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Many lawyers are using technology to save time, money during the current downturn
By Arnold Ceballos
Toronto
June 12 2009 issue


— Carolyn Elefant, sole practitioner
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With tough economic times affecting the amount of legal work available, the judicious use of technology might provide opportunities for lawyers to cut costs and offer savings to clients who are increasingly scrutinizing their legal expenses. And with lawyer layoffs part of the economic reality, such technological tools could also make hanging out your own shingle make that much more sense.

Washington sole practitioner Carolyn Elefant, for one, is a believer. She has established what is essentially a virtual law office to serve her energy, regulatory and civil rights litigation client base. Whether it is using practice management and billing software to employing a virtual assistant in a different state, Elefant considers technology to be the key to the 21st-century law office.

The problem, she said, is that lawyers are often technophobes. “They think they have to be some kind of a geek” to use all the new technologies available, said Elefant. Instead, she said, lawyers need to think about technology like they think of a car. “You don’t need to know how to change a tire,” she asserted. By using technology as a tool, it frees up lawyers from dealing with “the minutiae” of their practices.

“By replacing repetitive tasks, it can really put you on the road to success,” said Elefant, a sole practitioner since 1993 who wrote the book Solo By Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be and runs her own blog at www.myshingle.com. While many also see technology as eroding the need for lawyers, with clients opting for do-it-yourself approaches and standard contracts, she instead sees technology as offering solutions to keep lawyers in demand.

For eight years Elefant ran a conventional law practice from a physical office. However, after the birth of her second child, she said she changed her approach. Now she works principally from home, spending only a few hours per week at a shared office space. She is able to do this by using the latest technology available to lawyers.

Such technology includes so-called “software as a service” practice management tools such as Rocket Matter and Clio, which can handle things like scheduling and conflicts checks. Non-legal software such as Basecamp also allows clients to upload or download information. Elefant said she is a “big fan of collaborative software products” that allow a number of people to work on documents at the same time. She also swears by her virtual assistant, who handles a range of administrative work for Elefant’s office remotely. In fact, Elefant noted that her virtual assistant recently moved from Virginia to North Carolina, which does not affect her ability to do the work.

Tools also exist to help market the lawyer’s practice, according to Elefant, whose practice tends to be a low-volume one, which features significant use of flat-fee arrangements. She cited as an example software for putting information on a lawyer’s website, which captures contact information when downloaded, creating an instant list of potential recipients for firm newsletters. Other useful marketing tools she pointed to include social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as those targeted to the legal profession, including Avvo.com and Legalonramp.com. Blogs also help educate clients and reinforce relationships, according to Elefant, an early lawyer/blogger. Meanwhile, tools such as webinars continue to grow in sophistication, even allowing lawyers to post videos, according to Elefant.

By outsourcing a range of administrative, billing and marketing functions, Elefant figures she has avoided having to hire at least a paralegal, a part-time clerk and a part-time associate. “But I don’t really feel like I’m by myself,” she said about her extended network.
Elefant sees the current difficult economic climate as creating opportunities for some lawyers to offer attractive alternatives to clients, by using technology to provide more efficient service, combined with offering such things as alternative billing arrangements.

Opportunities also exist for solo and small firm lawyers to collaborate and form communities, according to Elefant. Sole practitioners and small firms by necessity have to be more flexible, she added. “It’s easier for them to tighten their belts when the economy goes down,” said Elefant, who clearly sees technology as being an aid rather than an enemy of lawyers.

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