With two months left in the year, you still have plenty of time to do some end-of-year tax planning to minimize your tax bill in April. That’s why the end of October or beginning of November is a great time to figure out what you are likely to owe. Take a few minutes to run a set of financial reports to send to your accountant so he or she can estimate your tax liability for the year.
There is nothing worse than getting to April and finding out you owe a big check to the IRS. Once you get to that point, it is too late to do much of anything about it. Right now, you have options.Year-End Tax Planning Options
RelatedLaw Firm Finances:
A Lawyerist Survival Guide
It should go without saying that you should talk to your accountant before doing anything drastic, but here are few of the options you may have.Defer (or Accelerate) Income
You may be able to shift some income to next year by sending your invoices after December 31st, or increase your income this year by collecting overdue invoices or sending your invoices early. Just remember that if you defer income to next year, you will have to pay taxes on that income next year.
Deferring or accelerating income can be a good way to smooth out spikes, but it is not automatically a good idea to always push income to the next tax year. Sometimes, the smart move may be to increase your income this year to put you in a better position next year. Your accountant can help you figure out whether it makes sense for your business, given your income this year and what you expect to earn next year.Deductible Expenses
First, do not spend money you wouldn’t ordinarily spend. Spending $1 does not result in a $1 reduction in your tax bill. It counts as a deduction, which might reduce your tax bill by 50¢ or not at all, depending on your situation.
That said, it may make sense to spend some money.
You can always just pay bonuses to your employees. This results in taxable income for your employees, but they probably won’t mind some extra cash close to the holidays.
If you don’t already have a retirement plan, set one up (see IRS Publication 560). It is deductible, and you should be saving for retirement anyway. Some plans require you to include employees, which might be a nice way to give a raise without increasing salaries. Some other fringe benefits are deductible, as well (see IRS Publication 15-B).
You could throw a holiday party for your firm, clients, or referral sources. It’s deductible, and unlike the above options, you aren’t creating taxable income for your guests.
If you can combine travel for work and pleasure, go on a vacation and write off the work-related percentage of the trip.
Although it’s a little late in the year to hire your kids, keep it in mind. You can teach them the value of work and reduce your company’s taxable income all at one. Plus, if your family is part of your business the options above may look even better. Pay them a bonus, start a retirement account for them, throw them a party, and take them to a conference.
Last but not least, consider charitable giving. Donations to non-profits are deductible, too.
There are some other clever ideas in this post on Forbes.
It bears repeating: don’t do anything drastic without consulting your accountant. You’re a lawyer not a tax expert (unless you are a tax lawyer), after all. There’s no point spending a bunch of money to bring down your taxable income and then finding out it didn’t work.How to Avoid Surprises at Tax Time in the First Place
In Law Firm Finances, Randall Ryder’s advice is to keep a separate bank account just for taxes. This is a great way to make sure you stay on top of taxes year-round.
Calculate your estimated taxes at the beginning of the year and figure out how much you need to put into your tax account every month to make those estimated payments. Ideally, you should set up an automatic transfer. This is what my wife and I do, and tax time is pretty low-stress as a result.
Whenever you deposit “extra” income (i.e., more than you thought you would when you calculated your estimated tax payments), 1099 income, gifts, etc., put a third of it into your tax account. Do this on a monthly basis so you don’t get behind.
A little planning goes a long way. It is actually pretty easy to stay on top of your taxes if you start the year with good estimates and end the year fine-tuning your liability with the help of your accountant.Updates
Featured image: “Half Pink Piggy Bank” from Shutterstock.
Jared Correia doesn’t own a smartphone, but that doesn’t stop him from being a tech guy at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program. Here’s an excerpt from his argument for why:
There is this prevailing attitude that the modern world is generally untethered, that we’re free, because we’re no longer connected to physical servers (now they’re virtual, in the cloud) or cords (save for charging). The fact is, there’s always a physical device, always a plug, always a grid, lurking somewhere in the background, or at the end — even as we try to trick ourselves into believing that is not the case, and that we are, in large part, unrestricted. Perhaps we’re more restricted than ever.
Correia does, apparently, carry around a Microsoft Surface and an iPad and a portable modem, so I’m not sure he’s all that serious about the whole not-being-available-24/7 thing. For my part, you can pry my smartphone from my frozen-by-carpal-tunnel-syndrome hands. I’d sooner give up my tablet and my laptop.
Edit: Then again, maybe Correia is smarter than the rest of us.
Featured image: “No Smartphone sign icon” from Shutterstock.
We’ve all seen a lawyer get combative in court, accomplishing nothing very loudly with lots of gesticulating and getting red in the face. Sometimes, there is a point to be made. Often, it serves no obvious purpose. At Unwashed Advocate, Eric Mayer explains what is really happening:
“So, what is all of this going to do for me?” [my client] finally inquires.
“It will show you that I’m working hard and earning my fee.”
That’s about it. For a better approach, read Mayer’s post.
Featured image: “angry businessman pointing to something with yelling” from Shutterstock.
The venerable AbacusLaw practice management software has been around for thirty-one years in one version or another. Abacus does not make it much of a secret that it would like to be your all-in-one legal technology company, providing everything from case management to a full desktop in the cloud that could replace an entire IT department. To that end, they have recently revamped AbacusLaw, using input from over 4,000 of their existing customers. AbacusLaw will now be a cloud service rather than an old-school desktop application, with a relaunch planned for early November.
