Lawyers thinking about hanging their own shingle have technology on their side, as new devices and software allow them to do more with less.
Attorneys who have already taken the plunge say the basics of computer, printer, scanner and cell phone can now be augmented by a host of software packages, subscriptions to online libraries and wireless devices if needed. Those tools can give them the muscle of a large firm with IT and administrative staff.
"Ten years ago, I probably couldn't have done this," said Donald Lassman, a solo practitioner in Needham. "Everything is digital; that is the key."
A bankruptcy lawyer, Lassman advises wannabe solo practitioners to buy the best technology they can afford, and always spend the money on upgrades. Lassman uses a standard billing software program as well as software for various forms he needs. He uses a Palm PDA with calendaring features and regular Microsoft programs. Online libraries also deliver enormous time savings and give him the research access of a big firm, he said.
Lassman said when he started his solo practice in 1999, the administrative details of the job were daunting because he was used to having a secretary.
"You have a bit of a sea change there, but you become more efficient. Over time, you grow into the job," Lassman said.
Denise M. Guerin, a solo practitioner in Cambridge and chairwoman of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Law Practice Management Section Council, said the tech advances have helped level the playing field for solo practitioners, particularly when it comes to litigation.
"With good and informed use of technology, a solo can do incredibly complex litigation that 10 years ago or 20 years ago they may have had to pass on," Guerin said.
Guerin said lawyers need to decide up front the nature of their practice. An office-based transactional practice demands less mobility and flexibility than a practice focused on litigation.
Regardless of the type of practice, a back-up system is a must, Guerin said. She also recommends records management or document management software. Several billing programs also cross-reference to calendars.
"Most small firms or solos who have been in business for a while are probably using, at a minimum, an attorney time and billing program or an attorney calendar-keeping program," Guerin said. "You've got to keep track of your dates meticulously."
For lawyers just starting out on their own and wondering if they can get by with just standard Microsoft fare, the answer is yes, Guerin said. But she added that it can be time-consuming to twist generic software into something compatible with the way lawyers work. She recommends attorneys invest in software made especially for them "as soon as you think you can possibly afford it."
"Lawyers don't use computers and software to do as much core work as they could," added Marc Lauritsen, a former legal services lawyer who switched gears into IT consulting in 1985. While lawyers are more comfortable using computers than when Lauritsen began consulting, they still are not using technology as efficiently as they could be.
Lauritsen, founder and president of Capstone Practice Systems Inc. in Harvard, Mass., pointed to the slow acceptance of automated document drafting, which he attributes in part to inertia and in part to hourly billing. Sometimes technology that can shave time off jobs is a hard sell for lawyers who charge by the hour, he said.
"Routine legal work is going to get harder and harder to make money on. There is all kinds of competition coming in," Lauritsen said. "You've got to make good use of technology so you deliver high quality services efficiently."
Lauritsen said the most important investment is case management software. Once a lawyer has the base level of case management software, there are practice-specific software packages available.
"There are a lot of good choices out there, especially for a new solo or someone breaking off on their own," he said.
Whether new solo practitioners need to hire contract IT help depends on how tech savvy they are and how much time they want to spend on IT issues, Guerin said.
"Every law firm or practice is unique and no one can use everything right out of the box," Guerin said. "But the harsh reality is many small firms or solo practitioners don't have the budget to bring in a consultant."
Ideally, Guerin said solo practitioners should get a consultant, but most will be able to muddle through on their own.
"If you feel you need the help and you can afford it, there are many, many people out there," Guerin said. "It's easy to find help if you want it."
Lassman quickly found an IT contractor to do his initial set-up, including installing a firewall and back-up system, and securing a domain name and e-mail address for his new practice.
"There's no way I could have done all that," Lassman said. He still uses his IT contractor about once a year.
In addition to paid consultants, there are a number of other resources '€“ both free and commercial '€“ to help lawyers wade through technology issues. Those resources include seminars organized by the MBA, American Bar Association, Massachusetts Legal Continuing Education and other professional groups.
Lauritsen also recommends lawyers tap into user groups put together by various software vendors. And the Web itself can provide a wealth of information.
Guerin, whose MBA Law Practice Management Section is putting together a publication for new solos that will cover many tech issues, pointed to free Web boards targeted specifically to lawyers. Sites like www.technolawyer.com that have free e-mail newsletters on different technical topics and product reviews can be enormously valuable, she said.
"There are lots of blogs out there, and some by very well-respected, nationally known attorneys who also are technogeeks," Guerin said.