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There is no secret formula for establishing and running a solo practice. However, five rules will make your practice more profitable, better organized, and allow you to have less stress.
1. Go Paperless
Benefits of a Paperless Office
Paperless doesn’t mean you can’t have any paper in your office. It does mean most of your documents are in digital form and stored on your computer. A lot of people talk about a paperless law office, but not many do it. Going paperless, or almost paperless, will give you three huge benefits.
First, it will save you amazing amounts of time. Even when you know exactly where a paper file is located, retrieving it takes time. Imagine not having to walk to a file cabinet, and having all your motions, files, briefs, discovery and other documents at your fingertips.
Second, going paperless will save you money. Think about how much money you spend on files, paper, copying, shredding and storage. Going paperless can eliminate all these costs, perhaps thousands of dollars a year.
Third, going paperless will allow you to become much better organized and actually find your work product by electronic search. Imagine never having to rummage through a box of files again, and how nice it would be to pull up a document through a quick search based on the pieces you remember.
The Transition Process
The first step to taking your practice paperless is to commit to it. Understand that it will take several weeks or even months to make the transition. When I converted my practice from paper to paperless it took several months to work out the kinks. I had gotten so used to paper files that I felt uncomfortable without them at first while in court. As I got used to not having paper files, it became easier and easier to have everything be paperless.
I still see many lawyers who have not taken advantage of being paperless. At least once a week, I see a lawyer in court digging through a file box or briefcase looking for some piece of paper. I have witnessed lawyers during trial not being able to find a document they needed. If the lawyers embraced a paperless office they would make their lives much easier. You may wish to consult one of the many books about going paperless, including Paperless in One Hour for Lawyers (ABA Books 2014).
Getting a good scanner will make the transition to paperless easier. Many attorneys like the Fujitsu ScanSnap line as they can scan lots of pages quickly. Remember many scanning programs use your smartphone’s camera to scan documents. I often use a scanning app on my phone when I need to quickly scan one or two pages, and am away from the office. Once your documents are scanned, you can either create your own virtual file folders on your computer or use one of the many practice management software programs. A lot of scanning technology is available, but you have to make an effort to find it and to use it. Recently a lawyer friend of mine was amazed when I told him he could scan documents from his phone, and how much time it had saved me over the past three years.
2. Learn How to Use PDF Files
The second rule, which is related to the first, is to learn how to use Portable Document Format files (PDF). A free version of Adobe’s PDF program will allow you do basic functions. While the basic program is better than nothing, I recommend buying the full program. You can either pay for the program once or pay several dollars a month. The pay as you go program is more flexible and a good way to get started.
Once you have the full program, learn how to create, edit and use PDF files, which will make running your new paperless office much easier. PDF files are only as useful as you make them. If you don’t know how to search, edit or modify a PDF, you will miss out on the power of the format. Many good books and articles detail how to get the most out of PDF files. A great resource for learning and taking advantage of all the things you can do with PDF files is the website PaperlessChase.com. The website is run by my friend Ernest Swenson, a lawyer and a pioneer of PDF technology for lawyers. I would also recommend Mr. Swenson’s book entitled PDF Essentials for Lawyers or his Adobe Acrobat in One Hour for Lawyers (ABA Books 2013).
3. Create a Digital Filing System
Any law office must have a good filing system and a paperless office is no different. Many practice management software programs on the market include filing systems. The problem with many of these programs is that they are not cheap. Don’t be afraid to set up your own system.
A do-it-yourself digital filing system using your PC’s or Mac’s internal file system need not be complicated or fancy. As long as you can find what you need, you have enough. You should try several systems to see which one works best. One system may be perfect for a personal injury practice but totally impractical for another type of practice.
Consider establishing two filing systems. The first is based on client, then matter, with sub-folders for various document types. The second is based on subject matter. Rather than place copies of important client documents in the subject matter files, it is better to place links that open the original document. This can be easily done using the Windows Create Shortcut or the Mac Make Alias feature. This way, changes to the original will be automatically synchronized to the subject matter folders – because the links in fact open the originals. You can read more about digital filing systems in Recommendation #1 of our Knowledge Strategy Group’s white paper on Top 10 Knowledge Strategies for Solo and Smaller Law Firms.
4. Have a Marketing System
Too many attorneys throw money at marketing but don’t have a system to see what it is working and what is not. These lawyers might as well be lighting their money on fire. You may think your radio commercial is bringing in more clients than your flyer, but you don’t really know without a system to measure your results.
A good start to a marketing system is to ask potential clients how they heard about you. Another good step is to track the number of visitors to your website. If you don’t know how to track your own website analytics, many books, articles, websites and people can help. Google Analytics is a free and comprehensive service used by many. A web search on “books about Google Analytics” will bring up several inexpensive books explaining how to use this service.
When you engage an advertising or marketing firm, ensure you have a way to measure results. Every marketing service and ad agency will promise you results, but it is up to you to see if you are actually getting a return on your investment. I recently hired a search engine optimization (SEO) expert to increase my website traffic. One way I track my investment is to have the SEO expert provide weekly reports of my website traffic. I hired the expert on a month-to-month basis, so if I don’t see the desired increase in website traffic, I end the agreement. I like month-to-month contracts with marketing and adverting firms because I feel it gives them a greater incentive to perform than if they have a 12-month contract and can become too comfortable.
5. Give Your Systems a Chance to Work
If you abandon any system after only a week or two, you have not really given that system a chance to work.
An attorney once told me he gave up on using a digital calendar after only a couple of days. He claimed his paper calendar worked just fine and there was no need to switch. He wouldn’t consider seriously the advantages of a digital calendar. Essentially, he was unwilling to give his new system time to work.
Once you implement any of the systems discussed in this article, there will be a learning curve. If you are very unfamiliar with the related technology, your learning curve may be steeper. Competition in today’s legal field is fiercer than ever before. Implementing good organization systems will give you an advantage over other attorneys, and possibly be the difference between a profitable law practice and one that limps along.
About the Author
Alexander Y. Benikov is a criminal defense lawyer in Phoenix, AZ who has operated his own practice since graduating from law school seven years ago. You can reach Mr. Benikov at 602.253.6592, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @AybFirm.