I often consult with lawyers setting up a new solo or small firm practice. There are many items involved in setting up any new business – like applying for an employer identification number (EIN) and deciding on the best entity to use for the business.
But there are also aspects of setting up a law practice unique to the legal profession. The OBA Management Assistance Program maintains the Opening Your Law Practice resource at www.okbar.org/oylp and provides a day-long seminar on the subject twice a year.
As the end of the year nears, law firms are making their plans for the next year. So in this month’s column, I decided to outline the technology tools a lawyer should consider when opening a new solo and small firm practice.
There are many different ways to assess cost for law firm technology purchases. First, there is the initial purchase price. Today that is more associated with hardware than software, as most software tools have evolved to subscription-based models.
Everyone in the office needs a computer for their workstation. If there is more than one person in the office, the computers must be networked. Setting up a network for a small firm is not a hard task. But since it is rarely done, it is better to pay a local computer shop to set it up than try to learn how to do it yourself. That vendor will likely know things about network security you do not. But do enough research to know what you need because, like buying a car, you may be offered additional options.
As for the computers required, you already know whether you are a Mac or PC user, and nothing I write here is likely to change that opinion.
Reception and secretarial workstations are likely best set up with desktop computers. But for the lawyers, I strongly recommend a business-class laptop. Roughly speaking, these will be in the $1,000 to $2,000 price range. It is better to purchase one with Windows 11 Pro pre-installed than Windows 11 Home because Pro has superior security and networking tools, including the hard drive encryption tool BitLocker.
For comparison purposes, I have included a screenshot of a Dell XPS 17 laptop on the Dell website costing just over $2,000. A model just like this, but with Windows Home instead of Pro, costs $50 less. That is not $50 you would want to save. I would never buy a laptop with smaller than a 17-inch monitor, but that is my opinion. I also believe it is best to have at least 16GB of memory. Note the computer in the graphic has 32GB of memory.
The reason a laptop is highly recommended is that sometimes you need to work from different locations, whether you are working from home or on the road. That will go much better if you use the same machine every day and everywhere. Certainly, you can work remotely from a home computer. But for security and hardware reliability, it is best to have a law office computer no one else uses. Remember the “I’m not a cat” lawyer who became internet famous because his daughter had configured the Zoom settings, so he appeared remotely in court via Zoom as a talking cat? For client confidentiality and many other reasons, the laptop serves as a work computer that your family may not use when you bring it home.
When working in the office with your laptop, you will want to be connected to the network and have an additional monitor (or two). So it is best to purchase a port replicator that works with your model so you can quickly and easily connect to the network, the additional monitor, the printer and other peripherals. Old-style “docking stations” that had custom housing that attached to the computer have been replaced with plug-in port replicators.
I continue to be a fan of the Fujitsu ScanSnap line of desktop scanners. The ScanSnap iX1600 is the recommended model. But you can save money by buying the older ScanSnap iX1400.
I have little to say about printers, except that this is where the needs of large firms and solo and small firms differ. A small firm is usually better off buying low-range to mid-range-priced printers and locating them where needed. A large firm may still decide to buy massive printer/scanner combination devices. They have an IT department helping them to get the most from those machines.
Today, most software is sold on a subscription basis, paid annually to get a better rate.
Lawyers process words – a lot. But they sometimes need to use a spreadsheet or prepare a presentation. So the first thing one needs to purchase is a Microsoft 365 subscription. Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Microsoft Teams are all included in the Microsoft 365 Apps for business ($8.25 per user, per month with a one-year commitment and auto-renewal) and Microsoft 365 Business Standard ($12.50 per user, per month with a one-year commitment and auto-renewal). Both come with 1TB of secure cloud storage in OneDrive.
Business Standard is recommended. The Business Basic plan is too basic for lawyers with only web-based apps. Those who want enhanced security and data access controls may choose the pricier Business Premium. Teams is an included secure videoconferencing tool that is great for internal communications.
Over the years of serving in this role, I have developed a strong opinion on the next subject.
