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Dropbox for Lawyers and Law Firms: the User Guide

Thu, 08/28/2014 - 07:11

Related“The Dropbox Q&A, Tips & Tricks Thread”
Lawyerist Lab

Dropbox is popular with lawyers. According to the ABA’s most-recent technology survey, 58% of lawyers use Dropbox, making it the most popular online file storage option among lawyers. Here is everything you need to know about Dropbox, from how to install it to securing your client files.

IndexInstalling Dropbox

Installing Dropbox on your computer is simple and easy. Just download the installer to your computer, and run it. If you do not already have a Dropbox account, you can sign up for one during installation. This video from Dropbox walks you through the process:

After you install Dropbox on your computer, you will have a new folder. On a Windows PC, the My Dropbox folder is located in your My Documents folder.1 On a Mac, the Dropbox folder is in your home directory. As of this writing, Dropbox also has mobile apps for iOS, Android, BlackBerry, and Kindle Fire.

Any files you put in your Dropbox folder will be automatically synced to the cloud and to any other computers or mobile devices with Dropbox installed.

Features, Add-Ons, and PricingSyncing, File Versions, and Packrat


Image: “This image is a vector file representing a cloud data backup sync concept. ” from Shutterstock.

Dropbox syncs your files between your computers and devices and the cloud. That means your Dropbox folder will have the same, up-to-date contents on every device. With Dropbox installed, you can save a Word document on your desktop, then open your laptop and keep working on the same file. Or pull it up on your smartphone.

You can also use Selective Sync to limit the files that sync to a particular computer. For example, you might not want to sync photos of your children to your work computer. Or your client files to the laptop you use at home.

TipIf you are going to do a lot of file sorting, it’s a good idea to pause syncing on all your computers, or turn them off, and use the web interface. This will help prevent duplicate files and conflicts.

By default, Dropbox saves every version of your file, which you can access from the web interface. It is easy to roll back a file to the last time you saved it, or recover deleted files. It functions like an extended “undo” function. However, Dropbox only saves the last 30 days by default. If you want unlimited file versions and undelete, you will need the Packrat add-on.

For an additional $39/year, Packrat will keep unlimited file history. With Packrat, Dropbox functions as a pretty good cloud backup solution for your files.

Sharing

Other than syncing, Dropbox’s biggest feature is sharing. You can share any file in your Dropbox just by right-clicking a file on your computer or using the chain icon next to any file or folder in the web app. You can share your vacation photos with your friends or your client files with another lawyer in your office, all with a couple of clicks. Rather than attach files to emails, you can just copy the share link and send it, instead.

Importantly, Dropbox also has a sharing dashboard where you can see all the files and folders you are sharing, and who you are sharing them with.

Sharing is pretty simple. The person or people with whom you want to share don’t even need a Dropbox account of their own, if you just use a link. To do this, click the Share link icon on any file or folder in the web app, or right-click any file or folder in your Dropbox on your computer and select Share Dropbox Link to copy the link to the clipboard. In the mobile apps, just use the share button to copy the link to the clipboard.

Dropbox Pro subscribers can also click the Set visibility / expiration link to set a password or set an expiration date for the share link. When sharing a folder with another Dropbox user, you can also set the permissions to view-only and prevent changes.

Camera Upload


Image: “Vector illustration of an old camera with flash and birds on the background of clouds” from Shutterstock.

The Dropbox apps can help you upload your pictures to your personal Dropbox account. The mobile apps give you the option to automatically upload all your photos; on the desktop app, you can upload photos when importing photos from a camera.

You can enable Camera Upload when you first install the Dropbox mobile app, or you can turn it on or off later in the Dropbox settings. It is an easy way to back up and share your photos, but it is also an easy way to get photos or screen captures from your phone to your computer.

Just a note: Camera Upload is only for personal plans, not business plans (see below).

Dropbox has more detailed instructions for using Camera Upload.

Extra Storage

A free Dropbox account comes with 2 GB of storage. You can get more free storage for referring people to Dropbox (up to 16 GB) or using Camera Upload with the mobile app (up to 3 GB).

Still, if you use Dropbox for most of your files, you will probably run out of space. That’s where the paid plans come in. You can get 1TB of storage for $8.25/month, paid yearly. (The plans are a bit more expensive if you want to pay monthly.)

There are cheaper alternatives to Dropbox if that pricing does not work for you. Of course, one of the reasons Dropbox is able to charge a bit more than some of its competitors is that its widespread popularity means that Dropbox works with most of the apps and services with which you might want to use it.

Business Plans

Originally, there was just one kind of Dropbox account. As more people and businesses started using Dropbox, though, some people wound up with multiple Dropbox accounts. Eventually, Dropbox released business plans, and they are finally becoming useful now that you can use your personal and business account at the same time.

While personal accounts are billed according to how much storage you need, business accounts are billed according to the number of users. All accounts come with unlimited storage and some additional features.

The cheapest business plan is $795/year for up to 5 users. Each additional user is $125/year. Solos and very small firms will be just fine using personal accounts, as long as the storage options are sufficient, but the business plan is a great option for firms with 5+ people who need to share files.

Using Dropbox

Some people only use Dropbox to share or transfer files, like a USB drive but more convenient. While Dropbox works great for that, it is hardly the most effective way to use Dropbox.

Because Dropbox lets you share folders, it can function as an effective, inexpensive file server. Best of all, you don’t have to worry about actually maintaining a file server. It just works, and it keeps everyone on the same page. You can even sync up things like your QuickBooks company file or your Time Matters database.2

On mobile, Dropbox is essentially the missing file manager. Because of its popularity, many apps support Dropbox as a way to get files onto your phone or tablet. TrialPad, for example, largely relies on Dropbox for loading exhibits. So do the best text editors for iOS.

Security

Image: “Big safe door with Gold ingots.” from Shutterstock.

Dropbox is about as secure as your online banking website. That means your data is transmitted to and from Dropbox over an encrypted connection, and it is encrypted while it is stored on Dropbox’s servers. This is pretty standard security for cloud software that handles private information.

“Dropbox is more secure than anything most lawyers have used to secure their files from the Battle of Hastings until about 5 or 10 years ago.”

There are a couple of things to know about Dropbox security, though.3 First, data is transmitted over an encrypted connection (SSL). The data itself is not encrypted, however, until it reaches Dropbox’s servers. There, it is encrypted before it is stored on Dropbox’s servers. Second, Dropbox has your encryption key. That means Dropbox can decrypt your files if it has a good reason to (like a subpoena). There are reasons why Dropbox does these things, but there are alternatives with greater security — and some tradeoffs. If you want greater security but you still want to use Dropbox, Viivo may be the best way to have your cake (Dropbox) and eat it too (file encryption).

Dropbox also offers two-factor authentication, which makes it much harder for someone to log into your account, even if they find out your password. To log into Dropbox with two-factor authentication, you have to enter your password as well as a code sent to your smartphone (or generated by an authentication app like Google Authenticator in order to log into your Dropbox account.

If you are storing anything important in Dropbox, you should definitely turn on two-factor authentication for substantially better login security. Make sure you get your recovery code after you turn on two-factor authentication, and store it in a safe place in case you ever need it.

Dropbox Pro and Dropbox Business subscribers can also remotely wipe the files from a device when unlinking it (you can see which devices are linked to your Dropbox account by going to Settings > Security).

Terms of Service

Dropbox recently amended its terms of service to include mandatory binding arbitration and ban class actions. If you do not like these user-unfriendly changes, consider another service. As of this writing, the terms of service for Box and Google Drive did not contain mandatory binding arbitration or a ban on class actions.

With Dropbox, the terms for a personal account are the same whether you pay for the service or not. Some companies, like Google, change the terms of service when you become a “premium” customer.

Who Should Use Dropbox

Dropbox is perfectly safe for most lawyers to use for client files. As Lawyerist contributor Eric Cooperstein wrote:

Dropbox is more secure than anything most lawyers have used to secure their files from the Battle of Hastings until about 5 or 10 years ago. Only the rare lawyer … needs to worry about a higher level of security. … Dropbox is just fine for most solo and small firm lawyers’ client files.

Texas criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett strongly disagrees, and he makes some good arguments against using Dropbox for client files. Those arguments are even stronger now that we know what the NSA has been up to, and after the Heartbleed showed how a minor error by an OpenSSL developer can lead to a huge security breach. Cooperstein is still right, but many lawyers will want to re-think the cloud and use it in a more limited way from now on.

But that doesn’t mean you should not use Dropbox at all. Indeed, you can hardly avoid it if you want to be productive on more than one computing device. Instead, go ahead and use Dropbox, and use an add-on like Viivo to encrypt sensitive information.

Updates

April 15, 2014. Originally published.

August 27, 2014. Updated to reflect the “more powerful Dropbox Pro” update.

  1. In Windows, you can make your Dropbox folder behave like your My Documents folder. To do this, right-click your My Documents folder, then click on the Location tab and click the Move button. Then, select your My Dropbox folder, and your Dropbox folder will open whenever you select My Documents

  2. These do work, but the files will only sync when QuickBooks or Time Matters is closed on one computer. If you try to open your QuickBooks company file or Time Matters database on two computers at once, or before everything is synced up, Dropbox will create a conflicted copy

  3. Also, one of the early NSA disclosures identified Dropbox as a “coming soon” participant in the NSA’s PRISM program, which reportedly gave the NSA direct access to Internet companies’ servers. 

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

The One Secret to Online Legal Marketing

Wed, 08/27/2014 - 06:12

Many law-firm websites are designed like business cards or thick brochures. They either have too little information (just a single page with the firm name and contact information) or way too much (page after page listing specialties, experience, and biographical details). Whatever the designers of such sites are thinking, they are missing the single most important concept in online marketing:

Design your site for the action you want your readers to take.

If the goal of your site is to find clients (and I assume it is), you should make sure that every design, navigation, and content decision is calculated to:

  1. Attract traffic from potential clients,
  2. Filter out the potential clients you do not want, and
  3. Convince the potential clients you do want to contact you.

And you want to accomplish all of these things in a way that is simple, smooth, and obvious to visitors to your law-firm website. A great resource for this is Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability by Steve Krug, which has become a seminal guide to web usability.

Don’t make potential clients think when they visit your website.

Don’t make potential clients think when they visit your website. Focus on eliminating navigation barriers on your website and making it easy for potential clients to contact you. Include a direct call to action on every page telling readers what you want them to do after they arrive on your site.

If your site clearly identifies who it is designed for, what you want those people to do, and how to do it, you should be able to convert visitors into clients.

Featured image: “young little girls shh to camera not to telling their secret” from Shutterstock.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

How to Write More Effective Opening Paragraphs

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 09:51

“By replacing formulaic openers with forceful arguments,” says Burlingame, “lawyers can capture the judge’s attention, enhance their credibility, and show from the outset why their clients should win.”

Here’s a typical opening paragraph from a brief:

NOW COMES PLAINTIFF BELCOM COMPUTER COMPANY, INC. (“Belcom”), and files this its Opposition to Defendant Worldwide Telco, Inc.’s (“Worldwide’s”) Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, to Strike Pleadings Based on Plaintiff ’s Violation of This Court’s June 13, 2003 Order (“Worldwide’s Motion to Dismiss”), and for its Opposition, Belcom would respectfully show unto this Honorable Court as follows:

Ugh. It’s full of archaic jargon, unnecessary parentheticals, and completely devoid of any substance. There is not a thing in it to remind the judge of the issues when the case is called. The only thing it does effectively is remind the judge (twice!) that Belcom has been accused of violating a court order.