Here is a preview.Calendar
If you are like many lawyers and have found yourself hitched, willingly or not, to Outlook, AbacusLaw’s calendar will make you feel right at home because it looks just like Outlook — if someone custom designed it just for people with task-heavy jobs.
You can, of course, view your schedule by week, month, or day. AbacusLaw also adds widgets on the sides that let you track things to do and calls to make while still letting you see your full calendar.
Over the years, almost every program will experience “feature creep,” the unfortunate tendency to just keep bolting on new features, with the end result being increased menu clutter and disorganization. To combat that, AbacusLaw streamlined the calendar interface and tried to tailor the program for different levels of users. One way in which they have done that is by creating a menu that contains the most-used features and methods of setting up your calendar
… and an advanced screen that lets you use Boolean-style expressions to fully tailor the calendar appearance.
There are robust cross-calendar features where you can view multiple calendars at a time or scope down to a single user in your team — features that will be more useful for larger firms rather than solo or small practitioners. Calendar events can also be narrowed down to a particular event and coded with a variety of common activities such as vacation, appointment, or witness prep.Matters
AbacusLaw, like most case management software, links your matters to your calendar, your clients, your documents, and your emails.
Different types of cases have pre-set matter styles.
AbacusLaw also provides something it calls Practice Area Legal Solutions (PALS).1 PALS are pre-configured versions of AbacusLaw for specific areas covering matter screens, relevant rules, sample documents, and forms.Forms
AbacusLaw includes a number of pre-written forms for many jurisdictions. In a neat touch, the program will autofill relevant data for you.
Standard forms are included as part of your monthly subscription. AbacusLaw will design and build other forms for you if necessary, but those come with an additional fee.AbacusLaw Gold
AbacusLaw is the base case management software provided by Abacus. In order to get time tracking, billing, and accounting you would need to use AbacusLaw Gold for an additional fee.
Time tickets link directly to case matters, and you are able to bill from within the matter itself. On the accounting side, you can run reports that detail overall summaries of your accounts, trust balances, and aged accounts receivable, among others.
AbacusLaw Gold includes over 100 standard accounting and billing-related reports. As with other components of AbacusLaw, Abacus will build out additional reports for a fee if you need them.Integration with Abacus Private Cloud
Ultimately, what Abacus wants is for you to run AbacusLaw (preferably AbacusLaw Gold, actually) within Abacus Private Cloud, although it is entirely possible to run it locally. There are definite advantages to the Abacus cloud, as that integration will give you far more robust backend support from Abacus. Running everything in Abacus cloud means you get nightly backups of your AbacusLaw database and all your documents and forms. You also get automatic updates and system enhancements. Integration will also let you link all incoming and outgoing emails from your Outlook account directly into AbacusLaw, so emails can be added to matters seamlessly. However, this integration, while appealing, might be cost-prohibitive for smaller firms.Price
The Abacus pricing schemes can seem a bit difficult to follow at first, largely because the goal is to have you use all their products and prices vary based on what you use. Broken down, however, you can see that the AbacusLaw prices are roughly in line with other common practice management software applications. The additional costs come from adding the billing and cloud services.
AbacusLaw itself starts at $47 per month per user, with the monthly service fee covering updates, unlimited technical support, training videos, and webinars. If you go with AbacusLaw Gold, which includes the base case management software of AbacusLaw and additional time, billing, and accounting modules, that will cost $67 per month per user.
If you run everything in the Abacus Private Cloud as Abacus suggests, that adds at least another $165 per month to the bottom line, but that additional monthly cost lets you essentially eliminate your IT and server hardware costs. That cost — even if significantly increased by added users or customization — is likely attractive if you are a medium-sized firm looking to slash costs. However, $230 per month is a steep price for Abacus if you are small or solo practitioner, even if it nets you case management software, accounting and billing software, and a managed desktop.
These prices are all base prices and do not take into account customizations or possible discounts.Who Should Use AbacusLaw?
Given the prices and the features, is AbacusLaw right for your practice? That’s a complicated answer. As a standalone program, its costs are manageable, particularly if you have only one or two employees. The case management software is easy to navigate and contains a really robust calendaring system, which is something even small firms need. However, the best use of AbacusLaw appears to come from being able to take advantage of the tight integration between the case management software, the billing software, and the private cloud, and that will probably make it cost-prohibitive for a solo or small firm.
However, if you are at a mid- or large-sized firm and are interested in decreasing your hardware costs (by no longer needing to invest in servers) and decreasing your IT personnel budget (by no longer needing a full on-site IT team), then the full Abacus suite could be a great option.
At the National Law Journal, Professor Richard Hasen thinks the Supreme Court should be a bit more transparent when it makes changes to published opinions.
[T]he Supreme Court, which is, after all, an accountable public body, should take four basic steps to make its actions more transparent. None of these steps would require release of any private information about the court’s deliberations, or even the justices’ privately recorded certiorari votes ….
He’s absolutely right. The fact that the U.S. Supreme Court can change its opinions without telling anyone is ridiculous. As Hasen rightly points out, these changes should be announced to the public (not just to the press corps).
His other suggestions — making court filings available to the public and easier to find on the SCOTUS website, and announce the schedule and release of opinions and orders — make a lot of sense, too.
