Communications and Technology
For attorneys, time truly is money. With time and advice being your stock in trade, it's important to choose and deploy the most effective technology to help you maximize the revenue potential of both.
Moreover, with lawyers balancing their workday (and often nights and weekends) among the office, courthouses, and clients' offices and homes, it's critical to maintain access to information and online resources from nearly anywhere.
Legal firms have used various generations of practice management suites that offer features such as scheduling and shared calendars, client contact data, document management, tasks and collaboration features.
Most suites allow you to research a matter online, transfer notes to a word processing application, and draft a brief with the proper formatting for the jurisdiction in which you're filing.
Most also allow color-coding of calendars and automatic prioritization of tasks as deadlines approach. As a brief comes due, for instance, attorneys can see reminders with the relevant email messages appended so they can get a head start on their research.
Given that smaller law practices (two to 20 attorneys) make up the majority of all firms in the U.S., legal-tech specialists say software manufacturers are increasingly designing products to meet the needs of smaller firms.
The newest practice management programs not only provide shared client-specific databases and individual task management systems, they also contain accounting tools, billing/time software and customer relationship management (CRM) components.
Regardless of your software budget, it's a good idea to approach your purchase armed with a few guidelines. The American Bar Association (ABA) suggests the following:
Check for complete systems. Good practice management software should include a company-wide calendar; complete billing forms, archives and a task timer; general ledger and report components; and software integration capabilities. Do not hesitate to ask for a demonstration or a trial period prior to purchase.
Seek input. Ask your law partners and staff what they think the firm needs, or talk with colleagues about the systems they use.
Request training. Ensure that some sort of instruction is available to staff.
Keep it simple and secure. Make sure the program you choose is user-friendly and offers strong password protection.
Go for comprehensive, compatible databases. The ideal database requires a single input of each entry and supplies all relevant forms. Keep in mind that the software must work with the firm's existing word processing programs.
Make certain court rules for all U.S. jurisdictions are in the program.
Smartphone time-tracking applications can begin recording time in the system background as soon as an attorney begins composing an email message. Once the message is sent, the attorney will see a prompt asking if that time should be attributed to a specific client.
Mobile features available via smart phone or broadband access enable:
- Time tracking and billing, and synchronization with office computers
- Unified inboxes let you retrieve office voicemails and faxes remotely
- Expense tracking
- Remote document access and editing
- Online access to legal literature, news and research
- Faster response to client emails
Document Assembly and Management
Because paper still plays a central role in daily law firm operations, assembling documents – contracts, agreements, leases, wills, deeds and others – efficiently and managing them within the practice is a critical core competency.
Document automation, typically linked to your practice management suite, is an important way to avoid typing the same information multiple times or making mistakes when revising older documents for new clients.
Most legal documents are based on standardized forms that, in most instances, need only minimal customization for the current client. To reduce the time and effort required for this customization, look for the ability to merge client contact data into new document templates.
For an estate plan, for instance, using client information to automatically populate the appropriate sections of the document allows the attorney to concentrate on the specifics of the estate, without having to worry about the basics being covered.
In addition, the same contact data can be used to email assembled documents to the clients, for scheduling, or for other uses as needed.
Indexing and search capabilities allow documents to be searchable by a variety of criteria, such as client name, matter type, date or other factors that may be relevant.
A lawyer depends on being able to capture his or her thoughts as soon as they occur, and law firms have long depended on dictation tools to improve attorney productivity.
In addition, with most lawyers carrying smartphones, it makes sense to leverage the powerful processing power of smartphones to enable mobile dictation from nearly anywhere.
Some apps enable recorded voice notes to be transferred from the handset, automatically and securely, to the firm's network for transcription by a staff member. Others use basic voice recognition capabilities to transcribe the voice note directly on the handset, so the text can be pasted into an email or a word processing document.
With either approach, attorneys can dictate correspondence or record reminders without having to be in the office or relying on tape-based dictation equipment. Important thoughts can be captured as soon as they occur, and attorneys can boost productivity without relying on paper notes that can be hard to read or understand later.
While the Internet is a critical tool for attorneys and staff, it's also helpful to make access available to guest users as well. Offering Internet access in conference rooms, for instance, is useful for many situations, such as conducting research during negotiating sessions or allowing clients to get online while they're visiting the office.
A robust broadband connection is a good starting point, but it's also important to deploy strong encryption and authentication measures to restrict guest access. Security measures can be installed to allow guest users to conduct Google searches while preventing them from exploring the firm's sensitive information and internal resources.
The latest generation of tablet PC offers touchscreen data entry and retrieval, and their small size makes them an effective technology bridge – more powerful than a smartphone, yet smaller and easier to carry than a laptop.
Tablet PCs can provide an effective way for attorneys to conduct online research, access the firm's practice management tools, draft documents and more – from nearly anywhere. By taking advantage of waiting time in court, for instance, an attorney can perform billable or administrative tasks using time that would otherwise be wasted (and often without having to carry bulky case files back and forth).