Now more than ever, great technology tools - many especially designed for lawyers - are amazingly affordable if not free, tech-savvy lawyers advise. But don't forget the crucial difference between "frugal" and "cheap."
Smaller firms and solos in Illinois know the importance of making every penny count when outfitting their offices with technology. But that shouldn't mean getting it on the cheap, say practitioners who have focused closely on the issue.
"Frugal does not mean cheap. You still have to have all the basics for your law firm," says Marc Matheny, an Indianapolis-based solo practitioner in civil litigation, probate, and family law who's part of a nine-attorney shared office, who presented at the 2013 ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference in Itasca (see sidebar). On the other hand, said Matheny, "The one thing that you need to avoid as a frugal lawyer is the 'gotta-have-it' syndrome. I'm a 'gotta-have-it' guy. But if you're a frugal lawyer, and I still think I am, you have to stay away from [getting all of] the newest products."
A small firm or solo does not need an information technology staff or top-of-the-line specialty software. But, "if you're cheap, you're going to get burned," Matheny says. "We're not asking people to bypass things by being frugal. We're asking people to explore other options, such as using OpenOffice to open documents, as opposed to, somebody sends you a document in WordPerfect, and you don't have WordPerfect - and [you use free OpenOffice] rather than spending $400 on WordPerfect, which you're hardly ever going to use."
Nerino Petro, a member of the ISBA's legal tech committee and practice management adviser to the State Bar of Wisconsin, agrees that frugal doesn't mean spending the least amount of money. "Frugal means getting the most efficient and effective technology you can for a reasonable price," says Petro, who continues a part-time real estate practice in Illinois.
He also uses OpenOffice as a frugal-versus-cheap example, looking at it from a different angle. "You can get OpenOffice at no cost, but if you have to spend a lot of time learning it, or getting it to do what you want, are you saving money vs. a commercial product?"
Legal research and case management on a budget
Fastcase and more. Easy-to-access online legal research is an area where ISBA members have a leg up. It's one technology product that every lawyer should have and that every ISBA member does have at no charge, thanks to the association's partnership with Fastcase. "Especially if you're trying to conserve money, there's no reason not to be using that as your primary legal research tool," says Bryan Sims, another ISBA legal tech committee member and a solo commercial litigator based in Naperville.
Matheny points to Google Scholar as "a great resource for finding treatises and articles, although you might want to look at the date the article was written. Sometimes, they have old stuff that is not relevant today and has been overturned." He recommends an American Bar Association tome called "Google for Lawyers" that provides tips on how to find resources in this manner.
Other free resources include the U.S. Printing Office, which Matheny says has every federal case listed by its case number, and the Illinois Municipal League, which Siegel notes has municipal codes listed by city and county.
Case management. Attorneys also should look into online, cloud-based case management services, although Matheny says solos and small firms need to consider whether it makes more sense to go that route - and pay a monthly fee - than to buy the software. He compares online case management to leasing a car: It helps with budgeting but may cost more in the long run.
And he cautions that once you choose a case-management program or service, you cannot switch back and forth because the systems don't convert to one another's format and are so complex and integral to your practice. "I consider case management software kind of like a marriage," Matheny adds. "If you've got case management software you can live with, make it work."
Security - remember, you're protecting clients, too
Anti-virus software. Anti-virus, anti-malware, and anti-spyware protection is essential for the frugal firm or solo, Matheny says, since smaller firms in particular can't risk the exposure to security threats. "Whether you use a free or 'pro' version, something is better than nothing," he says. "But I would think that a frugal attorney would pay for the pro version, since he's dealing with other people's materials, and this is his livelihood." Make sure the various protective software packages are compatible, he adds, or it will slow down your system.
Encryption. Matheny also recommends that attorneys be careful what they send over e-mail and get encryption software to help protect themselves. "If you're not encrypted, do it," he says. "People send out e-mails with all kinds of confidential documents, and they don't think even the slightest about encryption." Third-party encryption services like True Crypt can be "very, very inexpensive," he says.
"I have received e-mails from opposing parties that they meant for their own lawyers," says Abra Siegel, a plaintiff's side employment lawyer in Chicago who presented with Matheny at the Solo and Small Firm Conference. "If that could happen to them, it could happen to me."
Encryption of flash-drives is another consideration, Siegel says. "You really have to, if you're going to put client data on them," she says. But Matheny says he simply doesn't put client information on portable drives. "It's out there if you drop [the device]," he says. "You're at the airport, you're getting on the plane, 'I've got to get in line,' oops, there goes the flash drive. Now, somebody else has got your information."
Frugal office software
Google world. For general office software, Siegel recommends the free suite of Google products, including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Drive with its Google Docs feature, and Google Voice. Gmail's labeling system helps to categorize e-mails for later searching, the Calendar product can be programmed to send text messages to remind you about appointments and automatically populate your calendar, and the Drive provides a handy way to remotely collaborate on documents, she says.
Matheny seconds that motion. "Google Docs is a great collaboration tool, plus it's money-saving in that you don't have to go out and buy specialty software," he says. "I have tuned into Google Drive in the last eight to 10 months. I think it's great. It's free, and it's the best collaboration tool I've ever seen."
