The Modern-Day Mobile Lawyer's Manifesto
By Michael J.P. Schewe – February 7, 2013
So, you’ve decided your practice wants to reduce its paper and “live the dream” of working from anywhere. These are perfectly realistic, albeit imperfect goals (yes, many attorneys and judges still insist on printing, stamping and mailing emails, I know). This article is meant to provide a basic overview of the way I converted my law practice into a paperless efficiency machine.
Our analysis begins and ends with practice-management software. In the days of yore, attorneys debated about the necessity and overall effect of having practice-management software, especially amongst small firms and solo practitioners. Those days are gone. There is no question that, in today’s legal reality, practice-management software is a must for all firms, great or small. And, importantly, practice-management software is no longer the untenable financial burden it was 20 years ago.
Why is it a necessity you ask? Let me count the ways:
- Scheduling. Scheduling errors are probably the number-one basis for legal malpractice suits. I know: you have a system of yellow legal pads, sticky notes, and administrative task managers that make sure you never miss a court date but, let’s be honest, having practice-management software that you can access from any Internet connection, and which is shared across your entire firm, is going to significantly reduce your chances of actually missing any calendar appointments.
- Conflicts Checks. If it weren’t for scheduling mishaps (and, really, depending on your practice area—I’m looking at you corporate attorneys—maybe even taking them into consideration), the failure to check for potential conflicts of interest can be devastating to your case and your malpractice insurance premiums. Not only may you have spent countless (now non-billable) hours on a case, but a failure to make thorough conflict checks can open you up for massive malpractice liability. Having practice-management software which allows you to record the contact information of every person that you come into contact with (and convert that flawless Rolodex method into digital format), gives you the ability to instantly search your database when a client before you accept representation.
- Tasks and Delegation. You cannot do everything and, many times, your ability to work efficiently depends on your ability to delegate tasks efficiently. Even if you do not have an extensive staff, being able to log that task you remembered while you were showering or at the gym could be crucial to making sure every little thing gets done. And when that extra effort and attention to detail is noticed by your client, directly or indirectly, it can lead to a happy client and, hopefully, more referrals.
- Time Tracking. You remember that process-server fee you paid for your client back in September of 2009, right? You do? Wow, you are awesome. For the rest of us, having a system to record your expenses and keep track of your time is essential. Don’t know how long that call lasted? Just push a button when you start talking and push a button when you hang up. You can now memorialize everything you do quickly, easily, and consistently, as opposed to everyone having their own personal recording systems. Another nice feature: Most practice-management software pays for itself every month with the amount of time you remember to bill (assuming you are charging by the hour).
- Document Management. We have all been there: the judge is searching his file for a particular document and, unfortunately, you either did not bring the full file or the document is lost is your “paper purgatory” of a case folder—cue the paper flipping—before an impatient-judge seizure. A paperless office coordinated through practice- management software means forgetting the file does not ruin your day; you have access to your entire client file from anywhere. Ask the judge for his clerk’s email address, and you’re back in business. Aside from having that paperwork to show the judge, simply imagine if your huge paper files could be organized and accessed at the touch of a finger. A large part of my practice is employment discrimination litigation so, trust me, I am a victim of document overload. Use your practice-management software to, for instance, search “notices,” and find all the notices in your case.
- Backup. Your worst day is, and always will be, that your hard drive crashes and you forgot to or have no backup. Of course, you can back up your own server(s), but why not have your trusty practice-management software do it for you? With most SaaS [software as a service”] providers, commonly referred to as “the cloud,” your information is backed up as soon as you upload the information or documents. There is no reason to pay extra for expensive backup hardware, software, or other backup SaaS servers; have your practice-management software do all of it. Note: this should not completely replace your periodic backups. I use the “rule of three,” meaning at any one time I have all client files backed up in three different places.
- Web Access. This is a general article about practice-management software, so I am trying not to dwell on specifics, but I include this component as a point of emphasis for anyone seeking to obtain practice-management software because I think it is of paramount importance. I have used two different practice-management software programs and the non-web-based software was annoying/ maddening. We are, especially as “modern lawyers,” inherently mobile. If you can only access your case management from “fully-licensed” computers or devices, then you are at a disadvantage. Again, many of the non-web-based practice management systems are well regarded and may work for some firms but, in my experience, there is no substitute for your practice-management software being web-accessible from anywhere.
- Billing. I know you have some way to bill clients; everyone does. However, does your billing module deliver a professional looking and (see ¶ 4) complete invoice for each client? Did you have to establish separate “accounts receivable” software or systems in place to keep track of unrecovered monies? This is all wildly unnecessary and time-consuming, as software exists to do all these things in one place. Streamline your billing.
- Reports. This is really related to billing, but it is important to track your employees, clients, and accounts receivable, especially if your firm includes more than one attorney. Most practice-management software allows you to access these reports, and can help you understand which practice areas, associates, administrative assistants, and other functioning parts of your law firm are pulling their weight.
