Teaming Up, Starting Anew
For small-firm startups, networking is key
Posted May 1, 2009 7:30 PM CST
By Dennis Kennedy
This is the second of two columns on using technology to cut costs while starting a law office.
Even lawyers still employed have concerns about their job status in this year of unprecedented layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts. So it’s no wonder starting a new firm is on the minds of many lawyers, whether by choice or by circumstance.
Last month I offered strategies and tips for lawyers making technology decisions for a new solo practice. But the solo life is not for everyone. Many lawyers, even entire practice groups of firms, will prefer to start a new small firm.
The good news is that it’s easier and cheaper than ever for a new small firm to have the same, and in some cases better, technology than what lawyers might have found in a large firm they are leaving. Still, as you move from solo to small firm, technology decisions get more complicated, the resources are a little harder to find, and getting consensus gets more difficult.
The biggest change between a purely solo practice and a small-firm practice is that, properly understood, your technology focus shifts to your network more than your computers and software. Unfortunately, your new partners might be focused only on the shiny, new laptops they want. You’ll want to get them to look at the whole picture.
The first key word in small-firm technology is sharing. You’ll want to share files, printers and other peripherals, calendars and much more. In the computer world, that means implementing a network.
While it’s possible for a solo to nominally be the IT director of his or her firm, it doesn’t make sense for a small-firm lawyer to set up and maintain even a small network. Getting outside assistance is mandatory.
The second key word for starting a small firm is standardization. Individuality is great within reason, but you want to have a stable work platform. When you make a decision about hardware and software, get everyone on board. Don’t overthink this. If you decide on one brand of computers, stick with that brand as much as you can for everything and increase your chances that things will work well together.
The third key word is realism. It’s easy to underestimate the costs of the technology needed. The rule of thumb is to budget a third of the costs for hardware, a third for software and a third for services. (Firms almost universally underestimate the software and services costs.) Leasing equipment and using online software can be alternatives to help with costs.
As with solos, a firm’s areas of practice—as well as the volume of clients, work and documents—will play a large role in your decision-making. Litigation practices have significant technology demands and requirements.
In a small firm, you also want to carve out time to create a technology strategy. Even a simple written technology plan will help keep costs down and provide a road map to phase in technology as you grow.
In many ways, you will be looking at the same hardware and software options for individuals as I mentioned last month, but all in a networked context. You should also place a higher emphasis on collaboration tools. Specialized back-office software—billing, timekeeping, accounting, conflict-checking—also becomes a much higher priority for a firm of several lawyers.
A few tips to help you get started:
The ABA has published a handy book, The 2009 Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guide, by Sharon Nelson, John Simek and Michael Maschke. It’s a great starting point that’s chock-full of practice advice.
Many state bar associations have a practice management adviser. These people can be fantastic resources for practice management and technology issues for startup firms.
Many technology consultants in this area have great resources available for free on the Web (e.g., Ross Kodner’s MicroLaw.com). Pick one of these consultants and buy a couple hours of their time to help you set a broad strategy, answer your questions and get you moving in the right direction.
Look carefully at technologies available as part of a shared or furnished office space. This might help cover some technology infrastructure costs.
A very standard approach is to build on Microsoft’s Windows Small Business Server. It includes the network infrastructure most firms would want and is relatively inexpensive, especially when bundled with server hardware.
Hire someone who will provide your technology installation and support. It’s simply not practical for you to be the IT support person for your law firm.
Don’t forget about getting a solid Web presence—website, blog, social network—in place from the beginning.