Monday, April 17, 2006

A Few Things To Help Run Your Office More Efficiently

Friends and family often ask me why I am enjoying the practice of law so much more recently. I have always loved being a lawyer, but I have to admit the business of law was not always so much fun. In 2002 when I decided to go back into solo/small firm mode, I was determined to do it differently than the last time I tried it. I wanted automation, and I wanted cutting edge, and I wanted to enjoy both the business and the legal part of running a law firm. I was lucky...kinda. I had been pretty sick in July of '01, so I took a good few months off to recuperate. It was during this sabbatical that I learned a whole bunch of things.

1. I needed the sabattical to learn how to do things better. Stepping away was the best thing I ever did. In the beginning, out of necessity, I spent the time taking care of me. That was very important. I learned things about my body that I didn't know. I renewed my energy too. Most importantly, I learned that I really missed being a lawyer. What I didn't miss was the B.S. that made up running a law firm. That would have to change.

2. I quickly learned that my most valuable association memberships were my local bar association's and my membership in the American Bar Association. Especially the submemberships in theGeneral Practice/Solo Division and the Law Practice Management Section. I remember fighting with my former partners about membership in these Sections and how they refused to pay for the Section's registration because the Sections "weren't about 'real' law." They were wrong then and anyone who thinks the ABA has nothing over their state and local bars are just plain wrong still. No magazine was more important to me over the last 5 years as Law Practice Magazine. Through it's pages I became acquainted with the likes of Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell. One of their year end review columns turned me on to the importance of a good website and to blogging as a business/marketing tool. The GP/SOLO division got me in front of Jim Calloway and Reid Trautz and others. I met a lot of other lawyers who were facing many of the challenges I faced. Again the Division's magazine GP/Solo is a must read each month for me. The articles and lectures I attended beat anything else out there for law practice management. I became more innovative and daring. I found a way to get my practice focused and to automate my "backroom". The taught me to market and run an office for profit and fun.

Suprisingly candid statement: It is more fun to pactice law if you make a decent living at it.

3. The next important alliance I needed was with a company that could properly promote what I do. I wanted a personal relationship with that company one where they would come to know me like my wife, maybe better, at least in the office. In my case I used the Company owned by West Publishing, Findlaw. From the first meeting with their local representitive, I found a partner in my success, rather than another salesman who saw my bank book as "lunch." My rep (Cindy LeClaire) not only took an interest in my web presence, but took the time to teach me how to maximize my results while holding the line on my budget. By feeding me with "White papers" on different web topics, I have built a new practice that is focused and exciting. I have found clients (or really they have found me) who want a lawyer who cares about their case and who are willing to compensate me at a fair rate for those services. Findlaw clients are more sophisticated and savvy than the run of the mill client. They have taken the time to educate themselves not only about their case and the law surrounding it, but about me too. They read my articles and e-newsletter. They read my weblogs and keep up with the news about me and my firm. They know what quality is and they know what it costs, and once they find it, they are willing to pay to get it. Nothing motivates like a good case, with a smart client, who pays her bills.

Over the last few months, I've become a "consultant" to Findlaw, and I am now helping their development team find new products to help small firm practioners. I have gone from being a neophyte to being someone "in the know." Yet there is so much more to learn.

Outsourcing for the Solo and Small Legal Firm.

The articles in this month's Law Practice Today deal with outsourcing. I used to think this was a big firm only type of thing. In reality though I have been outsourcing things for years. I use an investigator and an outside CPA. I increased my outsourcing to include an answering service that keeps me in touch with the practice and gives my clients a real live person to talk to 24 hours a day, without me always having to be "on call."

My newest foray into the outsourcing world was for heavy dictation. I am using a company that takes my digital dictation, and turns it into a finished product. I am working with LawDocs Express. I am sure there are others out there too. I found Law Docs at the ALM Legal Tech show in NYC. I was very impressed with their presentation, nevertheless it still took me almost a year to get over my digital "distrust" and call them.

While I employ a full time assistant, heavy typing under time pressure is not her strong suit. Besides, she handles the phone, some of the bookkeeping and billing, light correspondence, client relations, scheduling and work flow. She doesn't have the time to sit for hours listening to my dictation. For heavy pleadings and briefs, we use our Law Docs Express outsourced assistant. A team of 3 people are familiar with our work and handle it 24/7/365. We pay an upfront setup fee and then an hourly rate that is pretty high for us. Given the amount of typing we have for them however, it is much less expensive than hiring a secretary full time and paying salary, benefits and more for office space and equiptment. We just dictate onto portable digital recorders, plug them into our computer, send the audio file as a file attachment to our Virtual assistants at Law Doc, and we get a draft back. We correct it (either on the computer or by adding to the digital recording)send it back, and then we get back a final copy ready to serve. They will even send it digitally to our process server and he can download it and serve it for us. Given our usage, (which is not high) we probably save over 80% of what a regular secretary would cost us. In fact the more we use it the more we should save. Better yet, I can get them in the middle of the night. No overtime or complaining. In a criminal law firm where we do not bill for secretarial time, that savings is huge. It frees up our paralegal interns to research, write, interview clients, and help in the billing "department."

Another kind of outsourcing is by way of our extranet. We use a secured offsite website to store client data and make it available to them. They log onto the site using a special code for their case only, and they can review documents, time lines, bills, and even leave messages the way they would on a blog.

Offsite disaster protection
Speaking of web solutions, after a fire devastated our offices two years ago, the concept of offsite data storage became important. By the end of this spring we will be backing up the computers to a CD and to an offsite storages facility. In the event of a catastrophe, we can be up an running as soon as we can get a data connection.

This required a commitment but was not hard

Using technology has not been an easy process for me. I am not data savvy. I had to train myself to be more comfortable with it. Just a little effort, and the help of the magazines and writers I cited above, and I have really joined the 21st century. Now things that used to keep me up at night are locked in a closet. I sleep better and I work smarter. As importantly, I earn more money which allows me to enjoy more free time. In a future article I want to write about how to keep technology from overcoming your freedom. For now, take a look at some of the vendors and magazines I have written about here. You will be suprised how much more fun life can be if you are just willing to invest a little time, and money, into technology.

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