Category Archives: Cost cutting

CA Readers: Buy Before Amazon Tacks on Tax

Amazon is set to begin charging sales tax on September 15 for goods sold to residents of California.  For eBooks like mine, the “residence” address is based on the billing address for your credit card.  If that is in CA, then you will pay!

Avoid the sales tax; buy your copy of Start and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice today.

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Saving Money on Software – Part 2: Case Management Software

In my first post under this topic, I discussed free and low-cost word processing software options.  This post will look into ways to manage your high volume of legal matters so you do not end up managed BY them.

Legal matter management software (a/k/a case management software and practice management software) is available at price points from little or nothing to amazingly expensive.  It depends on what you need as to whether any of the many available options is suitable for your present and future needs.  Your level of technology skills will also affect the product you select.

In my companion blawg, “Practical Compliance,” I posted a 4-part series on making the best software choice for a small firm, legal department or organization.  Rather than repeat that content here, you can use these links to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. In those posts, I described a strategy as follows:

1. Decide what you need and want, THEN shop.
2. Stay open to changing your requirements after you shop.
3. Let the actual users have a voice.
4. Keep the future open-ended.
5. Make a long-term decision.

Instead, this post will point out a few feature considerations you should review before you make an investment of time and or money on any choice.  (Full disclosure:  I have a consulting relationship with one vendor mentioned below, LucidIQ.)

The LSR practice needs a few features in case management software that are common to other types of law practice, but not usually at the same time:

  1. Ability to assemble batches of similar documents for multiple clients using information specific to each client with minimal data entry
  2. Ability to link tasks in sequence to help each client’s matter “self-manage” to a limited extent
  3. Ability to present key details about each client matter in easy-to-find format
  4. Accessible outside the office
  5. Able to give restricted access to clients to update their own matters with documents, data, notes, etc.
  6. Affordable monthly subscription options

Here are the reasons for each of those features:

1.  Batch Document Assembly.  The more clients you serve with each single effort, the more effectively you are using your limited resources (staff time, e.g., or your own).  When you can click a button and generate the standard form of a document for multiple clients, customized with their particular data, you are much more effective than when you have to open each client’s matter and create their documents separately.  Ideally, you will assemble the same basic document for a dozen or more clients at a time with similar legal matters this way.

2.  Linked-Action Workflow.  You can have “two dimensional,” passive tasks on a list or you can have tasks that are 3D and actually play an active role in keeping the matter moving along.  The first type requires more effort each time you use it; the second, after you configure the task, actually shaves time off your file maintenance work each time you use it, resulting in a return on your initial investment.  When you mark Task A “completed” in a routine matter, your CMS should know what comes next and move to that next step in the flow of work.  Even better, the CMS should be able to send an email to your clients when their matter gets to pre-determined stages to either alert them that they need to take a certain action or that you have completed that task or stage.  This helps you satisfy your ethical obligation to keep clients reasonably informed while increasing client satisfaction.

3.  Pragmatic UI.  If you have to dig in your matters to find the key details you look for frequently, you lose time.  Make sure you can configure the matter summary screen to at least present the most important details about the file on the top level to save you from searching, browsing, clicking…..

4.  Accessibility.  I cannot think of a good reason to buy a CMS (or rent one) that does not offer easy access from any Internet connection.  As you know from some ideas presented in the book, Start and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice: How to Make Money Serving the “Do It Yourself” Client, there are a number of service delivery models that involve getting out of the office.  If the product does not at least have a web client that works as well for your needs as the local version, move on to another option.  You want to be untethered so you can work anywhere there is a connection.

5.  Client DIY Input.  The fundamental concept beneath “unbundled” and “limited scope” legal services is that the client is doing more of the work than in traditional, full-scope representation.  Your CMS needs to accommodate that in a way that helps you be more efficient while preserving confidentiality and security.  Most CMS products allow configurable “roles” for users, but many still do not embrace or support the idea of direct client access to limited portions of the electronic matter file.  Bankruptcy software is a notable exception here; take a cue from their strategy to help high-volume, low-margin consumer bankruptcy attorneys succeed.  It is less work on you and your staff for a client to be able to upload a PDF of their document, for example, than even to email it to you.  Same for keying in personal data such as SSNs, dates, etc.

6.  Affordable, monthly payments.  Get going without a major, up-front investment in a product that may not work for or grow with you.  Make sure you spend your limited technology budget wisely.  While you may opt for an annual subscription that saves a little off the monthly fee, avoid multi-year subscriptions until you are sure this is the product you want to work with for a long time.  The key, as emphasized in the book, is to keep your on-going costs low, paying only for what you need when you need it, not for expensive tools with features that you may never grow into.

There may be other legal case management software vendors who offer all of these, but I know for certain that you can find them all in Case Manager Pro by LucidIQ.  Though CMP was designed for mass tort case complexity, it has a great screen design that I personally would prefer to use for a limited scope practice over any others I have seen.  Shop around, compare features, do the demos and ask for a trial login for each of your top 3-4 CMS vendors.

