Friday, July 20, 2012
Building a Solo Office with a Megafirm Infrastructure and Low Overhead
Building a Solo Office with a Megafirm Infrastructure
The purpose of this article is to inform and inspire ideas in developing tools and techniques to reduce the overhead and maximize the infrastructure of solo legal and small firm practitioners.
It was written two years ago, and I have adapted new technology, and massively improved this setup. I also didn't really take the time to edit this article for grammar or continuity.
But, this is what got me going in the beginning. I decided to stick some more information in places, like my change of Voip provider.
Many of the software tools discussed in this article are free and easy to use, and the rest are free or cheap and require a tech savvy background to properly deploy and administer. All of the hardware discussed is intended to offer suggestions and to provide a real operating environment example.
This is not a suggestion of hardware or services, but instead outlines solutions for creating low overhead within the law office. Much of the hardware was selected by the author solely because it was available or otherwise inexpensive.
Total investment is around 4,000.00-5000.00 for two computers, a scanner, and a network printer.
Total conservative monthly overhead is around $250.00 or $300.00 for a firm with 3-5 people. ($200 for good internet and $50.00 for phones).
A web or cloud based accounting system, with low overhead, that follows all rules of trust accounting in all states, and allows for the printing of checks, does not exist at the time of this writing. No one has created a cloud based accounting system which would have lower overhead than a standard edition of quickbooks, and no one provides cloud invoicing which would allow you to specify whether a clients credit card payment was to be deposited into a trust account.
Another thing I would like to see is automatic scanning recognition and filing. With the widespread adoption of e-filing and service of legal documents by e-mail, a potential piece of software could be made to automatically file documents into a directory structure.
Case styles (a.k.a. the thing at the top that makes a paper look like a legal pleading) are somewhat standardized. These could be indexed and automatically matched with incoming documents for party names and case numbers and counties and automatically arranged.
All PC’s operating in this environment are running a Microsoft OS, but the underlying infrastructure is heavily based on Linux based hardware.
I also assume that you are starting from scratch. Customized law firm software often provides a resistance to change. Database importation can be a pure headache.
Before You Even Have An Office
Practice Management Software
Do I use Pro-Law, Amicus Attorney, or Time Matters? What about Google?
All practice management software should perform certain tasks including: Conflict Checking, Calendaring, Contact Database, and keeping track of Client Matters and Files. Any Gmail account from Google includes a calendaring system, and a Contact Database that can be used for conflict checking.
The contact database is even more amazing, when you know you will also be placing most of your phone calls for free, all over the country, for very little overhead, and plenty of room for expansion, and potentially from anywhere in the world with an internet or WiFi connection. Also, notes regarding phone calls, if answered and entered into the system, can be instantly shared between staff.
For most solo and small practitioners, a spreadsheet, placed into Google Docs, can be a File Management System. Be sure to create a Client-File (1000-001) numbering system that makes sense, include the current status of the cases, and county case numbers.
Collaborative Gmail Account
Most solo and small firm practitioners have the same problem- the ability to share information quickly and freely with the one or two people they have backing them. This model is essentially a secretary-boss type model, but here we can consider it to be a paralegal-attorney type model.
This model is scalable, and can be used not only by solo practitioners, but also small practices who use a standard paralegal-attorney type model. Not only team accounts can be used, but one master account could be used to link all the teams together.
The idea is to create a “team” or a collaborative Gmail account at http://mail.google.com. For example, email@example.com where team1 is an identifier. This could theoretically be firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com or whatever the team name would be.
After creating the new Gmail account, you can instantly enter in your contacts that you will share among the team. Gmail can import from a wide variety of databases and allow you to share among them.
This collaborative Gmail account also gives you access to Google Voice, which you can use as a Phone Number for the Team. Sign in and create a google voice account at http://voice.google.com/
A dedicated web browser is not needed, because you can just use the browser you are most comfortable with, however, I suggest using Google Chrome as a stand alone practice management tool. You can set the default windows to open in Google Chrome to the following pages automatically:
Google Calendar, Google Docs, Google Voice
You now have:
1) A calendar that can be shared, updated, and seen by anyone you wish that has a Gmail account.
