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General Practice, Solo, and Small FirmThe newsletter of the ISBA’s General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Section

July 2012, vol. 41, no. 1

On the road again: My (virtual) road to a (real) better life—Part 2

This is the second of my two-part series on converting to a virtual or untethered law practice model. In this installment, I will outline some lessons learned from the conversion steps that I have taken so far. Of course, everyone’s experience will be different, but the basic aspects of what I have done are applicable to solo and very small firm practitioners in many practice areas.

The first thing I learned in attempting the conversion is that the process would almost certainly have been easier if I were starting from scratch rather than trying to convert the management of an existing practice. There’s nothing much I, or others in a similar situation, can do about that, but it is good news for those who are starting a practice.

No more paper!

Step one . . . and you really, really need to start here . . . is to go “paperless.” I place “paperless” in quotes because it is unlikely that you will eliminate every piece of paper in your office and doing so is not the goal. Instead, the idea is to drastically reduce the volume of paper, change the preferred or “default” format of documents from paper (probably actually paper and digital) to just digital, and shift your method of handling documents away from physical paper-reliant files.

This step is indispensable to everything that follows and it is also more difficult to accomplish than one might think, so I will deal with it in some depth. The “paperless” office requires two components: interior paperlessness and incoming paperlessness. This is so difficult to achieve because, if you are like most attorneys, nearly all of your life and professional experience and the overwhelming majority of your contacts with the outside world are working against allowing your world to become “paperless.”

Interior paperlessness is the much easier of the two because it doesn’t require that you do anything, only that your refrain from doing something. And that something is document printing and copying. Although it is technically easy to accomplish interior paperlessness, it may require a change in your mindset. If the entire universe of your filing, scheduling, financial, and billing systems have always depended upon paper-based files, converting from that to paperless constitutes a major life change that takes some getting used to.

Incoming paperlessness means that the flood of incoming paper cannot be allowed to overwhelm the effectiveness of your interior paperlessness. The key to incoming paperlessness is digitally scanning all documents that you receive relating to your business that aren’t trash. (That’s right, you don’t have to scan the junk mail. Just toss it in the recycling bin.) That means all mail, all court filings, and every other piece of paper has to cease being a piece of paper and become a digital file on your computer.

It is not necessary to go back and catch up by scanning things from the past. In my view, that is not necessary even in ongoing matters because there is just too much volume, unless you are trying to find a summer project for your middle school child. I think that it makes more sense to pick a transition date and start scanning from there. That way, you will know that all documents from a certain date forward will exist in digital form.

I think that this part of the process will be much easier if you have someone in your office who will not only handle the mechanical scanning process, but can actually assess whether something needs to be scanned in the first place. The reason I think that is so important is that it would be much easier to be sure that everything is scanned in the first instance if you were to make a rule for yourself—and translate it to a rule for your office—that you simply will not read anything that comes into your office on paper.

I use the Fujitsu Scan Snap S1500 (there is probably a more recent version), a small desktop model that is great for routine scanning, although it is a bit cumbersome for really large jobs such as an entire case file. Just as the name says, it makes routine scanning a snap. I consider it one of my top ten office equipment purchases ever. The physical transition to paperlessness has been smooth, but I have found it more difficult than I anticipated to convert to the paperless mindset. I like my paper calendar system and (real) file folders and all the rest. But I am working on making the shift.

Before I leave the topic of paperlessness, I cannot resist quoting Bryan Sims, a practicing attorney in Naperville, Illinois, and a legal tech guru. Bryan says “fax machines are evil,” and I think he’s right. If you don’t believe it, check out some of Bryan’s articles at <www.theconnectedlawyer.com>, where he explains why. For present purposes, I don’t need you to accept that fax machines are evil, just contrary to the goal of untethering. The best option is to eliminate faxing altogether. However, if some of your clients live in a different time zone—like the 1980s—and insist upon faxing things, you should use an e-fax service instead of a big old fax machine. For a monthly fee, faxes come in as PDF e-mail attachments that you receive wherever you have e-mail access. It’s convenient, paperless, and not evil.

Document organization

Once you have all of that stuff digitized, what do you do with it? The easy answer is forget about it and/ or lose it. Sometimes forgetting about it is alright, if it is not something that you need on a regular basis. But losing it is never an option because, if a document is important enough to create or scan in the first place, it needs to be organized so that you can find it.