Related“Striking Introductions Make Memorable Legal Writing”

That example comes from “On Beginning a Court Paper,” an article by Beverly Ray Burlingame in the Michigan Bar Journal, but every litigator has plenty of similar examples in their own files. It is a prime example of what happens when lawyers blindly copy from old documents. There’s no reason you have to use “now comes …” to begin a brief, but plenty of briefs start that way. There’s no reason to use a parenthetical for completely obvious shorthand (“Belcom” for “Belcom Computer Company, Inc.”), and there is no reason to repeat the caption.

As Burlingame points out, opening paragraphs like this “waste judges’ time and sacrifice a valuable chance for persuasion.” Consider this alternative:

Belcom has fully complied with this Court’s June 13, 2003 order to amend its complaint. As the order requires, Belcom’s amended complaint states specific facts supporting its contention that Worldwide deceived the patent office in applying for the patent at issue, thus rendering the patent invalid. Instead of disputing those facts, Worldwide now seeks drastic relief—asking this Court to dismiss or strike Belcom’s invalidity claim. Worldwide’s motion should be denied.

That’s much better. It gets right to the point, doesn’t insult the judge’s intelligence, and sums up the argument. On the day of court, the judge should be able to refresh her memory from a quick glance at the first page of the brief. “By replacing formulaic openers with forceful arguments,” says Burlingame, “lawyers can capture the judge’s attention, enhance their credibility, and show from the outset why their clients should win.”

(h/t Legal Skills Prof Blog)

Featured image: “Hands on keyboard symbolizing overloaded writer” from Shutterstock.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Paperless Tip: Never Ever Send Word Files as Correspondence

Sun, 08/24/2014 - 21:11

Never ever ever send a Word file as “correspondence.” A Word file — or a WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, or Pages file — is not a document. PDFs are documents. Word files are drafts. And sending a draft that includes your digital letterhead and signature to anyone is just plain stupid. Here’s why.

I frequently receive “correspondence” attached to an email from an attorney involved in one of my cases. Nothing is unusual about that. While I think an email with a professional-looking signature block is plenty formal, there are times when a more formal letter is important, and sending it as an attachment to an email works just fine. What is unusual is how these attachments are sent to me — as a Word file instead of as a PDF.

Okay, first thing to take away: Word files are not documents. In a paperless environment, a document must be a substitute for the actual paper. A PDF file can be a document. A Word file cannot. Write this down. Word files are drafts. They are never ever final documents.

Why? Because by their very nature anyone you send them to can change them! That all-important not in your letter can be deleted and the doctored letter used against your client — as in “My client did not steal $100,000 from your client” becomes “My client did steal $100,000 from your client.” See the problem?

Word files are simply not final documents and should never be sent to anyone unless you are working on a draft.

What I usually receive is a .doc file with the firm’s digital letterhead and the content of the letter. In each case the “signature” of the attorney was simply their name preceded by /s/. First, this is the lamest way to “sign” a document outside of electronic case filing, what those attorneys did was provide me with a template to create correspondence from their firm, if I was inclined to do so. (Obviously, I would not, since it would be an obvious ethical violation.) You should not expect everyone you deal with to be scrupulous. In fact, you should assume that they will be unscrupulous to protect yourself and your client.

The second thing to take away from this is that many, many attorneys still have no idea how to operate in an increasingly paperless world. Many state courts are converting to electronic filing. Attorneys who do not understand the basics of a paperless practice will not be able to navigate in that world.

The bottom line is this: sending a Word file to an attorney is fine if you are in fact collaborating on that file. But always remember that the Word file is not the final product; it is only a draft and you should never treat it as anything else. Protect your digital signatures and digital letterhead as you would physical versions. You’ve never sent your opposing counsel a stack of your blank letterhead have you? Then don’t do it digitally.

This was originally published on April 25, 2013. It bears repeating, so we republished it on August 25, 2014.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

CosmoLex Law Practice Management Software

Fri, 08/22/2014 - 06:12

CosmoLex is a new cloud-based software that launched at this year’s ABA Tech Show. Shortly after launch, CosmoLex announced integrated trust accounting, with a goal of creating an all-in-one solution for attorneys that negates the need for third-party software like QuickBooks. CosmoLex is still a work in progress, so consider this a first look.

CosmoLex calls itself “practice management software,” but that isn’t quite apt. More properly, it is timekeeping and billing software. It has some robust features, like built-in conflict checks, but it lacks the heart of case management software such as calendars, reminders, and integrated email. However, CosmoLex has indicated these features are forthcoming.

IndexGetting Started With CosmoLex

CosmoLex’s signup is dead simple. Provide a name, email, and phone number, and you are set. You can also request an on-demand demo. There is a free 30-day trial period, and you do not need a credit card for the trial. This flexibility is refreshing for lawyers that would like to try out several types of case management software.

Migrating to CosmoLex

At this time, CosmoLex does not allow for data migration from other case management or accounting software. They do provide information on the best way to migrate your financial data in terms of sound trust accounting principles, but there is no way to actually import data.

Using CosmoLex

When you first start using CosmoLex, the software will have you enter your firm and bank information. You can enter account information for both an operational and a trust account. Optionally, you can set up information about your bank, your default check style (you can print checks from within the program), and the default payee when trust funds are drawn.

After you have done an initial setup, CosmoLex opens into its Matter screen and states that you can perform approximately 90% of your tasks from this screen, which seems largely borne out by use.

From this screen, you can enter a new matter, keep track of time spent on a client matter, enter receipt of a retainer, enter receipt of a trust retainer, and enter a trust transaction. It is a clean and simple user interface that uses pop-ups, and ensures you do not have to keep leaving the main screen.

Further, CosmoLex is very flexible in terms of accommodating the myriad ways in which lawyers charge for services. Fixed rate? You can do that. Hourly? No problem. Need a localized billing rate that is different from your usual rate? Sure. Need to note that there is a retainer? Of course.

Generating an invoice is slightly less intuitive. You get to the Invoices screen via the Matter Details button on the main page, and that will take you to a different screen where you can generate the invoice.

However, rather than getting a pop-up with the generated invoice, you get no information. CosmoLex is actually generating the invoice, but you won’t know that until you go back out to the Activities screen, choose the Invoices tab, and then click the Action button. It is an odd hiccup in an otherwise smooth user experience. The invoices themselves can be customized with a cover page and your law firm’s logo, which is a nice feature.

Checks can be printed directly from CosmoLex, and you can specify if those are being drawn on your trust or operating account. From the Bank screen, you choose which account you will be paying funds from, which brings you to a transaction screen where you choose the checks you want printed. A pop-up box gives you a number of choices as to how the check should look.

Checks print as a PDF with the stub and design information you have selected, and you can then print those on your computer checks.

The reporting system in CosmoLex is excellent. With one click, you can generate accounting reports, billing reports, bank reports, and trust account reports.

If you are the kind of attorney that likes to crunch your financial data in every possible way, CosmoLex gives you exactly what you need. You can run reports that give you a high-level overview of your firm’s finances or drill down to matter-by-matter transactions. There is a wide variety of trust account reports you can run, and you can also run key banking and compliance reports such as three-way reconciliation. If your main concern in selecting software is that it helps you get a handle on knowing exactly where your firm is at financially, CosmoLex would be a good choice.

One quibble: when you generate a report, it does not show up as a pop-up that you can view at a glance. Instead, your report will automatically download as a PDF to your desktop. It would be preferable to have the report pop-up and give you the option to print instead, since it is a slight hassle to hop out of the program to open a PDF from your desktop. Honestly though, this a very small problem for a very strong reporting feature.

Mobile Apps and Extensions

CosmoLex states it has a mobile app, but in actuality it is just a mobile site. It is very responsive, but is limited to only adding time and expense cards.

CosmoLex does not integrate with any extensions at this time.

Security

CosmoLex is browser-based and encrypts all traffic via 128 bit SSL, which is bank-level protection. All servers are located in the United States and, CosmoLex notes, are subject to U.S. jurisdiction. CosmoLex has McAfee run a third-party security audit every 24 hours.

CosmoLex also offers role-based user security, which means that different users can be assigned different access rights and roles. These roles can limit exposure of financial data within your firm.

Backing Up Your CosmoLex Data

CosmoLex states that they back up your data every four hours, but they do not offer exporting your data or keeping your own backup copy.

Evaluating CosmoLex for Your Practice

CosmoLex will not take the place of traditional full-scale case management software. For some attorneys, that may be an insurmountable problem. Since CosmoLex does not import or export data, it is not currently possible to integrate your case management software with it in any fashion. Related, the fact that you cannot import your current financial data into CosmoLex may pose a problem for established attorneys. However, if you are just starting out, the clean interface and the trust accounting features may make CosmoLex appealing.

Since CosmoLex is fairly new, very few reviews exist.

A Review of CosmoLex Time and Billing (Plus Exclusive News about New Features) on LawSites.

The Best Law Firm Timekeeping and Billing Software: An In-Depth Comparison on JurisPage.

Price

Normally, CosmoLex is $50 a month per user, billed annually. Until September 30, users can take advantage of a promotional price of $43 a month per user, which is also billed annually. That is a relatively high rate if you have multiple users, particularly if you are also paying for multiple users for your case management software. However, CosmoLex can be commended for having a very simple pricing structure with no hidden costs. They also state that if you purchase now, their price will not change as additional features are added.

What CosmoLex Does Well

CosmoLex offers an excellent user experience. It is intuitive and easy to navigate. It runs extremely fast in a browser and the mobile version, while limited, is speedy also. CosmoLex does a great job of helping you get a handle on firm finances, particularly in terms of trust accounting. They clearly want to alleviate difficulties in maintaining proper trust account records, and do a good job of doing so.

Where CosmoLex Needs Work

CosmoLex is going to need to make a choice soon: does it want to be a complete case management solution or would it like to focus solely on billing? Right now, the client matter and timekeeping functions are a bit more extensive than you would expect in a piece of billing software, but the fact that you are not able to import information from your existing case management software means tracking timekeeping data in two places. If CosmoLex adds robust data importing and exporting, or moves towards explicit integration with other case management software, it could be a much better product.

Summary

As timekeeping and billing software, CosmoLex is sleek and easy to use. However, much of the timekeeping and client functions are duplicated by other case management software, and the lack of data integration or import makes it an expensive choice for what it does.

Rating: 3 (out of 5)

CosmoLex, reviewed by Lisa Needham on August 22, 2014.

Full disclosure: Sam just signed a contract to do some consulting with CosmoLex. As a result, he did not contribute to this article. —Ed.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Your Personal Relationships with Clients Probably Aren’t As Strong As You Think

Thu, 08/21/2014 - 06:12

Solo and small-firm lawyers often cite their strong personal relationships with clients as one of the main reasons why computers aren’t going to make them irrelevant any time soon. While lawyers probably aren’t going to become irrelevant any time soon, it probably is not because their personal relationships with clients are so strong.

I think many of those lawyers are overestimating those relationships. Most lawyers’ relationships with clients are pretty superficial and businesslike. Lawyers rarely get more personal than posting “Happy birthday!” on the client’s Facebook wall (or, worse, a holiday card with the firm’s logo and a stamped signature).