Featured image: “Panorama of the United States Supreme Court at dusk in Washington DC, USA” from Shutterstock.
This was originally published as “How Michigan Law Firms Can Successfully Navigate an Office Relocation” in the October 2014 edition of the Michigan Bar Journal. It is republished here with permission.
Moving your law firm can be pricey, challenging, and risky. Problems may include deteriorating team morale, getting locked in to a long-term lease that doesn’t work for the firm, and spending more money than necessary.
Firms that do it right not only lock in efficient space at economic terms supported by the firm’s overall business plan, but also create work environments that reflect their culture, ethos, and values. As a result, they can sidestep the pitfalls of an unsuccessful move.
How can your law firm maximize the benefits of relocation but minimize costs and ultimately have your space serve as a recruiting tool for new hires and clients? It’s a topic I know very well as a result of more than 40 years in the commercial real estate business. Boutique and national law firms regularly seek advice on creating office space that positions them properly for the future both culturally and, maybe even more importantly, economically.
While there is no master blueprint that works for everyone, here are some of the most important questions to ask.1. Is the move necessary?
Law firms are often courted by building owners to anchor new developments, which frequently come with the highest rent per square foot in the market. I encourage clients to seriously consider whether they can stay in their existing space. A relocation often costs more (and is more disruptive to a firm) than a simple upgrade or modification of the existing space. It is important for clients to fully assess how their current space can be renovated to meet the business’s future needs. A word of caution: living through a renovation can be difficult on your ongoing operations, so make sure you factor this into your decision.2. Is the moving bill too high?
Some people mistakenly think that a growing rent bill is the sign of a growing company. I know from experience that many firms actually need less space (and expense) rather than more. With the added pressure firms are seeing clients place on their billing rates and fees, the bottom-line impact of real estate expenses is becoming more significant.
Traditionally, after moving into the newest “Class A” space, law firms proceed to build spectacular Architectural Digest-style environments with high-end finishes and custom touches. Besides the obvious financial impact and increased operating or capital expense, this tactic may turn off a client. One of my clients told me about visiting his law firm’s new offices. He fired the firm on the spot, assuming the firm’s billing rates increased to cover the overhead of its accoutrements of wealth.
Following lock-and-step is another important issue for firms to consider: the financial security or guarantees a landlord will ask the firm to post to secure the lease. For a partnership, this is a significant issue often overlooked until the eleventh hour of lease negotiations. It is important to note that with a larger rental obligation and larger capital costs associated with the lease, landlords look for a larger security deposit.
How can your law firm maximize the benefits of relocation but minimize costs and ultimately have your space serve as a recruiting tool for new hires and clients?3. Am I Stuck on Old Assumptions and Paradigms?
Traditionally, law firms have recognized career advancement with real estate. As you were promoted, your workspace became larger, with the goal of getting a private office and, ultimately, the oversized corner office. These days, instead of awarding large private offices as rewards, I typically advise my clients to find other ways to recognize career advancement or a job well done. Look for new ways to bring workers together instead of driving them apart.
How can your law firm maximize the benefits of relocation but minimize costs and ultimately have your space serve as a recruiting tool for new hires and clients?
Law firms across the country are shrinking their per-attorney footprint and shedding unnecessary spaces like libraries and large file rooms. They are making individual offices smaller (and often embracing one standard size) by removing small conference tables from individual offices and converting that saved square footage into dedicated conference rooms the entire firm can use. Standard-size offices, especially when they are the same size as small conference rooms, provide for flexibility and allow the firm to use its office space more efficiently.
Hoteling, a concept those in the accounting and consulting industries are long familiar with, is being embraced by firms that have realized many offices sit vacant during the day when attorneys are at client meetings, depositions, in court, working from home, or on vacation. Hoteling has become more common in recent years because of improvements to and developments in technology and the latest trends in coworking.
These changes are often easier to implement than you might otherwise think given the new culture of egalitarianism and equality that has taken root in today’s business environment.4. Am I hedging the potential risk?
Because of the volatile economy, a law firm signing a new office lease should seek to hedge three potential types of risk: building risk (changes to your building’s infrastructure or ownership could impact your occupancy), market risk (events in the global marketplace that trickle through to real estate and have an impact on rents tenants pay), and business risk (the inherent risks within your own business that affect profitability).
How do you mitigate these risks in your new office lease?
Before you sign a lease, you must clearly understand your ability (or lack thereof) to expand or contract your space over the course of that lease. This is especially important if you are considering a long-term lease (5 or even 10 years).
These days, it is not uncommon for a law firm to experience rapid growth or, conversely, a decline in partners or practice groups. In this case, you will need more or less space almost immediately, even if your lease has not ended.
In negotiations, push to have as much lease flexibility as you can, with layers of options to expand, contract, and terminate. In many instances, landlords are initially resistant to provide these rights, but firms should push for these options and even consider paying a premium for this flexibility.
In negotiations, push to have as much lease flexibility as you can, with layers of options to expand, contract, and terminate.5. Does the location support our employees?
Your attorneys and staff work long hours. If your office space is ultimately a recruitment and retention tool, wouldn’t understanding the commuting habits of your present and prospective employees be paramount?
For this reason, seek an office location that is convenient for your attorneys and staff—not just the company’s partners.
Remember, too, that convenience is about more than commute times. Firms are placing more importance on work-life balance and focusing on locations with supporting amenities and services nearby such as restaurants, day care, fitness centers, bike rooms, and even pet-friendly environments.6. Am I Considering Who My Clients (and Future Clients) are?