You should be able to quickly see how the software helps you cut or keep costs low when you set it up correctly.

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“Obomny Care” for Law?

Whether you agree or disagree with some or all of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known by a lot of names like Obama Care), the reality is that the medical services sector is adapting to it.  What can we learn from their efforts that will help a Limited Scope Representation practice?

One thing is how the medical profession is considering or already implementing changes in direct services to patients.  Facing a predicted shortage of primary care physicians until medical schools can catch up to the growth in the number of insured patients, hospitals, clinics and small physician practices are looking for new ways to meet the needs of patients in an effective, efficient and profitable manner.  (Sound familiar?)

There are going to be changes in the way insurance companies pay for and physicians practice medicine, and those are likely to occur whether or not the law’s provisions all remain intact.  Some physicians will change the interludes between procedures and follow-up office visits; others will delegate more patient interaction to their assistants.  All will look for more ways to operate with greater effectiveness at lower costs.

In my book, I explain the benefits of learning from other professions and businesses in your community.  I expect we will see some inspiring creativity in the medical field in coming years that will spark innovation in the legal services world among others.

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Should you move to the country?

An article in the June 22 Wall Street Journal highlighted the “opportunity-meets-preparedness” situation where unemployed urban lawyers are finding that there are many small towns without enough lawyers.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Amid all the blustering about having “too many lawyers” there are actually communities that want more.

It is similar to the medical services imbalance, where there are too many general practitioners in some urban areas but small towns often have few or none.  Life in a smaller town can be fantastic for those who enjoy less traffic and pollution and more familiar faces when they shop, drive and go out to eat.  For those who crave the faster pace and pulse of a larger area, however, the lower cost of living typically is not enough to offset the lack of entertainment options.  Unlike the medical profession, there are few student loan relief programs that encourage lawyers to live in less-populated areas beyond those that generally apply to public and nonprofit legal services work.

But who says you have to be just one or the other, urban or rural?  There is a big, important difference between the medical and legal professions:  other than a few meetings and court appearances, lawyers do not have to examine their clients or see them physically to deliver high-quality services.  Rather than pack up and move right away, try temporary or part-time  operations to get a feel for the legal services that your targeted smaller communities are looking for.

Do you plan to offer simple estate planning services on a limited scope basis or help people with orders in uncontested family law matters?  Use some of the suggestions* in Start and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice:  How to Make Money Serving the “Do It Yourself” Client to generate interest and a list of prospective clients in the area.  Then, much like the original Methodist preachers of the 1800s and many rural judges today, circuit ride to stop in each community often enough to address that targeted need, get some face time with clients and prospective clients, hold a mass execution (of documents, not people) session, or just do a community service information session.   After that, you can keep the client reasonably informed via mail, fax, email, phone, video chat or other appropriate means.

If the business picks up, consider renting space for a more permanent presence and increasing your trips to that “branch office” as the work requires.  If it doesn’t, you have not wasted money that you need to allocate to marketing and other locations.

* Because some of those suggestions are not found anywhere else, they are not posted here.  Get your copy of the eBook today and gain that advantage over others who have not yet done so.  See ordering info at the right for PDF versions and links to Amazon for the Kindle version.

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Do You Need a Guru?

It is typically the solo and small firm lawyer who offers limited scope representation in an “unbundled” style.  The LSR Practice can be as simple as a few extra tasks offered to a few clients on a limited scope basis amid the lawyer’s regular, full-scope practice.

But to get economy of scale in LSR, you need to deliver it often enough to recover your investment in standardized documents and processes.  While you may have the substantive knowledge necessary to create the content for form documents and web pages, you may lack the technical skills to put it all together into document assembly systems or an easy-to-navigate website.  Likewise, you may have the skills needed to translate legal documents into English from other language or vice versa, or to build email contact lists from scanned pages of addresses, but it would not be the best use of your time.

It is time for help.  Think like a “big law” firm or corporation:  if it can be done by someone at a lower pay grade or done faster and cheaper than you can do yourself, you should seriously consider outsourcing the task or project.  Legal Process Outsourcing is a growing trend that is well established in corporate legal departments and law firms outside the United States but is starting to spread here, too.  But you may not have the amount of recurring work (yet) to make your project attractive to a traditional LPO provider or your project may not even be a “legal process” that you want to offload.*

That is where open marketplaces such as Guru.com come in.  Guru.com bills itself as “the largest marketplace for online talent.”  The range of skills represented by the freelancers in such virtual staff marketplaces is enormous.  From teenagers adept at formatting ebooks to web design experts who build websites to tax lawyers willing to take on complex cases, the list is much too large to list here.

My point today is this:  do not think you have to do it all yourself or that you have to bring on permanent staff to start and grow your limited scope practice.  You can be a team leader of a virtual team of “gurus” who work on a contract basis as often as you need them.  Look at freelance marketplaces like Guru.com and read through their helpful advice on how to post a project and evaluate the freelancers who respond, then get going as you Start and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice!

