Investing in the Future

April 22, 2009

By Douglas J. Brocker

You can look at the recent economic downturn only as a problem, or you can also view it as a great opportunity to invest in the future of your practice and the profession. At least some members of the Wake County and Tenth Judicial District Bars may have more time than normal to explore such opportunities over the next year or so. I discuss three different technology-based ideas that could grow your practice, reduce your expenses, and increase your efficiency – good investments in any economy.

1. Online Professional Networks: Beyond Facebook

Online networking, or social networking as it is more commonly known, is one of the fastest-growing technology resources for lawyers. There has been an exponential growth in the number of lawyers joining online networking services, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. These networks focus primarily on allowing you to establish a professional or personal identity and then continually build a community of online connections. LinkedIn is targeted at business and professional networking, Facebook tends more toward personal networking, and Twitter straddles the line between the two.

Establishing such an online network is done in part through online groups to which you have a connection, such as universities, law schools or professional associations. The North Carolina Bar Association recently established online groups through Facebook and LinkedIn. The Wake County Bar Association and the Tenth Judicial District Bar are currently exploring the advisability and feasibility of establishing such a group. Among other benefits, it could allow members an efficient way to connect, communicate and exchange information online and allow us to provide numerous other online resources to all members. It also may help the organizations remain relevant to our younger members.

Several legal organizations, such as Martindale-Hubbell and the American Bar Association, recently have launched sites that are directed specifically at lawyers and the legal profession. These newer sites focus not only on building and establishing professional connections but also on providing content and collaboration tools. For example, these sites allow a lawyer or legal organization to create online communities and include various resources for use only by those permitted access to these areas. These can include: blogs to exchange substantive content and comments, online resources and libraries, “wikis” (websites where the content is added and refined collaboratively by users, the best example of which is Wikipedia), and other online collaboration tools. The collaboration aspect reflects a broader trend to find new and better ways to work more efficiently with others online.

As much potential as these online networks have, it is important to remember, particularly for younger lawyers, that they are an excellent supplement to — but not a replacement for — a professional network built through personal connections and interactions. Online networking is just one way to use these challenging times to invest in growing and expanding your practice and professional connections.

2. Voice-Recognition Software: The Man in the Machine

The first significant investment Deanna and I made when starting our firm a few years ago was purchasing voice-recognition software. It has turned out to be one of our best investments. It eliminated our need to employ full-time administrative staff. In addition, it has revolutionized the practical aspects of how I work on a daily basis. For me, it has become truly indispensable and I am not sure how I would practice law without it anymore.

For those who may not know, this software allows you to simply talk into a headset or microphone and the words almost instantaneously and magically appear on your computer screen. Even several years later, I still find myself somewhat mesmerized by this software, perhaps because I am easily amused. The software that I use, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, works well with every other program I have attempted to use it with, including all the Microsoft Office applications (Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, etc.), Internet Explorer, several billing programs, among numerous others. It also works virtually seamlessly with a mouse and keyboard, so that you can type certain unusual words or move freely within or among applications.

I think that many lawyers have avoided taking this technological leap because the initial versions released years ago were not very accurate or easy to use and gave the entire product area a bad rap. I honestly can say that my voice-recognition software is more accurate than either my typing or the human-generated transcription I received back for many years previously. The software also no longer requires much training time and continually improves its accuracy with use.

Although this may sound like a commercial, I mention it in this context because it offers some significant benefits to lawyers. Most importantly, it allows you to be more responsive and efficient in serving your clients’ needs. It substantially reduces both the delay in producing final written work product and the total amount of time necessary to do so. Equally important in this economic environment, this software has the potential to significantly reduce the time and expense of your non-billing staff. It also allows your essential staff to focus on more intellectually-challenging and rewarding tasks.

3. Maintaining Files Digitally: Paper is the Enemy

Most lawyers, like other professionals, are addicted to paper. For most of us, paper is an integral part of the way we learned how to practice law. Unfortunately, it is one of the most time-consuming and inefficient aspects of our practices. This is particularly true with respect to client files. Maintaining your primary client file digitally and minimizing any hard copies can begin to tame the “paper beast.”

The benefits of digital files are numerous. It allows you to be more responsive and efficient in serving your clients in many circumstances. For example, digital files permit multiple members of your firm to instantly access client-related information and work on a matter simultaneously, without the age-old search for the missing paper file.

Switching from paper files also can result in significant cost savings, particularly if many of your communications and other documents can be exchanged electronically. These cost savings include reducing the time of non-billing staff, minimizing paper costs, and decreasing numerous other related expenses. Finally, maintaining digital files also permits regular and easy backup of all this critically important information offsite. This last reason alone is sufficient to justify the transition to primary digital files to protect against a computer or other unexpected disaster. The above reasons do not even consider the substantial environmental benefits of making the switch.

Admittedly, eliminating a paper addiction is not an easy task and there is no pill, patch or gum available to help you kick a paper habit. Even as a relatively younger attorney starting a new firm, I had to transition gradually and still occasionally fall back into the same pattern of keeping more information in paper form than I really need. Nonetheless, making the switch is worth the effort. Until you cut the cord to paper, you really don’t realize how much it ties you down or costs you.

In these challenging economic times, I hope that you will explore these or numerous other opportunities to invest in the future of your law practice and the profession. It likely will be one of the few investments you can make right now that will provide adequate returns and dividends in both the short term and the long term. A great resource to get you started is Erik Mazzone, a WCBA member and the relatively new Director of the Center for Practice Management at the NCBA.