What’s the “bare minimum” technology a lawyer needs to start up a solo law practice today? For this month’s Friday 5+ Tech Tips, we asked the practice management experts for their best advice for startups.
Jim Calloway: Anytime, Anywhere Access
The bare minimum technology for a solo must include the ability to practice law from anywhere. You cannot afford to lose the time waiting for something when you could be working. So I believe you must have a smartphone and a business-class laptop with Microsoft Office. You also want secure Internet access for the laptop whenever you need it. Maybe that means tethering with your smartphone or paying for a MiFi card, depending on your Internet access at work and home.
A cloud-based practice management service will be an absolute must as well. You probably don’t want the upfront expense of a full-blown traditional software package. Don’t skimp, though, or fail to research your practice management system purchase. It will be all of your file storage and the assistant you may not be able to afford yet.
A paperless workflow is a must, but you will still want a laser printer. (The supplies for a cheap inkjet printer will be too expensive in the long run.)
Take advantage of the many free web-based services and apps for legal research and marketing. You will also want an inexpensive online accounting and billing package. (Hopefully, the latter may be included in your practice management package.)
Also, answering the phone all day is very distracting. So, while it’s not required to get off the ground, take a look at virtual receptionist services as soon as you can afford one. Just one potential client who can schedule an appointment to see you instead of leaving a voice mail (or moving on to the next lawyer) can pay for the virtual service’s monthly fee.
Jim Calloway (@JimCalloway) is Director of the Management Assistance Program for the Oklahoma Bar Association and author of several ABA books. He blogs at Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips and co-produces the podcast The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology.
Heidi Alexander: Get Practice Management Software
My No. 1 recommendation when starting a law practice is to invest in practice management software. In my opinion, there is no better way to organize your practice. If you are serious about opening your own shop, then it’s best to invest early. That way, you have time to learn the software and start implementing it as soon as you take on clients. Once you are busy, it will be hard to find the time.
Practice management programs span far and wide. When looking for a product, you should vet both the product and the company offering it. What features does this product provide? Does the company have a strong reputation (i.e., will they still be around in a few years)? And, of course, what’s the cost and how will it fit into your budget. (You’ve put together a budget for your new practice, right?)
Cloud-based practice management products are particularly trendy. For a few non-exclusive examples, see Amicus Cloud, Clio, CosmoLex, Firm Central, Firm Manager, MyCase and RocketMatter. These products are attractive for a number of reasons. One, you can access your data remotely. Two, you don’t need to buy your own server to run it. And, three, for the most part, they are user-friendly and don’t have a steep learning curve.
Heidi S. Alexander (@HeidiAlexander) is a law practice management advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (MassLOMAP), where she advises lawyers on practice management matters and in implementing new technologies. She frequently makes presentations to the legal community and contributes to publications on law practice management and technology.
Catherine Sanders Reach: Keep Cash Flow and Ethics Top of Mind
Hardware and Office Suite. At the bare minimum, a new solo practitioner will need a laptop, smartphone, scanner and printer. Most will need a fax capability, but it can be an electronic fax tool. As for cloud versus on-premise software, that will depend on cash flow as much as anything else. If you have some startup funds, but anticipate that a monthly spend in excess of $150 for software could get difficult, you may consider starting with local installs, especially for Microsoft Office. While the full-blown version of Office 365 for Business is only $12.50 per month, if you don’t pay it is rendered read-only.
Legal-specific software. While I would like to suggest that starting with practice management software is an essential, being organized — including documenting clients and matters — can be done in a variety of ways. However, since trust account mishandling is often among the highest percentage of attorney discipline cases, you must have a time and billing product that handles separation and management of monies held in trust. Additionally, you need an easy and consistent way to get the bills out. For those two reasons, of all the software types on the market for lawyers, you really should invest in time/billing/accounting software. There are literally hundreds on the market — however, you want one specific to lawyers to handle trust accounts. A product like Time59, a cloud-based product available for $99 per year, is hard to beat for a startup solo.
Ethics gotchas. Take a hard look at the terms of service and privacy for free products like Dropbox and Google to see if they comport with the rules of professional conduct in your jurisdiction, specifically confidentiality. Review your marketing and online efforts in light of your ethical obligations according to ethics opinions and rules of professional conduct, which can vary widely across jurisdictions.
Catherine Sanders Reach (@CatherineReach) is Director, Law Practice Management and Technology, for the Chicago Bar Association. She was Director of the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center for over 10 years. Catherine currently serves on the ABA TECHSHOW board.
Carole Levitt: Do Your Own Investigating
When you are just opening your law office, you may not be able to afford to hire a private investigator every time you might need one. Consider applying for a subscription to an investigative database, such as TLOxp, and do your own investigating. TLOxp is the database for those who don’t want to be hamstrung by a monthly or annual fee and who also like low prices.
TLOxp’s database consists of public records, publicly available information and proprietary information, in addition to credit headers (the name, address, phone number and Social Security number listed at the top of the credit report; considered to be the “freshest” information). A subscription to TLOxp can help in a number of ways, from basic due diligence to locating real property, criminal histories, employers and more. [Editor’s Note: Watch for tips on how to use TLOxp in an upcoming post from Carole Levitt and Mark Rosch.]
Carole Levitt (@CaroleLevitt) is President of Internet For Lawyers, and a frequent speaker on topics such as investigative and legal research, Google search, social media research and legal ethics. She is co-author of several books, including “The Cybersleuth’s Guide to the Internet” and “Internet Legal Research on a Budget.”
Related: Tips for Start-ups
- How Much to Start a New Solo Law Practice?
- Solo Anxiety: It All Works Out in the End
- Not Just for Solos: 7 Startup Tips
- Five Thoughts on the Future for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers