Electric Solo

GPSolo Magazine - September 2005

The Electric Solo

If you’re a solo or are thinking about starting your own practice, anything that can give you a leg up is especially welcome. Here’s a look at how you can use technology in practical ways to respond to the many demands of practicing law on your own.

Accelerating response time. By maximizing your accessibility, you build better client loyalty. Whenever you can, respond to clients’ calls and e-mails at your earliest opportunity.

Both mobile phones and e-mail have become commonplace, but few lawyers come close to making the most of these tools for improving client satisfaction. If you want to realize the potential, consider this example of using a “smart” phone, a device that combines the convenience of a mobile phone with the power of a handheld computer.

You finish a meeting at a client’s office, return to your car, and pick up your messages on your Treo 650, a smart phone from PalmOne. A prospective client you spoke to last week, Miranda Ramsey, called to say she wants to proceed immediately with a new business venture.

Your Treo already has Ramsey’s name, e-mail address, and phone number in its address book because you entered them in your practice management software last week and synced (or synchronized) it with your Treo. You start an e-mail and paste in some standard text you use when signing a new client. Then you open your standard retainer agreement on the Treo using Documents To Go software, which lets you create and edit documents on Palm OS devices. After inserting Ramsey’s contact information, you attach the document in MS Word format and send the e-mail. Next, you call Ramsey to tell her you are delighted to be working with her and have already sent the retainer agreement to her.

You don’t need to become a computer expert or invest a huge sum in technology to make this happen. With wireless company discounts, a smart phone will cost between $400 and $600. That may sound pricey, but for some lawyers these combination devices can take the place of a notebook PC. Add a portable keyboard for $99, and you have a mobile office that requires no power outlet and no cable to the Internet.

Of course, real efficiency requires that you don’t allow yourself to be interrupted by every incoming call and e-mail. Instead, you can group messages and respond in rapid-fire fashion to those you can handle within a few minutes. Another efficiency technique is to set up a separate e-mail address that you give out only to clients and others who have high priority. Tell them to use this e-mail address regularly so that you can give them the most responsive service.

Having total access to client information. Back at your office, technology can accelerate your turnaround rate in a number of ways. A key to efficiently managing your practice is practice management software. To illustrate the power of this sort of software, the following examples use the current market leader, Time Matters. There are many other good products in this category, including Amicus Attorney, ProLaw, and PracticeMaster.

You receive a voice mail from a prospective client, Pat Soren. A quick search of your contact list shows Soren is neither a former client nor a former adverse party. On the off chance that Soren may have been involved in one of your matters in another capacity, you use Time Matters to run a comprehensive conflicts search. After you click through a few screens and enter Soren’s name, your software searches through all the text that has ever been entered into it, including e-mail messages, matter notes, and time records. It can also perform a Google-like search through the full text of all the other documents in your system.

By routinely entering information on everyone involved in your legal matters, you accomplish several important objectives. You have a good system for avoiding conflicts of interest, you have a collection of information about people you may run into again in varying capacities, you have ready access to the names of people referred to you by any other lawyers or referral sources, and you can generate matter- specific contact lists showing names, phone numbers, and other information on all the people related to a particular matter. But there’s more.

Say you want to schedule an initial meeting with Pat Soren, so you click on his contact record in Time Matters and then click on the Add Phone record button to start a call. A Phone Form appears and a timer starts. You click the Dialer button and the software places the call. As you talk to Soren, you make notes of the call on a scratch pad. When done, you summarize the important facts from the call in the Memo section of the Phone record, mark it Done, and then click on Save & Close.

Soren has agreed to meet with you five days later, so you enter the appointment on the Calendar. Returning to the Contact list, you click on the Add Event button to bring up an Event Form with Soren’s name already filled in. Enter the date, start time, meeting length, and a code for the meeting, then click on Save & Close.

Beyond giving you access to information about many individuals in context, practice management software allows you to create timelines for each of your legal matters.

In combination with a notebook PC, full-featured practice management software provides a key to independence from a single-work location. One approach to taking your office off-site with you is to regularly transfer all the information and documents managed by software on your main office computer onto your notebook PC. Time Matters, for example, has comprehensive, bidirectional synchronization features. With your notebook PC plugged into a network switch connected to your main office computer, you can synchronize all the new and changed information and documents on the main computer with all the information and documents on your notebook.

Other great technologies for working away from the office are remote control services and software. They spare you from hauling anything between your main office and other locations, as long as you have a computer with Internet access at the remote location.

Going ultra-wireless. Among the many technologies that can profoundly change the way solos work with clients, broadband wireless is the trend to watch. With a notebook PC, a wireless modem, and broadband service, you can remain connected to your office network and the Internet at high speeds whether you are in your office, your client’s office, your home office, or anywhere else in the coverage area.

Broadband wireless differs from the wireless networks available in coffee shops, airports, and offices using Wi-Fi access points. For broadband wireless service, you use a mobile phone company account and a modem-equipped notebook PC or a compatible mobile phone that can be half a mile or more from a cell site. Wi-Fi networks reach only about 700 feet from each access point.

Embracing change. There is a risk in becoming too electric, but beware of accepting it as a rationale for resisting change. The times and tools are changing and you need to keep up. Work out for yourself how to make your clients happier in ways that work for you, too.

Wells H. Anderson is president of Active Practice LLC. He can be reached at