Your office space is ultimately a reflection of the firm’s values and culture. Forward-thinking firms take it a step further and consider their clients’ comfort. For instance, for a firm trying to expand its tech practice, traditional office space in a trophy high-rise tower may not reflect the values or work style of its clients. Consider building in amenities your clients can use to their advantage, such as conference rooms with great connectivity and internal spaces that can host industry mixers or startup competitions.7. Does My Advisor Have a Conflict of Interest?
One final point: I always recommend finding an experienced commercial real estate broker who does not have the typical conflicts of interest commonly found in the industry.
How do you know if your broker has a potential conflict? Ask if the broker’s firm also represents the building landlord in this or other transactions. Even if a brokerage firm pledges to keep a “wall” between its tenant and landlord representation divisions, it ultimately may not have your best interests at heart. Your clients wouldn’t allow you to represent both sides of a negotiation, so why would you pick a brokerage firm that does?
With the proper planning and strategy, a relocation can infuse a firm with newfound energy and enthusiasm. Better yet, it can improve the performance of your employees and, ultimately, your bottom line.
What is Legal Hackers, LLC, you ask?
Legal Hackers is a global movement of lawyers, policymakers, technologists, and academics who explore and develop creative solutions to some of the most pressing issues at the intersection of law and technology.
Hey, that sounds awesome. But wait:
The term “Legal Hackers” is currently pending trademark registration with the USPTO [by Legal Hackers, LLC].
Wait, what? That sounds like bullshit. I’m no trademark lawyer, but isn’t legal hackers just a description of a kind of hacker, like family lawyer is just a description of a kind of lawyer? I don’t think you can trademark that sort of thing. Besides, it sounds like Legal Hackers, LLC, thinks it should own the movement. If I were a part of this movement (which I totally want to be, now that I know about it), that would make me pretty uncomfortable.
The legal hackers community is having a quite civilized debate about the whole thing. Probably more civilized than it deserves. But if you want a pretty detailed breakdown of the whole thing, see these posts by John Grant:
Be right back, I’m off to trademark GROCERY STORE.
There is a lot of discussion lately about the need for lower-cost legal fees. This is an important discussion for lawyers to have, but I think it is also important to stop and reflect on why hiring a lawyer is so expensive in the first place.
On top of the considerable cost of acquiring a law degree, malpractice insurance, business overhead, etc. — only some of which can be reduced by technology, procedures, and maybe even non-lawyer ownership — I don’t know if the public really appreciates what a lawyer agrees to do for her clients when we sign a retainer. In fact, I think some lawyers need to be reminded. It’s true that many clients just want to get out of jail or a contract or for their insurance company to pay up. But in order to do that, lawyers commit to much more.
You may have heard the story about the lawyer who abandoned his Ferrari in rising flood waters so he could make it to a hearing.
After a client signs a retainer with me, I look them in the eye and tell them “Okay, you don’t have to worry about this any more. Your problems are now my problems.” It is just a thing I say, but it is a true thing I say. My clients go home and sleep soundly for the first time in weeks or months. I go home and think about the legal issues all evening. At night I dream about my client’s case. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat and pull up the scheduling order on my phone, convinced I blew a deadline. When I am at the playground with my kids, I check my email in case I get something from opposing counsel or the court. When I go out to dinner with my wife, I talk about hearings and depositions.
You may have heard the story about the lawyer who abandoned his Ferrari in rising flood waters so he could make it to a hearing. Everyone was amazed except lawyers, who were like duh. Missing a hearing is not an option. As the lawyer who owned that Ferrari said, “You can’t let the client down, no matter what personal exigencies you might have.”
Lawyers are expensive because you get a lot for your money. You get someone who will abandon their precious supercar — or regular car — in rising flood waters so he can attend your hearing. You get someone who will lose sleep worrying about your legal problem so you can finally get some rest.
Lawyers have a pretty singular value proposition. We take care of legal problems for our clients. When you sign a retainer agreement, your client’s problem basically becomes your problem. They can go back to sleeping through the night, and you start losing sleep, instead. You worry about where to find the paperwork or file the forms or how to get to the hearing while they go about their daily lives.
[N]obody thinks Facebook will really keep your secrets
This is why comparing non-legal products and services like Apple and Uber and Facebook to legal services doesn’t really work. Nobody would expect an Uber driver to absorb the cost of a parking ticket just so she can pick you up where you want. I’ve known plenty of lawyers who parked illegally to be on time for a hearing and eaten the ticket as a cost of doing business. Nobody expects an iPhone to absorb your stress and nobody thinks Facebook will really keep your secrets. Lawyers aren’t like tech companies, and they probably can’t be.
So as long as that high level of obligation is what you get for your legal fee, the fee can only drop so much. To reduce the cost of legal services past a certain point, you probably have to reduce the lawyer’s obligation to the client.
That is easy to say but another thing entirely to do. Our obligations flow from our rules of professional conduct, most of which we cannot ask a client to waive. All we can do is limit the scope of representation — generally called unbundling legal services. Unbundling can make a lot of sense for some things, but it is not a panacea for lowering the cost of legal services.
