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Essential Technology for the New Solo

I’m presenting before a very small group of new solo practitioners tonight. They’ve formed a support group to help one another deal with the hassles and cope with the emotions of starting a solo practice. It’s an innovative idea implemented by Erik Mazzone, our North Carolina Bar Association, Practice Management Advisor. I’m thrilled to be able to help.

I’m going to suggest that they keep it simple when it comes to technology and that they avoid buying a bunch of stuff. I’m sure there are many alternatives to my suggestions, but I don’t want to overwhelm people with choices so I’ve deliberately narrowed the field.

Here’s my list of suggestions -

First on my list is a laptop. The laptop makes you more mobile than the desktop. I’m a Mac fan, but I think it’s reasonable to select a Mac or PC. I’d suggest spending about $1,500 on the Mac or $1,000 on the PC. You’ll end up with something comparable at those price points. By the time you add virus protection and a bit of software to the PC the gap will narrow, but ultimately this is a personal preference thing.

I’d add a laser printer next. I’ve had good luck with a small laser printer by Brother that cost about $100. There are plenty of good units out there and I’d focus on keeping it cheap. I’d also suggest a scanner. You’ll want to start this new practice paperless and a decent scanner is essential. I’m in love with the Fujitsu Scansnap S1500. It works like a charm and comes in a Mac or PC version.

Next up is a phone. You’ve got to have a smartphone for your practice. Get an iPhone if you can tolerate AT&T. Get the latest Droid from Verizon (this month it’s the Incredible) if AT&T is awful in your area. Get an unlimited plan and start calling people to drum up some business. I’d also add a layer to the phone system and sign up for a hosted PBX service so I can route calls, add staff (eventually) and give my clients the sense that there’s more going on here than me and a cell phone. Phonebooth and Grasshopper would be my first choices.

Your going to need a website for your new practice. To keep it simple, I’d register my domain at GoDaddy and build a website with SquareSpace. You can’t make it much easier, or less expensive, than this combination.

Mail is an important part of running a solo practice. It’s central to much of what we do. I’d suggest buying a postage scale and some stamps. If that feels overly simple then I’d suggest Stamps.com for postage and SimpleCertifiedMail.com for sending certified letters.

I really think it’s important to start your practice off with a case management system. I certainly don’t want you to run out and buy a server and load it up with expensive software. I’d suggest considering the three key players in small firm, hosted, case management arena – Clio, Rocketmatter, and Advologix. I’m partial to Advologix because it’s built on Force.com (the platform for the very successful and well-funded Salesforce.com).

While those are all good systems I think they have plenty of room to grow and are struggling to keep up with some of the rapid development of the non-legal systems. I’d carefully consider CentralDesktop.com and that’s probably what I’d encourage a brand new solo to use given the current state of the market.

In addition to a hosted cased management system, there are several other software applications I’d employ. I’d purchase a copy of Microsoft Office (some solos I know have purchased the student license during school and are still using it). I’d rather use Google Docs for all my wordprocessing and spreadsheets, but you’ll likely find that you need Office to deal with some of what you get from clients and opposing counsel.

My email sysem of choice would be Gmail. I’d go ahead and sign up for the Google Apps for Business package that will allow you to use your firm domain name as your email address rather than using a gmail address. If you have some issue with using Gmail, then I’d look at Rackspace. Another option, and this is what I’d probably do, is to hook up with DNAmail. They can set you up with Google Apps or Hosted Exchange email. They’ll handle the setup for you.

When you get some revenues flowing I’d manage my time and billing and accounting using the case management system I selected (if you go that route) and I’d add Freshbooks or QuickbooksOnline to handle anything not handled by the other system.

Beyond all that, I’d sign up for a fax account with myfax or efax so that some dinosaur lawyers can send you faxes. I’d also get an account with SugarSync, Box.net or Dropbox for use as my file storage repository and for automatic backups of my laptop.

I think that will get you started. You might, of course, need some practice specific software. For instance, in my practice we use a child support calculator and a tax analysis program. Eventually, you’ll want a document assembly product and you may, depending on your state, need a legal research product. Some bar associations provide Fastcase for free.

I’ll remind folks that they can always buy more stuff down the road. Personally I belong to the “guy that dies with the most gadgets wins club”, but I’d like you to survive your first year so I’m discouraging buying everything in sight.

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  • Mike Dunham

    Great post! I’d suggest OpenOffice and Thunderbird instead of the Microsoft Office suite – they’re both open-source (and therefore free) and have just as much, if not more, capability than Office. OO can also save files to Office’s native formats.

    • Lee Rosen

      Great suggestion. I hate paying Microsoft and those are great products.

      Lee

  • http://www.johnsonparrislaw.com Afi Johnson-Parris

    Lee, what family law specific software do you recommend and for what do you use it?

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      We use FinPlan Divorce Planner and Divorce Math from West.

