From Virtual Secretaries to Online News Groups, Tech Can Streamline Small Offices
Posted Jan 25, 2005 5:06 AM CST
By Margaret Graham Tebo
David l. Masters calls himself a “high-tech country lawyer.” The Montrose, Colo., practitioner says the key to keeping his tiny firm running smoothly can be summed up in this simple phrase: Go paperless.
“It’s so much more efficient than files of paper,” he says. “I’m not paying for extra office space to keep file cabinets or for off-site storage. Retrieving documents means pushing a button.”
Masters says before he took the paperless plunge about three years ago, he had the same concerns that many lawyers express. How can staff members share files? (Create a system that allows several people to access the same files.) Don’t courts and opposing counsel expect everything on paper? (Surprisingly less often than you’d think, and when they do, you simply hit the print button.) What happens if the computer crashes? (Your system should include multiple overlapping backups, both on-site and off.)
“When people ask me about crashes, I say to them, ‘If your office was to burn down right now, where’s your backup?’ If my office burns or my system crashes, I simply get another computer and retrieve my off-site backups.”
Some paper-dependent lawyers offer up another fear about computer-only files, says Masters. With improvements to computer technology appearing every nano-second, will important files still be accessible in a few years? Yes, he says, if you save them in the right format.
Masters uses portable document format software to create and store documents, and evolving versions of the software will always be able to read documents created with earlier versions. Various document management associations have given PDF their seal of approval, says Masters, because it is considered very reliable and readily transferable. “It’s a stable-enough format that I’m willing to stake my practice on it,” he says.
Ellen Malow has also put her faith in the Net and has reaped rewards. The Atlanta-based mediator and arbitrator says her “eureka” discovery came when she was referred to Susan Schmidt, a Florida-based virtual assistant.
As a one-woman show, Malow says she could not afford to hire a secretary. Schmidt helped Malow build a database of contacts and now handles mailings, research and scheduling, while communicating several times a day with Malow via the Internet.
Schmidt’s services don’t come cheap—she charges $30 an hour but Malow says it’s money well-spent in terms of increased efficiency and response time to clients and potential clients. And because Schmidt works from her own home office in Florida, she is considered an independent contractor for tax purposes, and Malow incurs no overhead for Schmidt’s services. “I am thrilled to have such a great team member,” says Malow.
On the opposite side of the country, Anaheim, Calif.-based lawyer Stephen B. Mashney uses available free technology to keep his office running smoothly and his staff updated on active files and other firm business. Mashney created a private newsgroup on the Yahoo Internet service for the three lawyers and three paralegals in his office. If he needs to communicate with the whole staff, he sends a group e-mail through the Yahoo system. For more personal communications, he always e-mails his questions and requests an e-mail response so there is a record of the conversation.
“Communication is key to efficiency, and having something we can all refer back to lessens misunderstandings,” he says.
Mashney encourages his staff to communicate via e-mail. He says this has led to an increase in productivity and lets the firm’s lawyers carry a larger caseload.
Mashney also uses the newsgroup to post interesting articles he feels might be useful to his staff. “We wasted a lot of time before, passing around and looking for pieces of paper,” he says. “This is much more efficient.”