2) Calendars and Contacts that can automatically sync with an iPhone or other Exchange enabled device (Windows, Android, various Smartphones, iPad, iPod Touch, etc.) (You should Use the Exchange Method to sync calendars and contacts, not Imap or the built in Gmail account Settings, See http://www.google.com/support/mobile/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=138740)
3) A phone number that can be used solely as a contact for the team, or a main office number (for security and porting, your main office number should be a non-google voice number, forwarded to a google voice number).
4) A log of all incoming calls on the Google Voice number with the ability to enter notes.
5) Transcription service of incoming voice mail messages.
6) The ability of the “team” to accept text messages to their Google Voice Number.
7) The ability to initiate calls directly from the web browser.
8) The ability to share a Google Doc spreadsheet which contains all your case numbers, client information, case status, etc.
After creating a team collaborative Gmail account, each user can create an individual Gmail account (i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com). The collaborative Gmail account should be set up to forward all e-mail to the individual team members, so that Google Voice notifications, if desired, forward to all team members.
Through using Google Voice features (Such as * to forward an incoming calls to Google Voice enabled phones, useful for forwarding after someone answers the call, 4 to record an incoming call, and the ability to transcribe and text voicemails to cell phones) you can effectively have an operational office, with a Paralegal-Attorney type scheme, all operating remotely from different locations.
Depending on your cell phone provider, your cell phone plan, and your Google voice setup, if you have unlimited calling to and from certain numbers, you can use Google voice to receive and to place all of your office calls for free, from your cell phone, without exposing your true cell phone number.
I have struggled with many different fax services, and ideas for receiving faxes. The best solutions are efax services. They provide you a dial-in number which you can put down as your office fax number, and then they can e-mail to selected accounts.
http://www.myfax.com/ is one such service that provides economical faxing for personal and small business, usually around $10-12 per month for 500 pages of faxing. That’s one ream of faxing for $10.00 per month.
You can set up your e-fax service to point to your collaborative Gmail account, and the fax will show up in firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, as well as firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or whatever the collaborative gmail account is.
Use of Google Talk Between Computer Workstations
Since both Attorney and Paralegal have Gmail accounts, it is only natural that they can communicate between computer workstations by using a text chat program. If they are both working remotely, text communication between two computer workstations, can be used to inquire about availability to take an incoming call. If the Attorney chooses to accept the call, the remote answering paralegal could hit * and then do an assisted transfer to the Attorney on the other end.
Google Talk is found embedded within the Gmail window and allows a user to send text messages to cell phones, and text messages to other Gmail users. It also allows for video and voice conferencing between Attorney and Paralegal, if their workstations are so equipped.
iPhones, iPads and iPods
After setting up and worrying with the attorney trust account, you of course wish to be able to accept credit cards. There are many various methods of accepting credit cards, and a million people trying to sign you up for their merchant services.
Deals are one thing, but convenience can be another. Also, can I do credit card deposits to both my trust account and to my law firm operations account?
Using an iPhone or iPad, or iPod touch credit card solution is one way to accept credit cards, and all you need is access to WiFi. Solutions for credit cards are available from Intuit to interface directly with your Quickbooks, and allow you to accept credit cards from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. One potential solution to the credit card trust accounting dilemma was to sign up for two different merchant service accounts available through the iPhone.
In addition to being able to accept credit cards, iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches are useful for calendar and contact syncing with your collaborative Gmail account. http://www.google.com/support/mobile/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=138740
If setup correctly, when the paralegal makes a schedule change, or adds a phone number to a contact on her iPhone, the attorney’s iPhone contact is automatically updated with the changes the paralegal made.
Of course, you can use your iPhone with your Google Voice account by adding your mobile number to your Google Voice account. It is also possible to use an iPad or an iPod Touch 4th Generation or later with your Google Voice account, with the iPad being akin to a high quality speaker phone.