But what should worry lawyers more is that it is absolutely possible for bigger companies to forge strong personal relationships with customers through great client service. Here is an example.

It was really touching, and I have told that story again and again …

My first daughter, Caroline, was born in 2009. On my way to the hospital, I called Ruby Receptionists and told them to hold my calls for 48 hours. When I stopped by my office a few days later to check the mail, a care package from Ruby was waiting for me. There was no Ruby branding, just a note and a few nice things from a high-quality baby brand — a rattle, a onesie, and a pacifier, I think — for our new baby. It was really touching, and I have told that story again and again as an example of why I love Ruby. The first time I met some of Ruby’s people at a conference, I felt like I needed to give them a hug (and they were okay with that).

What is the most thoughtful thing you have done for a client? If someone else did the same thing for you, how much of your loyalty would it earn? Would it make you want to give them a hug?

Ruby’s approach is actually pretty simple. According to Ruby’s Katie Wilson, “We start by looking for people who genuinely enjoy making other people’s days. Then, we incentivize them, share stories of what other Rubys have done, and provide various tools to make it easy.” One of those tools is the “WOW Station,” a well-stocked desk full of gifts, cards, wrapping paper, and tools.

Further, Ruby maintains a prepaid Amazon account that any employee can use to buy anything for any client at any time, no questions asked. The only guideline is to avoid “wowing” the same client more than once in a four-month period — although that is also a judgment call Ruby leaves to its employees. Wilson says the gifts make up roughly 2% of the company’s marketing budget, but since 60% of Ruby’s clients come from word of mouth, it’s a pretty great return on investment.

Call it institutionalized thoughtfulness. It is obviously impossible for any one person at Ruby to have a deep personal relationship with any one client, but individual employees are empowered to act on what they may learn during a phone call or request from a client. It’s not faked, either. Ruby receptionists really are paying attention and looking for opportunities to surprise and delight clients. Being thoughtful is part of their job.

The bottom line is that big companies can deliver greater client service — better even than most solos and small firms. Not all of them do, sure, but for every Comcast, there are plenty of examples of companies that know how to suprise and delight customers and clients. (Ruby Receptionists, Zappos, Freshbooks, USAA, and Trader Joe’s are just a few that come immediately to mind.)

Keep a box of nice, brand-new toys and puzzles and games in your office and let your clients’ children pick something to take home.

Great client service and relationships should be even easier for a solo or small firm, but I think a lot of lawyers are deluding themselves about the strength of their client relationships. Clients probably aren’t all that thrilled just because they got to meet you at your office a couple of times, or that you send a holiday email every year.

You can take a page from Ruby’s playbook, though. Stock a cupboard with gifts, cards, and mailing supplies, or just give yourself permission to send a thoughtful gift to anyone you know, whenever it occurs to you. Don’t keep a box of toys and puzzles and games in your waiting room for clients’ children to play with. Keep a box of nice, brand-new toys and puzzles and games in your office and let each kid pick something to take home. If you are crafty, keep a supply of your handiwork for your clients, when the occasion arises.

The gifts you give don’t need to have your law firm name plastered all over them, by the way. The act is more important than the thing. People will be even more likely to appreciate a gift and remember who it came from if it isn’t blatant marketing. If it is a coffee mug, fine, put your logo on it. If it is a onesie or a fountain pen, skip the logo and include a personal note.

No gift cards, either. A $10 gift card to Amazon or Starbucks is pretty unremarkable. A $10 teddy bear for your client’s kid, however, is potentially memorable.

The key if you want to make your client relationships strong is to find a way to incorporate thoughtfulness into the way you do business. If you do that successfully, your client relationships really will be as strong as you think they are.

Featured image: “Business man offering a gift” from Shutterstock.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

How Lawyers Get into Trouble with Technology

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 06:12

“Tool or Trap?” was originally published in the July/August edition of NW Lawyer. It is republished here with permission.

When it comes to using technology, it appears that common sense is a lot like Bigfoot. You hear people talk about it, but you don’t invest your own money looking for proof.

The legal profession and the practice of law — like many other professions and businesses — are undergoing profound transformative changes driven, in large measure, by rapid technology changes. Most lawyers will be impacted, including large multi-office firms who face greater competition for their services, small firms and sole practitioners who lack in-house IT staff but must file electronically and connect with clients, in-house counsel who face increasing cost pressures to rationalize their legal spending, and litigators who must address age-old disputes with the rules of civil practice and the modern realities of stored electronic information.

Before identifying some of the myriad ways in which lawyers can get into trouble with technology (as well as offering a few practical suggestions), let’s first scope the opportunity.

  • As of 2012, every day, people create 2.5 quintillion (yes, that’s a word — just add 18 zeroes) bytes of data;1
  • It is estimated that 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years;
  • Collectively, each day, people send approximately 145 billion email messages; and
  • A great deal of this data either is stored on a mobile device or may be accessed remotely.

In short, there is a lot of electronic information out there that lawyers, along with almost everyone else on the planet, store, access, and use. Of course, that also means there is no shortage of opportunities for things to go horribly wrong. For example:

  • Companies’ IT systems are attacked an average of two million times . . . per week;2
  • Annually, travelers lose thousands of mobile devices at U.S. airports, including laptops, mobile phones, and portable data drives;3 and
  • According to a recent study by a mobile security company, every 3.5 seconds, someone in America loses a cellphone.4 Usually, it occurs in a coffee shop. And if you live in Seattle, well, it stands to reason that it’s the number-two city for lost cellphones.
What to Do?

What is a lawyer to do? Well, according to the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 report in 2012, there are a couple of things.5

First, lawyers who wish to be considered competent (presumably, that’s most of us) should “stay abreast of changes in the law and its practice, [which] includes understanding relevant technology’s benefits and risk.” This doesn’t mean that lawyers must have a computer science degree. It does, however, mean that you cannot turn a blind eye to the technology-driven global economy; rather, lawyers must “remain competent in a digital age.”

Second, lawyers who wish to be considered ethical (again, presumably that’s most of us) should “take reasonable measures to protect a client’s confidential information from inadvertent disclosure, unauthorized disclosure, and unauthorized access, regardless of the medium used.” Lawyers, of course, are not required to guarantee digital security, but should take into consideration whether their information technology provides protection appropriate to the risk and the data entrusted to (or created by) them.

Today, in the 21st century (and more than half a decade past the introduction of the iPhone), attorneys must address the obvious tension between safeguarding client data and confidentiality on the one hand, and the business realities of data mobility and security on the other. For example, while technology is ever more ubiquitous and enables mobility, carries the potential for easier client communication, and places enormous resources into the palm of an attorney’s hand, it also escalates the risk that data (including client confidences) can be compromised — e.g., theft (hacking; stolen devices); loss (lost smartphone or tablet); and carelessness (unsecure connections; free email accounts where data is mined; corrupted via virus).

How to Get Into Trouble with Technology

Like anyone else, lawyers have a variety of ways to create trouble with technology. Space limitations preclude an exhaustive list, but the following examples are illustrative.

Email. Perhaps because of its easy availability, immediacy, and casualness, email continues to provide a target-rich environment for trouble. In the recent criminal action against certain leaders of the Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP law firm, the 106-count indictment references email messages alleged to provide evidence of concocting a scheme to cover a financial shortfall. One email bragged, “We kicked ass! Time to get paid.”6 Little wonder why the prosecutors included that. What is a mystery, however, is why anyone would write and send such an email.

Altering Documents. The advice that many parents use with their toddlers — i.e., “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” — is also useful for attorneys. It should go without saying that altering documents and email messages — used in court — should have mental alarm bells going off. Not always. In King County Superior Court, a case had to be stayed while a party sought new counsel after their attorney acknowledged that he falsified a memo and emails before turning them over to plaintiffs in a nationwide class-action lawsuit.7 Similarly, this spring, U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan, in a 500-page opinion, blasted a legal team (who previously had “won” a $19 billion judgment in an Ecuadorean court) for their “egregious fraud” which included ghostwriting “independent reports.”8

Cellphones. It’s not 1990. We know you have a cellphone — it’s probably even a smartphone — with a quirky ringtone. But do you really need to take it to court to field your calls? Before mobile phones, would you ever have considered dragging a landline around with you and plugging it in regardless of where you happened to be? Increasingly, judges are getting fed up with cellphones in the courtroom and are sanctioning attorneys when their phones ring.

Zombie Counsel. Clients — just so you know — don’t like to be represented by zombie counsel. Quite the contrary. Clients expect their counsel to be present . . . in the moment. That means, quite often, that you should resist the temptation to mentally check out of meetings or court hearings to check your email, text messages, stock portfolio, or social media posts. While some may think that such behavior makes you seem busy or important, more seasoned clients (and counsel) will recognize you as a zombie counsel — there only physically and, during meetings, having an undue fascination for staring at your lap and making faces . . . er, checking your email on the sly. Some leaders now insist that meetings be device-free simply to ward off the zombies and actually get things accomplished efficiently.

Identity Theft. It does not matter if you are a lawyer. Lying (er, “pretexting” for those with professional degrees) to obtain records is not only poor form, it increasingly is illegal. For example, a pretexting scandal at Hewlett-Packard in 2006 (which was designed to obtain telephone records of HP board members) implicated the highest levels of the corporation, including its chairwoman and its general counsel, both of whom resigned.

Gadgets. There are many differences between super-spy James Bond and lawyers. While he has a license to kill, you have a license to practice law. Which you can lose. As counsel — subject to the Rules of Professional Conduct — you will want to remain mindful of these differences. Just because you have the ability to use technology and deceive people doesn’t mean it is prudent. Washington’s Court of Appeals recently ruled that Washington’s anti-SLAPP act does not protect a law firm and its attorneys who transcribed telephone calls with an opponent’s former employee without his knowledge from possible liability for invasion of privacy.9

Social Media. Hopefully, this is not news: People (including opposing counsel) read your Internet postings. That seems obvious, but counsel and their clients need to be mindful of that reality. Recently, a single Facebook post cost a family $80,000 when, following the post (which evidenced breach of a confidentiality agreement), a Florida court tossed out a settlement agreement. In that case, the daughter of the plaintiff took time to post that her parents “won the case against Gulliver. Gulliver is now officially paying for my vacation to Europe this summer. SUCK IT.”10

Data Theft. The conventional wisdom is that bank robbers rob banks because that’s where the money is. For at least a generation, however, some criminals have figured out that law firm data also is where the money can be found in the form of deal data. In one case, it appears that the Chinese government may have targeted several Canadian law firms in an apparent effort to derail a $40 billion acquisition.11 In another, a firm’s managing clerk is alleged to have accessed inside information about the firm’s clients as part of an insider-trading scheme.12 Also, it recently was revealed that hackers working for the Chinese military targeted one company for information useful in ongoing litigation.13 Failure to secure such data from malicious employees, cyber-attacks, or carelessness can cause drastic reputational damage as well as liability.

Practical Suggestions to Reduce the Opportunity for Trouble

Notwithstanding the large number of opportunities for trouble with technology, there are practical ways to reduce your risk. Again, these examples are not meant to be exhaustive. We’ve divided these tips into four categories.

