It’s Friday, midday, and I’m just packing up the family to head down the road about 45 minutes to a ski resort for our statewide Trial Lawyers Association Seminar in the snow. I’m speaking on the now infamous “paperless office” topic. As I was preparing my presentation, I realized that PowerPoint just wasn’t going to cut it. I figured it was probably best to just show them a paperless office in action. By actually demonstrating the paperless office as opposed to merely talking about it, I think I’ll reach a lot more people. One thing I realized as I made my preparations is that the most important issue is not whether you can be a paperless office. The most important issue isn’t whether or not you can afford to be a paperless office. The reality is that paperless is here already. Or at least the digital law office is here emphatically.
You might recall I previously posted (here) about my attempts to become more of a coach and quarterback. I am happy to report that our firms extranet and the variety of workers we have performing specific tasks has allowed me to get out of the trenches and become more of a conductor of our law office symphony. In short, our law firm model takes advantage of my strategic and delegation skills. We are also accomplishing important things on behalf of the client, not the least of which is pushing tasks down to the lowest competent billing level.
Without virtual workers and the extranet system, it would be virtually impossible for me to effectively make sure that the music we are playing as a law firm is in sync, and in harmony. I truly believe that we are providing a superior product, in a more timely fashion on a more cost effective level.
The traditional personnel and staffing structure of law firms go something like this. There is one lawyer who has one secretary (or perhaps splits that secretary with another lawyer) and a group of paralegals who are available to all the attorneys. The lawyer or lawyers handle a lot of the drafting and review all paper. Paralegals summarize records and perform other miscellaneous functions. Secretary handles a lot of the typing and some of the administrative tasks.
Our firm works fundamentally different. Currently, I have two permanent support staff who perform a variety of functions from typing, scanning, filing and administrative tasks. I have one extranet manager who transcribes my dictation assigning extranet tasks, and inputting discussion items into the extranet. I have two secretaries (or as we call them “practice assistants”) who do traditional secretary, office management and paralegal work. I have one virtual case manager who keeps everything in the extranet moving forward towards completion. I have three virtual law clerks who do research and one virtual paralegal (who is actually a licensed attorney working from home) who does a variety of paralegal tasks.
That is one attorney to 9 or so full and part-time staff. Technology allows me to keep all these people busy all the time. This model provides efficiency and timeliness on tasks and the flow of information. How in the world does any attorney survive with ½ of a secretary, a shared pool of paralegals and law clerks? How does anything get done in a timely matter?
I have just returned from an eleven day trip out west with my family. My staff had doubled the last month or so, in part to make sure that things kept moving forward while I was gone and that everything was handled. My case manager reviewed my mail and handled all emergency items while I was gone. My staff implemented all sorts of great technology, including skype, across the network of workers. I am looking around my office and seeing new counters, new computers, and new software downloads on those computers. There are boxes of paper files to be moved off to storage. There are empty file cabinets which are also ready to hit the scrap heap (Who needs file cabinets when you’re paperless?). Thing have changed significantly since I left.
I was in touch with my office on a marginal level for different points of my vacation. Technology gave me a sense of confidence. I knew there was nothing I couldn’t get done, if I had to, from afar. It also gave me a level of peace. I received updates from the office which let me know that things were being handled and, quite unexpectedly, lots of projects were moving forward without any involvement from me at all.
Technology allows us to stay connected. Of course, many people complain that it precludes people from taking real vacations where they disconnect from work. My experience on this particular vacation was the opposite. I completely disconnected from work, but I knew my lifeline was there if I needed it. Technology allowed me to check-in in ways not previously before possible. On this vacation technology was my friend, not my foe.
I admit that delegation has never been my strong suit; its not that I don’t know how to delegate, its not that I don’t know how to manage people. It is a fundamental and flawed belief that I am the only one that can do it. Even if I am the only one that can complete a specific task, I have this paranoia that if I don’t do it, it won’t be done exactly like I want it to be done.
It is interesting that virtually every time that I have been in a delegation situation at a law firm, I have been disappointed. I am now realizing that it was not because the worker wasn’t any good, but because I typically would drop a major project at their desk and have them handle it without any real instruction or guidance.