Thanks to the iPhone and Google, your basic office infrastructure is in place, and you do not even have an office. This gives you time in setting up your office that you might not otherwise have available, and saves you from being at the mercy of the phone and internet installer. It also creates a nearly fool proof method of not missing incoming communication, if you have the right support base.
Building the Office
Most offices come equipped with cat5 ethernet cable, which allow for computers to be plugged in to each other using routers, hubs, and switches. I cannot express enough the need and desirability of this method of network creation over Wifi. Wifi is fast, and is reliable, and will likely improve by leaps and bounds over the upcoming years.
Regardless of that, nothing compares with not relying on WiFi, and so far, nothing is faster than actual wires. Almost all headaches with internet, server disconnections, slow internet speed, etc., in an office environment, stems from use of WiFi. That being said, for the devices such as the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, any office should have WiFi.
You have called your internet service provider, and they have provided you with a place to plug in a computer, or they have provided you with a place to plug in many computers, and sometimes a WiFi access point built in. If you have been provided with a place to plug many computers, you might have an internet device which has a STATIC IP. These devices are not preferred. Tell your internet company that you prefer a DSL Modem or a Cable Modem, and not a DSL Router or Cable Router. These devices usually have a DYNAMIC IP.
For the purposes of ease of setup, a dynamic IP, with no ISP router, is preferred.
Selecting Your Network Router, Backbone, The Core, Etc.
The main device fueling your network and sending signals to all your computers and devices is the network router. Rather than use the one provided by the ISP, you want to have one that passes the internet IP directly to the router and does not use a NAT (see above regarding ISP provided routers for multiple computers).
Companies and firms can spend hundreds of thousands on these devices, and tens of thousands of dollars for certain features such as VPN or Virtual Private Network connections.
In consumer models, these features are not present, however, they usually do provide built-in Wifi support.
Luckily, there is no need for spending that much money to get a feature rich router.
DD-WRT is a linux based firmware which is free and installs on many models of routers, and is also available pre-installed on a number of routers from Buffalo.
Information and devices supported regarding DD-WRT is available at:
I purchased a Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH, with DD-WRT pre-installed for around $70 near the time of this writing.
Whether you are completely tech savvy, or not very tech savvy, purchasing a router that is running dd-wrt will save many headaches regarding connectivity issues. Even if you have to pay a neighborhood kid to set it up, it is worth running to eliminate connectivity issues.
With DD-WRT you will be able to remotely connect to your service via VPN, if you configure it properly.
And, to make it easier to remember the IP address of your office system, and for the PBX you might want to install, you should configure a Dynamic DNS system in the DD-WRT router.
A Nearly Free Phone System
For someone looking at starting up a small firm or solo practice with multiple employees, the phone system is one of the most costly and biggest worries. It is also the vein of your business and essential to client communication. Adding a line for a new employee could be a rather large expense on a traditional telephony system.
Voice over IP telephony is the perfect solution to the telephone scalability issues. And, incorporating your Google Voice account, you can purchase an IP telephone and for around $20 per month, have unlimited long distance and incoming calls and two lines.
A simple two line phone system can be created using IP telephones (i.e. Polycom 550, Polycom 300, Cisco SPA942) and signing up for an account with http://www.callcentric.com/ I
I now use SipStation for 24.99 a month, because you can add multiple numbers inexpensively and it helps with call routing.
You can program the Polycom 550, or any other IP phone, to interface with Callcentric, providing you with a local phone number that allows for unlimited dial-in for around $8.95 per month and dial out at 1 cent per minute. However, if you use Google Voice to initiate your outgoing calls, Callcentric will see all those outgoing calls as incoming and will therefore be free.
With Free PBX, your Google voice account may be sufficient to allow each person to have their own account. However, you would need to ensure that the Google Voice account routed to their workstation is not the google voice account that they would use on a daily basis to check their e-mail.
iPhones, iPads, Computers, and iPod Touch 4th Generation devices can be used as telephone extensions using a variety of Voice over IP telephony programs. iPads and iPod touches can be used directly with the Callcentric accounts using programs like Acrobits, http://www.acrobits.cz/, and Google Voice accounts using programs like Talkatone, http://www.talkatone.com/.