Client Data

Lawyers and their staff — on a daily basis — often deal with vast amounts of confidential or sensitive information. It used to be that the physical form of the data imposed obvious transaction costs that tended to minimize the potential for loss, theft, or corruption. However, digital data — which is now the vast majority of client data —is mobile and readily recordable at astonishingly low costs. Accordingly, the risk for loss, theft, or corruption is substantially greater and continues to grow. Client data and firm data, need to be safeguarded from loss, theft, and corruption. There are practices to address these risks:

Minimize. Obviously, you have no obligations for data you do not have. But because lawyers tend to squirrel away data, and online data tends to stay online forever, this strategy has limited application. But for those who wish to reduce risk and minimize security costs, it’s an option. Your records management practice should be disciplined and cognizant of changing technology.

Protect. Okay, you’re not going to minimize. We get it. Fortunately, there are strategies to reduce risk to the data that you retain:

  • Use firewalls, current antivirus software, strong passwords, and other security measures.
  • Practice safe data disposal — e.g., remove hard drives and memory devices from scrapped, sold, or swapped devices.
  • For off-site data (e.g., cloud computing), use reputable providers, with robust data security and redundancy practices (and insurance).
  • Back up your data — including the easy stuff such as networked computers as well as your mobile devices.
  • Password protect sensitive documents and encrypt confidential information.

Keep Current. Technology evolves quickly. Although it is sensible to avoid the bleeding edge, it is important to stay abreast of changing technology (e.g., Boeing, for example, recently announced a high-security smartphone). Simply said, you shouldn’t just buy a Palm Pilot and fax machine and call it done.

Mobile Devices

Mobile devices (e.g., laptops, tablets, smartphones, data drives) and data mobility are inextricably connected. These devices, which enhance productivity, also present obvious risks. Accordingly, you will want to use security measures and data protection strategies:

Security Measures. Password-protect all mobile devices. Use encryption tools for sensitive communications.

Data Protection Strategies. You should minimize data storage on mobile devices and:

  • Install and utilize data wiping technology to help manage risks pertaining to lost/stolen devices.
  • Consider partitioning smartphones to segregate business and personal data and apps.
  • Use tracking software to locate the device once it is connected to the Internet.
  • Preclude installation of applications that may create security issues.
  • Regardless of the temptation, don’t use your laptop (and its sensitive client information) as payment collateral with an alleged prostitute.14
  • Use a firewall to reduce unauthorized access.
Data Breach Response Plan

As the number of cyber attacks increase overall, there is nothing to indicate law firms are immune, in fact, some consultants now see professional firms as likely targets for cyber attacks. While reducing vulnerabilities is important, law firms — like other businesses — also need to figure out how to respond to a breach.

Start (and End) at the Top. Make sure your organization’s leaders are aware of the risks associated with potential breaches. Educate them about best practices, your response plan, and provide periodic updates.

Know What Information You Have. Learn what is stored (personal information, health information, client trade secrets), where it’s stored (on premises, cloud), how it’s stored (encrypted or not), and who has access to it (internal IT, subcontractors, service providers). Answers to these questions will help inform the details of your plan.

Identify Response Team Members and Roles. Establish a team leader and specific members from different teams within your organization (executive, IT, HR, communications) and outline their responsibilities beforehand. For smaller organizations, consider selecting, after appropriate due diligence, an outside consultant in advance to perform tasks that can’t be staffed in-house.

Practice, Practice, Practice. Having a plan is a good first step. Making sure everyone with a role to play knows what to do and how to do it is the next. Regularly test your plan and consider, if you have the resources, inviting third parties to conduct an audit.

Behavior

Technology consultants will tell you that users don’t properly evaluate technology risks (e.g., hard drive failure) until an event occurs, at which point they over-value the risk. Which is to say that individual behavior is difficult to manage and, quite often, is your biggest risk.

Educate. Those same technology consultants will tell you there is no firewall for stupid. Stated more kindly, you don’t know what you don’t know. The same is true for the people around you as well as your clients. You should make it a priority for you and your clients to appreciate the advantages as well as the risks of utilizing various technologies in your practice. Accordingly, you should consider:

  • Regularly educating your staff and clients. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way — e.g., email guidelines, and data security best practices. As with data breach plan testing, this training should be an ongoing activity.
  • Regularly update computer operating systems with the latest security protection or risk leaving a vulnerability in place for hackers to exploit, as was recently revealed at the Oregon Secretary of State.15
  • Alert clients to the risk that forwarding your legal advice or updating their blog postings with it may waive the attorney-client privilege.
  • Remind clients that — even though convenient — communicating with you on someone else’s equipment (e.g., the employer they may be asking you to sue) entails risk.

Use Common Sense. Unless you are a reality television star, data leaks don’t create value. Therefore, you will want to exercise common sense.

  • Use private networks. Although handy (and free), public Wi-Fi lacks security for your mobile data.
  • Avoid communicating with “free” email services and use encryption for sensitive information.
  • Avoid third-party computers that may have key logging or viruses (e.g., the hotel business center).
  • Use caution — e.g., thumb drives (even new ones) may come with pre-loaded malware. Don’t connect them to a device that does not have current anti-virus software.
  • Scrub metadata before distributing documents.

Shift the Risk. As with any transaction, deal terms involving firm or client data should not be limited to price and a service description.

Try to avoid click-through agreements. Not surprisingly, these are not pro-consumer terms. Look for cloud service providers or third-party resellers who are willing to accept some risk for storing sensitive data.

Obtain cyber liability insurance (generally speaking, your comprehensive, umbrella, and E&O insurance likely will not cover cyber liability issues).

Stay Aware

Today, we’re half a generation removed from the chatter about whether communication by cellphone or email-waived attorney-client privilege and what, precisely, needed to be included in sometimes shockingly long facsimile and email notices and disclaimers. The technology scolds notwithstanding, we’ve long left the days when one of the biggest risks to client confidentiality was leaving the file cabinet unlocked or leaving behind a deal sheet on a photocopier. Today’s technology enables users to have orders of magnitude greater data in their pocket . . . or left behind on a coffee counter. Accordingly, the need for common sense — and keeping abreast of technology — is even more urgent.

Featured image: “Primary Japanese girl playing dodge ball” from Shutterstock.

  1. See, e.g., “Data on Big Data” (July 18, 2013), www.marciaconner.com/blog/data-on-big-data. 

  2. www.935.ibm.com/services/us/en/it-services/data-breach/data-breach-­statistics.html. 

  3. “Airport Lost & Found: Over 8,000 Laptops and Cell Phones Left at Major Airports,” Travelers Today (July 6, 2012). 

  4. www.blogs.marketwatch.com/paydirt/2012/03/23/lost-phones-cost-americans-30-billion-a-year. 

  5. See ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20, www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/ethics_2020/20120508_ethics_20_20_final_hod_introdution_and_overview_r­eport.authcheckdam.pdf. 

  6. “Fallen Law Firm’s Leaders Are Indicted,” Wall Street Journal, B1 (March 7, 2014). 

  7. See “Lawyer Altered Documents in Best Buy Case” (June 5, 2007), www.nbcnews.com/id/19056379, www.fuerstlaw.com/wp/index.php/07/lawyers-fired-bank-recants-testimony-­after-it-is-discovered-that-bank-altered-document-used-at-federal-trial. 

  8. Chevron Corp. v. Donziger (S.D.N.Y. 2014) [11-cv-00691 LAK]. See opinion at www.online.wsj.com/public/resources/­documents/chevronruling.pdf. 

  9. Dillon v. Seattle Deposition Reporters, LLC & Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP, and James Grant, Wn. App., No. 69300-0-1 (Div. 1, January 21, 2014). 

  10. Gulliver Schools, Inc. v. Snay, 2014 WL 769030 (Fla Dist. Ct. App. Feb. 26, 2014). 

  11. www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-31/china-based-hackers-target-law-firms.html. 

  12. www.sec.gov/litigation/litreleases/2014/lr22948.htm. 

  13. www.pv-magazine.com/news/details/beitrag/solarworld-weighs-legal-action-following-alleged-chinese-spy-attack_100015138/#axzz32z0aanrr. 

  14. See “Prostitute Takes Laptop, Psychologist Loses License,” Seattle Times (Oct. 14, 2013), www.seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2022044490_lostlaptop
    xml.html. 

  15. http://www.katu.com/politics/report-blames-outside-software-for-oregon-secretary-of-state-computer-breach
    -260487131.html.
     

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Should Law Firms Focus on Social Media or Search Engine Marketing?

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 06:12

It is difficult to respond to legal marketing questions with a simple answer. For instance, what source of referral traffic should you care about most, social media or search engines?

Lexblog’s Kevin O’Keefe addresses this question on his own blog.

Who would have thought even a couple years ago that social media may be as important as Google in drawing traffic to your law blog. After all, eight or nine years ago we said BLOG stood for “Better Listing On Google.”

There is no question that the explosive use of social media has increased traffic. Regularly, I review analytics from legal websites and blogs that show considerable year-over-year growth in social media referral traffic.

Year-over-year social media referral traffic to a legal blog.

On the other hand, it is rare that I review a site or blog that receives more traffic from social media than from search engines. Over time, the numbers tend to look more like this:

I suspect O’Keefe sees similar trends across much of the LexBlog network, but he does not discount search as being important. In fact, he notes:

Sure, Google remains important. But going forward you ought to be spending more time looking at how you can increase traffic to your blog from social media than from Google.

Which he further supports in our brief exchange on Twitter:

.@kevinokeefe @clairecm @peretti social > search for blogs? Meh. Maybe in some situations. Totally different user intent… Why not both?

— Gyi Tsakalakis (@gyitsakalakis) August 14, 2014

@gyitsakalakis No question it’s both – social and search; law firms just need be less myopic in how people arrive at content.

— Kevin O’Keefe (@kevinokeefe) August 14, 2014

Admittedly, I am also guilty of being myopic. But paying additional attention to search is warranted. Define Media Group Founder and CEO Marshall D. Simmonds confirms this in his retort to BuzzFeed’s social media coronation:

Despite BuzzFeed’s claims to the contrary and the follow up mis-reporting, the data we analyzed irrefutably shows the following:

  • Organic search traffic is the #1 referral data source

  • Organic search traffic far outperforms social

  • Organic search traffic is aggressively growing year over year

Social grew in Q4 (on that much we can agree with BuzzFeed), however organic search traffic did as well

Among our network of publishers, search sent nearly 2.5 times more traffic than social, accounting for 41% of all referrals, versus social’s 16%.

Gun to my head, which source of referral traffic is more important? Neither of them.

The truth is these channels have become inextricably intertwined as illustrated in this infographic by MDG Advertising:

Instead of trying to decide which channel is more important, focus on understanding how they work together.

Social media is an effective channel for staying current with your community and professional network. Additionally, it serves as a venue to get the attention of journalists who may write about and link to your posts. This is a positive signal search engines use to rank web pages.

Search engines will remain the primary source for people who look you up online. They will expect to see information about you on search engines. However, when they search, they will also expect to find information about you on social media sites. That is where social activity such as ratings, reviews and comments play a role.

This is why I recommend taking a diversified approach to web traffic. Google’s Matt Cutts articulates it well:

“I’m all for having eggs in lots of different baskets, because if your website goes down and then you can always have your brick-and-mortar business,” Cutts said. “If your ranking on Google is not as good, then you can have other channels that you can use – from print media advertising, to billboards, to Twitter, to Facebook. So you should always have a very well-rounded portfolio of ways to get leads whether from people walking through your door or Yellow Pages or whatever it is, because you can’t count on any one channel always working out perfectly.