The beauty of our system here is that all tasks are broken down into such small pieces that execution of those tasks becomes relatively simple. That means that great work product comes back to us, and it also means that delegation becomes something I can embrace.
The Tenth Annual American Lawyer Technology Survey found that the world largest law firms are increasing their use of extranet and PDA’s. It’s surprising to see that 73% of the top 200 law firms provide documents to clients online.
It makes me wonder. Is it the middle size firms that will get squeezed out of the market? Can small law firms and large law firms deploy extranet technology easier than firms of eight to twenty attorneys?
There is a lot afoot at the office these days. Workers are being built out. Custom counters and shelving are being built and installed. Paper is being moved offsite. Dividers are being put in. Space is being created for our new workers.
I love the feel of change and motion. You can’t move forward when you’re standing still.
I get a lot comments on this blog but rarely get a chance to respond. I apologize for this. Unfortunately, my busy and growing law practice precludes me from doing as much as I want to in terms of comments. Most of the content that you see on this site is dictated while I'm in the car, on the weekends or otherwise away from my office and, in fact, my computer. Unfortunately, that makes my blog a little bit more like a running commentary as opposed to a robust discussion. Hopefully, after a couple of more months of major multitasking, I will be in a better position to respond to the comments posted here. I do appreciate the comments. I did want to let you know why you sometimes don't receive responses or follow-up.
We've got a lot of tools in place to pass information between our lawyers, our virtual workers, our staff and our clients. We are adding Skype to our arsenal of technology weapons in order to improve the oral communications between team members. If anyone has any direct experience with Skype, or knows of any concerns or limitations, please let us know. We'll let you know how our implementation of Skype goes.
I'm giving a presentation this week on implementing a paperless law office. I realize that about 25% of the presentation will be the nuts and bolts of putting a paperless technology together. 75% of the presentation is actually going to demonstrate the benefits of PDF, digital dictation and other advantages and efficiencies.
I'm thinking about digital dictation, I have come up the following list of advantages over cassette based dictation:
- The best thing about digital dictation is that you can send it anywhere, either over the network or by email. with a cassette tape, you dictate to a single person (usually your secretary) and routing is typically a walk down the hall and dropping the cassette tape in your secretary inbox. My digital dictation goes where ever it needs to, including staff, virtual employees, clients and experts.
- The second best thing about digital dictation is that you aren't limited by the physical constraints of the cassette tape. Even the mini cassettes have practical limitations. You feel like you have to keep dictating on the cassette in order to fill it up or at least add substantial dictation before routing it to your secretary. With digital dictation, each separate item can be immediately routed to where ever it needs to go. That means that my dictation isn't sitting in a recorder for a day or day and a half while I wait for it to fill up. My dictation goes out immediately, making it timely and goes exactly where it needs to go.
- The third best thing about digital dictation is that it is portable. I use my Phillips 9350 portable/handheld for over 50% of my dictation. I take my handheld with me everywhere. This allows me to dictate from the car, from home and even while sitting on the chair lift while skiing. the moment a thought or to-do item pops in my head, I immediately record it. The next time I am logged onto my laptop, I can then route it where it needs to go by email or over the network.
- The next best thing about digital dictation is that many of the systems are really powerful. My quick scribe digital dictation system can insert markers into the dictation. A maker can be text from a word document or a digital image. If I'm dictating a trial brief, I can grab whole sections of the mediation summary, copy them and then paste them into the marker. My staff then does the same thing in reverse in order to insert it into the document. Even more importantly, I can use digital dictation as a training tool. For instance, as I walk my virtual workers through the system for the first time, I dictate my instructions and then use screen capture to insert images which the employee can then refer to.
- The next thing digital dictation offers is the ability to insert into the middle of dictation. In effect, you are able to edit your dictation. This can come in very handy and offers incredible flexibility.
We all know that lawyers can talk. Many lawyers don't type that well. dictation has always been a key tool for lawyers. digital dictation explodes this capability to levels which many lawyers have never even contemplated.
Imagine being able to instruct your staff with digital dictation. No longer are you stuck waiting for an opportunity to provide information in a face to face meeting at the law firm. No longer are you trying to remember what it is you were going to say to a staff member or client after a long weekend or vacation. No longer do you have to break away from other priorities during your day in order to provide administrative information to your staff.