A solo and small firm lawyer should next subscribe to a practice management software (PMS) solution. Products such as Clio, MyCase, CosmoLex, Rocket Matter and PracticePanther combine most tools needed by law firms into one interface, including time capture, billing and invoicing, digital client files containing all documents, attorney notes, a secure client portal for sharing sensitive material and much more.
I often tell lawyers seeking a billing program to consider just subscribing to a PMS because they contain – among their many features – time and billing (and frankly, the cost is not much greater for the entire PMS package as compared to a good, dedicated billing software). Even if they are not ready to embrace digital client files powered by PMS solutions, it is still better to learn the time-capture and billing tools within the PMS solution so you will not have to change billing programs when you ultimately adopt digital client files, as you likely will.
Even if you put together a combination of time capture, billing, client portals and cloud storage for documents instead of the all-in-one PMS solution, you still might miss one positive aspect of PMS solutions: great tech support included at no extra charge. Their business goal is to keep you as a customer forever. That means they will continue to assist you until your tech support inquiry is answered. And their cloud storage was built from the beginning to provide lawyers with a secure place to store client matters. Protecting lawyers’ confidential information is one of the provider’s most important goals.
Client portals are simple to use when the documents are already in your digital client file. If all documents are scanned or saved to a client file, sharing them with clients via the portal is typically quick and easy.
PRACTICE MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE ALSO PROVIDES BUSINESS CONTINUITY PROTECTION
These days, with so many online threats to our data, it is not only important that we protect our clients’ data, but also that we should protect our business continuity – our ability to continue with operations in the face of a disaster or adverse circumstances. How would you proceed if you learned your office had been flooded or destroyed by fire? Obviously, it would be a difficult situation with time devoted to dealing with insurance adjusters and coming up with a new place for operations. But what about your court appearances scheduled that week, and the next? Today, most lawyers would at least have their calendars available on their smartphones and hopefully client contact information as well. But what about the client files, needed exhibits and your notes on questions to ask witnesses?
Larger law firms with dedicated IT staff may utilize other options. But for a small firm lawyer, the best way to protect your client’s confidential information, along with your work product and your business continuity requirements, is a subscription to a cloud-based practice management solution. Then, if the physical office is destroyed or inaccessible, your staff can either go home or to another location with internet access and log in to the exact same interface they use every day with access to the digital client files. With practice management software, all you need is an internet connection, a computer with a web browser and your username and password to log in and do your work.
OBA members can contact Practice Management Advisor Julie Bays with questions about practice management software or to set up a demo of PMS for you and your staff. If you are in a different jurisdiction, see if your state bar association has a practice management advisor on staff.
OTHER SOFTWARE TOOLS
There are many other software tools and services that may be useful for the new solo and small firm lawyer – from customer relationship managers (CRMs) to document management systems (DMSs). But starting with the tools we have discussed here and mastering them gets you started on a firm foundation.
Practice-specific tools are also important. I simply cannot imagine preparing a bankruptcy petition and schedules without using software to keep everything organized. Many will benefit from form and automated document assembly services like www.oklahomaforms.com.
Our biggest security threats today often appear in our inboxes. Most malware and ransomware attacks begin with someone in your organization clicking on an email attachment or a bad link in an email. Often, these attacks result in the criminal interloper gaining access to usernames and passwords.
A password manager allows you to use long, complex passwords and different passwords for every site or service you log in to. Two-factor or multifactor authentication tools mean that even if your username and password are obtained by a criminal, they still won’t be able to log in to your account because they won’t have access to your cell phone to receive a text or another alternate authentication method. Anti-virus, firewalls and other security tools are also important.
Several years ago, I would have added speech recognition tools to this list. But now, the dictation feature built into Microsoft Word in Microsoft 365 means you probably will not have to use a different tool.
I hope this overview has been useful to readers. Certainly, these tools are not limited to solo and small firm operations. Oklahoma lawyers can contact the attorneys at the OBA Management Assistance Program if they have further inquiries about software or any other aspect of law office management.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — December, 2022 — Vol. 93, No. 10