Legal trends

How to Start a Law Practice: Foundational Methods

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Foundational
Practices

By: Gary Allen

This is part 3 of a series – read more here

LeanLaw has a series of lean practice rules that we will cover in this post:

  1. Be Secure. We covered this in the last post. By securing your clients’ data, you are already modernizing your practice, becoming lean and taking an ethical stance on security.
  2. The Cloud is the Future. Again, this is a more modern, more secure and less expensive way to organize your law firm operations.
  3. Use Industry Standard Tools. Instead of buying a practice management software, why not use the tools that you prefer and which are best suited for specific lawyerly tasks?
  4. Be In Sync. Attorneys need to pay attention to detail. If your versions of documents become muddied or if your financial data is not current in real-time, mistakes can happen.

All of these steps start with modernizing your workflows.

Let’s Talk About Security:

“We don’t have a backup plan.” – An admission from a LeanLaw client.

That’s alarming not only because his business data could be wiped out at any moment by a random catastrophe, but also because he is not in compliance with his ethical duties as a lawyer. This attorney the had the last four years of his firm’s financial records on a PC in his retired partner’s office — with no backup. If the place burned down, he would be in deep trouble.

We’ve met quite a number of clients who use onsite devices (NAS – Network Attached Storage), where they backup manually and then take it off-site. How often? Haven’t done it in a month? Is supposed to happen every week. What kind of disaster would it be if you lost a month’s worth of work?

The solution is to enlist an inexpensive, automated, offsite backup solution like Mozy, iCloud or Backupify. That means that once you set it up, it will automatically update without you having to tell it so. The updates can be weekly, daily, hourly – you decide. The backup will be secure and off-site. And if you do have a data issue, you can access your data immediately and restructure your setup within hours of the data failure.

Fire Drill: test your backup so that you know it works, just in case.

Lastly: the backup is encrypted so that you can rest assured that your clients’ data is also secure.

A Moment for Passwords

Everyone hates them. To be truly secure, you need long, nonsensical passwords with both characters and letters – unique to each website/tool so that if your password is found out, there is only one point of entry. You don’t want to spend time memorizing your passwords, but you also don’t want to expose yourself by duplicating them or by making them too facile.

Empty your head of useless information.

The best tool is a password manager like LastPass or DashLane. With those tools, you only have to remember one password. All of your other passwords are secure and can even be created by the app and synced across your devices. Soon we’ll have biometric authentication (e.g., thumbprint) on more than just our cell phones that will make all this unnecessary.

How is it going to look in the cloud?

LeanLaw worked with a small firm that wanted to move all of its information off their local servers and into the cloud. This firm understood that before they could think about practice management, they would first have to think about how to store key workflow data like:

Initially, they thought to employ a practice management tool, but they chose instead to use tools a la carte – tools like Outlook or GSuite work with Box.com and QuickBooks Online.

Core workflows of technology: Industry-standard tools all work in the cloud.

Some things to consider as you begin to migrate to the cloud

Stay in an ecosystem. GSuite, Microsoft, Apple

If you have an iPhone and an Apple computer – and you like how it’s working – stay there. If you use GSuite and take advantage of all of the free Google Apps – sheets, GDocs, Calendaring – stay with Google. Since those apps all work together, it’s best to stay in your chosen environment. If your jam is Microsoft, go all in.

Needs vs. Wants

A parable: A lot of people buy a laptop for their primary workstation, and then they doc it into these big screens. And so they buy this really expensive laptop that they expect to carry around with them all the time. But really they’re only doing it 10% of the time, right? So better to buy a killer desktop, and then buy a decent laptop: one that’s small, light and not so expensive. On this laptop, you can sync all of your data from the desktop: much better use of resources.

Think about needs vs. wants when choosing software as well. What is mission critical and what can you compromise on? A must-have may be integration to QuickBooks Online, a nice to have might be timers on a mobile app. Another example: for a firm that has an administrative assistant enter time for attorneys, a bulk entry tool is a must-have. Multiple time-entry tools accommodating multiple timekeepers’ habits may be a nice to have.

Infrastructure:

Leveraging the cloud is inherently less expensive than hosting a server and installing and maintaining software along with the fact that there’s just a lot less tech hassle involved.

Create infrastructure and stability for your firm so that if there’s a financial storm, you’re in a position to weather it.

These tools are easy enough to use that you really can save money while streamlining your workflows.

Is the cloud safe for your data?

The cloud is safe, and here’s the reason why. When you buy into a company like box.com, you’re buying into the culture and the know-how related to cybercrime, cybersecurity data management.

