Earlier this month, I interviewed Carolyn Elefant, lawyer, prolific author, and solo practitioner guru. Carolyn is the author of the recently updated “Solo by Choice, How to be the Lawyer You’ve Always Wanted to Be” and its accompaniment, “The Companion Guide.” She is also the co-author of “Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier.”
In this interview, she offered her very knowledgeable perspective on the different ways that solo practitioners can save time and money using 21st century tools and resources.
What are some ways to cut costs when you first hang your shingle?
The first thing I always tell people is to keep your costs low. Think about what you’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis and make sure that you’re spending money on things that are core to your practice–then cut corners in other places.
A lot of new lawyers think they need to go all out and buy expensive equipment and set up a fancy office. But if you do that, you’ll find yourself taking cases you really don’t want in order to pay bills. So instead, make sure to focus on mission critical issues for your law firm.
For example, if you’re a contract lawyer–investing in a top of the line research system is really important but if you only conduct legal research once every few months, use Google Scholar–it’s free. And, if you don’t need an office, work from home.
Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who needs office space to work because you find that you simply can’t focus at home, you’ll need a stand-alone office. Also, another option is to consider co-working since it’s inexpensive. While this type of office set up won’t work well for a criminal defense practice, for other types of practices, it can. And if you’re looking to cut overhead costs with a criminal defense practice, you may want to consider subletting since you’ll undoubtedly need to meet with clients and confidentiality is always an issue.
What 20th century law office staples have now become obsolete?
Interesting question. Things like very fancy office space were once considered critical and are now obsolete. Another example is a full-time secretary or administrative assistant who only types and corrects your documents and nothing else. These days, assistants need to be more all purpose and not just secretarial, So for example, in addition to typing, your assistant can help you with social media or assist in locating information online.
Desktop or server-based law practice management tools are obsolete. In theory you can access them via remote access programs but that’s simply not practical, especially for lawyers who want to take advantage of outsourced labor. Remote access programs are not nearly as secure and pose more security risks than the cloud. Cloud-based law practice management systems are ideal for situations where multiple users need to access case documents and are uniquely configured to address security issues with multiple users.
And finally, some say desktop word processing programs are becoming obsolete but for me, the jury’s still out on that. I still need desktop features but I can see next generation of lawyers using only cloud-based word processing programs.
What 4 technologies should every 21st Century law office have?
It goes without saying that every law practice should have a website and email. And every office should have some sort of cloud-based platform to collaborate with other lawyers–and potentially for clients to use as well. Also important is a cloud-based system to back up documents generated in house.
Which technologies have been the biggest game changers for small law firms?
I would say the availability of resources on Google and the Internet generally. We often forget about that because it’s hard to remember life before the Internet. But the web is a tremendous resource.
So, for example, family law attorneys can now use the Internet for research and investigations. So, what once would have been extremely expensive endeavor consisting of hiring an investigator to find evidence that a spouse is cheating can now be accomplished by looking at data from Facebook and other social networks.
Another example– for zoning lawyers or personal injury lawyers–it’s easy to locate information online to show how far a curb was from the median line. It used to be that the costs to get diagrams for these types of cases was exorbitant. You had to send out a photographer to take photos. But now you can can use Google for diagrams, etc. thus greatly reducing costs in those cases.
Another major technology benefit is cloud computing. It makes the practice of law so much easier. 20 years ago I worked with lawyers in other states and we communicated by phone, email, and snail mail. But the cloud makes it seamless to pair up with a lawyer in a different jurisdiction. And e-filing has slashed the costs of filing a case. You can dash something off your desk at 10 minutes before midnight rather than making 30 copies, packing them, and then sending them off in the mail days ahead of the due date. So all of these things have given solos so much more power and the resources to get things done.
What are your tips for saving time and being more productive using new technologies?
Incorporate the use of mobile devices into your practice for checking emails, social media, etc. Doing so makes your time away from work more productive and lets you squeeze more work into the cracks. And, if you choose, you can immediately respond to clients via your smart phone–which makes you more responsive and more productive.
What are the top 3 things law firms waste their money on?
One of the biggest ways law firms waste money is on paid search engine optimization (SEO), especially when the firm’s website is lousy to begin with. You can have the best SEO in world, but if you bring potential clients to a website with little to no relevant content, potential clients won’t hire you.
Paid directory services and lead generation websites also generally tend to be a waste since the return on investment is not good and people get locked into long contracts. Short term contracts are rarely available, which is unfortunate since short term contracts allow lawyers to try the service and see if it’s worth it. Instead, lawyers commit to long term contracts which require them to spend thousands of dollars each month and often the end results aren’t good. For many lawyers, a better option would be to spend the same amount of money each month and sponsor a networking event each month and get just as good, if not better, results.