A Nearly Free PBX Office Telephone System
(Advanced Computer Users Only)
Once you get comfortable configuring IP telephones for use with Callcentric, you may be willing to tackle the core of every large office communications hub.
PBX in a Flash is available for free download at http://pbxinaflash.com/
Installation of PBX in a flash is simple and straight forward, however, for documentation on configuration and installation, as well as scripts to allow for easy configuration, it would be suggested to head over to http://nerdvittles.com/ and look at their information on Incredible PBX. http://nerdvittles.com/?p=712
Incredible PBX is an add-on to PBX in a Flash which contains scripts that allows for free outbound Google Voice dialing (you can use the Google Voice account you set up in the collaborative Gmail account).
For my small office, I purchased an Aspire Revo for $189.00, in accordance with the Nerd Vittles instructions, and installed Incredible PBX. These machines now sell for $400.00 or more, but a wide variety of computers can handle FreePBX with ease. While PBX in a Flash and Asterisk server administration are not for the faint of heart, once it is configured, it is hands off. It will handle the Callcentric accounts that you setup for the Voice over IP office phones. (see freepbx, trixbox instructions at callcentric)
The Callcentric accounts you created (or, “voice over ip phone lines”) or any other Voice over IP providers you wish to use can be added as trunks of the PBX system, and can allow for dial out, as well as dial-in ringing multiple phones at once, allowing for transfers, for individual voicemail, and just about any other feature you might want in a phone system, including things that you would never use in a solo/small firm situation.
Having litigated a number of them, the last thing I wanted to do was sign a contract on a copy machine. I did inherit one of those all in one flatbed copy machines with a sheet-fed scanner, but it was slow and bulky, so I needed a new solution.
My first purchase was a high speed sheet fed scanner. And while I did not do all the shopping I could have, I purchased a Cannon ScanFront220 (roughly $1200.00) which I used to scan to my Gmail account and then I could print duplicates of the PDF on the all in one machine.
The next purchase was an HP LaserJet P3015. The benefit of this particular model of printer, like many others, is that it accepts PDFs to be directly copied to the printer and then printed out. The Cannon ScanFront220 was then setup to directly send PDFs to the printer, and so with the press of a button, one copy would pop out of my printer, and it was much faster than my all in one machine.
Also, with the ScanFront220, I was able to simultaneously send a PDF copy to the server. So, not only did I have an electronic record of every document I copied, if I needed multiple copies, I could simply open up the PDF and hit print and select the number of copies I wanted to print. One scan, a key stroke and three clicks is as much work as a large copy job on a large professional machine.
Typically, all that is needed for a file server system is a shared folder that is accessible by many users. If you have two or fewer users, a professional version of a Windows OS will allow multiple users to connect to a shared folder.
However, if you also want the ability to possibly be able to host your own website someday, you can go the next step and purchase a computer and install Ubuntu Linux or many other varieties. http://www.ubuntu.com/
Like asterisk phone system administration, linux administration is also not done by the faint of heart. However, the Ubuntu default interface is so user friendly, with the common tasks available (such as sharing a folder) through the GUI interface.
Ubuntu was selected only because of the wealth of online documentation and howto’s that are available.
After the installation of Ubuntu, the program called Samba is what allows the server’s share to be seen by windows computers.
I have used multiple cloud backups with Ubuntu, to ensure that no data will be lost. My current project is to incorporate those files into Google Drive and have a truly web based backend to all document editing. It is ongoing, and I am awaiting google engineers to finish the google drive client for linux.
The biggest benefit behind a linux machine, is that any task you can dream for a server to do, can be accomplished with enough know how and effort. However, the average user, just wants to make sure that the server is stable and can be used to share files. Once the Linux machine is installed and available on the internet, freelance linux experts can be hired to do higher configuration, of webservers, domain name servers, and a variety of other services for which you would normally pay. I suggest
Every office has an internet connection. Why pay hosting fees when you can host it yourself? Consider setting up an apache webserver on your linux machine.