  • They hire the best in the brightest in the world in their company to defend and secure your data, so number one you’re buying into that intelligence.
  • You’re buying into their structure. They will outdo you every day in terms of what their data storage looks like compared to what you could ever create, eg, Fort Knox vs. a little money box underneath your bed.
  • The Department of Justice has adopted box.com as their preferred cloud provider.
  • The ABA has put forth its recommendations for box.com, Netdocuments and Worlddox.
  • Unlike credit card companies or credit agencies, Box.com is in the business of security. Their livelihood relies on upholding your trust. They will go out of business the minute they treat your data in as cavalier a way as do some credit agencies.
  • Lastly: do you really think that you can come up with a workflow and security system that is more bulletproof than cloud automation? You take care of the lawyering and let the security experts take care of your data. Of course, there are always opportunities to fail, but it’s more likely that the failure would come from your lack of diligence in a non-automated security system or from your lack of keeping up with the latest versions of your software.

Updating Your Software

Many security breaches happen because software users have not kept their software updated. Often, a software provider will send a notice to update the software for either feature or security reasons. It’s important to heed these notices and take the moment to update your system. If you have an IT person on staff, he should constantly be monitoring the software you use for updates. The Panama Papers were leaked because of drastic negligence to the updating of software, making it easy for hackers to break in essentially because the “front door” wasn’t locked. Don’t let this be you. It’s not only embarrassing but also unprofessional.

Automation

Automating remedial tasks like scheduling, creates opportunities for doing other things like:

  • serving your clients
  • generating new business.

Try this: Add up how much time your assistant takes for the task. Figure out the cost, including benefits. This may shock you.

Workflow in the cloud – how to make it more efficient and cost less.

Step one: Choose your most important workflow. For example, legal Timekeeping & Billing.

Step two: Develop a baseline, what are you going to measure? How much time does it take for timekeeping, or to produce an invoice?

Step Three:

  • Set a goal, e.g. reduce hours per month spend on invoices, from 10 to 5 over 3 months. Have a start time, an end time and a duration to measure.
  • Make that measurement public.
  • Make everyone in the firm buy in to the success of that.
  • It wouldn’t hurt to get a trusted advisor to figure out the best course of action.

Step Four: Assess the data. Are you better or worse served by the automation in your workflow?

Use Industry Standard Tools

If you’ve ever used practice management software before for your law firm, have you truly used all or even most of the features provided? From timekeeping and billing to calendaring and document and case management? And accounting? If so, good for you. Keep using what clearly works for you.

Most lawyers we speak to use only about 20% of their practice management software. Not only is this fiscally wasteful, it’s also inefficient. If you’re not using the PM software in the manner it was intended — holistically – then you’re most likely creating manual workarounds for the features you’re using elsewhere.

At LeanLaw, we understand that you have certain favorites with regard to email (Outlook, GSuite) or document storage (NetDocuments, Box.com) or Accounting (Xero, QuickBooks Online). As the interconnectedness between software is on the rise, there is really no reason that you can’t piece together all of the software that you like instead of using PM software.

Any industry standard software like the ones we just mentioned, will connect with complementary software. You may need some expertise in the beginning in getting yourself set up with an efficient workflow, but if you enjoy the software that you’re using, you’re more likely to use it in an efficient way. And bundling all of this software should have a comparable cost to a PM software. Maybe even less.

Be In Sync

If you work in the cloud and use industry-standard tools as described above, being in sync will come easily.

Accounting

Understanding the profitability of your law firm will require you to have your books in sync. If you use accounting software like Xero or QuickBooks Online, you can achieve this, effortlessly since your data is in the cloud. Keep in mind that looking simply at revenue as your leading indicator of fiscal health can be a bad habit. Profitability should be the leading indicator.

Quick Question

Who does your books? If your information is not already in the cloud, what would happen if your bookkeeper/accountant disappeared tomorrow? Do you have access to your financial information as well? Is it current, real-time, accurate information? Just checking.

Document Synchronization

Your clients expect you to pay close attention to detail. When you’re working on documents that are not in the cloud, you can run into confusion with different versions of a document. Unaccounted iterations can lead you to costly mistakes – not just for you but for your client.

When you are working smartly, securely, in the cloud — you will always be in sync with the latest version of a document. Today, we no longer have to rely on emailed versions – that’s how you get yourself into trouble. Instead, work with a document management system in the cloud that will keep your versions clear – even showing who made what changes.

Get ready for our next post.

Now that we’ve gone over the foundational aspects of starting a lean law firm, we’re going to step back in our next post and talk about the mindset needed to get to a lean law firm. Technology alone won’t get you there.

Achieving Lean Practice

  • Understand the why of your practice
  • Technology foundation followed by workflow improvements
  • Mindset plus behavior change
Is your law firm a lean law firm?


Back to the Begining of the series
Is your law firm a lean law firm?

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