All of these baskets work together. The lines between search, social, and offline marketing channels are blurred. Firms that focus on understanding how these channels work together get a better return on their investments in both time and money.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

This Week in Law: A Hero Named Kevin Bacon

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 22:39

This week I was on This Week in Law with Ali Sternberg to talk about copyright, robot lawyers, Star Lord’s “Awesome Mix Vol. 1″ from Guardians of the Galaxy, trolls, and much more. Watch Episode 271 of TWiL here:

(Yes, my mic was terrible. If I do something like this again, I promise to get a better one.)

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

The Myth of More Time for Billing

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 06:12

As a lawyer, time is your most-valuable asset whether you spend it billing time or completing flat-fee tasks. So it makes sense to free up as much of your time for doing more billing, right?

Well, it depends.

Freeing Up Time

The usual way to “free up” time is to hire someone. At some point, every lawyer starts to feel swamped, which leads them to consider hiring someone to free up time for lawyering so they can bring in more money, which will more than cover the employee’s or independent contractor’s paycheck.

Except it does not usually work out that way. Hiring your first employee or independent contractor actually creates a third new position in your firm: manager. What really happens when you hire an assistant or junior associate is that you spend your freed-up on management, not billable lawyering. And since you now have an extra paycheck to write, you will also have to do more marketing to bring in more business that will increase your revenue so you can write those paychecks every month.

You may also free up some time for lawyering, but almost certainly not as much as you hoped. Especially if you are new at managing staff, it takes a while to get the hang of it. Expect your profits to drop until you figure out how to manage your staff effectively and efficiently (something many lawyers never do figure out), bring in more business, and do more billable lawyering.

Instead of hiring staff to free up time, most solos are better off staying solo, raising rates, and selecting better clients. Hire someone when you can afford it on your existing revenue, not when your calculations require you to free up time for billing.

Another common way to “free up” time is to adopt a particular technology. While going paperless or adopting practice management software can definitely free up some time, they generally don’t make a huge difference. You should absolutely go paperless and make sure you are on top of your clients and matters, but don’t expect to free up hours a day. An hour a week would be pretty amazing. You will probably realize more revenue from the money saved on office supplies and copying costs than on new billable time.

The Productivity Limit

Theoretically, let’s say you freed up all your time for lawyering. How much of that time could you realistically spend doing billable legal work, on average?

No matter how many hours are technically available for lawyering, few people could actually use all of them. NALP’s most-recent information on billable hours shows the average billable hours hovers around 1,800 per year, or about 7.2 hours per workday, if you work five days a week and take two weeks off. The total hours worked counting non-billable time is about 2,000, or as you might expect, about eight hours per day. So it seems reasonable to peg your theoretical maximum productivity at about seven or eight hours a day. Sure, you may hang around the office for longer, but you probably aren’t getting any actual work done in that time.

If you are already averaging seven hours of billable work in a day, you cannot realistically expect to gain much more time no matter what you do. Before you use more time for billing as an excuse to hire someone or buy something, consider whether you would actually be able to make good use of that time.

Instead, focus on eliminating waste in the practice you have, raise your rates if you can, and focus on your most-profitable clients.

Featured image: “close up of man hand holding hourglass” from Shutterstock.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Stop Losing Clients Over Your Fear of Payment Plans

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 06:12

Collecting attorney fees is difficult, which is why many lawyers insist on getting fees up front.

But after turning away thousands of dollars in business, I started looking at the potential clients who were walking away. I realized the average fees were between $1,000 and $4,000, and were generally for lower-level court cases. Many of these potential clients had professional jobs, but either had credit cards with insufficient limits or did not use credit cards even though they may have qualified. I felt that these potential clients were suitable for a payment plan.

With this knowledge, I decided to take on client financing. Here is what I learned.

Research Your Client

You must make sure that your client is worthy of financing. Financing every client is foolish. You have to ensure that the client has incentive and ability to pay. A credit report and score can give you a lot of information about your client’s financial history.

Major credit bureaus have plans where you can request that the client run their credit report. I have my clients use Experian Connect. For less than $20 a client can run his or her credit report and share it with me. This process is extremely simple and you can set it up in minutes.

Related“What is a good credit score?”
Small Business Plan Resources

Do your own research as to what range of credit scores you are willing to work with. The “Experian Plus” score ranges from 330 to 830.  After some research and discussion with colleagues in the mortgage business, I decided that scores below 575 are simply too much risk.

Depending on the credit score and credit history, you may want to modify how much you require your client to put down. Requiring a credit report is also a great way to weed out those who have no interest in hiring or paying you. If they are serious, they will run the report and share it with you in minutes. If they aren’t, they will waffle on running the report or drag their feet on sending you a copy.

Once you have obtained a credit report, you need to confirm that your client has a bank account with steady income. Ask your client to bring in bank statements covering the previous two months for you to review. This will tell you what their income is, when they get paid, and whether they maintain a balance.

The client’s ability to pay will also be verified by the first payment. Sometimes, clients will want to pay the up-front fee in cash, and then continue with payments. In that case, you should at least charge their account something, even if it is just a small amount to verify that the account is valid.

Setting up a Payment Plan

Having a client pay you $10 a month for 10 years is not reasonable when you have your own bills to pay. The goal is to come up with a reasonable payment plan that is affordable for your client and minimizes your risk.

For a case where the fee is $2,000, and your client pays half of the fee up front, you can finance the remaining $1,000. I like to set up plans where payments are charged right after each payday. That way if someone gets paid every two weeks, $200 per payday will have the balance paid in five payments, or about two and a half months.

Keep in mind that if you refuse to finance, you are losing money because the client will just walk away. If you only take half without offering a payment plan, you just make half the fee you would otherwise charge. Financing the second half takes time, but you will probably collect the entire fee.

Collecting Payments

RelatedPayment Schedule Template

Once you decide a client is qualified and agree on a payment plan, you should provide a terms disclosure, a written payment schedule, automatic draft authorization, and your fee agreement. Preparing form documents will allow you to quickly repeat this process with only a few minutes added to the client meeting.

The authorization for automatic draft is essential to a workable financing plan. You simply cannot rely on your client to bring in a payment. For $35 a month plus nominal transaction fees, PaySimple will automatically draft payments from a client’s bank account and email an invoice. Those funds will deposit into your account about 3 days later — no calls, no begging, no appointments, no staff, and no hassle.

Of course, there are other companies that provide a similar service such as Chargify and Fusebill.

How To Charge Interest

To compensate for the risk of financing and delayed payment, I charge a flat 10% to the amount financed; you can adjust the charge based on your time and needs. I have found that the added 10% will cover the few extra minutes spent on preparing the payment schedule and setting up the automatic draft.

Therefore, if the client finances $1,000, $100 is added to the balance. All this is explained to the client in writing, and I give them a spreadsheet showing all of the charges, calculations, and dates of the auto drafts. I keep the signed originals of all of these documents and give them a copy.

Ethics

Attorneys should always be on the lookout for ethical issues that may arise. I am not aware of any ethical problem with a client voluntarily bringing in payments, and I have not found a problem with arranging a fair auto-drafting payment plan. Just make sure everything is disclosed to the client in writing. If a client contests the fee or demands that the drafts stop, you then have to choose whether the fee is worth your time, effort, and reputation to contest. Regardless, it is best to check your state’s professional responsibility rules to be in full compliance.

While there are no guarantees, I have yet to be stuck with any part of any fee where the client has agreed to a fair scheduled payment that automatically drafts from their account. While I still prefer my fees upfront, I have found this to be a safe approach for keeping business that I would have turned down. Having a written policy, performing a credit check, and most importantly, having a fair payment plan with auto-draft will greatly minimize the risk of financing your clients.

Featured image: Golden coins in soil with young plant. Money growth concept.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Lawyers Won’t Lose Clients to DIY Legal Services

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 06:12

Currently, consumers can pick from a range of options for do-it-yourself legal services. You can get a divorce at OfficeMax, a will from Amazon, and dissolve a partnership with LegalZoom. Those are just a few examples, of course. There are hundreds of DIY legal documents available online and offline.

People who want to do their own legal work are, naturally, not likely to hire a lawyer in the first place. And people who hire lawyers do not want to do their own legal work.

Sure, the economy may be encouragement for some people to do their own legal work who would have preferred to hire a lawyer before 2008. The economy may also have encouraged some people to do their own home remodeling who would have preferred to hire a contractor before 2008. But the vast majority of non-DIY consumers have remained non-DIY consumers in both cases. They may put off the work until they can afford it, but they probably aren’t tempted to go it alone.

TurboTax exists, after all, but plenty of people still hire tax preparers and accountants.

So now is not the time to panic.

The time to panic is when the only thing you have to do to get a will or a divorce is push a few buttons. That is not DIY; that is more like hiring a lawyer to do something for you, only cheaper and without the uncomfortable waiting room.

Imagine going to a website for a will. It asks you to allow a one-time connection to your Facebook and Google accounts, then checks public records for any information it cannot get from your online accounts. Then it asks for the name of your guardian before spits out a good-enough will.

This is push-button legal service, not a DIY legal service. There are no complicated forms to fill out or documents to track down and upload. All you have to do is push the button that says Give Me A Will! This is not the stuff of the future, either; it should be possible to build a system like this using current technology. In fact, the Shake app is pretty close, although with a limited range of documents available, most of which do not require any extra information.

So … panic?

Well, if your practice is based on the kind of simple documents Shake has turned into push-button contracts, I would be worried even if Shake did not exist. But plenty of people have practices based on the kind of legal documents that make up most of the DIY legal documents on the market today. And those documents are probably the most likely to be transformed into push-button legal documents. So if my practice were based on them, I would probably be looking for a different practice area or trying to figure out how to offer legal documents with the push of a button myself, first.

Featured image: “Vintage DIY (do it yourself) concept” from Shutterstock.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

9 Epic Responses To Legal Threats

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 13:33

Lawyers don’t often get an opportunity to really cut loose and say exactly what it is they (or their clients) are thinking. We couch everything in very neutral terms and our threats are often veiled. But apparently there are vanishingly rare occasions where the absurdity of the threatened legal action matches up nicely with the devil-may-care attitude of a client, and then you get the stuff of internet magic: the epic smackdown letter.

We all long to write one, but few of us ever will. Here are some of the best we’ve found. Some of these were ostensibly written by the clients themselves, but we are just going to pretend that some lawyer somewhere got to give the go-ahead to those as well.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Is There a Future for Solos and Small Firms?

Mon, 08/11/2014 - 06:12

“I do not see much of a future (beyond 2020) for most small firms ….”
— Richard Susskind, Tomorrow’s Lawyers

Will the next 5–10 years really see the end of solos and small law firms? I’ve heard Susskind talk before, but I sat down with him at the William Mitchell College of Law to find out more about his predictions as they pertain to small law firms.