If the cost of hiring lawyers is really too great (and I am not convinced that is true across the board), we need other solutions, and they might have to include reducing lawyers’ professional obligations. So, just so we’re clear, when we talk about lowering the cost of legal services, what we are really talking about is fundamentally changing what it means for a lawyer to represent a client.
Featured image: “a businessman holding a burlap money bag” from Shutterstock.
Knowing how to punctuate properly is essential to good legal writing. Besides the semicolon, though, lawyers probably misunderstand—and as a result misuse—the em dash more than any other punctuation mark. That’s because it’s possible for a lawyer to write for an entire career without ever having to use it.
But lawyers who consciously avoid using the em dash forsake an important legal-writing tool. They’re like carpenters who choose to work with rudimentary tools instead of precision instruments. The job gets done; but the result is hardly refined.What’s an em dash?
The em dash (—) is about as wide as a capital H. In Typography for Lawyers, Matthew Butterick dispels the myth that the em refers to the letter M. According to Butterick, the em instead refers to units of typographical measurement: “In a traditional metal font, the em was the vertical distance from the top of a piece of type to the bottom.”
The origin of the em dash is unclear. Noreen Malone, in The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash recounts speculation that the em dash has existed since the Gutenberg printing press (ca. 1450s) but she also notes that it didn’t routinely appear in print until the 1700s. If true, the em dash is a recent invention compared to other punctuation marks such as the period and comma.Em dash as utility infielder
The em dash is a versatile punctuation mark, somewhat like baseball’s utility infielder. Besides doing their own work in a sentence, em dashes can substitute for commas, parentheses, and even colons to mark a variety of interruptions.
In Writing with Style, John Trimble lists five different circumstances where em dashes can mark interruptions. I’ve listed them below, along with usage examples:
Skilled legal writers usually limit their em dashes to Trimble’s fifth circumstance because the other four, which all require a single dash and force the reader to stop abruptly, occur less often in legal writing.
But consider number five above. Notice how commas or parentheses wouldn’t have the same attention-grabbing effect on the explanatory phrase:
Sentences such as this one call for a pair of em dashes. Commas or parentheses—while grammatically acceptable—simply don’t do the job.Misusing em dashes
Like other writing tools, lawyers can misuse the em dash. Here are some things to avoid.
Now that you know the basics, consider trying out the versatile em dash. You’ll find that the em dash adds energy—and much needed variety—to your prose. The em dash also gives you another option when the standard commas, parentheses, or colons don’t quite strike the desired tone. Like a carpenter with precision tools, em dashes will polish your prose and make your legal writing stand out from the mediocre.
This column is adapted from an article originally published in the Minnesota Lawyer on July 1, 2013.Updates
Fed up with landing on front pages every time someone gets ahold of some passwords, Facebook has decided to be proactive. Last week, Facebook announced it built a system to monitor “paste” sites commonly used to distribute login credentials or advertise credentials for sale.1
When it gets ahold of login credentials, Facebook’s system will check them against its users’ credentials by comparing the hashes.2 If they match, Facebook will alert the user and force a password change.
It’s pretty awesome that Facebook is doing this, and I hope more companies will follow suit.
Don’t watch this unless you want to see Scalia depicted as an actual bulldog, Alito as a poodle, and the court reporter as a chicken.
Fire up your video editor, because here is Last Week Tonight‘s raw footage so you can remix the Court’s arguments yourself.
There are basically two “doors” to your computer, and you need to lock both of them to prevent someone from accessing the information on your computer. The front door is through your operating system (Windows, OS X, Linux, etc.). You can put a lock on the front door by using a password. This is the password you use to log in to Windows.
This password — your operating system password — prevents someone from using your computer as if they were you. This is a good idea, but it does not protect the back door: your hard drive.
In most computers, your hard drive is not much different from a USB drive (thumb drive, flash drive, whatever). It just plugs into your computer’s Serial ATA port instead of a USB port. Here is an $8 cable that lets you plug any hard drive into a USB port. Once plugged into a USB port, the data on your hard drive is as easy to read as any other USB drive.
Here is how easy it is to remove your hard drive:
The “hard drives” in many tablets and ultrabooks are a bit more difficult to access since they are soldered to the motherboard. That just means it takes a few more steps to read them; it does not make the data more secure.
There is no password that can protect the data on your hard drive. You need a different sort of security: encryption. Encrypting your hard drive scrambles the data as if every bit of information were run through a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring. Except way more complicated.
Enabling encryption is, fortunately, not complicated at all. Turning on Bitlocker (Windows) or FileVault (OS X) is just a setting. Turn it on, and your back door is locked. (If your version of Windows does not have Bitlocker, you need to upgrade to a version that does.)
Once you enable encryption, you don’t have to think about it. When you log into your computer with your password (make it a good one!), your computer will decrypt your files on the fly as you need them. You can open them, attach them to emails, and use them as usual. But when you log out of your computer, your files will be encrypted and your back door will be locked.
There are, of course, other potential “doors” into your computer, but those are a bit more complicated to deal with, so they are a question for another day.Updates
We are living in 1984. The novel, that is, not the year. Big Brother is watching you — and reading your emails, browsing your contact lists, keeping tabs on your call history, and tracking your movements. If you represent non-US clients, Big Brother may even be reading your confidential attorney-client communications, according to the New York Times.
This probably does not raise any serious ethical concerns for most lawyers. That is, I don’t think you will lose your law license because you use email. But it should make you pretty uncomfortable.