So how should one organize digital documents? The answer is essentially the computer equivalent of paper files. Or at least the way paper files should be—lots and lots of folders for sub-files within files. If you are an attorney who shoves all of the papers from a case into one of those big envelopes that are designed for real estate closing files—and really are not too well-suited even for that—then you need to stop it. First, you need to stop with the paper. Then, you need to stop with the big honkin’ file folder. If you have to dig through a folder for a half-hour to find something, the filing system probably just isn’t working. Don’t transfer the same problem to your computer files by lumping everything together in one big mess. (I am reminded of a secretary of mine from many years ago who stuffed hundreds of pages of documents into a file that she had labeled “Miscellaneous: General.”)

One key difference (to me) between computer filing systems and paper filing systems is that computer filing systems make it more difficult to “fan through” pages to find something quickly. That may be an impediment to paperless conversion for some, but I suppose it is just a matter of getting used to something new.

Document storage/ back-up

Thus far, the discussion has assumed that all of your scanned and computer-created documents exist in only one place: your computer. But what happens if your computer goes kaplooey? If essentially your entire practice exists only on a single computer and that computer ceases to function, then your practice ceases to function. It may be possible, after a substantial amount of time, trouble, and money to recover or reconstruct some or maybe all of what is on the computer. If you are satisfied with that, then you needn’t worry about duplicating your computer files. But chances are that you would not be satisfied, so you have to think about backing up the information on your computer someplace else.

The first layer of backup is the simplest. You need an external drive to back up your computer periodically. For those who are less than technologically adept, this backup is simply a matter of transferring the digital information stored on your computer hard drive to a separate hard drive. If your computer ceases to function, you can access the information stored on the other drive to restore it to your computer or to another computer.

To be effective, the backup process must occur on a regular basis. Most of the external backup systems can be set to automatically back up your system periodically. This could be, for example, a certain time every day or whenever the computer is idle for more than 5 minutes or such. The automatic local backup works fine for a desktop computer, but it doesn’t make sense for a laptop because you are not going to keep your laptop plugged into an external backup system constantly. (That would sort of defeat the whole “untethered” practice idea, wouldn’t it?) If you are backing up a laptop, it will be necessary to set your own schedule for manual backups and stick to it.

Regardless of whether your system is manual or automatic, how often do you need to back up? I have seen a number of different suggestions, such as hourly, which I find absolutely unrealistic for anyone who has anything to do other than think about backing up a computer. Probably the best answer to how often to back up is how much information can you easily reconstruct if you have to? My guess would be that backing up a laptop computer once or twice a day is plenty for most people. Frankly, most people are not so productive during the course of a day that they cannot back up once a day and be satisfactorily protected. It may be a pain to reconstruct a significant portion of a day’s work, but it is not unduly burdensome, as we say in legalese.

So what do you do with the backup drive? The safest answer is to locate it away from the computer it is backing up. In other words, if you have a home office and an office office, you should keep your computer in one and the backup in the other. That will protect the data from destruction by computer meltdown or destruction of the premises where the computer is located.

As a side note, I use an additional, fairly clunky—but very effective—backup procedure for working drafts. When I am writing a brief, a major article, or something else that I have spent a significant amount of time on, I routinely e-mail the document to myself as soon as I finish working on it for the day. That way, the document resides on the e-mail provider’s server in addition to my computer. If my computer goes haywire and I lose the document entirely, I can always access the document through the e-mail program on any other computer and resume work exactly where I started without delay.

That leads me to the next step, and this is where a major transition occurs. Up to this point, everything you have done will be accomplished within your own office with computer hardware and software that you probably already have or can acquire quickly and easily. Basically we are talking about a computer of some sort, a word processing program, a scanner (which may come with Adobe or which you will supplement with an Adobe program), and an external drive for storage.

The transition point is when you begin to rely on something outside of your office and, therefore, outside of your direct physical control. (Of course, you do not really have control of all of that stuff going on inside of your computer either, but as long as things work correctly it sort of seems that you do.) There are a number of services that provide online (“cloud-based”) backup. I am trying a company called CoreVault, which happens to have a fee discount deal with ISBA. One thing I especially like about CoreVault is that your data is encrypted before it leaves your computer and you are the only one with the encryption password. Without the password, no one can read the data stored at CoreVault’s location(s).

