology to its fullest

March 27, 2013

Law and technology

(Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of March, we’ll be looking at issues involving both the law and technology, whether on the large scale or down to the small scale of an individual practice).

Week 1: Is it illegal to “unlock” your phone? Why?

Week 2: How tablets can help strengthen attorney-client relationships

Week 3: The abundance of paper trails of the paperless era

There’s been a lot of talk about law firms using new technologies to help them achieve “Goal A” or “Goal B,” but a lot of that discussion seems a bit too abstract, especially for small and solo practitioners.

So, I decided to put together a list of five specific technologies that I’ve found are extremely useful in my own solo practice.

Cellular phone

PhonelThis seems like an obvious one, but its importance to a solo or small practitioner cannot be understated.

Unless your solo practice is so successful that you can afford your own full-time office staff to answer your phone and take your messages, a mobile phone is an absolute necessity.  Even if it isn’t used exclusively for your practice, using your cell phone instead of a landline allows an unrivaled amount of flexibility and mobility in your office environment.

You can bring your means of communication along with you anywhere you go (this is especially true if you can check and respond to emails on your phone).

Scanner

I’ve already stated repeatedly that you should make electronic backups of all filings and other client documents, and the cheapest, most efficient way to do this is to have your own document scanner.

It may be awfully tempting to opt for a basic all-in-one scanner/copier/printer, and this may suit your needs for the most part.

Scanner

There is, however, a particular element that you may want to consider in choosing a scanner: an automatic document feeder.

For documents less than 30 or so pages long, manually feeding each page onto the scanning bed may not be too big of an inconvenience.  What happens, though, when you have over 100 pages of transcript to scan in?

Do you spend hours scanning it?  Or do you not scan it in at all, either because you never get around to it because of the time commitment required or because you consciously decide that it isn’t worth the effort?

None of those outcomes are preferable.  Thus, although a scanner with an automatic document feeder is a bit pricier than one requiring a manual feed, the time you’ll save more than makes up for it.

Tablet

I’ve previously touted the benefits of using a tablet such as an iPad in client meetings, but the advantages offered by such devices don’t end there.

With any number of cheap or free document readers available for the iPad and Android operating systems, you can easily bring your entire library of client files with you anywhere you go.

WestlawNext mobile and iPad imagesIn addition, the plethora of electronic legal research options available, paid or free, are invaluable – not only at the abovementioned client meetings, but also when you’re at court, on the bus or train, or even if you’re eating lunch away from your office by yourself and just want to catch up on some work.

Being able to read and respond to email anywhere you go is another obvious benefit to any attorney.  Although you can certainly do this with a properly-equipped smartphone, it’s much easier to read and type email messages on a tablet’s larger screen.

Lastly, if you have a Bluetooth keyboard, you can get some legal writing done on your tablet.  Granted, you won’t have the full array of formatting options available on desktop word processing applications, but you can still get a surprising amount of work done in a variety of less-than-ideal locations.

Internet fax service

Although an increasing number of individuals and organizations that you interact with are able to send documents via email, transmissions via facsimile are still predominant, especially so in many geographic areas.

As such, the ability to send and receive faxes is crucial to any law practice, even small and solo ones.

What is not crucial, however, is having an actual fax machine and dedicated telephone line with which to send and receive faxes; instead, an Internet fax service is all that is required.

virtual faxFor a relatively small fee (which is usually charged yearly), you can get your own fax line from which you can send and receive faxes virtually – meaning, faxes can be sent and received through your normal email account in the form of PDF, TIFF, or Microsoft Word files.

If you have electronic copies of all of your files, faxing is a breeze, especially since you don’t have to print out separate cover letters (you can just make a Word document of one).

Even better, most fax services will keep records of incoming and outgoing transmissions for up to a year (and sometimes longer).  And, of course, documents received via virtual fax do not need to be converted to electronic format, since they are received as a file attachment to an email.

This service also boosts the efficacy of the previously discussed tablet technology in that you can actually send and receive faxes from your tablet.

There really isn’t much of a downside to this one, so if you are going to have a fax line as an attorney (which you should), a virtual fax service is highly recommended.

Accepting credit cards

The final piece of technology – accepting credit cards – is nothing new, but it will help your business to grow tremendously.

I suppose that there is a “new” aspect to this technology, though: the wide variety of mobile apps, along with credit card reader attachments to smartphones and tablets, make it easier than ever to accept credit card payments from clients.

credit credit cardscardsA credit card reader isn’t even necessary if you don’t mind entering in the credit card information yourself, and most service providers even have an option to allow you to take credit cards over the phone (i.e. no signature required).

But why will this “help your business to grow tremendously?”

As a small or solo practitioner, most of your clients likely won’t have several thousand dollars to spare upfront for a retainer.  As such, very few will be able to give you a check for your retainer.

They will, though, often be able to put it on a credit card.  Consequently, you will get more paying clients if they have the option to use a credit card.

There are probably many other technologies out there that can also help solo and small law firms improve their practice, but these five are certainly among the most notable.