      Lee

  • Lorne B Gold

    Another great post, Lee. Is that who you use for your website + blog? If not, who do you use? Who do you use/recommend for optimization? The only adds I’d make are:
    1) if you have an assistant and you dictate, go digital. I use the Philips LFH 9600. Its excellent.
    2) spend the money to upgrade to a premium pdf package
    2) if you are going to use credit cards, forget the machine, etc. Use a merchant provider that allows over the web direct input. I do this and easily can take v, m/c or amex from virtually anywhere

    • http://divorcediscourse.com Lee Rosen

      Great feedback. I’d add that we use SpeakWrite.com for dictation. I dictate over the phone, via an iPhone app or an app on my Mac and they turn the transcription around in 2-3 hours at 1.5 cents per word. They’re open 24/7 and they don’t take vacation, ask for pay raises, etc.

      The credit card idea is super as well. My post for Thursday is right on that topic and mentions the new Square app that allows you swipe a card on your iPhone.

      We do not use SquareSpace. We have a homegrown site built on WordPress and hosted on Rackspace Cloud. It requires LOTS of support. SquareSpace makes MUCH more sense for most attorneys.

      Thanks for reading and for your helpful input.

      Lee

  • http://www.DuncanLawOnline.com Damon Duncan

    Lee and Erik,

    As always, another great article. I would also add on the phone side of things that new folks look in into getting a Google Voice number. They can use this as their main business telephone even on a personal cell phone. If they ever transition to a VoIP or other type of phone system they can easily redirect it to the new system. The bottom line is that it’s incredibly portable, flexible, cheap (free) and sends SMS and email notification of any missed calls, as well as an endless list of other perks.

    Here’s the link to Google Voice that includes some videos for its use for those interested: http://www.google.com/googlevoice/about.html

    Damon Duncan

  • Mike Whelan

    I notice that the Salesforce-based practice management software is pricier than an option like Credenza for Outlook. Do you have any experience with Credenza? I ran into it on an ABA tech blog. Do any of these systems interface well with phones? That is, can I be talking to a client about his billables for last month and flip out the Blackberry to total them up? Or send a pdf to him via email that is attached to his file?

  • http://www.rivercitylawfirm.com L. Howle

    Thanks for all the great resource ideas. Stamps.com doesn’t support Mac…do you have another rec. for metering your own mail via a scale and the web (my USPS is ~10 miles away).

    Also, I’m finding Rocketmatter very “buggy” and that I only use the timer function for hourly billing and invoicing (the invoices which I have to download in excell, then alter and put into my own letterhead anyway). $50-/month is expensive for the timer function. Do you have a product suggestion that would operate in a similar manner (timer with project/case label and detail area for notes); I’ve looked at a yahoo widget called “clock my time” but can’t get anything to work thus far.

    I’m going to get on Squarespace and get my website kicking, as I only have email addresses and a basic landing page right now.

    Regarding websites, I read your article on having relevant and dynamic content that will make folks “bookmark” you. Any suggestions for those of us ~5 years of practice who are doing “threshold law” in this economy? I’m having a hard time describing that I do a small amount of many things, and a lot of one thing (that I don’t want to get pigeon-holed into-Federal Environmental Litigation. You don’t want to market that…no one would ever call!)

    Thanks for all of your very relevant and engaging articles and resources!!

    • http://www.rosen.com Lee Rosen

      Bad news about Rocketmatter – I know some users that are very happy. Have you been talking to them about your problems? They are really into customer support and I’ll be surprised if they won’t help you fix your issues.

      Stamps – I haven’t tried it but http://www.endicia.com/ says they are Mac compatible.

      In terms of website content, I think you’ve got to pick a niche. I know it’s hard when you’re hungry, but it’s the most important thing you can do for your practice. You’ve got to decide on something or you’re deciding on nothing.

      Good luck.

      Lee

  • http://www.rocketmatter.com Larry Port

    This is the first we’re hearing about Attorney Howle’s problems. Support will reach out.

    Also, we have invoicing in PDF, Word, WordPerfect, as well so I wonder what’s going on there.

    Larry Port
    CEO
    Rocket Matter

  • L. Howle

    Mr. Rosen, Thank you for the recommendation for stamps and the gem of content advice.

    Mr. Port, Thank you for reaching out and the follow-up email from Rocket Matter. RM is a great product and I can see it working for many different types of practices out there. In fact, we’ve found the “timer” function to be virtually indispensable for time management and billing. I believe our issues may be practice-specific as there are several different types of billing that we implement, and thus run into likely inevitable limitations with any software. I would recommend to any firm out there to try Rocket Matter (they have a free trial period).

    I also have to commend RM for following some advice I just read in an article of Mr. Rosen’s on monitoring any negative web activity for your business, in that they immediately reached out to address the issue. Kudos to all!

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