Many people mistakenly believe the Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two separate characters: danger and opportunity. Although the etymology is wrong, the sentiment behind it applies to today’s economic climate.
In these uncertain times, technological opportunities may help law firms lower costs, start and solidify client relationships, provide better service, ride out the economic downturn and prepare for more prosperous times ahead.
Please note: This is not a primer on all the legal technology a company needs. Certain opportunities make more sense for large firms, while others will appeal to solo practitioners. Some require more technical know-how than others. Others may introduce security risks. Not all of them are proven.
And most will call for lawyers to look at their legal information technology requirements – and sometimes their practices – with fresh eyes.
Learn About the Tech you Already Have
Most lawyers can do more with the technology sitting on their desks. For instance, training, books and other resources abound to help learners better use the basics, particularly Microsoft Outlook as well as the rest of Office, Adobe Acrobat and so forth.
Don't Skimp on Computer Hardware
If you want lower total cost of ownership, bypass the bargain bin in favour of reputable brand-name machines and make sure they contain quality components.
Often, the most cost-effective step to faster computing is to install the maximum amount of random access memory (RAM) your computer will hold. Few computers ship with the max, so order it from the manufacturer or a reputable vendor.
Note: Check the computer’s specs for the maximum amount, how much the computer has and to make sure RAM is user-replaceable. The last point also applies to components like hard drives and video cards.
Increasing use of video in both law (such as video depositions) and business generally (like desktop videoconferencing) means that substandard video cards may hamper your practice in the future.
One good router can enable an office to share network-ready printers, scanners, network area storage and other devices, thus lowering the total hardware spend.
Reduce paper usage
While the old saw about paperless offices being about as likely as paperless restrooms still applies, you can tame the dead tree budget line item.
Consider investing in a second monitor for associates. This allows them to keep more windows open to, for instance, read information off one and perform work on another. They can also swing the second monitor on a swivel arm to share documents with others onscreen.
Scan documents as they arrive, store the images on a file server, then store or destroy the original as needed. Given the abilities of Adobe Acrobat and today’s business scanners, you can automate much of the scanning, OCR and storing process.
Send documents electronically. While you’re at it, encourage correspondents to join the edocument movement to reduce the number of incoming documents you need to scan.
Find second-hand hardware deals
Perfectly good computer equipment of all kinds is available on the used market. For instance, certain computer manufacturers refurbish machines for resale, usually with a new-computer warranty on them. Also, check computer recycling depots like www.computation.to for deals.
Could you picture sharing a desktop computer with other people? Virtual desktop service providers sure can. Virtualization has already taken hold in server rooms, where it enables cost-saving tactics such as running more than one server application on one server computer. The logic is similar for end users at large firms, where each user has a keyboard, mouse and monitor (or two) connected to a computer shared among multiple users.
Using virtualization, IT security experts laud the control they can exercise over information, which stays on central servers where it’s easier to safeguard. NComputing, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Citrix offer their own takes on this scheme.
Cost reductions per user aren’t well documented since desktop virtualization is not yet a widespread phenomenon, but early adopters piloting virtual desktops claim fewer computers to troubleshoot and fewer software licences to buy and upgrade.
Rethink Laptop Ownership
Lawyers need computing tools to do their work. It doesn’t necessarily follow that their employers need to both own and support those computers.
A radical idea perhaps, but it has spurred companies to embrace an ownership model that goes something like this: provide a set amount of money to employees to use towards the purchase of the computers they want to use, stipulate that they must also purchase warranties and support packages from the vendors, and watch internal support costs shrink.
And for corporate work, lawyers can sign on to a firm server using virtual desktop software like that from Citrix.
Make Use of USB
Should attorneys travel to locations where they can make use of other computers, they can replace their travel laptops with USB devices similar in size to memory sticks.
Plug the device into a computer connected to the Net and the device enables a secure connection to data and applications on the home office network. Reduced weight, reduced cost and improved data security are some of the boasted benefits. IBM, VMWare, Citrix, Microsoft and others have entered the “memory-stick computing” market.
Practice with SaaS
Software as a Service might be the lightest computing option available. All you have to carry are your passwords.
Most people still buy software and install it on their own computers, treating it like a product. Another model championed by the likes of Rocket Matter (case management), Google Docs (productivity), FreshBooks (invoicing), Acrobat.com and Salesforce (customer relationship management) treats customers as subscribers who, for a monthly fee, access software and information on a service provider’s servers using a web browser.
The monthly fee commonly includes all updates, patches, backups and other chores that both weigh down IT departments and keep certain enterprise-class tools out of reach for smaller firms.
The most common dealbreaker is the location of the data, which resides on the service providers’ servers. Since lawyers cannot control anything outside the firm’s firewall (service level agreements notwithstanding), many are understandably concerned about attorney-client privilege.