- Collaboration. One of the main reasons that clients often cite when they are dissatisfied with their attorneys is a lack of communication. We, as client-minded attorneys, love email- and Internet-savvy clients, because it makes communication more efficient (albeit less personal) and collaboration is a must have across your office or, especially, multiple offices. Some practice-management software allows you to share documents with clients or other members of your firm. Work on documents together, bounce ideas off one another, and do it all without leaving your cubicle/ corner office! In this way, practice- management software is a helpful tool to make sharing documents a non-burden.
There are plenty of practice-management options, and you should consider all of them before investing. The American Bar Association puts out this great resource to help practitioners decide which solution is right for their business.
Fax to Email, Email to Fax
What on earth is a stand-alone fax, and why would I want one? First off, faxes (by their very nature) run out of paper. Even the most diligent law office will run into trouble when that first 100-page fax comes in, and nothing is worse than the (seemingly unavoidable) facsimile errors. My personal favorite is: “fax did not send because of unidentified error.” Thanks for all the help, you faxer!
Enter fax-to-email software. Software and web-based applications now exist that allow you to send faxes via email and receive faxes via email. Sound awesome? It is. Forget the Saturday commute to the office to send out that urgent fax, and forget that trip to the office on your treasured “work-from-home” day for the sole purpose of picking up an important fax (sent by a person who doesn’t know what email is; I know, right there with you, but just accept it).
Regular Postage and Certified Mail
“But, Michael, I run a paperless office so I don’t need to send actual letters.” Really? False. We all know that we, as lawyers, send constant tangible correspondence (less if you can convince your adversary or client to accept email correspondence).
This means you will also need to weigh and send actual letters in envelopes. Although this is clearly a paperless attorney’s nightmare, you want your envelopes to look professional. If you cannot afford the $300-800 for expensive, engraved letterhead, you will be happy to know that your postage-printing software also allows you to upload custom images. A solution such as www.stamps.com allows me to send letters with the exact postage (using their complimentary scale, saving me money), and allows me to include my firm name (expected) and logo (unexpected) on envelopes. This gives my envelopes the look of professionalism while creating a consistent theme with my firm letterhead. Also, you are able to print USPS postage onto your own stamps from your office. Even better (for a small fee), you can create custom stamps with your logo on them. Insert professionalism and coherent theme comments here.
I process a lot of expungements and, if you never have, they involve certified mailing things at least twice to six to 12 different entities (pray you don’t need to amend the papers, add another bunch of lovely certifieds). Regardless, all law offices use certified mail to one degree or another, and this typically would require you (or your staff) to hike it on down to the local post office, stand in line (inevitably), then fill out the dreaded “green cards.” Personally, having used the “green-card method” for most of my life, I still do not understand where the darn thing is supposed to be stuck to the actual envelope, how the sticker should hang over the edge, and I certainly hate waiting in the 40-minute line just to be told that I did it wrong. “Step aside, sir.” Cue smoke from ears.
And so I bring you Simple Certified Mail. You can, quite literally, print certified mail postage (even with the option of “green-card return,” for those of you who cannot kick the habit) from your office printer. Cut out the post office completely because, lo and behold, you can drop a Simple Certified Mailing into any mailbox. I believe there are other authorized dealers of certified mail, so check them out.
Optical Character Recognition
I suppose our previous discussions are meaningless without first dealing with the issue of optical character recognition (OCR). OCR is a fancy way of saying “way that computer can recognize words,” and by “recognize” I mean that it allows you to “control C” (copy) and “control V” (paste) words from a document [that is Windows, I don’t know Macs: “weird ampersand…something”? Someday I will be that cool, apologies].
There is no paperless life without some way to convert your paper to, most likely, a PDF. I am only beginning to understand the wonders of PDF but, I do know, if law schools cared about our being successful as lawyers at all, we would have had an entire course teaching us how to use Adobe and/ or its equivalents. I am, of course, here referring to Adobe Acrobat, which most (if not all) of us have been using in either its free or cost incarnation. There are other OCR tools out there, and some of them are free, I just do not know how many of them have the same functionality as Adobe.
Aside from the next section, here are some of the features which I use on a consistent basis in snippet format:
- convert (maybe a Word Doc) to Adobe PDF
- combine in Adobe
- insert header or footer
- comment and markup (collaboration tool)
- metadata scrubbing
- read out loud
- form creation
The paperless-office conundrum: how can I upload my documents into my practice-management software without printing them out, signing them, and then scanning them back in? Doesn’t that eliminate the whole purpose of being paperless? Yes, it does, which is why I, as often as possible, use an electronic signature.
As mentioned above, Adobe offers an “electronic-signature” function, which allows you to set up an account with a password in which you can then “sign” documents electronically (by entering said password when prompted and then it creates digital stamp). Personally, I think the e-signature is moresecure. For one, you need to enter your password for it to be effective. The e-signature is a living and breathing organism and, anything that changes a document in any substantial way, after signing, compromises the effectiveness of the signature, which is then recorded into the digital signature (even a second signature, but there is probably a way to fix that above my technical knowledge). Regardless, once people accept this concept and the security of the e-signature, it should obtain widespread use and acceptance.
Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, practice-management software, paperless office, optical character recognition, electronic signature
Michael J. P. Schewe, Esq., is the chief operating officer and managing attorney of ScheweLaw, LLC, with a practice in New Jersey and New York focusing on employment, immigration, family, criminal, and municipal court law.