Practice/ project management

I see project management as a variety of steps on a several levels within each matter and across matters. But in its simplest iteration, it is just a set of “to-do” lists, with deadlines, for each matter. All of that then has to be integrated into a single schedule for each person who is doing the work. That integration is vital because you do not want to end up with a bunch of separate “to-do” lists. The digital equivalent of sticky notes is not a more efficient time management system than the paper version.

There are a number of providers offering cloud-based practice management products. Having investigated many of them, my overall conclusion is that most I have seen do not fully satisfy my requirements. If I am going to bring in and pay for a practice management system, it has to accomplish the one key thing that I do not now have—it has to provide a seamless process all the way from the “to-do” list to billing the client.

That requirement seems to eliminate from my consideration the vast majority of cloud-based so-called practice management products. If a product is not helping me plan the work, schedule the work, and then get paid for the work, then it is not worth my money or my time to make a big transition from my current system, which works just fine for me.

So which systems supposedly integrate the entire process from “to-do” to getting paid? Two that I have heard of: Clio and RocketMatter. Other major providers (to my knowledge) are either practice management only (LexisNexis Firm Manager; MyCase; Advologix; GoMatters; HoudiniESQ; Credenze Pro) or billing only (Bill4Time; TimeSolv; Esquire Billing; Time59). Sorry, I already have separate systems to do those things; I don’t need to spend extra money and time to transition to two others.

Clio for me

I have decided to use Clio, which is one of the larger and better-known cloud-based law practice management systems. Granted, I have only just started to use Clio (as of this writing, I am still within the 30-day trial period, so I haven’t even paid for it yet). But so far, my general reaction to Clio is: “Where have you been all my life?” Just to be clear, I don’t work for Clio and I don’t have any business relationship other than as a subscriber. By the way, the ISBA also has a member discount deal with Clio, which is nice but not a reason to choose any company for such an important function unless it is right for you and your practice.

I won’t attempt to describe Clio’s functions here. You should check around for yourself. If you want to start with Clio, there is a 30-day free trial period. You will probably know within much less than 30 days whether it is right for you.

So far, I have found Clio well organized and easy to use. Entering essential information about your practice can be accomplished either through key strokes within a fairly intuitive interface or by transfer from your existing program(s). If you run into any difficulties, there are online tutorials and a telephone help line so you can connect with extremely knowledgeable and helpful real live people.

Client billing/ payment

Client billing and receiving payment is where the process ends (assuming that no malpractice claim follows) and the point to which everything else is directed. Of course I do this work because I love the law, but getting paid is very nice, too. I have not yet experienced a full month’s cycle of using Clio so I can’t relate how well the billing works. But the set up seems easy enough. And I really like the idea of being able to accept payments through PayPal or credit card from Clio-generated billing. If you are going to go to the trouble of adopting a new system for your practice, I think those payment options are a must.

The closing cliché

As I suggested in part one of this series, I have not outlined the initial phases of my virtual law office conversion process to instruct other attorneys on particular steps to take or specific products to use. Most every attorney is going to have to do his or her own research and investigation to determine what will work best and I definitely do not claim to be enough of an expert to help anyone short-circuit that process.

In fact, that’s exactly why I have addressed those issues in my column. I am not a practice management expert or an early adopter of cutting-edge technology. I am not particularly adept at using computer technology. Indeed, I don’t even like change very much.

So, although it’s trite, I can’t avoid saying “if I can do it, anyone can do it.” By using my experience as an example, I want to illustrate the potential of law practice technology to expedite the administrative parts of a practice, streamline case management procedures, and make it easier to earn a living practicing law. In short, law practice technology—carefully chosen and prudently implemented—can make your life better.

I’m still glad that I made the decision to embark on the road to an untethered law practice and I’m excited to find out where it will lead. I hope I’ll see you somewhere along the way.

About the Author: Timothy J. Storm maintains a law practice in the northwest suburbs of Chicago which centers on appellate litigation in state and federal courts and consulting with trial counsel on appellate strategy. He is also an adjunct professor of law at The John Marshall Law School. In addition to serving as chair of the ISBA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section Council, he is also vice-chair of the Solo and Small Firm Conference Planning Committee and a member of the ISBA Assembly elected from the 19th Judicial Circuit. He can be reached at tjstorm@illapp.com.


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