Solo Law Practice Technology Setup

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4-Step Computer Security Upgrade

Learn to encrypt your files, secure your computer when using public Wi-Fi, enable two-factor authentication, and use good passwords.

RelatedLaw Technology Buyer’s Guide

If I were starting a brand-new solo practice right now — i.e., no legacy systems to support, and no well-established procedures, and limited funds — here is what I would put in my technology budget.

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  • static

    And if you have all that stuff, do all the other lawyers at Starbucks “oohh” and “aahh”?

    • Everybody knows real lawyers don’t go to Starbucks. They go to independent coffee shops.

      • static

        Aha! Independent coffee shops!!! You are such a legal rebel.

  • I’m not a Mac guy but agree with the services listed. I would that those using Google Apps and/or One Drive should also enable two-factor authentication for better security.

  • The latest revision of the MacBook Air actually has significantly longer battery life (up to 12 hours with the 13-inch model) than the Retina MacBook Pro (9 hours in the 13-inch model and 8 hours in the 15-inch model). The Pro can hold a bigger battery, but it also runs more powerful components. For office use, I don’t think the processor boost justifies giving up the portability of the Air. I switched from a Pro to an Air last year and never looked back.

    • Good point. I didn’t realize the Air had gone so far past on battery life. Although once you get past 8 hours (or whatever arbitrary time you prefer), I don’t think even more battery life is actually all that important.

      It’s more about the longevity of the system, for me. I’d be replacing the more-expensive Air every 2–3 years. I can easily get another two years out of a MBP. Calling it a “processor boost” doesn’t do the extra performance justice. The MBP is a blazing fast, high-performance laptop.

      And while it’s sort of less-portable than the Air, the 13″ MBP (the 15″ feels enormous to me) is still really thin and plenty light.

      I don’t think it’s really that important, though. Get whichever you want — and are willing to pay for.

      • Jonathan Kleiman

        The 13″ air seems enormous to me. I use 11″ MBA with 8gb ram. Once you get used to the size, you won’t go back.

  • I argue against the Retina… the standard display will save you a chunk of $$, give you better battery, and easier to read text if you’re over 30.

    • There is absolutely no way the text on the regular display is easier to read no matter how old you are.

      First, text on the Retina display is actually larger than on the regular MacBook Pro or MacBook Air display of the same size. That’s because the 13″ MacBook Pro’s effective resolution is just 1366×768 (the regular 13″ MacBook Pro’s resolution is 1440×990 on the same-size screen).

      Second, you can scale the display to make the text even larger.

      Third, the extra resolution means that the edges of letters on the Retina display are sharp, not fuzzy, making them much easier to make out.

      Finally, it doesn’t actually save you that much anymore. The 13″ Retina MBP starts at just $100 more than the standard 13″ MBP, and that includes a solid-state hard drive, which means it will feel much faster.

  • CPFOLEY

    Three questions:
    1. You say you “used” Fastcase for legal research. What do you currently use if not Fastcase?
    2. Will Crashplan back up your documents on Google Drive or only files you save locally?
    3. Will the version of Acrobat that comes with the Scan Snap suffice, or is the upgrade to Pro necessary?
    Thanks

    • 1. When I need to do research, I still use Fastcase. I just don’t do much lawyering these days.
      2. CrashPlan will only back up your local files. If you are using Drive, you can get those files onto your computer by using the sync utility.
      3. Depends. It’s probably enough for most lawyers, but if you want to do fancy stuff like Bates stamping, you’ll want Pro.

  • Alex

    Sam – Love the post–it’s geared almost exactly where I’m at in my practice. One thing: I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on Xero. When I looked at it last year, it seemed like it would be $70/month for a package capable of handling my practice. Now I think I could get by with the $30/month package. I’m not sure if the prices came down. In comparison, QB was only $180 one-time, so it definitely seemed better for my budget. I think SAAS can get really expensive fast (monthly costs of $40 for mycase; $30 for freshbooks; $30 for Xero; $10 for gotomypc, which I guess is only $110 and not that bad)…Maybe it’s a generational/perspective thing. I try to be really careful with ongoing subscriptions because the total cost of ownership can be pretty high. Also, I think you should look at airvoice; aio; ting; republic wireless, etc for cell phones. I have an iphone 5 that I bought unlocked with a monthly cost of $40.

