Going Small and Lean with Your Firm

This post originally appeared in the July 26, 2013 issue of Lawyers Weekly.

In the current economic climate, clients continue to seek high quality and specialized legal work, but many of them cannot afford the rates of big downtown law firms. In the past, clients on limited budgets found a lawyer through their personal network or by looking in the phonebook. The practices of many “phonebook lawyers” tended to be general, though, rather than specialized — they simply could not afford to turn down general work in order to specialize, the high costs of office space, computer servers and private telephone networks eating away at their profit margins.

Nowadays, with advances in technology and outsourcing options, today’s lawyers have a wide variety of tools and options available to keep costs down, increase margins and, in turn, allow for specialized legal work at affordable prices.

Virtual office space

While face-to-face interaction can never be fully replaced, clients and their lawyers are becoming increasingly comfortable conducting business online. The availability of technologies such as cloud computing, telephone and web conferences, electronic signatures and virtual deal rooms have decreased the reliance on a physical and permanent office space. As a result, some sole practitioners and small firms have taken to working primarily from a home office, renting office space or boardrooms on an as-needed basis.

Virtual office providers permit businesses to enter into a monthly membership that provides the business with services that may include:

  • A prestigious business address;
  • A listing in the building lobby directory;
  • A receptionist to answer calls and greet guests;
  • Incoming mail, delivery and fax service;
  • Use of meeting rooms and facilities; and
  • Support services on an as-needed basis.
  • Cloud computing

Working from home or a virtual office would not be as practical if you could not access your document server in both locations, or had to schlep physical files back and forth. To avoid this, consider utilizing a cloud server and implementing a “paperless office” (or at least an office with less paper).

Using a secure cloud server can dramatically decrease startup IT costs for a small law firm. Electronic documents can be stored on the cloud server and accessed securely from virtually any computer, in any location. Physical documents can also be scanned and saved as a PDF to the cloud server. A high-speed scanner with a duplex automatic document feeder is recommended for firms that try and go paperless.

Implementing a decent document management system that integrates with the cloud server can ensure that your matters and documents are named, tagged and organized correctly, and that all documents can be located. Utilizing these tools will dramatically decrease a lawyer’s reliance on the physical file or need to be “in the office.” In addition, some litigators may choose to pair eDiscovery software with their document management system to streamline the process.

Practice management

There are several cloud-based practice management and accounting software options that are available for a monthly fee as “software as a service” (SaaS). While the total cost of a SaaS subscription can be higher than a desktop license over time, these cloud options provide high-powered and regularly updated software, while reducing the initial startup burden. Unlike some of their desktop counterparts, SaaS practice management and accounting options may contain the following features:

  • Accessible through any browser connected to the Internet (including a tablet or smartphone);
  • Shared contact, calendar, task and tickler functions mirror desktop entries to your smartphone; and
  • Ability to docket on your tablet or smartphone.

Telephone systems

In the past, law firms needed to purchase and house expensive and bulky private branch exchange (PBX) hardware in order to have multiple phone lines, extensions and other telephonic features. However, with improvements to Internet speed and advances in voice over IP telephones, law firms can now pay low monthly fees to access hosted or virtual PBX servers that are located off site. These affordable solutions permit even the smallest law firm to have the appearance of an established organization. Available features include automatic attendants, multiple extensions, fax to e-mail, voicemail to e-mail, and multi-party conference bridges.

Marketing on the Internet

To complement traditional methods of marketing, sole practitioners and small law firms are now beginning to embrace the marketing potential of the Internet. Social media tools, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter are great ways to expand your personal network and share content. Many lawyers have taken to blogging and tweeting to display their legal expertise. Of course, when doing so, appropriate disclaimers should be visible to ensure that the often informal blogging and tweeting is not taken as legal advice and does not initiate an engagement with the lawyer.

Law firms are also utilizing search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click ad campaigns to target potential clients who are searching for specific legal work. While the creation and organization of both an “organic” and pay-per-click SEO campaign can be costly, high ranking results and advertisements can significantly increase potential leads if done correctly. As a result, many sole practitioners and small law firms can access sophisticated clients who know what they are looking for, and who may not have been able to find them without the Internet.

Allan Oziel is the principal at Oziel Law, an entrepreneurial law firm in Toronto, specializing in business, technology and intellectual property law. Visit www.oziellaw.ca or connect with him by phone (416-452-0317), E-mail (aoziel@oziellaw.ca) or on Twitter (@allanoziel)