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Big tech tips for small firms

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When advising small firm and solo lawyers recently at the American Bar Association Tech Show in Chicago, Indianapolis attorney Marc Matheny said he ran out of time before he ran out of tips.

Matheny was a co-presenter of “The Frugal Firm,” a session that offered an array of pointers for small firms to stay current with fast-evolving technology that bigger firms likely will adopt early.

“A frugal lawyer is not a cheap lawyer,” Matheny said in an interview following the ABA Tech Show, which he said drew record numbers. “Frugal means you use your money to the best advantage to make the most money. It doesn’t mean you spend the least.”

il-marc-matheny01-15col.jpg Indianapolis attorney Marc Matheny co-presented a seminar at the American Bar Association Tech Show in Chicago offering tips for small firm practitioners on frugally investing in functional technology.(IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

Matheny and other small-firm lawyers shared their best practices for frugal but effective technology solutions.

Tip: Analyze your needs

Matheny, who is one of nine ABA Tech Show board members, said no set of tips will fit every solo/small firm situation or practice. During his presentation with Michigan attorney Patrick J. Crowley, “We made a very big point about saying how your firm is set up is going to dictate what your practice is all about and what your needs are,” he said.

There are a few essentials, though, on the hardware side: a core computing system – whether Apple or PC – telephone and mobility. Within all of those systems, there is room for frugality, Matheny said. Do you really need a server, for instance?

“Some of the hardware you can get to match your firm’s needs; maybe you don’t need the top-of-the-line computer with the Blu-ray player,” said Matheny, who also chairs the Indiana State Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Conference.

Tip: Buy a bundle

Indianapolis solo family law attorney and mediator Jana Strain recently crossed an item off her tech wish list with the purchase of a Fujitsu ScanSnap. The device scans documents and converts them to digital PDF files and enables sharing on mobile devices. For less than $500, it also includes the latest version of Adobe Acrobat – bonus frugality points since functional Acrobat software alone can cost hundreds of dollars.

“This just became sort of the gold standard for lawyers,” Strain said of SnapScan.

tips-facts.jpgMatheny said devices with multiple functionalities – all-in-one printers, copiers and faxes, for instance – can mean big savings for small and solo firms.

Tip: Do it yourself

Ann Marie Waldron, of counsel for the Indianapolis firm Robinson Wolenty & Young LLP, is the designated IT person for the firm’s five attorneys and three support staff, and she has the honorary propeller beanie to prove it. The firm concentrates in business law.

“There’s a lot of pressure for us to stay competitive, but at the same time we don’t have an unlimited budget,” said Waldron, who caught Matheny’s presentation in Chicago. “We have this amount of money to spend. Where is the best place to allocate that money?”

That puts the ball in Waldron’s court on decisions such as whether to upgrade to a new computer system or wipe the existing system to free up memory and increase speed. Waldron has a can-do approach to such tasks. “It’s all self-taught,” she said. “I Google it and learn how to do it. … You have to be confident that you can figure it out and be willing to try it.”

Tip: Work on mobility

Derrick Wilson, a partner with Mattox & Wilson LLP in New Albany, put it bluntly: “Anybody that’s buying a desktop,” he said, “is probably about five years behind the game.” Wilson said the attorneys in his four-practitioner firm are prepared to work anywhere, and he uses free online services to sync up mobile devices and portables. “We don’t look at paper files anymore.”

Mobile functionality, Matheny said, is “essential for all lawyers at this point, although some don’t know it.”

Tip: Try it for free

Waldron took away from Matheny’s presentation a new respect for how much software and legal information is available online at no charge. Google offers assistance in the form of Google Scholar, for instance. Casemaker provides a treasury of free legal research to ISBA members. Productivity apps abound.

There’s also an abundance of software for the taking, but Matheny offers a caveat about such freebies: “Some of those things aren’t replacements, they’re supplements.” Free versions or shareware often don’t provide the functionality of proprietary software they imitate.

Matheny said providers such as CLIO, HoudiniEsq and Rocket Matter offer low-cost case management and billing systems, sometimes providing users with free 30-day trials. A practitioner, though, should be careful to weigh whether it’s better to sign up for such a service with a monthly fee or pay the upfront cost of a more conventional system such as Tabs3 Practice Master or Abacus. “What you don’t want to do with any legal case-management software is you don’t want to go from one brand to another to another,” Matheny said. “It’s kind of like a marriage – for better or for worse. It’s better to stay with one.”

Tip: Put security first

Waldron said the nature of her firm’s work probably leads to being ahead of the curve when it comes to security. The firm uses a Linux-based email system, for instance, that she said is more stable and secure than Windows systems such as Outlook.

Wilson said attorneys must be vigilant as cloud computing becomes more prevalent. It’s important to know where data is stored and how safe it is, and he said free online file-sharing solutions such as Dropbox may have vulnerabilities that attorneys might not realize.

“All those things have terms of service agreements none of us read that say who has a right to your information,” Wilson said. “It needs to be either password-protected or encrypted.” Dropbox and similar services offer such protections, though sometimes at a premium, he noted.

Tip: Ask a lawyer

Strain has used a number of free software solutions she’s learned about through tech shows and bar resources. “Membership in the Indiana State Bar Association as well as IndyBar will give a lawyer access to a lot of resources they might not find if they were not a member,” Strain said.

Waldron said the value of tech shows such as those offered by the ABA or the Solo & Small Firms Conference of the state bar are good places to find ways to get the best bang for the buck.

“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Waldron said. “There are all these people who’ve already done the work.”•

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  • Sound advise David
    hey David, sound advise. The one thing you may want to mention is the HoudiniEsq on-premise is 100% free for Solos, including support and all upgrades. HoudiniEsq.com

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

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  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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