    • I used the desktop version of QuickBooks for a long time. In fact, I still have the 2010 version. It’s fine. I just desperately needed to get away from QuickBooks into something that played nicely with other software, like Freshbooks.

      • We use Quickbooks Online in our businesses and I think it meets everything most law firms would need. It can sync with Harvest billing and the payment solutions are great for processing credit card payments and allowing clients to pay invoices online without using a service like Pay Pal. You don’t find Freshbooks limiting Sam?

        • How did you get it to sync with Harvest? It doesn’t sync up with anything else that I can see.

          I don’t find Freshbooks limiting as a timekeeping and billing solution, no.

          • Here’s the how to from Harvest’s support page. Quite a few other services are starting to link to QBO. For Harvest this is an improvment from the way I used to do it (which required an ad on). http://www.syncrhq.com/

            • Yeah, integration is one of the reasons I’m really happy we switched to Xero. There still aren’t any payment gateways integrated with QB or QBO. If you want to use PayPal or Stripe, it’s clunky as hell. With Xero, it’s easy as pie.

              I realize that may not be a priority for all law firms, but for me, both when I was practicing full time and now, for Lawyerist, dealing with credit card payments was a giant pain. With Xero, it’s one of the things they got almost entirely right.

              • Do they do automated recurring payments? That’s one of the features I love in QBO’s online processing.

                • Stripe does. So does PayPal and basically every credit-card payment service on the planet. I want to use Stripe. I don’t want to use Intuit’s stupid merchant processing.

                  • Jay Brinker

                    I am a bit late to this, but I am still using Quicken 2000. It keeps track of my income and categorizable expenses for giving to my accountant at tax prep time. With memo fields, I keep track of who has paid and what I have paid. Perhaps I am missing something, but this seems to meet the needs of my practice. My time is logging checks before heading to the bank and 15 minutes reconciling a monthly bank statement. Invoices are generated when clients sign their estate planning documents so invoice prep is not a plus. Would a more sophisticated accounting program really help?

                    • It sounds like you don’t need to do trust accounting, then?

                    • Jay Brinker

                      I do not.

                      BTW, great post. A new attorney called me yesterday for advice on a solo practice. I told him to read Lawyerist. This post will be incredibly helpful to him.

              • Jonathan Kleiman

                My reason for wanting to switch to Xero is the belief that between Xero and QBO, Xero will focus more on improving its product while Intuit will focus more on marketing (on a balance)

  • Thanks for the post ! Very useful.
    i was thinking about getting an imac 27 inch for my office. What do you guys think?

    • Don’t put too much thought into it. If you want a desktop and you prefer Macs, that’s the one to get.

  • Jonathan Kleiman

    For Canadians, I went with Ruby Receptionist and then decided to move to SmileDog.ca. I find them considerably better, and I can talk to the owner whenever I want.

  • Jonathan Kleiman

    Why Stripe over Square? Should I switch?

    • Different things. Stripe is a backend service. You can’t charge a card directly through Stripe. Instead, it integrates with other payment portals, like Freshbooks or Xero, so that you can accept credit cards from clients through that portal.

      It’s really slick, but it’s not the same as a point-of-sale service like Square (which, in turn, doesn’t let you do online sales). I’d call them complementary services.

  • I’m surprised that nobody raised the “lawyers shouldn’t use Google” argument when you suggested Drive and Google Apps. I wholly agree with your suggestion, and I think most lawyers are too quick to dismiss the programs.

    • I do think that if you toss in Boxcryptor or Viivo and use them, it all but eliminates that argument.

      • I’d agree, though I really like Viivo’s setup and interface compared to Boxcryptor’s. But, we still haven’t addressed the unsecured email issue and the Google scan.

        • I’m pretty confident that Gmail is actually more secure than rolling my own mail server. And anyone who still worries about Google indexing their email is beyond reason.

          I like Boxcryptor’s approach better, but I haven’t been successful either time I’ve tried to set it up. I’ve got no idea what it’s supposed to do, because I’ve never been able to use it.

          Viivo is more simple and easy to use, but I’m not a fan of having to segregate my encrypted files in a single directory. It means either putting all my client files into the Viivo directory, or none of them, and I don’t really want to do it that way.

          But I’m going to give Viivo another try. The first time I tried, all the apps did was crash.

          • Bingo on the Gmail.

            I think you’ll like Viivo. I just wish they’d develop a Chrome extension, then I could use the service on my Chromebook.

