Like it or not, the future of the practice of law is in the cloud.

640px Word processors at NIHE 1

I was recently asked about law firm technology by a colleague who is leaving our firm, and instead of just answering her I thought I’d write a blog post about it. What follows is a brief overview of what I was using with my firm before and a few thoughts about what I’d do if I were starting a firm today.

Infrastructure. As a long-time Apple user and privacy wonk it pains me to say this, but especially for smaller firms you just can’t beat the value of G-Suite. For $6 per user per month you get most of your IT infrastructure – e-mail (with a custom domain), calendaring, video chat, storage, groups (which you can use to address mail to multiple people at the same time or as a bulletin-board for open issues), a notes application (where I “write down” my time), and all sort of other goodies – on a completely portable platform. That’s powerful.

Oh, and there’s Google docs as well, which I don’t really use unless a client asks, but which offers a lot of functionality. It even looks to me like Sites might be sufficient for many small-firm websites, in lieu of a third-party provider.

Even better, for an additional $10 ($20 if you want to get fancy) you can add telephone numbers with Google Voice, and replace those $50 per month landlines. We actually switched to a Comcast VoIP a while back, and I don’t dislike it, but the ease of use and one-stop shopping with Google is a significant benefit for a lawyer who is also the firm’s IT person. That’s not to say G-Suite can’t be tricky to configure, but it’s easier than dealing with systems and hardware from multiple vendors.

Yes, there are privacy (and other) issues, but to be honest many of the issues which plague Google are present in other systems as well. There are definitely documents you shouldn’t maintain online, and you also need to make local backups of critical docs. As with all cloud services, it’s important to make good choices about when not to use the cloud.

Document Creation and Editing. In the interest of full disclosure, as a transactional lawyer I often have to exchange complex documents with lawyers who are wedded to MS Word, so while I think it is an overly-complicated piece of bloatware with a reprehensible UI, I have no choice but to use it. If you need the Microsoft apps, then use them, by all means.

That being said, when I don’t have to use Word, I prefer Apple Pages, since it’s relatively light-weight and has all of the features I need. The same applies to Excel and PowerPoint, although I’m not much of a presentation kind of guy. Google docs is an option, certainly, but I’m a bit old school in that I like to know that my documents and apps reside somewhere I can actually use them when the internet connection is gone.

Billing. Ok, this one I struggle with. We started with RocketMatter back in 2010, and were fairly early adopters for the then-fledgling case management system. The good? RocketMatter made time entry, billing, and trust account management much, much more efficient than it had ever been and, before G-Suite, the calendar function was very useful. The not so good? At $65 per user, it’s expensive, and most of the other functionality has never been terribly useful for us. The to-dos are essentially useless, I hate timers, and the other “collaborative” tools aren’t really collaborative.

The add-on features I might have been interested in – intake forms, for example – are only available at an additional cost, and it’s hard to even get concrete information about those features without signing up for a free trial. I understand you sometimes have to learn by doing, but I’m not building a bunch of forms just to find out if the service will work for me.

Again, I don’t think you can go wrong with RocketMatter, but if I were to do it again I’d see if QuickBooks online offered adequate time entry functionality and kill two birds with one stone.

Accounting. We currently use QuickBooks desktop versions, in large part because our accountant understands it. I’d probably switch to QuickBooks online if I were doing it again, although I’m sure there are some much better alternatives around than there were when I last looked into it. Ultimately, if you’re going to use an accountant (which I strongly recommend) make sure you use something they are comfortable with.

Collaboration. This is last on the list not because I think it’s not important – in fact, I think it’s the most important item on here, because it brings a whole new dimension to a lawyer’s practice. It’s last because it takes some commitment to use properly, and part of that involves getting your clients onboard. I love Basecamp for a lot of reasons, but the most important are:

  • correspondence is threaded and tied to a specific task;
  • files are exchanged securely;
  • tech-wary clients don’t have to use the interface, a simple e-mail will suffice;
  • you can add as many different companies (clients) and contacts as you’d like, and limit each project to the intended contacts; and
  • it’s easy to back up the whole environment in HTML format, so you can access all of the old project threads (but not files!) offline.

Basecamp is particularly useful on mobile devices, since pulling together relevant e-mails in a mail client can be a chore, but on Basecamp everything is right where you need it, in a single thread. I could go on … if you’d like me to, let me know in the comments and I’d be happy to oblige.

Disclaimer: This is largely what we used at our old firm, and to be honest on some level I miss that. That being said, some of the complicated systems the new firm has, and which I don’t enjoy, are in place for a good reason (I’m talking to you, iManage). Others are simply the standard choice for corporate IT across the country and have been for ages (I don’t understand how Microsoft has prevailed with such god-awful user interfaces across the years). Still, I think a further move towards the cloud is inevitable, especially for small firms, and if I were on my own I’d be all about it.

Photo via WikiCommons by UL Digital LibraryNo restrictions

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