And while there is probably no reason to panic, it also means you should probably change the way you use the cloud.
I no longer think it is wise to use the cloud as the default place to store your information. Maybe that was always a bad idea, but it definitely looks like a bad idea now.
A year or so ago, I thought it made sense to use the cloud as a default. I put nearly all my information in the cloud, unless there was a good reason not to. After last June, the documents released by Edward Snowden started hitting the media. We now know that the NSA is not only vacuuming up information from the public Internet, but infiltrating major companies, undermining fundamental security software, and even intercepting computers in the mail to install spyware. It is also unclear which companies are cooperating, although some seem like they might even be on the NSA’s payroll.
Apart from governments — our own and others — the last few years have seen a resurgence in malicious hacking by non-government actors. It seems like every week we get a new warning to change our passwords because a popular cloud service has been compromised.
I no longer think it is wise to use the cloud as the default place to store your information. Maybe that was always a bad idea, but it definitely looks like a bad idea now. I think we have to assume that the government has (or can easily get) access to anything you send through the air or over a wire, especially (but not only) if it is unencrypted. So can many others. So if you weren’t already thinking carefully about what you put in the cloud, you must do so from now on. Put stuff in the cloud only when it needs to be in the cloud.Be Smart About the Cloud
There is no reason to fear the cloud. Instead, be smart about the cloud. If you choose your services carefully, using the cloud is at least as secure as not using it, and it can be more secure. In fact, for most people the cloud is far more secure than hosting a private server.
“[E]veryone needs to recalibrate their baseline expectation of confidentiality ….”
I reached out to several cloud software vendors to find out what they are doing in the wake of the Snowden revelations. None of them are using RSA, and all of them say they are using best practices when it comes to security. Clio‘s Jack Newton probably described the general feeling best when he quoted Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, who characterized the NSA as an “advanced persistent threat.” MyCase‘s Matt Spiegel said that “these are concerns we have always known existed,” and that Snowden’s revelations were merely confirming what most security experts already believed. Rocket Matter‘s Larry Port agreed, saying “the NSA revelations were a gift, in that now everyone else is as paranoid as I am.”
Newton admitted, though, that “everyone needs to recalibrate their baseline expectation of confidentiality … every medium is less secure … whether it’s a cell phone, personal computer, private server or a cloud-based application.”
On the basic question of whether the cloud is more secure than managing your own IT infrastructure, Spiegel (unsurprisingly) called the cloud “infinitely more secure, for many reasons, than data simply being kept on your local computer or server.” He has a vested interest in saying so, but I tend to agree with him. Few enough lawyers are proficient with Microsoft Word, much less setting up solid automatic backup or a secure file server, and there aren’t many lawyers willing to pay a security professional to keep their network secure at all times.
Still, lawyers have a duty to use appropriate security, and to me, that means using the cloud only when necessary.Re-Think Your Use of the Cloud
If you only had one computer and no smartphone or tablet, you could probably get by just fine without the cloud. But most of us now have at least two devices, and we really want to be able to sync up our email, calendars, tasks, and access documents wherever we are and whatever we are using.
Currently, the only way to do that is the cloud. (The “personal cloud” concept is just beginning to take shape, but it is not yet a realistic option for most users.)Email
Email was cloud-based before the cloud was even a thing. And storing your messages in one place just makes sense, whether that is Gmail or your own server. But email, by its nature, not very secure. Most email is transferred unencrypted and in the clear. Think postcards, not sealed envelopes. It is so easy to intercept email in transit that anyone who wants a copy will probably get one.
Because of the relative insecurity of email, you have two choices: watch what you say over email, or encrypt it.
In general, watch what you put in email and talk to your clients about email security. If you would not want the NSA to read your message, do not put it in an email. In fact, an experienced lawyer once told me not to put anything in a letter that I would not want to see on the front page of the newspaper. That sounds like a good guideline for email, too.
There are two alternatives for securing your digital communications: secure portals and encryption.
A secure portal is a website you can only connect to via HTTPS that holds any messages (and often, files) you want to give someone else access to. For example, you would log in, type a message to your client, and hit send. Your client would get an email letting them know they have a message, which they would have to log in to get. A secure portal is cumbersome, but it is an effective extra layer of security. (It is also a good idea if you are representing employees and worry about them reading emails from you at work.)
Some secure portals include Clio and MyCase, which send notifications by email, but do not include the substance of the message.
Another, higher-security option is encrypting your emails. This works, but it is even more cumbersome than a secure portal, and you will have to train your clients to do it properly. Still, if you want to secure your communications, email encryption works.Calendars and Tasks
Calendars and tasks are much more useful when stored in the cloud so you can sync them between devices and share calendars with co-workers and family members. But meeting requests generally go out over email, and not all online calendars are secured by HTTPS by default (Google Calendar is a notable exception).
To ensure calendar and task security, look for cloud services that use HTTPS by default, and avoid sending meeting requests if doing so would reveal confidential information.Documents
Documents are especially handy when kept in the cloud. The ability to pull up your client files from anywhere using your smartphone is pretty great. But you definitely don’t need anytime, anywhere access to all your files. There is probably no reason to store your closed files in the cloud, for example.
Cloud file sync and storage also includes a variety of security levels. Dropbox, probably the most-popular option, transfers your files over a secure connection, but does not encrypt your files until they reach Dropbox’s servers. And Dropbox is able to decrypt your files. Plus, Dropbox may be cooperating with the NSA.
