Going Solo on a Budget
This is the first of two Dennis Kennedy columns on using technology to cut costs while starting a law office. The next column will discuss setting up a multilawyer firm.
Given the current economy, odds are there will be many more lawyers in solo practice at the end of 2009 than at the beginning. Change might come about by choice or by circumstance—the “suddenly solo” phenomenon—as news stories are illustrating all too well.
Many people believe technology, especially Internet-based technology, is a great enabler of solo practice today. The good news is that various ABA resources—from Carolyn Elefant’s MyShingle.com to the Solosez e-mail list—offer solos and solos-to-be a wealth of resources to get started. Making good technology choices will help you get off the ground and sustain an evolving solo practice.
A key consideration for launching a solo practice is understanding exactly what technology you already have and what use you can make of it. And there are three main questions that will drive technology choices for solos:
First, what is your practice area? Second, what is your expected volume of clients, work and documents? Third, what is your budget? Leasing, financing and other techniques can make a huge difference when it comes to paying your bills or yourself.
It’s also important to develop an overall strategy on technology. Although I recommend a written plan, spending at least a little time putting together a strategy will help you greatly. I advocate a “client-driven” strategy: Think about technologies that both help you provide what your clients need and make it easier for your clients to work with you. Even if all you do is ask “How does this help my clients?” you’ll be well ahead of most lawyers. A strategy also can help you evolve technology as you go or provide a road map to phase it in.
Here are my general recommendations:
• Hardware. The fundamental technology tool for a solo is a laptop computer. It gives you versatility. And it’s hard to go wrong today as long as you have enough memory (4GB) and hard drive space (250GB). If you have a desktop computer at home, consider the new, inexpensive netbook computers as a portable companion to your desktop. Next, for most solo practices you’ll want some kind of smartphone like a BlackBerry, Palm or iPhone. Finally, while some solos need dedicated fax machines, scanners and high-speed laser printers, for some a sub-$100 multifunction printer will serve you well and save money. And if you are going solo because of a layoff, see whether your firm will let you keep a laptop or other equipment from your old office.
• Office software. There are three pieces of general software every solo will need for handling documents: First, word processing generally means Microsoft Office, and Microsoft Office 2007 in particular, but there are other options, including free ones like OpenOffice. Second, purchase Adobe Acrobat Professional and learn to use all of its features. Third, organizing folders might work for some, but when you can’t find something you want, you’ll appreciate either a dedicated document management program with room to grow, like Worldox, or a free desktop search tool like Copernic or Google Desktop Search.
• Back-office software. Getting bills out and collected will become very important, and your choices again depend on your volume of practice and number of clients. If you have only a few clients, you can run your practice with a spreadsheet, some invoicing templates and a freeware timekeeping tool. Once you have meaningful volume, however, you’ll need accounting, billing, timekeeping and other management tools. Base your choice on your strategy and emphasize ease of use. Backup and security are essential. Large, inexpensive external hard drives allow you to create backups quickly and easily.
• Practice-specific software. If there’s one place today where it makes sense to dig a little deeper into the wallet as a startup, it’s here, especially if you expect to have a significant volume of work. There are tons of litigation tools, but most practice areas have management, workflow, documentation and other tools that can streamline regular tasks in your practice. Investigate these thoroughly with an eye toward whether you can adapt your routine approaches to a standardized tool.
• Building for the future. Some new solos expect to remain a one-person operation and work out of their homes; others expect to grow. For growth, you will want to move to more sophisticated software more quickly. For Internet-savvy lawyers, Internet technologies such as hosted software services, extranets and Web 2.0 tools might be part of the mix from the beginning. Schedule training and line up a technical consultant before you actually need the help.
Today’s technology makes it much easier than ever for a lawyer to go solo. Just be sure to develop a good strategy, work on getting the basics right and go with what you really need.
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