  • Joseph Rockne

    Just did a big upgrade of my ten year old practice. Dropped Amici us PC Law for RM and on-line quickbooks. New desktop. I use two monitors. Scanner.

    Now, a bit of remorse. Should I have returned to the laptop only practice? My reason for this was stability and speed.

    With RM and Quickbooks online, files in Dropbox, I think I’ll add a laptop for mobile access.

    My only problem is that Casemap is not in the cloud.

    Switching also taught me that the proprietary practice management tools can really tie you into their product. I’m working on better PDF workflows to avoid this in the future.

  • Guest

    Sam, as always, you have provided timely and useful information for those of us working in the trenches, however I’m a bit disappointed by your coverage of virtual assistants. I realize the article is about tech, yet you praise Ruby Receptionist (and rightfully so) but gloss over the potential value added by a variety of virtual assistant services, like LegalTypist, and completely ignore virtual paralegals as an equally valuable asset to any solo practice. IMHO, sometimes the person operating the tech is as important as the tech itself.

    • Later on, it might make sense to use a virtual paralegal to let you expand your business, but this post is about someone just starting a new practice. Beyond answering the phones, a virtual assistant is a luxury when you’re still struggling to get your first clients in the door.

      • Guest

        I get that, but many virtual providers are not meant to be long term staffing alternatives. Most offer ‘as needed’ services rather than long term contracts which is a perfect fit for a start up.

        • Which services do you think a brand-new solo with more time than revenue would need?

          • Guest

            First of all, paralegal fees can be passed through to the client. In my experience, there are many tasks that a ‘brand-new solo with more time than revenue’ could assign to a virtual paralegal while (s)he goes out and builds up a client base.

            I am merely suggesting that there are times when a new solo, or any solo, might just need that extra hand to transcribe and format a document for filing that day, but can’t because (s)he has to appear at an emergency hearing; or, (s)he needs to e-file a pleading but has never used ECF before and it’s the last day to file.

            Again, I am talking about services provided as needed. I have dozens of solos for clients, some of whom only utilize my services for an hour a month. I work for an hour; they pay for an hour.

            You are recommending services that come with monthly subscriptions. I am suggesting virtual providers that provide a service, submit an invoice, and walk away until, and if, they are needed again.

            • Guest

              Disagree. As a solo a virtual paralegal is a luxury and I wouldn’t trust a virtual paralegal I know nothing about to do a job that requires detail and in person contact.

              But the real concern here is that you shouldn’t hijack this man’s blog to plug your virtual paralegal outfit. You are doing more harm than good to your cause.

    • Randall Ryder

      Unless you are starting your own practice with a full book of business, I don’t think you can justify hiring support staff (virtual or otherwise). Doing those tasks will help you understand your clients and how to run your business.

      • Guest

        I haven’t said anything about hiring staff. I am referring to utilizing freelancers/contract employees on an as needed basis. Virtual paralegals are not staff – we are 21st century freelancers. Staff means benefits, overhead, etc. Virtuals bill only for the time we put in on a project or task.

        Yes, there is value in learning to do things on your own and for yourself; however, there are times when you simply cannot do it all. If it’s ok to contract with a service to answer your phones everyday, why is there so much pushback to the thought of contracting with a virtual paralegal or transcriptionist for individual projects without the long term contract?

        • Because we are talking about new solo practices. New solos generally don’t have times when they can’t do it all. They wish they did. Mostly, they have a lot of time to dream about being that busy.

          • Guest

            I’m referring to those exceptions. A virtual is someone you bring in for that one, out of the ordinary, series of events; not someone that sits in your office, collecting a paycheck and waiting for something to do.

            • Okay, fine. In the unusual event that a new solo has more work and money than time, I agree that a virtual assistant is an option worth exploring.

              • Guest

                So, let me get this straight..

                You’re focused on the needs of new solos ‘with more time than money’ – by your own comments, more than enough time on their hands to answer their own phones. Your recommendations include locking into subscription/retainer agreements with various services (e.g.: virtual receptionist) with a set, monthly charge plus overage fees, but you find it outside the realm of reasonable alternatives to suggest utilizing the services of a freelance/virtual paralegal on a pay-as-you go basis.