The scariest spectre: the U.S. Patriot Act, which enables American government officials to look at data on servers located in the U.S. and muzzle the service providers. The data’s rightful owners might never learn of any breaches. For a more detailed analysis of SaaS and the law, read this article previously published in National Magazine.
Be Open to Open Source
Software licences, fees and other costs (except support) could become a thing of the past if open source champions get their way.
Instead of hoarding the software code they create, open source “organizations” distribute both the software and the source code for free, enabling untold numbers of users to download free alternatives to commercial software packages while a community of developers continues to improve the original package.
There are some disadvantages. Support might not equal that available from commercial software publishers, and open source might not appeal to people worried about software compatibility.
But the lower costs of acquisition coupled with techno-savvy lawyers who can adapt to open source software may outweigh any disadvantages, particularly among more recent graduates who, in their cash-strapped law school days, may have run computers using Linux instead of Windows and completed schoolwork using OpenOffice.org or Lotus Symphony instead of the pricier Microsoft Office.
Have you seen the “Town Square” television ad in which crowds in China and Italy stand before massive video screens and wave at one another in real time? If the ad’s creator, Cisco Systems Inc., has its way, companies will sit their employees in front of state-of-the-art “telepresence” gear more often and in airplane seats less often. Reduced travel costs and associated inconveniences are touted as the payback for this futuristic setup.
As an alternative, simpler and less expensive desktop videoconferencing is available via services like Skype.
Collaborate with Wikis
Wikis (basically, editable web sites) can foster faster and better collaboration between lawyers, their clients and other parties. Their documents reside on one (usually secure) server, not in multiple emails, storage media or courier envelopes, so version control is highly streamlined as a result.
Wiki types range from free services on the web (which are great for initial experimentation) to packages that firms install and maintain on their own servers.
Put the Brakes on Excessive Mobile Phone Bills
Bills for phones that are no longer used. Duplicate charges. Excessively used services. Mobile phone bills commonly boast cost overruns like these that do a number to the bottom line.
Regularly checking bills for these costs enables both cost control and the ability to approach cellular service providers with contract renegotiation proposals.
How many of your associates own business-capable mobile phones on low-cost plans? If this number is substantial, consider taking back the company phones and paying employees a monthly amount to cover business usage.
Could the close relationship between BlackBerry smartphone and lawyers soon end?
Apple’s newest it-gadget, the iPhone, spawned an outburst of thousands of mobile applications from developers other than Apple (15,000 in less than 7 months on the market) and a sharper focus on developing applications, including productivity boosters for lawyers, for mobile devices.
Consider the following business apps that run on smartphones:
- Microsoft Office document viewers and creators
- Expense clients
- Legal research tools
- A WebEx client from Cisco
- CRM clients
- Applications that let users browse hard disks
- News readers like that from the American Bar Association Journal
- Web pages formatted to fit smartphone browsers
In computing history, the platform that boasts the most useful third-party applications eventually dominates. That’s why legal and other business software developers are evaluating the iPhone, as well as competitors like Windows Mobile and Google Android, as you read this.
BlackBerry is defending its turf using tactics like its recently released BlackBerry Storm and its upcoming application store. Given RIM’s enviable track record in the business market, this will be a great fight to watch.
If you haven’t yet tried Facebook or MySpace, check them out. Then add your shingle to www.LinkedIn.com, where multitudes of legal professionals have already hung theirs.
Billed as the premiere online business social networking site, LinkedIn has taken steps to shore up its lead as a promotional tool. Already a Google darling, LinkedIn has inked deals with the likes of Martindale.com and BusinessWeek.com to share its information with these external sites.
And LinkedIn continues to add value. This free site (yes, free) permits people searches and company searches that often turn up information similar to what one finds in directories like Scottsinfo.com – a marketing treasure trove. Sites specific to the legal industry include Legal OnRamp (https://www.legalonramp.com) as well as law-specific referral communities such as ALFA (http://www.alfainternational.com), Meritas (http://www.meritas.org), and Lex Mundi (http://www.lexmundi.com). Member firms use these online communities to build their brand and generate leads.
Finally, more adventurous law firms have set up (virtual) offices in Second Life (www.secondlife.com) to recruit students, meet with clients and generally project a cutting-edge image.
In a pre-digital world, lawyers marketed their expertise using analog methods like writing articles and lecturing at continuing legal education events.
Such promotional arrows still hit the mark, but ambitious lawyers now need a bigger quiver. Blogs/blawgs are a great complement to articles, while microblogs (Twitter being the current favourite) are emerging as another outlet. Podcasts help lawyers get into the earbuds of many a legal mind’s iPod.
Lawyers who want to avail themselves as subject matter experts to journalists can register with www.HelpAReporter.com.
Ask Clients How They Want to Interact with You
Much of what’s written in this article presumes that you fully control your business. But there’s never a bad time to ask your clients how they would like to be served. Would they like to develop documents using wikis? Hold meetings via teleconference? Keep in touch via Twitter? There’s no harm in asking, and plenty to gain.