Nov. 7, 2012 – Operating a law practice while trying to practice law exponentially increases the hard work required. If practicing solo, the stress and the work seem to go off the charts.
First, there is the business aspect of practicing law. This includes all of the behind-the-scenes activities that lawyers must do to make sure the business is operating efficiently. This includes things such as accounting, billing, paying vendors, ordering supplies, marketing, etc.
Second, there’s the actual practice of law. Being a solo practitioner means walking the tightrope between these two poles. And the balancing act doesn’t even address attempts to maintain a life outside the law, whether with family, hobbies, or other enjoyable activities.
So how can we best balance all these aspects of our lives? There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are two keys to achieving a balance between the business of law, the practice of law, and life: Timeshifting and integrating technology.
Timeshifting is the magic that many of us now use to watch television programs. Outside of sporting events many of us no longer watch live television. Instead, we use a DVR. With a DVR, you can watch a television show or movies whenever you want to. You are not at the mercy of the network programmers. Instead, you control when and what you watch.
Lawyers can apply the same principle to working. Perhaps you work better in the afternoon and evening. Maybe you are a morning person, hate driving in traffic, or have children with schedules and activities that require you to be in a certain place at a certain time.
Remember, although you may be working when you are in your office, you don’t have to be in your office to be working. Regardless of what your schedule is, if you review it, you will likely find ways to timeshift your work habits and increase your efficiency.
Effectively timeshifting work is not necessarily simple. First, it requires you to practice from locations other than your office. To achieve this goal, you’ll need to change some aspects of your practice and integrate new technologies into your work habits. Below you’ll find a number of technology solutions to help you timeshift your practice and create efficiencies.
Bryan Sims, Naperville, Ill., is the sole shareholder in Sims Law Firm, Ltd., where he concentrates his practice in the areas of commercial litigation and civil appeals. Bryan has spoken on legal technology issues for both the Illinois State and Chicago bar associations. He was named the 2005 TechnoLawyer of the Year. Bryan blogs at theconnectedlawyer.com.
Go Paperless. Admittedly, this really isn’t a technology. However, it is the first step to truly being able to practice from anywhere. If you need to have physical files with you to do your work, then you are always limited by your physical proximity to your physical files. Those physical files are an anchor preventing you from being able to work efficient. With digital documents, you can easily make them accessible to your staff or your clients via the internet.
Use a Laptop. In a few years, we may be able to do all of our work from tablets. Until then, if you want to be able to work from outside your office, a laptop is required. If, however, you integrate cloud services into your technology (see below), a laptop is less important.
Get a Smartphone. A smartphone is critical to timeshift your practice. With a smartphone, you always have access to your email, your calendar, and your contacts. Further, it allows you to contact your clients easily when you are out of the office. Remember, the smartphone is your tool, not your clients’. Smartphones allow lawyers to triage email and voicemail, calendar information, and make notes at your convenience. In terms of timeshifting, a smartphone is the best way to stay connected to your clients and your information when you are out of the office.
Use VOIP. Many lawyers want a phone number in addition to their cell number. If that is you, consider using a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service for your additional phone. VOIP works by providing your telephone service over the Internet. You’ll need a high-speed internet connection for this to work. If you have that, however, VOIP provides many benefits.
First, it is typically less expensive than a traditional phone service. Second, you generally have more services available, such as caller ID, call waiting, voicemail, simultaneous ringing, etc. Further, almost all of the services will forward any of your voicemails to you via email. Some of the services even use voice recognition software to try to transcribe your messages for you.
Move to the Cloud. Once you go paperless, you will need to be able to access your files. If working from a laptop that stores your files, then you can access the files anywhere you bring the laptop. If, however, you are using multiple computers, or want both yourself and your assistant to be able to access files, you will need to look at using some cloud-based services.
For document storage and retrieval, Dropbox, Box, SugarSync, or SpiderOak provide some options. You should evaluate each of the services and see which works best. Each offers differing levels of security and each operates a little differently.
You may also want to use a cloud-based practice management service, such as Rocket Matter, Clio, or MyCase. Some of these services include document storage or integration with services such as Dropbox. The practice management services typically include some type of time and billing system. Alternatively, you can use a standalone cloud-based time and billing system.
The thing to remember is that there are a variety of cloud-based services that may suit your needs and allow you to become less dependent on location to do your work.
Use Integrated Systems When Possible. When I started my solo practice, I knew that I was going to be doing everything myself. As a consequence, I wanted was an integrated time, billing, and accounting system. Now, I enter time once, and the necessary billing and accounting entries are automatically updated. Using an integrated system reduces the time it takes to make entries. Information is entered once to create efficiency while reducing opportunity for errors.
Buy a Dymo Label Printer. If you have an assistant that does your mailings for you, then this item may not be for you (although your assistant would probably love to have one). If you don’t have an assistant, however, you probably do your own mailings. With Dymo printers, lawyers can print an address label in less than 30 seconds, without feeding an envelope through a printer. Dymo’s postage service (Endicia) can print postage and saves trips to the post office.
Add a Tablet to Your Practice. Purchasing an iPad was one of the best business decisions that I have made. It paid for itself in two days. I use it for checking and responding to email, reviewing and annotating documents, accessing documents when I am away from my office, doing legal research, etc. Further, it has replaced my laptop for things such as going to court, or taking short trips. If you can afford it, I would recommend it as your first optional purchase. It gives you great flexibility and will allow you to get work done anywhere.
Internet Access. Although Wi-Fi hotspots have become almost ubiquitous, their availability does not mean they are well-suited for your legal work. One of the problems with using a public Wi-Fi signal is that it is possible for other users to intercept your signal.
The solution allows you to have Internet access even where public hotspots are not available. You can get your own hotspot by acquiring a standalone device that performs this service. Alternatively, many smartphones will also operate at mobile hotspots.
Further, if you do not want a long term contract, you can get a standalone device from a provider such as Virgin Mobile that allows you to pay for the service in the months that you want it and discontinue the services in the months that you do not need it.
Deposit Your Checks Remotely. This may seem like a small thing, but time spent running to the bank adds up. The solution is a remote deposit scanner and software from your bank. Based on my billing rate, the amount that my bank charges per month for this service is less than a single trip to the bank to make a deposit. To use the service, simply scan the check and deposit it over the Internet. The funds can be made available as early as the next business day.
Get a “No Response Required” Stamp. A stamp that says “For Your File, No Response Required” can save a lot of time. I no longer worry about including letters with routine documents that I send my clients. Further, I don’t have to worry about clients calling me just because they received something in the mail. At my initial client meeting, I explain to my clients that I will be mailing documents to them, that the documents are for their file, and that if we need to talk about a particular document, I will let them know.
This stamp saves me time, as well as paper and toner (because I am not sending an accompanying letter). In terms of increasing my efficiencies, this stamp has to give me the greatest return on investment that I have seen on any purchase I have made.
Hire a Virtual Assistant. Another way to improve your efficiencies is to hire a virtual assistant, which provides administrative services remotely from a home office or other location. Sure, you can hire an actual assistant. If you have the work, space, etc., to do so, then go for it. However, you might be surprised that you could improve your efficiencies if you hire a virtual assistant to help you with some specific tasks or for a limited amount of time.
Make the Decision
There is no magic bullet that will suddenly allow you to achieve a work-life balance. Much of being able to achieve that is making the internal decision to do so. Nevertheless, as described above, there are a number of technologies that you can take advantage of that will allow you to get your work done, when you can work on it, wherever you happen to be.