The Future According to Susskind

Susskind’s most-recent book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, is short and worth a read, but I will try to do it justice in brief. Basically, the future according to Susskind will come about due to three drivers of change:

  1. Clients, who are demanding more work for less money;
  2. Liberalization, or the spread of non-lawyer ownership; and
  3. Technology.
More for Less

In the near future, cost will be the biggest driver of change. On the big-corporations-and-big-firms end of the spectrum, Susskind says in-house counsel are being pressured to reduce their legal “spend” by 30–50%. I recently covered the other end of the spectrum, at which lots of people cannot afford the legal help they need. The bottom line is that people and corporations cannot or will not pay the same prices today or going forward that they have been paying — or at least, were paying up until 2006 or so.

Downward pressure on legal fees, Susskind believes, must drive sweeping changes to the way firms and clients operate. The end result is that few clients will tolerate lawyers who bill time for doing work that does not require a law degree, and the amount of “bespoke” legal work performed by lawyers will shrink as far as possible. Some of the things lawyers do now (document review, legal research, project management, negotiation) do not require a law degree. Lawyers will not be doing those things. Some of the things that require a law degree (everything LegalZoom does) do not require a human being. Lawyers will not be doing those things, either.

What’s left? Litigators will still be around for strategy, tactics, and advocacy. Transactional lawyers will still be around for bespoke drafting and legal advice. The rest of the lawyers will be performing non-traditional roles, which Susskind describes in Chapter 11 of Tomorrow’s Lawyers. Here they are, as he names them:

  • legal knowledge engineer
  • legal technologist
  • legal hybrid
  • legal process analyst
  • legal project manager
  • online dispute resolution (ODR) practitioner
  • legal management consultant
  • legal risk manager

If those sound more like supporting roles than what you went to law school for, then you are on the right track. None of them require a law degree, and all of them require skills not currently taught in law schools. Those are tomorrow’s lawyers, according to Susskind, with the exception of the few (“expert trusted advisors” and “enhanced practitioners”) who manage to find a traditional role to play.

Liberalization

“[i]t is our collective arrogance as lawyers that we feel we can take on a neighboring discipline over a weekend.”

I recently wrote about whether it is time for non-lawyer ownership. Susskind, like Andy Daws, unequivocally says yes. I asked Susskind the question left over from my previous article: can corporate structures really be so much more efficient than law firms?

Yes, he says. Alternative Business Structures (ABS) in Europe are showing cost savings of 30–40% and higher client satisfaction. He tells a joke about litigators, who frequently tell him their job is more project management than anything else. When he asks what training they have, some answer that they took a two-day course. He says “[i]t is our collective arrogance as lawyers that we feel we can take on a neighboring discipline over a weekend.” That rings true. (It probably explains all the lawyers-turned-marketers, too.)

Putting real project managers in charge of litigation makes more sense, says Susskind, but law firms are unwilling or unable to do so. That kind of specialization — and the efficiency that comes with it — will only come with non-lawyer owners.

Non-lawyer ownership is off the table in the U.S., at the moment. But Susskind thinks the U.S. will eventually allow non-lawyer ownership because U.S.-based international firms will push for it. Without non-lawyer investment and ownership, U.S.-based firms may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, but in any case their clients will demand the same sort of service they are used to at home. This pressure will build until big law firms themselves become the ones lobbying for non-lawyer ownership in the U.S.

Liberalization boils down to lawyers giving up the non-lawyering parts of running a firm, and focusing on lawyering while other tasks are handled by people more competent to handle those tasks.

Technology

After describing Moore’s Law for those who still aren’t aware of it (i.e., most of an audience of lawyers), Susskind writes:

You can call me radical, but it seems to me that if we can see the day when the average desktop machine will have more processing power than all of humanity combined, then it might be time for lawyers to rethink some of their working practices. It is simply inconceivable that information technology will radically alter all corners of our economy and society and yet somehow legal work will be exempt from any change.

When is that day? 2050, give or take a year or two. Susskind is obviously not radical. Assuming there is any way for human lawyers to compete with an artificial brain the size of a planet (much less one on every desktop), legal work will likely be different.

What form this will take, exactly, is hard to predict, though. Susskind talks about the potential for teleconferencing to change the way we meet with clients and attend court, and he thinks online dispute resolution could offer substantial advantages over litigation. Plus, that sort of processing power should be able to make serious inroads on actual legal work (estate planning lawyers, your days are numbered) by online legal services, which may be increasingly free.

But those are all fairly routine changes. When lawyers — along with everyone else — have all the processing power of humankind on an iPad, it seems like science fiction may be a better guide. But however this technological revolution comes to law, smart and experienced lawyers — or perhaps their AI replacements — will still need to do most of the programming.

Is This Really the Future of Law Practice?

Nothing Susskind says seems particularly far-fetched. He’s not the only one who sees such changes coming down the pike, either, as this infographic shows:


Source: Online-Paralegal-Degree.org

Susskind is surely right that clients want more for less, and that technology has the potential to drive massive change in the legal industry, over time. Alternative business structures (non-lawyer ownership) seem less inevitable in the U.S., but their eventual existence does not seem like an unreasonable prediction.

The Small Firm of the Future

You will notice that, so far, Susskind’s descriptions and predictions are mostly for big firms. He really does not see much of a future for small firms, at least not as currently run. He added as currently run when I interviewed him in order to clarify his point. Small firms may not disappear, but just as large firms will have to fundamentally alter their business models, so will solo and small-firm lawyers, and Susskind believes it will be harder for them to do so.

Big firms and alternative business structures can scale to the point where they will be able to offer superior legal help at lower prices (even access-to-justice prices). This will leave little room for inefficient solos and small firms that cannot take advantage of the same economies of scale. To compete, small firms will have to figure out a way to take advantage of some of those same economies of scale, or else materially differentiate themselves.

The big firms and ABSes will be able to take on investment, use the skills of non-lawyers for work that is not strictly legal, and collaborate with one another on big-idea solutions, software, resources, etc. “Solosmalls” would be hard-pressed to do the same, which will put them at a serious competitive disadvantage. Think Wal-Mart running all the small businesses out of town. In short, solosmalls may have to surrender their lunches.

If Susskind is right about the future of law practice, solos should be worried enough to start exploring alternative ways to practice law.

Susskind did concede that his predictions may not apply to all solos and small firms. It is hard to imagine criminal defense lawyers being replaced any time soon, for example. Not unless the criminal justice system undergoes sweeping changes. And to the extent there is still a need for litigation with all the online dispute resolution Susskind predicts will be going on, there will be a need for skilled and experienced lawyers to do it. But in the main, Susskind sees different roles for solos of the future. While he does not think solos and small firms will be competitive with big corporate legal service providers, he does think innovative small firms may be able to prosper other ways.

Solos and small firms of the future might work with those ABSes to handle bespoke work, for example. Maybe by officing in the same location or entering into a referral or independent-contractor agreement. Or they may be able to carve out a niche as a trusted advisor in smaller communities. There are also broad categories of law where consumers do not know or appreciate their rights and remedies — or even realize that a lawyer can help them. Perhaps a WebMD-like service for legal problems will be able to help in place of a lawyer, but based on my own experience, many people will still want a lawyer to guide them through the process, even if the process looks much different than it does now. And what about contingent-fee practices, where the client is not actually paying for the legal representation up-front. That would seem to take price considerations out of the picture.

But while Susskind seems pessimistic about the survival of solosmall, I don’t think it has to be that way. Solo and small-firms can be much more nimble. Change is relatively easy when you do not have to overhaul a massive, ponderous business organization. As a solo, adopting a new technology is easy. Want to go paperless? Buy a scanner and start scanning. Want to teleconference? Get a camera and a nice backdrop. Want to distribute online forms? Sign up for a service and paste a few lines of code into your website.

On the other hand, the collective arrogance Susskind describes is in full effect in solo practices and small firms. Solosmall lawyers not only do the legal work, they send the invoices, cut the checks, and manage the accounts. They answer the phones, do the marketing, and (try to) fix the computers. They review the documents and manage the staff. And they probably cannot afford to cut rates much more. In order to compete at lower rates, solosmalls will have to find ways to take advantages of economies of scale — without the scale.

That is a tall order. There may not be a need to panic, but if Susskind is right about the future of law practice, solos should be worried enough to start exploring alternative ways to practice law, from business structures to value propositions.

Then again, maybe he’s not right. Predicting the future is a messy business, and law has been remarkably resistant to change for decades, if not centuries. Maybe the next generation of lawyers really will still be banging out briefs and contracts, in Microsoft Word, on a computer than can simulate the mental capacity of the entire human race.

This was originally published on November 21, 2013. It was revised and republished on August 11, 2014.

(image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gerlos/3119891607/)

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

How To Be a Bike-Commuting Lawyer

Fri, 08/08/2014 - 06:12

Do you want to reduce stress, lose weight, and save money? I can tell you how to do so with one simple change of habit.

Ready?

Ride your bike to work!

I know, I know — I can hear the excuses already. But bear with me, six years ago, I was a forty year old lawyer with a bike gathering dust in my garage. Now, I am a year-round bike commuter riding 180-200 days per year. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

The Benefits of Biking

There are tremendous benefits to regularly commuting by bike. Here are just a few that I have discovered.

  • Regular exercise: A brief flat ride is a great way to ensure that exercise is always part of your day.
  • Cost savings: Driving a car is expensive, and parking in many urban downtown areas is over $300 a month. You can buy a lot of bike gear with that money!
  • Time savings: If your commute is less than five miles, it may actually be faster to bike than drive. My three-and-a-half mile commute through Seattle’s often-traffic-clogged downtown is definitely faster than driving. If you have a longer commute, you should still consider biking instead of slogging away on some soulless machine at the gym.
  • Predictability: Absent massive mechanical failure, riding to and from the office is more predictable than driving or taking the bus. Unexplained gridlock is completely avoided, and you can route around just about anything that comes up.
  • Stress reduction: There is nothing like an end-of-day bike ride to get the endorphins flowing. Depending on how your day went, you can opt for a blissed-out spin or a pedal-hammering rage sprint.
Getting Started

Circumstances matter: Life gets in the way, and a door-to-door bike commute is not going to work for everyone.  But do not let that stop you from riding as much as you can. For longer commutes, going multi-modal may be an option. When I lived in Berkeley, I rode my bike to the Rockridge BART station almost every morning. BART rented bike lockers for about $40 a year. Although it was a short ride, it made getting to the station predictable, and the ride home was one of my favorite parts of the day.

Start with commitment: When I first started commuting by bike in Seattle, I committed myself to two weeks of daily riding. I was really nervous, and not in top cycling shape. My commute featured over 300 feet of elevation gain on the ride home, with urban traffic to contend with.

That first day hurt. I can still remember how unprepared I felt for it. But I completed my ride without having to push my bike up the hill. The second day was hard, but more manageable. I knew what to expect and I picked out less-steep blocks to ride up. And after only a week, the ride was — if not a piece of cake — a more-than-acceptable way to get in twenty-two minutes of exercise right after work.

Committing myself to two weeks of continuous riding at the outset turned out to be a great decision. In that time, I had gone from churning breathlessly up the hill to looking forward to my heart-pumping evening ride. That made it easy to keep going beyond the two-week period and keep the habit.

What to wear: Depending on your bike, commute, and comfort level, you can wear anything from street clothes to full lycra. I am in favor of keeping it as simple and comfortable as possible. If you like wearing a lycra racing kit, go for it. Personally, I would rather wear urban cycling knickers (lots of pockets for cell phone, wallet, keys, etc.) and a t-shirt. Assuming your commute is short and easy enough, street clothes are an even better choice.