* In a later post, I will address the ethical considerations and risks in using offshore staff to work with confidential client information, but if there is no confidential or privileged client information involved, there is no absolute bar to using staff from most places in the world.

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Saving Money on Software – Part 1: Word Processing

When cost is no concern, you can buy great software that helps you get and stay organized, streamline your work processes, track your income and expenses and handle your billing and collections.  In Start and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice, I devote considerable attention to ways to eliminate or significantly reduce expenses for the rest of us who really do want to keep the overhead low.

A good example is software for creating documents.  You already know about and may use Microsoft Office or at least Microsoft Word.  If you have not purchased Word, however, you could consider OpenOffice.  OpenOffice was originally known as StarOffice, a product acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999 and eventually released “into the wild” by Oracle after it acquired Sun.  Now supported by the Apache Software Foundation, the OpenOffice suite is completely free, works on almost every type of computer operating system, and includes word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, and database applications.  Each works very much as you would expect their full-price counterparts to function, so your existing office suite skills will transfer easily.  And, as important as most any other feature, OpenOffice can open files from and its output can be opened by its blue-blooded cousins in case you need to exchange documents (though not all features will be available) because it uses the universal “open document format.”

As with the full-price office suites, there are applications available to extend and enhance the base functionality of the OpenOffice apps.  For example, Oracle’s PDF Import Extension allows you to open an existing PDF document and edit it.  With Toools, from ICSTools of Italy, you can generate invoices, build project plans and create reports.  And Dmitri Popov’s Writer’s Tools adds a bunch of utilities that could be quite useful such as the timer (so you know how much time you really spent with that document open) and “Add to Notebook” to let you quickly add paragraphs, etc., to a database for later re-use.  The OpenOffice.org website includes links to document and spreadsheet templates (think fax cover sheets, calendars, brochures, etc.) and an extensive set of help manuals.

Unless (and until) you need another productivity application that requires a full-priced word processor or office suite, a free alternative such as OpenOffice is both smart and easy to obtain.

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Mobile Credit Card Readers For Solos

The LSR Practice can be highly portable, especially with laptops, iPads and other mobile computing devices.  That is great, but what about getting paid?  No one wants to carry around a lot of cash and personal checks (if the client even had any) are too risky.

In Start and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice: How to Make Money Serving the “Do It Yourself” Client, I have a chapter devoted to containing everyday expenses so you can keep more of the lower fees you will be able to charge for limited scope services.  (See info on a discount for blawg followers in an earlier post.)  One of those recommendations is to get a credit card reader for your mobile phone or laptop.

There are two companies who announced convenient readers over the past few days.  Paypal has a Virtual Terminal service with its MagnaSafe reader.  But that system does not work with American Express cards and probably others.  So now PayPal has introduced the “PayPal Here” device.  Only a few merchants were able to get one at first.  This webpage let’s you get on the notification list for the broader release scheduled for April 2012.  The device and app will first be available only for iPhones, then for Android devices.

Not to be outdone, Intuit will provide the reader at no charge if you use their payment service.  GoPayment works essentially the same way, and you do not need a monthly contract if you choose to simply pay a small processing fee per transaction.  Works on a wide range of Apple and Android mobile devices.

Now, you have no reason to miss out on “walk up” business at your mobile LSR event!

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Think Before You Outsource

Last year, I wrote a blawg post, “Are Your Legal Processes Ready for Outsourcing?” targeted at the corporate legal department.  But small firms and solos can gain valuable economies of scale from “legal process outsourcing” (LPO), too.

LPO is not just for big firms and legal departments.  It is perfect for any work that has a high degree of repetition.  Rather than spend your time with mundane or cookie-cutter activities, you may be able to pay someone else to do them for you at a rate that lets you cut your costs and increase your volume.  At the least, you can focus your time where a higher amount of judgment and personal attention is required.

Just like you might outsource lawn care, plumbing, hair care and housekeeping services to people who focus their skills on a single service and perform that service repeatedly for many customers, you can outsource document preparation and other services to give you more capacity without adding permanent staff.

There are important steps to take before you shop for an LPO firm or company, however.  “Know thyself” applies here perfectly.  Do you have enough standardization and consistency in the “workflow logic” that you can describe the legal processes clearly enough for someone else to do them at least 90% of the time without having to ask you to make a judgment call?  Just because you can do something repeatedly does not mean you have written out the directions so well that someone else could do the same thing the way you want it done.

Read the blawg post and get the book (ordering info at right).  ThenStart and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice!

 

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Getting Paid

In Start and Grow Your Limited Scope Practice: How to Make Money Serving the “Do It Yourself” Client, I discuss how to make it easy for clients to pay you.  One of those is accepting credit cards.  Sam’s Club and other companies are making this easier to do every day (here is an example).  Lawyers who start accepting credit cards consistently report an uptick in revenues.  What is holding you back?

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