I’ve been writing a lot about artificial intelligence lately and commenting on what it can and can’t do in workplaces. The truth is, you don’t need artificial intelligence to bring your firm into the 21st century. Many other options exist to add automation to your practice. Most of these options are simple to implement and pretty cheap. There is no excuse but to bring some of these into your office.
Full disclosure, I don’t use all of these products. I use many of them or versions of them, but I’m not vouching for anything here. You should give these options a try and see what works for you.
Practice Management Software
Practice management software is everywhere, and there are dozens of good options for your firm. I was very skeptical before I started using the software. We were using Google Sheets to keep track of tasks, Google Calendar for our calendar, and Quickbooks for our billing (which I was doing 100% myself…). These products worked when it was just me, and they worked when I added a secretary. Where they broke down was when I added an associate.
My secretary and I had been using our “system” for years. We were very used to its quirks, but our associate did not interact with it well. He might have used words like “nightmare” and “stupid”. I don’t really recall. He was a bit dramatic 😉.
But our firm had really outgrown our system so we looked into practice management software. Ultimately, I chose PracticePanther, and I am really happy. But I know people who use Smokeball or Clio or whatever and they all seem happy too. The fact is that these programs all do the same stuff. Some features may be different, but I think most can do the following:
This is a feature that some attorneys swear by. Essentially, you put information into the system, and then it can generate whatever forms are necessary. This is especially helpful in a business that has basic forms that have to be drafted or filed with the court. For example, we use our program to generate releases for medical records.
The one thing I will point out is that these programs can’t recreate complicated documents. It’s not going to draft my eight-count complaint. I think where some of these companies go awry is that they overpromise what their form generation can do. Be real. It can do simple stuff, but you’re still going to have to do some work.
This is a big one in our office. We track all tasks in our practice management software. It’s basically a religion in our firm.
Our software categorizes our tasks based on clients and matters so it’s super clear what needs to be done. It has a calendar built-in, which works great. Though, I linked my calendar to my Google Calendar because I hate new things (actually, I prefer the interface on my phone).
It’s nice because I can see what I’m working on and what my staff has to do, all in one place. It has also made working from home during the pandemic easy.
Billing and Payments
Our software has built-in timing and billing features, which was a must for me. You can manually add time to matters and clients or you can run a timer in the program. I use both functions depending on whether I remember to start a timer (contrary to popular opinion, I am not perfect).
Then when it comes time to create an invoice, I go through the billing and make sure what I want gets on the invoice. It automatically syncs my staff’s billing, and you can easily mark things as non-billable or whatever.
Then, the pièce de ré·sis·tance (fancy for “piece of resistance”) is that it syncs with Quickbooks. I just generate the invoice in PracticePanther and it appears in my Quickbooks. It also tracks retainer amounts easily.
You can email the bill to clients and they can pay with LawPay, which is free if you have PracticePanther. You can also print and whatnot if you want to be old school (or if your clients are old school).
I admit I do not use client portals. I don’t find them any easier than email, though they are probably more secure. I’m not sure if clients prefer them or not, but I’ve heard that some work really well. If your business requires the collection of a lot of documents it might make sense to use a client portal. I think it’s relatively practice specific.
We started using Eversign a couple years ago, and I’ve been very happy. There are a ton of programs that allow you to get clients’ signatures via electronic signature. Basically, you email the client a document to sign through the software and they sign it. I have never had a client struggle with the product.
This seems like a small thing, but I find that this is a game-changer. We used to have to email documents and have clients print them and send them back. If they mailed them, they took forever. But worse were the clients who would take a picture of the documents and email that back. The copy was never useable because the picture was terrible. This software has completely solved those problems.
I used to think the notion of going paperless was like the Easter Bunny: cute, fluffy, and completely made up. How could a law firm go completely paperless? Well, paperless as a term can mean lots of things. You never truly escape the paper, we are lawyers. But we have no physical files anymore. Everything is scanned in and accessible on our computers, phones, and tablets.
You need a bit of infrastructure to pull this off. You need a good scanner and some form of document sharing technology. We use Dropbox. It’s great, but there are other great options. You’ll also need a shredder or a shredding service. Our service costs $180/year.
Then, the hardest thing, you have to commit. Just start scanning and shredding. Stop using the paper files. Within months you will get over the fear of shredding. We have been fileless for about a year and a half. I never worry about it anymore, and, honestly, I think we’ve only fished one document out of the shredding bin. It has made working from home and collaborating with my team so easy. I highly recommend making the jump.