For many attorney bike commuters, an issue to contend with is dressing formally at the office. Those with long and sweaty commutes will need to include a gym stop or be lucky enough to work somewhere with office showers. It takes a few trial runs to figure out how best to work this part of your cycling routine, but many find balance by keeping part of their wardrobe at work. San Francisco attorney Jay Parkhill, who commuted for over 10 years in the city, told me he always kept a couple of suits and pairs of shoes at the office.

Add gear as you ride more: It is easiest to start your commute in the summer. You do not need much more than a bike and a bag. If you want to mitigate risk, a multi-tool and small crescent wrench can handle any minor mechanical issues on the ride. You can also bring a spare tube, small pump, tire levers, and water.  If the bike commuting habit sticks, adding bad-weather gear is an option.

Rain gear and shoes: Once you are hooked on bike commuting, you will not want to miss a day of riding just because it is raining. With the appropriate gear a ride in the rain can be great fun. If your ride is short, you can get by with cheap non-breathable clothing. Longer rides call for gore-tex or other breathable fabric. Do not be afraid of neon yellow, or other colors that enhance your visibility in dark and rainy conditions.

As for shoes, go with what you are comfortable with. If you already use clip-in bike shoes, fine. But if you are new to commuting, any old shoes will work. In fact, it is better to go with street shoes so you can seamlessly go from pedaling to walking.

Bag: When it comes to packing clothes into the office, nothing beats a good pannier or two. The Ortlieb backroller — a dead-simple, completely waterproof bag — seems to be the standard here in the Northwest. A backpack can work as well, and is a good way to get started. However, backpacks can make you suffer on hot days. Leave messenger bags with the messengers, as they are kludgy and awkward to ride with.

Simplify:  You could carry lots of gear against the possibility of a breakdown, but I have simplified over the years to the point where I only carry a multi-tool and small wrench. If I get a flat I can grab a bus, cab, or Uber (something I have had to do exactly once in 2000+ commute rides). But an even bigger simplification you can make is to your bike’s gearing.

After my first winter of riding, I found that the road grit being thrown up into my chain was causing havoc with my derailleur. I was constantly having to tweak, clean and adjust it. Although the daunting hill I ride up each day put me off it initially, I finally broke down and bought a single-speed bike. It took a week or so of pain, but after that transition period was over, I never looked back. It turns out that going single speed doesn’t just offer much lower maintenance — it is also a lot more fun to ride (not to mention being a better workout). Going single speed is a no-brainer if you pick the right gear ratio and live anywhere that is reasonably flat.

Do not ride tentatively: I hate seeing tentative riders out on the streets. Riders that are on the shoulder are in far more danger of getting “doored” — squashed by a car turning right or veering into traffic to avoid an animal or pedestrian. It is much safer to ride assertively, visibly, and predictably. This means staying a safe distance from the shoulder and not letting cars push you out of the way when it is unsafe to pass. And above all else, be willing to take over the lane whenever your safety requires it. It takes time to get used to riding your bike as a car, but as long as you do not get into “asshole cyclist” territory, it is the safest way to ride in the city.

Do not always follow the traffic laws: This is a tough one for lawyers, but remember that your personal safety comes before compliance with traffic laws. Those laws are designed for motor vehicles. Think critically about traffic laws rather than slavishly complying with them. An example of breaking the law in favor of your safety is using the Idaho stop.

Get out there on whatever bike you have got hanging around and start riding to work. And if you do not have a bike, I have plenty of suggestions — as long as you are willing to ride a single-speed.

Featured image: businessman cycling with a small bike

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

How to Share Files with Clients

Thu, 08/07/2014 - 11:23

Let’s say you have got a document with sensitive information in it, and you need to send a copy to your client or to opposing counsel. What is the best way to do that?

Here are a few options.

Not Good: Email, USB Drive

Unless you use encryption, sending an email is basically the same thing as sending a postcard. While there are efforts underway to change this, email remains pretty wide open. This is true and scary: anyone who wants to (not just the NSA) can read your email.

Sure, most of the time you can send a sensitive document through email and nothing will happen. But you are playing Russian Roulette (almost literally, given the recent theft of 1.2 billion email account credentials by a Russian gang). You may be sending documents straight to a criminal without even knowing it.

USB drives aren’t safe, either. A recently-discovered USB exploit means you could be distributing malicious code with your USB drive (or getting it from your clients) without ever knowing. While we don’t know if this exploit is being used, it is probably better to be safe than sorry, especially since better options exist.

Sometimes Okay: Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, OneDrive, Etc.

There are plenty of cloud-based file-sharing services out there, but I am just going to use the most popular — Dropbox — as a proxy for all of them. While I no longer think it makes sense to simply store all your files in Dropbox, I do think Dropbox can be useful for sharing specific files.

Related“It’s Time for Lawyers to Re-Think the Cloud”

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You can share files either by sharing with another Dropbox user or by creating a public link to the file. Sharing directly to another user is by far the better option. While public links are not advertised, anyone with the link can access the file(s). Plus, you have to send that link to your client somehow (it is too long and complex to relate by phone), which makes it no better than sending an attachment to an unencrypted email. It is not a good idea to use a public link to share sensitive information.

If you do use Dropbox to share files with clients, don’t leave public links active indefinitely. Have your client tell you when they have the file, and then remove the public link. In fact, it may be best to remove the file from Dropbox entirely, if you share my thoughts on keeping client files in Dropbox.

Better Options: SpiderOak, Viivo

Zero-knowledge, cloud-based file-sharing services like SpiderOak and Viivo offer greater security than Dropbox (et al.) while still allowing you to share files. (I use Viivo with Dropbox to keep my client files and other sensitive information secure.)

Just as with Dropbox, sharing files with other users is more secure than using a public link. Even though the files themselves are more secure with SpiderOak or Viivo, that security does no good if you send a public link via email. If you share files with another user, SpiderOak or Viivo is absolutely superior to Dropbox. If you have to email a link, however, they are no better than email.

Best Options: Encrypted Email, CD/DVD, or a Secure Portal

The best options for sharing files do not require you to grant access to the file in an email.

Encrypted Email

For now, encrypted email remains clunky, and requires some tech-savvy on both ends. Fortunately, you don’t need to go full encryption to send files more securely. You can just encrypt the attachment. Here are instructions for Microsoft Word for Windows (Word 2013) and Mac (Word 2011). And here are instructions for Adobe Acrobat:

If you opt for encrypting the attachment, use a good password and just call up the recipient to give them the password over the phone. (Don’t leave it on voicemail, though; lots of people get their voicemail by email.)

CD/DVD

You can also just burn the file to a CD or DVD and mail it. This is often the best option for large collections of documents, but it is slow if you are trying to share something like a redlined contract. Still, plain old discs are as secure as the mail.

A Secure Portal

Most cloud-based practice management software now includes file sharing, so that you can share files with a contact. When you share a file, the software sends a notice to the recipient. In order to access the file, though, they have to log in, so it is much more secure than a public link from Dropbox or Viivo. Two-factor authentication, where available, ratchets up the security even further.

A portal also allows your client to access the files over time. Despite advances in search technology, people lose emails all the time. If they just have to log into a portal (assuming they can remember their login details), they can access the files you have shared at any time.

The weak link is the inconvenience of having yet another login. If you are just going to share one or two files with someone, an encrypted attachments is probably easiest. If you are going to share a huge set of files, a CD or DVD is probably easiest. If you are going to share lots of files with someone, one at a time, a secure portal is the best option by far.

Worst: an Email Disclaimer

First, email disclaimers are pretty pointless, period.

Second, disclaimers do nothing to secure your email, even though an alarming percentage of lawyers who responded to a LexisNexis survey apparently think they do.

Learn More

This podcast from “digital detectives” Sharon Nelson and John Simek, with Bob Ambrogi, is a very accessible discussion of client file security with those appalling survey results as a backdrop.

Featured image: “senior manager is Giving a lot of work” from Shutterstock.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

MerusCase Law Practice Management Software

Wed, 08/06/2014 - 09:49

MerusCase launched in 2008, but made it onto our radar only recently. Merus is a software development company that provides information technology consulting and builds web applications, and MerusCase is their practice management software. The software was built with California workers’ compensation attorneys in mind, but Merus is clearly making a play for the tech-savvy lawyer who wants a flexible practice management software package.

However, MerusCase is missing some features that are common among its chief competition; it doesn’t offer apps for iOS or Android, and it doesn’t integrate with external services like Dropbox or accounting software like Quickbooks.

Here’s what you need to know to make a decision about MerusCase.

IndexGetting Started With MerusCase

As is the case with most cloud software, you can begin using MerusCase by signing up via its website. MerusCase also gives you the option of calling to get things started or schedule a demo. The latter two options may be useful for someone who feels a bit worried about setting up cloud-based practice management software on their own.

Migrating to MerusCase

MerusCase boasts that it can migrate data from any system, including Outlook, Rocket Matter, Abacus, and Clio. That may very well be true, but you will not know unless you contact them, as the only migration option is to have MerusCase do a custom import. MerusCase does not disclose its prices anywhere on its website — and that should make you suspicious. In fact, you could pay around $2,000 just to get set up. That’s $2,000 more than competitors like Clio and MyCase charge for setup.

MerusCase does have an option to bulk import .csv files, which would allow you to import things like your Outlook contacts or your Google calendar directly into MerusCase without paying that huge setup fee, but that will not be as smooth as a complete migration.

Using MerusCase

Like a lot of practice management software, MerusCase opens into a dashboard designed to give you a high-level overview of your cases and deadlines.

From there, you can choose to look at your cases, your contacts, your calendar, your task list, your messages, or your documents.

Unfortunately, the user experience is not particularly smooth. When starting a new case, for example, the Save button is at the top of the input form, but by the time you are finished completing the form, it may not be on the screen any longer. After you create your new case, you’re presented with this screen without much explanation:

Task setup fares a bit better, as the system allows for easy creation of both tasks and subtasks without having to jump around.

The calendar feature should be familiar to anyone who has used any sort of computer-based calendar, with options to view daily, weekly, and monthly calendars and the ability to quickly create a new calendar matter just by clicking into the date of your event. MerusCase also gives the option to set up related events or follow up dates at the time you create your event.

MerusCase has invoicing capabilities built in, and the program will create a rudimentary but functional invoice for you. You will either need to use its built-in invoicing or export your billing, as MerusCase does not directly integrate with other billing software. It does, however, export to a number of standardized billing formats, including LEDES, ESIS, and Chubb.

MerusCase also has integrated email and will help you set up a macro that will allow you to save directly to MerusCase from Word, which is a nice touch for lawyers wedded to Word (i.e., most of us.

Mobile Apps and Extensions

MerusCase has no mobile apps. You can sync your calendar and contacts to your Android or iDevice via the CalDAV protocol. It is not a highly technical or difficult process, but it is a good deal more complicated than simply opening a mobile app.

MerusCase also does not integrate with Dropbox, Google Drive, Box, or any other external data storage service. At first glance, this may be easy to ignore if you do not currently use any sort of cloud data service. However, the time is fast approaching when you will likely have cloud data stored somewhere whether you wish to or not, and being wedded to case management software that will not play nice with those services may be limiting.

MerusCase has been around for several years, and its website certainly displays a level of tech savvy that would normally indicate the development of a robust app and extension ecosystem. Their opposition to external integrations may be part of their security-mindedness, but the lack of convenience might be a tough tradeoff for a lot of lawyers.