Google Drive also provides free online storage of documents up to a certain level, as do similar services like Dropbox and SnapDrive, Siegel says. But Matheny notes that for security reasons, he would not recommend putting client files in Google Docs. "I use this as more of a collaboration tool," he says. "We used it for our Powerpoint, so we could have easy access to it."
Cloud-based time and billing. Siegel adds that apps in the cloud provide the ability to access documents from wherever you happen to be, which is ideal for solos in particular. "As a solo, I think mobility is one of the big advantages," she says. "You can work from home as much as you feel like and the court will permit."
A cloud-based timekeeping and billing system like Quick Books Online Plus, which is not free but quite reasonable, provides a much simpler and less time-consuming method than creating invoices in Word and Excel, Siegel says. "When you do the math, you can do this for $35 per month if you sign up for a year," she says. Otherwise, "you probably waste two days a month on invoices."
Presentation and dictation options. Matheny mentions presentation tools like Keynote on the Mac and PowerPoint on the PC. "I find that as a litigator, I'm using my advocacy presentation tools more in mediation than at trial," he says. Matheny also has purchased voice recognition and digital dictation software, which, along with outsourcing some dictation through a service in the cloud, has enabled him to eliminate a position in his office.
Editable electronic documents. Many people view Adobe's Acrobat Pro as the "gold standard" for creating a paperless office through editable electronic documents, Sims says, but he touts the Nitro PDF product as a more frugal way to gain many of the same features. It has fewer bells and whistles but retails for just $140, even less if you can find it on sale, he says.
Petro agrees wholeheartedly. "Look for a lower-cost…alternatives to tools," he says. "Maybe you don't need full-blown Acrobat. Rather than going out and spending hundreds of dollars, look at the free Nitro Reader that allows you to type on forms." If you want the Nitro Pro, that costs about $130 or $140 versus the $400 charged by Adobe, he says. "You can save a lot of money and get all the same essential features."
Frugal (but not cheap) hardware options
To iPad or not. That same principle applies to hardware, Petro says, like tablets, for instance. "Yes, the iPad is the tablet everybody wants," he says, echoing Matheny's comment about gotta-have-it. "But do you need the iPad because certain apps are [only] available [there] that you need? Or is it a better option to go with a lower-priced tablet from Android? Is [the iPad] a status symbol for you?"
But Matheny wonders, given Apple's 92 percent market share, whether maybe you do gotta have an iPad. "I don't believe there's a tablet war," he says. "iPad has absolutely smashed the market. If you're going to get a tablet, the iPad has almost all the apps right now."
Office computers - no time to be cheap. When purchasing a computer or a suite of them, the frugal option is definitely not usually the lowest-priced option, Petro says. "You can be short-sighted and say, 'I'm going to get a low-end computer,'" he says. "But you might have to buy another one a little bit sooner than if you had spent more. You have to strike that balance. The other thing is, inquire of your peers, are there other alternatives, [and] what would be the most cost-effective computer to go with, and why?"
Matheny says computers are built to last for about three to five years, while servers might last more like eight or nine years. "If they were meant to last forever, Microsoft and HP wouldn't have anything to do because we wouldn't be buying more things," he says.
"If you keep hanging onto those servers or computers longer than their expected lifespan, you're going to experience crashes at the time you least want to have a crash, like when you have to get that paper to court," Siegel adds. "Think of how much money you lose by not working for half a day or a day, as a solo, running to Micro Center or wherever to get the replacement when you have to be getting something to court, or to a client."
Speaking of crashes, backup drives are a necessity to ensure against losing files. "Every single drive of my computer is backed up. Every single drive," Matheny says. "The servers have independent backup on each. There's also mirror backups."
Document scanning. Petro and others are high on the Fujitsu ScanSnap for document scanning purposes. "We sound like shills for Fujitsu," he says of himself and other attorneys knowledgeable about technology. "But it's very difficult to beat ScanSnap for its combination of functionality, features, and software." Epson makes "decent" products for $150 or $200 less, Petro adds, although he doesn't think their software is as strong.
Matheny notes that the ScanSnap comes with free optical character recognition (OCR) software and a free full version of Adobe Acrobat. "That's a great deal," he says. But he recently switched to an all-in-one Kyoseara copier-scanner-fax after his Fujitsu died, partly because the copier on his new unit spits out 65 pages a minute, front and back. Still he has positive things to say about Fujitsu, especially its $380 price tag including Acrobat. "You cannot beat that price," he says. "The software alone costs you half that much."
Sims suggests that if you continue using faxes, move to electronic faxes if you haven't already. "I'm a big fan of that vs. having a fax machine and having an additional fax line," he says. Ideally, he would prefer to be finished with faxing, but "a lot of attorneys out there still live in the 20th century and think faxing is the height of technology. I'd love to be able to get rid of my fax, but I'm not going to do it yet."
Nonetheless, small firms and solos that update their office technology to the 2010s - but figure out ways to do it on a budget - will be best positioned to compete in their various specialty areas and even with the larger fish in their respective seas.
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
Solos Marc Matheny of Indianapolis and Abra Siegel of Chicago shared money-saving tech tips during the 2013 ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference at a seminar entitled "The Frugal Lawyer." That and other great programs will be available soon at http://isba.fastcle.com (search under 2013 Solo and Small Firm Conference).