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Building a Solo Practice: Equipping Your Office

October 20, 2011

Guest contributor Evan Aidman is a Philadelphia-based personal injury solo specializing in traumatic brain injury cases. He is the author of two books published by American Law Institute/American Bar Association: Winning Your Personal Injury Claim and the recently published Winning Personal Injury Cases. This is his debut on the blog.

One major challenge (and opportunity) that comes with hanging out your own shingle is deciding how to equip your office. The tools you choose can either enhance or diminish your productivity as you undertake the broad spectrum of tasks that confront solos, some more fun and glamourous than others.

I highly recommend caller ID. When you see who is calling, you gain a few moments to direct your thoughts to the caller’s case. Sometimes, you will see that the call is from someone you do not want to speak to at that moment (or ever), in which case go right back to your work and let voicemail take the call.

You will also need conference call capabilities for many reasons. For example, if I am speaking to a new client on the phone and that client needs a referral to a doctor, I make a conference call. Instead of going back and forth between the two, during the conference call the appointment can be scheduled and billing issues can also be addressed. I also use conference calls with recorded statements. If my client’s insurer requests a recorded statement, but the client is not able to come into the office, the statement can easily be given via a conference call.

I use a wireless headset for calls. I used a corded headset for many years but I recommend you go with a wireless model. It gives you the freedom to walk around the office while on the phone. I can grab a file without missing a beat. Also, there are times you are going to get calls that waste some of your time. Clients may call just to jabber. Especially if you are very busy, this can really test an attorney’s patience. Rather than cutting the client off, however, I walk around the office multi-tasking. For example, files can always use more organizing. Eventually the client will tire, or after a while, I will find a way to politely abbreviate the conversation. Using a headset will also save your neck. You do not have to cradle a phone between your neck and shoulder while you try to type, which will allow your hands to be useful. You will be “hands-free,” so that you can type the important information from the call directly into the client’s computer file. In the old days, lawyers wrote on fill-in-the-blank forms to capture important information. Now, everything goes straight into the computer. Why do the same task twice? Once it is in your computer, you can easily manipulate the data into whatever form needed.

Some lawyers use a software dictation tool that uses voice recognition technology. What you say magically appears on your monitor. This is an appealing resource if you are concerned about carpal tunnel syndrome or do not touch type. At least one such dictation program, Dragon Naturally Speaking apparently improves over time, as the program trains to your voice. More and more devices use voice recognition technology, including mobile devices running major operating systems such as iOS and Android. Some day we may all input data this way.

Many lawyers purchase one machine that can copy, print, fax and scan. Be sure to buy a service contract with a reliable company as well. This company may have refurbished machines to sell at a discounted price. Informal canvassing of friend and colleagues or any listservs you join can help you choose which machine to buy and which company to use. (Most of the committees and sections of the Philadelphia Bar Association have active listservs that if used respectfully can prove an invaluable resource.) Whenever the machine needs service, and all do from time to time, call the company. They should have you up and running within a day. You need backup for that period when your office machines are down. If you share office space with other businesses, work out an arrangement to use their equipment. This will assure that important emails, filings, and other documents go out on time. Much of what you do as an attorney is time-sensitive. So it is imperative that you have a back up plan for all contingencies.

If you purchase a scanner separately, be sure it has a multi-page feeder. Law is a paper-intensive business. You will find that scanning documents into PDF format has a broad array of uses. You may be unable to e-file documents unless they are in PDF format. And be aware that documents you email in other formats may contain meta-data that the recipient can access. This meta-data will show the changes you made in the document during its preparation. Do you really want opposing counsel to be able to read your thoughts during preparation of a motion? [Ed. note: And potentially waive any work-product privilege!] So scan any sensitive documents into PDF format before you email them. Especially in cases with multiple attorneys, emailing scanned documents is of great benefit. You save time, paper and postage. Just make sure you have ready access to such emails so that you can prove they were sent. Some law offices scan every document that comes in. This takes a lot of front labor, but there can be savings of time and money on the back end. I use both scanned documents and hard copy in my office. So while my office is paper-less, it is surely not paperless.

For a low-volume law practice, stamps and a low-tech postage meter are fine. You really do not need a fancy postage meter that prints postage labels from a dispenser. Take a walk to the post office every few months to purchase postage. The exercise will help clear your mind before you go back to your computer. For a higher volume practice, many firms use fancy Pitney Bowes meters. Less expensive options include Hasler products and Stamps.com. These machines all do essentially the same thing. So go with a less expensive one. Also, learn how to use certified mail and priority mail. You will need certified mail for the times when you want proof of delivery, or to get the recipient’s attention. You will need priority mail for large mailings. Priority mail envelopes and certified mail cards are available for free at any post office.

Open an account at your local office-supply store. You will need all the usual office equipment and supplies. Buy an ergonomically sound desk and chair. Trial lawyers spend a lot more time in the office than they do in court. You are going to spend many years sitting in front of a computer screen pounding away on your keyboard. The last thing you need is to develop back pain, neck pain or carpal tunnel syndrome. Also consider an ergonomic keyboard and a desk set-up that encourages sitting with proper alignment. And stock the desk supplies you will regularly use (file cabinets, legal pads, pens, tape, staplers, a staple remover, paper clips, highlighters, thumb drives, rubber bands, copy paper, folders, envelopes, post-it notes, etc.) I have three staplers; small, medium and large. You will mail packages of documents of all different sizes. The wrong staple will make your package look sloppy. I also make frequent use of heavy duty rubber bands. My files are filled with them. If you staple documents together, you are going to need to remove the staples from time to time for copying and/or reorganizing. Better to use thick rubber bands, or binder clips, that can hold a lot of documents without breaking. You don’t need fancy legal paper, though there is nothing wrong with using it. You don’t need fancy letterhead. Just cut and paste your contact information from letter to letter. And don’t forget business cards. You can get basic ones for free online at sites such as http://www.vistaprint.com.

You must have a system for backing up your computer regularly and use it. There are many ways to do this. A low cost method involves thumb drives. Buy two or three and rotate them. Thumb drives, like everything else, break. So if your hard drive and most current back up fails, at least all will not be lost. Keep a thumb drive stored off site. So that if the unthinkable happens and your office is destroyed, you will still be able to retrieve the information you need to recreate your files. Other methods include external hard drives and online servers, a.k.a. “the cloud.”

Once you’ve set up all of these office necessities, you should be well positioned to start working your cases with grace and aplomb. Good luck!

For more tips on building a solo practice, check out the ongoing series by tax solo Douglas Greenberg.

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