Security

MerusCase is browser-based and uses SSL encryption end-to-end, meaning that all data passed between you and the MerusCase cloud is encrypted at bank-grade security levels. Data like passwords, social security numbers, and tax ID numbers are stored in 256-bit encrypted databases. Therefore, even if MerusCase’s first layers of security are hacked, only names and telephone numbers would be available in plain text.

This is a solid approach to security and a user of MerusCase could feel reasonably sanguine that their data is safe. It’s worth noting, though, that MerusCase takes an oddly hectoring approach to data safety, explaining (without any backup information) that it is safer than their competitors who store things in plain text, it is safer than your office, which might get robbed, and the only possible weak security link is you and your own weak password. It’s a bit more like getting lectured by a surly IT worker than the helpful tone you might expect from a company that is trying to sell you a thing to simplify your life.

Backing Up Your MerusCase Data

MerusCase will deliver a full backup of your data and documents for any media you’d like at any interval you choose. However, you will pay a “modest fee” to cover the cost of the media. Unfortunately, that is the only way for you to get a full backup of your data, which is particularly troubling as the actual fee is not divulged anywhere.

You can also download a document archive of individual cases — one case at a time — directly from MerusCase via the Files menu. However, when we tried to request document archives of some of the test cases in MerusCase, it took three tries. One try led to a 404 error message, another led to a message that the file we requested was taking too long to prepare because of its size and that Merus had queued the job and would send us a message when it was done. Twenty minutes later, it still wasn’t done. Thirty-six hours later, still no message. Finally, a third attempt got us a .zip archive with all the case material sorted into dated subfolders. Even if every attempt had worked, this is a clunky way to get your data out of MerusCase, particularly if you have a lot of cases.

Evaluating MerusCase for Your Practice

When you consider purchasing case management software, the most important thing to keep in mind is whether it will fit your unique practice needs. MerusCase was originally designed specifically for workers’ compensation cases in California, so it might be the best choice if that is your niche. Additionally, if you are tech savvy and looking for a practice management solution that runs swiftly and securely in the cloud and you are not overly concerned about mobile apps or integration, MerusCase may be a great pick. On the other hand, if you are already using Quickbooks or Dropbox or crave a feature-rich mobile platform, MerusCase probably will not work for you.

Normally, we provide a selection of reviews of each piece of case management software. However, in this case there only appears to be one review of MerusCase currently available:

Price

If you want to pay on a month-to-month basis, MerusCase costs $40/user/month. If you agree to a year-long commitment, that drops to $30/user/month. That makes MerusCase substantially cheaper than Rocket Matter or Clio and slightly less than even MyCase. However, measure that potential savings against the setup fee, which could be a couple thousand dollars if you need to migrate a lot of data.

Further, that savings is only worthwhile if you find MerusCase useful for your practice. The lack of mobile apps and integrations are limiting, especially if you want something that “just works.”

What MerusCase Does Well

MerusCase has a lot of nice little features, like the ability to print an envelope from any contact form and the ability to drag and drop documents into an e-filing packet for California courts. It lets you automate some key parts of your workflow in an “if this, then that” fashion. Mousing over documents or contact info brings up a preview, so you do not need to go hopping in and out of files to see if that is the thing you were looking for.

MerusCase is very clearly designed for the California attorney who practices personal injury law or workers’ compensation, and if you are that attorney, this software might feel purpose-built for you, with easy access to California e-filing, deadlines, and similar information.

Where MerusCase Needs Work

Overall, MerusCase feels like a piece of software that is still finding its way, even though it is several years old. MerusCase may be in the cloud, but it is decidedly old-school-feeling. It feels like using a database from ten years ago. That may not be an issue for many people, but if you crave an aesthetically pleasing piece of case management software, this is not it.

That aesthetic failure is not just cosmetic. It makes it difficult to find and use all of MerusCase’s features. I spent quite some time trying to figure out what type of billing software MerusCase might support, and finally decided it did not support anything because I could not find anything. I only figured out that MerusCase could export standardized billing formats from reading the company blog.

The lack of mobile apps presents a real problem for most practicing attorneys. MerusCase’s concerns about security with respect to integrations are well-founded, but most every lawyer seeks out practice management software to simplify their lives and increase their access to their case material. For a modern lawyer, that means robust mobile access.

Finally, MerusCase should be more up-front about its pricing, particularly the migration fee. It is tough to recommend MerusCase when the cost to get up and running is so obscure.

Summary

MerusCase may be a good option for some lawyers, but its lack of mobile access, opacity on pricing, and dated user interface mean there are better options.

Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)

MerusCase, reviewed by Lisa Needham on August 6, 2014.

Updates

Here’s where we will keep track of changes to this post.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

How to Keep Track of Your Time

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 11:11

Tracking your time rather than reconstructing it at the end of the month turns out to be really important. As in, not-overbilling-your-clients-by-23% important. Whether or not you share your time records with your clients in real time, you do need to keep a time log.

Hopefully that is a no-brainer for everyone who reads this post, but I doubt it. I have known plenty of lawyers who reconstruct time at the end of every month — or every couple of months — from their calendar, emails, and memory. Even if you only put together your bill at the end of the month, you need to track your time as you go. These are the major tools for doing that.

However you decide to track your time, pick a method and stick to it. When you sit down to assemble your invoices, the fewer places you have to go to get the raw data, the better. The more methods you use to track your time, the more mistakes you will make.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Your USB Ports Are Not Safe

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 06:12

According to Wired, the only way to combat this exploit is to start treating USB devices like hypodermic needles.

It turns out that USB devices — all of them — have a fundamental flaw that allow a malicious hacker to take over your computer and infect any other USB device that is plugged into it. According to Wired, which first reported the USB exploit, malware can be installed in the firmware of any USB device. Once plugged into a computer, it can allow a malicious hacker to completely take over.

Importantly, this is not limited to USB drives (frequently called thumb drives for reasons that have always escaped me). Because the exploit lives in a USB device’s firmware, it can be passed around by any USB device, like a mouse, Bluetooth dongle, your printer, your USB rocket launcher — anything.

The malware can also be spread from the computer to any USB device plugged into it. Consider the laptops that most conferences have at the podium so you don’t have to deal with hooking up your own laptop to the projector. If someone plugs in an infected USB drive in order to transfer his slides, everyone USB device plugged into that computer afterward would become infected. Plug it into your computer back in your office, and now you are spreading the malware to every other USB device you have, which will spread it to every computer they are plugged into, and so on.

From what I can tell, the exploit does not automatically work this way, but it seems like a logical way to implement the malware if you wanted to compromise as many computers as possible. It would spread extremely quickly.

This USB exploit sounds very similar to the NSA’s “Cottonmouth” device, a spying device hidden in a USB peripheral’s plug. There is no way to know for sure, but it would not be surprising if the researchers who discovered this exploit turned out to be a few years behind the NSA. If the NSA does have something similar, it could just be using it to target specific computers, or it could be using the exploit to increase its access to as many computers as possible.

According to Wired, the only way to combat this exploit is to start treating USB devices like hypodermic needles. The moment a USB device is plugged into a computer you do not trust (for most of us, this means any computer we do not control), throw it away. And if you plug an untrusted USB device into your computer, well, format it and start with a clean OS install, at a minimum. You might even want to throw it away. Just hope China — you know, the country where all your computers, USB devices, and peripherals are manufactured — has not already discovered this exploit and decided to use it on a large scale.

The only other way to know a USB device is safe is if the manufacturer has implemented “code signing,” in which case you could run a scan to ensure the firmware comes from the manufacturer and has not been tampered with. The researchers who uncovered the exploit say that companies might want to buy USB devices only from manufacturers who sign their code and provide a way to check the integrity of their devices — although such a company may not even exist, yet.

So for now, don’t plug any USB device into your computer unless you trust it.

Featured image: “usb plugs” from Shutterstock.

Categories: Teknoids Blogs

Use The Gestalt Theory For Your Website Design

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 06:12

Much of web design is guided principles developed in the early 20th century. One of the most prominent visual perception principles is Gestalt Theory, which serves as a foundation for most of what we view online today.

What is Gestalt Theory?

Gestalt Theory assumes when we look at a group of objects, we see the objects as a whole, while making assumptions about how the objects relate to each other.

Users do not want to be confused; they want to quickly analyze and understand content. The design principles of Gestalt Theory detail how to efficiently arrange objects and information on a web page.

Why You Should Care About Design Theories

Have you heard of Apple products? Of course you have.

One reason Apple has become the default electronics brand is because every Apple product follows six guiding principles fans have grown to love and expect.

Using these principles in your own site design will elicit similar feelings. The main guiding principle for Apple is simple: The user comes first. Every decision is made to make the user happy. Here is how they do it:

  1. Make it beautiful: It is not enough to have a functional site; it needs to look good doing it.
  2. Consistency: Every page on your site should not be a learning experience. Be consistent.
  3. Get people to interact: The page should react when users touch it. (How frustrating it is to click ENTER and nothing happens!)
  4. Feedback: When people engage, your site needs to respond. Send confirmation emails, and let your visitors know how you are going to fix the problem.
  5. Make Real World Connections: Let users know what each button does by associating it with something in real life that does the same thing. (This is why email buttons often look like envelopes.)
  6. Give the user the reins: Users hate to push buttons which put motions in action they can not take back. Give your users the option to take a step back.
How Gestalt Theory Guides Web Design

Be aware of certain principles of design to create the most user-friendly experience on your website. You want users to feel like they can navigate your site intuitively.

Proximity: Items that are close to one another are perceived to be related — unlike items that are spaced far apart. Good designers know how to break information into smaller blocks of relevant information so that users can easily find what they need.

Uniform Connectedness: Using lines to separate or enclose information also clearly tells users that items are either related or distinct. A good example of this is the voice bubbles in comic strips that show what the characters are saying. They usually include an arrow to the character that let us know who says what.

Figure and Ground: Make a distinction between background and figures on the page. The most interesting information should be figures, not background.

Continuation: Columns, rows, and flowcharts are all design examples of continuation — or how we show items are related by presenting them in a line or curve pattern. Horizontal and vertical navigation tabs are also an example of continuation on a web page. Designers often use a grid to properly arrange information for best continuation.

Closure: We can create designs without edges on every surface. Check out the WWF Panda for an example.

As you can see, all the edges are not drawn. Your brain’s ability to group objects create the rest of the edges.

Similarity and Differences: Use shape, size, and color to imply groupings of information. Color is the strongest way to break items into different groups. This is why designers will use a single color for all of the links on a page; it sends the silent message: We are different from the other text.

Common Fate: The common fate principle is concerned with motion and the way users move through information. Think of how a submenu differentiates information from the main menu. These principles allow designers to invisibly convey meaning about content. All of those same-shaped, same-sized boxes in a straight line at the top right-hand sections of many websites do the exact same thing — they all take you to their respective social media sites. They all have a common fate.

The Take-Away

Many of the principles that make up Gestalt Theory are probably intuitive to you. For our entire lives, we have been giving and taking information according to Gestalt Theory principles, but it is helpful to be aware of those principles as we design websites.

Gestalt Theory explains how users will perceive information on your site by how you lay it out. Being aware of how users perceive information helps designers set up content that can be easily navigated — a hallmarks of the professional website.

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