                Virtual receptionist: ~$250/month, every month for a basic plan with a fixed number of minutes of service, plus overage fees; non-pass through ‘cost of doing business’

                Virtual paralegal: ~$50/hour, paid ONLY for time worked, no work/no fees, no minimums/no limits, professional fees pass through to client

                To clarify, services for which you are locked into paying, whether you use them or not, are legitimate, recommended investments, but having an arrangement with a virtual paralegal, whose services you use and pay for, only as needed, not so much …

                • So let me get this straight …

                  You do not have it straight.

                • Randall Ryder

                  Can you give some examples of what a new solo attorney would need a paralegal for?

                  • Paul Spitz

                    I’m a new solo. At this point, four months in, I really haven’t had any need for paralegal or clerical help. However, if I was involved in helping close an angel or VC financing, I would definitely bring in a paralegal (or law student) to help with managing due diligence, assembling closing documents, etc. Of course, those are transactions where the fees range from $10,000 to $20,000.

          • Paul Spitz

            I can attest to that. Unfortunately.

  • Even though it is an obsolete technology, I think you should have a virtual fax service. Many clients still like to fax stuff rather than scan and email it. There are many virtual fax services out there that are usable. I’ve never owned a fax machine in 25 years of solo practice and only recently moved away form the fax modem/software solution to a virtual service. Saves money on the phone bill too.

    • Fair point. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call a fax machine essential. I operated my firm just fine without one for a couple of years. But that may depend on your practice and preferences.

      And I agree that if you’re going to fax, use a fax service rather than a machine.

  • Morgan Smith

    Great list & discussion thread. Two cents I’d add: We find Mailchimp really useful in conjunction with our WordPress blog for mailing out the blog updates as well as occasional e-blasts to clients. It’s a great communications tool and handy place to store contact lists. As for time keeping apps, I’ve used both Bill4Time and Harvest and there are pros/cons to each but both are good.

  • stephen

    Battery claims re. Macbook Air and other MacBooks are false. 13″ macbook air beats all other macs on battery life. Speed differences for lawyers, who just type, are miniscule. Biggest difference is storage space (up to 1.5TB for Macbook Pro’s that have hard drives, versus 1/2 TB for SSD macs).

    • I’ve confessed to being wrong on the battery life. As for speed, it’s not when you buy it that speed matters. Speed matters in three or five years, when you are deciding whether or not to buy a new laptop based on how your computer performs.

  • David A. Bressman

    Fineprint which is downloadable from the net is a must-have program. Literally, saves me thousands of pages of printing, especially on those pesky net pages that have a single line or two but still print. Use can also easily create pdfs. You can enlarge pages. A great feature allows you, before printing, to remove portions of whatever is on the page – so if you have some notes on a page you scan, put in Fineprint’s print mode and use the select tool to remove your notes – you can then print and save the “clean” page as a pdf. It also allows you to type directly on pdf. documents such that you can avoid the price, wonkiness and hassle of dealing with Adobe. Fineprint is an awesome program and, as a longtime solo, I believe it saves me time, makes me much more efficient and pays for itself many, many times over. If only I was paid for my recommendation!

  • Jonathan Kleiman

    I just want to say I love my 11inch air. I have the new one, but I had my last one for 2 years and then sold it to upgrade. I’m running 1.3ghz core i5 8gb ram and I’ve never had any problem.

  • Mike

    I’m contemplating an Office 365 subscription. Any idea whether it plays nice with sugarsync?

    • “Plays” how? Office 365 doesn’t really have anything to do with SugarSync.

  • Sam, this post and all the comments have been incredibly helpful. I have some questions for you and the other commentors; I use quickbooks and I have tried to keep track of time keeping while on the go and have not been successful. I know this is a money hemorrhage because it’s akin to working for free. I have tried Paymo and Freshbooks and I have the stop watch add on for quickbooks but I have trouble keeping track on the go. Does anyone have any suggestions that can be imported in Quickbooks? I’m also willing to do the time keeping/tracking on a different software so long as I can import properly for billing purposes.

    Also, if I am a windows “lifer” whose recently entertaining converting to an apple user, anyone have an opintion on this? I’m terrified that my software won’t be compatible and that I’ll waste alot of time while I learn a new system.

    Thanks in advance for all the help and opportunity!

    • Time tracking is usually less about software than discipline. Try carrying a notebook if the stopwatch apps aren’t doing it for you.

  • globehound

    Anyone considered using law firm management services like rocketmatter.com, for instance? Would love to know if anyone has used one of these and found them useful.