Business of Law
You’ve opened your own small law firm. Congrats! Now what? What tools do you need to keep your practice running smoothly, efficiently, and most important, profitably? These five tools—which small law firms simply can’t live without—make all the difference.
Billing and Payment. A small firm cannot survive without an effective billing system. Cash flow is fundamental, so make it easy to get paid. Utilize a system that can produce readable invoices that fully describe the services you’ve provided, and the time spent on each service. The most effective billing systems will provide clients with multiple payment options, whether online by credit card or electronic transfer, or by good old-fashioned paper check. QuickBooks, Wave, Tab, and Harvest all offer free or low-cost billing and payment systems and also provide links for clients to make payments.
Timekeeping. A firm that doesn’t have an accurate timekeeping system is a firm that is losing money. Most lawyers charge clients based on billable hours, so accurate timekeeping is essential. Mobile timekeepers or “smart” timekeeping systems which capture desk time, phone time, and court time are key. Programs which import tracked time directly into invoices are a bonus. By accurately noting and reporting billable hours, lawyers stand a better chance of retaining a current client’s trust. Timekeeping also allows small firms to track profitability and productivity of other members of the team and can help indicate the value of office staff such as paralegals and secretaries.
Calendaring. Calendaring errors are the leading cause of legal malpractice claims, so keeping track of tasks, projects, meetings, and deadlines is vital. Most lawyers intuitively understand the concept of deadlines, but even busy, solo attorneys can forget to manage their own time. Small firms simply cannot live without a calendaring tool. Again, technology dictates the most efficient way to track deadlines, and there’s no better way to do it than through an online system – one that provides one point of entry for every member of the firm. Paper calendars, white boards, and sticky notes just don’t cut it. Centralized, online calendars give the solo practitioner or small team the ability to see an overview of due items from one place, and allow one member of the firm to catch what another member might have missed. Rules-based calendaring systems, which calibrate deadlines for specific jurisdictions and areas of law, are also a wonderful feature. Systems such as Practice Master and Outlook allow lawyers to track deadlines while also tracking conflicts of interest.
Electronic signature system. Electronic signatures are lawful and court-admissible in most jurisdictions, and utilizing an electronic document signature system can simplify and accelerate agreement preparation, execution, and management, in turn reducing the cost of administrative tasks, printing and mailing expenses, and valuable time. An electronic signature system also provides a level of convenience for clients by removing the hassle of physically appearing at a law office. Applications such as DocuSign and Sharefile provide encryption and and allowing clients a safe, easy way to return documents.
Document storage. Gone are the days of paper manila folders and filing cabinets. Even for solo practitioners, electronic document storage is an absolute necessity. Look for a document management system which includes the ability to both store and share documents using secure online portals. Cloud-based, mobile document access is included with most document storage software, giving easy and secure access to documents from any location via mobile app by using any internet-enabled device. Box.net and Dropbox both provide free storage and are simple to navigate. The bottom line here – don’t get stuck scrambling to find important documents. Ever.
These five “must have” tools will keep your small firm organized, efficient, and profitable. Many practice management programs like Clio, MyCase or Rocketmatter integrate many of the above features in one program. The bottom line: Find a system that enables you to produce high-quality work while keeping costs within your budget. At the end of the day, these tools are key to a small law firm’s success.