Still, Dropbox is widely supported by mobile apps, making it the best choice for files you really do need to be able to get to anytime, anywhere. Which is why I still use Dropbox for some things, like draft blog posts and eBooks, camera uploads, and board meeting documents for the non-profits I work with. But I don’t put my client files in Dropbox anymore.
You could use something like Boxcryptor or Viivo to add an extra layer of encryption to Dropbox. I found Boxcryptor to be clunky, but Viivo works great and makes it easy to open your files in other mobile apps (although they will not be encrypted in those apps, obviously).
SpiderOak is often touted as a more-secure alternative to Dropbox. It is, as far as I can tell, but the security comes with some downsides. Like Boxcryptor and Viivo, almost no mobile apps support SpiderOak, which limits your options for getting your files onto your phone or tablet.
You can either have security or convenience, in other words. Not both. At least not yet. Recent updates to iOS are making it easier for apps to interact, which makes it less important which cloud file storage service you decide to use.
Another option is to skip the cloud entirely and use BitTorrent Sync. As we have discussed in the Lab, BTSync is relatively new, and has yet to either open-source its code or submit to a security audit. That said, BTSync is file sync without the cloud. It syncs up files between your computers and devices, but they are never stored on anyone else’s servers. Files are transferred (really quickly) over a secure connection, which means it is just as secure as Dropbox file transfers, but you don’t have to entrust your files to a third party. And while app support is weak, there is a nice BTSync app, which lets you view your files and send them to other apps. BitTorrent Sync is also growing really fast, which means third-party support should follow. Plus, it is free.
For backup, I continue to recomment a combination of local backup and CrashPlan, which is about as secure as the cloud gets.When Not to Use the Cloud
The bottom line is my new philosophy when it comes to the cloud: only use the cloud when you need to. And if you do use the cloud, make sure you choose the right level of security for the data you put there. If you don’t need to use the cloud, keep the information local and encrypted.
That said, I continue to think lawyers should use the cloud. The new comment to Rule 1.1 cuts both ways:
[A] lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology ….
If you don’t use appropriate technology, you are doing your clients and your ethical obligations just as much a disservice as if you use inappropriate technology. Sometimes, the cloud is the right tool for the job, and sometimes it isn’t. You cannot ignore it, but you cannot dismiss it as an option out of hand, either.Updates
Featured image: “Businessman hand working with a Cloud Computing diagram” from Shutterstock.
An immigration judge in Atlanta denied an attorney’s request to delay a hearing that fell during her six-week maternity leave and then scolded her in front of a packed courtroom when she showed up with her 4-week-old strapped to her chest and the infant began to cry, the attorney said.
Well played, mom.
Staci actually broke this story, and the AP apparently reported it without giving her credit. Lame. ↩
Illinois lawyer Joanne Denison created a blog about courtroom corruption that landed her in hot water with the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission (IARDC) for “alleging professional misconduct in making false statements on her Blog.” In a creative and novel response, Denison tried suing the IARDC for including content from her blog in its complaint.
Good design is the foundation of a website that brings in business. Whether your marketing focus is on offline networking or search-engine optimization, your website must convince potential clients to take the next step toward hiring you.
We have been showcasing the best law firm websites for five years, and we have found that the best-designed law firm websites have some things in common. A well-designed website should look good, of course, but the reason to take the design of your website seriously is because a well-designed website persuades clients to contact and hire you.
Compelling copy and solid search-engine optimization are also important, but in this white paper our focus is design — design that helps turn visitors into clients.Get the White Paper
To get “10 Things the Best Law Firm Website Designs Have in Common,” just fill out this short form and we’ll send it to you.First Name *
First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza has found a gem: an opinion from the Texas Supreme Court quoting Walter Sobchak in “The Big Lebowski” on prior restraint (see the video above). With this, you can cite to a case instead of a movie. Here is the citation you need:
Kinney v. Barnes, 57 Tex. Sup. J. 1428 at n.7, (Tex. 2014) (citing SOBCHAK, W., THE BIG LEBOWSKI, 1998).
I’m not sure about those all-caps, but I will defer to Marc.
So you want to write your own website copy? I highly recommend you don’t, for these two key reasons:1. You Have More Important Things To Do
Your time is precious, which means you should focus it on performing tasks that only you can handle. Like writing a brief. Or appearing in court. Or meeting with a prospective client. The list goes on.
Your business needs you to do what you are good at, as much as possible. It does not need you to spend countless hours figuring out what pages to have on your website, what copy should go where, or which words to use. DIY marketing is not the best way for you to spend your time.2. Someone Else Can Write It Better
This is the crux of it, of course. You went to law school to learn about law, not writing marketing copy. Even if you studied marketing in undergrad, you have not spent the past few years keeping up with online marketing trends and best practices. A copywriter, on the other hand, does just that. Such a writer also knows how to write for online users, including how to structure and format copy for greater engagement. By working with an experienced writer, especially one well versed in the law, you increase your odds of having effective website copy without sacrificing your time.If You Insist on Writing Your Own Website Copy
Writing and publishing website copy is important when it comes to online marketing. A professional writer can capture your voice and your message. If you decide that writing for your website is best left in your own hands, however, then I suggest you embrace the following five tips:1. Forget Everything You Learned In Law School
When it comes to writing, that is. Legal writing and website copywriting are two distinct skills. For instance, if you want to connect with your audience, you need to write at an 8th-grade level, not a 16th-grade level. You need to stop writing long sentences and paragraphs and you need to avoid footnotes and sub-clauses. And you should absolutely stop throwing around legal phrases or terms of art that people outside the legal field don’t understand. This business law firm gets it right (and may be one of the reasons it was one of this year’s best law firm websites).2. Let Go of Your Ego
Your website is not about you. It is about your prospective clients. What has meaning in the legal community may have little to no value to people outside of it (Martindale-Hubbell ratings, anyone?). Focus instead on the fact that people are looking for your services for a reason. They need help, and they want to know whether you can help them. They are looking to see if you can answer a few simple questions before they contact you. If you deliver the basics, they will reward you with phone calls and email inquiries.3. Put Yourself In the Shoes of a Prospective Client
What is your prospective client looking for? What are his or her concerns? What common problems may arise? How are they feeling at the exact moment they find your website? Write content that speaks to your client’s fears and future, and you will find that you have created content that truly connects.4. Sprinkle In Some Personality
The more you can be yourself, and the more you can show your audience who you are, the greater likelihood you will make a connection with your readers. Or have fun with your site, as humor is a great ice breaker. By adding personality to your site, your have a higher likelihood of further engaging with your prospective clients, which helps bring those prospects farther down the sales funnel. One great example of personality that I’ve seen is on the lawyer profiles of this website.5. Do Not Assume You Know How to “Do SEO”
Optimizing your website for search engines does not mean stuffing as many keywords into a page as possible. And please, for the love of all things holy, stop thinking that all you need to do is use the following combination everywhere: City + Practice Area + Lawyer. It takes time, research and experience to figure out what works right on your website from a search standpoint. So even if you write your own content, you should still hire an SEO specialist to help with your search engine optimization efforts.
Start following these tips and you will find that your content will at least begin to outperform your competition. But if you really want to make an impression on your prospects, you are better off reaching out to a trained copywriter who understands your industry and the Web.
Even though we have known for ages that circadian rhythms vary wildly, we still equate getting up early with virtuous productivity and staying up late with a slacker/procrastinator mentality. And those of us who like to get our work done at midnight are probably just hard-wired to be that way. What we did not know, however, is that our circadian rhythms might be driving us towards unethical behavior if we are doing our decision-making at the wrong time.
RelatedQuiz: “What time are you most likely to behave unethically at work?”
A recent paper by researchers from Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and Harvard sheds light on how, left to your own devices, you may become an amoral monster if you have to make an ethical choice during the wrong time of day. Basically, Christopher M. Barnes and his team set up a study in which lying resulted in more money for the text subject. First, they had people take a quiz to determine their chronotype — a fancy way of identifying which type you are: a morning person or a night person. Then they randomly assigned people to work on a task at seven in the morning or midnight without regard to whether they were a night owl or a lark. Then they waved some cash in front of their faces.
Participants undertook a die rolling task previously established as a test for unethical behavior. In this task, they anonymously rolled a die and reported the number back to us, and we paid paying them based on the number they reported (higher amounts for higher rolls).
Although we didn’t know what numbers participants actually rolled, we did know that everyone should report an average of 3.5. So any systematic differences across conditions (morning people in the morning vs. evening people in the morning, for example), would indicate cheating. Consistent with our prediction, an interesting and statistically significant pattern emerged. Larks in the night session reported getting higher rolls (M=4.55) than larks in the morning sessions (M=3.86), and owls in the morning session reported higher rolls (M=4.23) than owls in the night sessions (3.80).
(Aside: Did it not remotely occur to the people participating in this study that if they were getting rewarded with cash, something about the ethical implications of how you got that cash might be at stake?)
Setting aside the fact that there is something deeply sad about a person who would lie during a psychological research study, this has real-world implications for those of us in fields that are ostensibly grounded in ethical decision-making. While it is implausible to assume that a district court will let you start having motion practice hearings at 10 p.m., it is not absurd to suggest that firm managers would do well to accommodate employees in scheduling matters to maximize both productivity and ethical behavior.
The important organizational takeaway from these findings is that individuals may be more likely to act unethically when they are ‘mismatched’–that is, making a decision at the wrong time of day for their own chronotype,” Barnes, Gunia, and Sah write. “Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work. Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.
If you have the good fortune to be in charge of your own calendar rather than at the whim of a manager, you could consider ensuring that you schedule things like settlement conferences at at a time when you are most able to be ethical and effective.
Also, in case you are one of those night owls that are tired of always having your reputation besmirched as a lazypants, the study had something to say about that as well.
These results “cast doubt on the stereotype that evening people are somehow dissolute,” the authors conclude – early risers are just as likely to cheat when taken out of their temporal comfort zone.
If you are a night person, perhaps the researchers would write you a note you can give to your employer so you can finally stop trying to be in the office before dawn.
Gizmodo reports that some hackers are claiming to have compromised 7 million Dropbox accounts. Dropbox says the login information being passed around are actually from other services for which the users used the same usernames and passwords.
Dropbox says most of the passwords were already expired, and it has expired rest just to be safe. If you were affected, you should be asked to reset your password the next time you log in. Do that.
If you use two-factor authentication, you should be fine, though you might want to change your password anyway from an abundance of caution.