Those who know me know that I love my technology. I have always been a bit of geek when it came to computers, gadgets etc. I apply this to my work as a family lawyer. Quite simply, utilising the available technology these days will make your life easier, make you and your firm more productive and, consequently, more profitable. While my advice here is weighted towards family law, the vast majority of it applies to any and all types of law. The current crisis has finally nudged me into putting my thoughts down on paper.
Case management software
This is, by far, the essential piece of technology that a law firm can have. If you do not have one, get one. This applies to everyone, not just family lawyers. I have used a few case management systems during my career, including LawPro, LawWare, Denovo, Ceartas and my current system, LEAP. Even the basic ones make life easier.
Most of the providers are cloud-based systems, so all you need is a PC/laptop and an internet connection. Some provide apps that mean you can use them on the go on your iPhone/Ipad/Android device. Some work even when you do not have an internet signal, uploading the data as soon as an internet connection becomes available. You have no more wasted time at court, waiting three hours to be on your feet for three minutes. You could have worked on 30 cases during that time. If the bulk of your workload is legal aid, never mind private, surely this makes your life easier given the workload you have to process.
I know of firms that have a folder on their PCs containing the basic letters and court documents we family practitioners use. For each case, they open up the template, manually amend the headings/sheriffdom/parties' names etc, print, then close the template. There is no electronic diary, only a physical one, kept in the office. The only way to get the client's details is from the physical file. Files can be inches thick with pleadings and correspondence from years back. Some still rely on tape dictation machines. Some have migrated to digital dictation machines. Both should be redundant in this day and age.
Case management software has been created because a great deal of what we do can be automated. You only need to enter the basic information, such as client name, contact details, opponent's details, court details etc, at the start. Any document you produce thereafter can be designed to pull in any of that information, in seconds. Comparing the time taken doing it the “old” way to this way, it is a no brainer. We are talking seconds for the case management system compared to minutes for the “old” way. Multiply that over the course of a year, and that is reason enough to invest in case management software. From a risk management perspective, there is little scope to get things wrong, something inherent in recycling old templates with someone else's details on them.
Most case management software integrates with email providers such as Microsoft Outlook etc. This makes it a lot easier to save and process emails.
One of the biggest selling points is the ability to record your time and charges accurately. Most providers use the up-to-date legal aid table of charges and allow you to set the appropriate financial limits. Some providers allow you to make calls through their app, which are automatically time recorded. At the end of the call, you can also dictate the attendance note and the app types out what you are saying. It is very accurate, even with the Scottish dialect.
Virtually any case management software available in the Scottish market will improve you and/or your firm's productivity. Some are better than others, so try them out and see what works for you. I, personally, would not use one which (a) does not have a mobile app or (b) requires an internet connection.
As I have mentioned above, dictation machines of any format should be a thing of the past. I imagine that virtually all of us have a smartphone of some description. There are a number of apps which turn your phone into a mobile dictation device. I currently use Philips Speechlive. I dictate into my phone, then upload the dictation to a secure server which admin staff have access to. You can mark dictations as urgent, assign them to specific people or they go into a central typing pool. Imagine you are stuck at court waiting for a case to call, or simply out and about. You can dictate on any file(s) anywhere and send it to be typed. It may be processed before your return to the office.
This has an obvious connection to dictation. Even before the COVID-19 lockdown, my firm was set up for remote working. I have an accredited paralegal who works from home in Alicante, Spain. Aside from certain physical, administrative tasks, she carries out the same work as the accredited paralegal based in our office in Scotland. All that is required is dictation software, transcription software, pedals and a PC. Work is transcribed and, if necessary, a link (sent through our case management software) is sent to the fee earner to approve the work.
There is the next level of transcription, which is speech-to-text software. I have started using Nuance’s Dragon Professional Individual which, in my opinion, is as good at it gets. There are other providers, so have a look at those too. In short, using this software, you tell it what to do, and it does it. It learns your voice and scans the language used in your emails and documents. You can dictate through Microsoft Word, Outlook and your web browser. I have dictated whole writs and lengthy attendance notes, having to stop very rarely to make corrections.
You want either (a) a VOIP telephone system, rather than a traditional phone system with separate line numbers etc; or (b) no telephone at all, with calls coming through your PC software.
- (a) VOIP telephones are simply telephones that work through the internet rather than through a physical phone line. They are great. As an example, when you call our office, three phones ring—two in the office for the receptionist and paralegal, the third rings our paralegal in Alicante (there is no lag due to the system being internet-based). If the call is to be put through to a fee earner, it is simply transferred in the normal fashion. That can be to the fee earner's mobile, their physical VOIP phone (which may be at home or in the office), or through a wireless headset connected to a laptop/PC wherever the fee earner may be.
- (b) Virtually all VOIP providers have their own software to use on a PC/Mac. This avoids the need for a physical telephone at all. They are easy to set up and use. I only realised this recently after buying some nice expensive VOIP phones. Some may still prefer to have an actual phone. The choice is yours.
You also want wireless telephone/dictation headsets, because depriving yourself of one hand to make or take a call is not productive. There are different designs of headset to suit your preference. These connect to the VOIP phone and to the PC wirelessly. They can seamlessly switch from one to the other, so that your staff can be processing a dictation one second, then answering a call the next, just by hitting a button. No more taking dictation earphones out, picking up the phone receiver, doing stuff with one hand, putting the phone down, putting your earphones back in and picking back up on the dictation, only for the phone to ring again.
If you are using one monitor, you are mad. Given the prevalence of electronic communication combined with using software such as Microsoft Office and case management software, why would you spend time switching between two or three programs/documents on one screen? I can guarantee that you will get more done using two or more screens (I use three). All staff at my firm have at least two screens. In terms of productivity, it is a no brainer.
I have the following:
- a lightweight laptop with good battery life. I also have a second, lightweight monitor to attach to the laptop should I be doing something more than just basic tasks;
- a work smartphone, because you should be able to shut off from your work after hours;
- mobile printer – handy when you are out and about and need to print something.
- Case management software – ranges between £70 and £115 per user, per month.
- Dictation – the system we use is £10 per user per month.
- Transcription (Dragon Professional) – you are looking at around £350 for this as a one-off cost.
- Telephone system/headset – mid-range VOIP phones are around £150. Cost per user per month is around £10. Mid-range headsets are around £150.
- PC/laptop – a decent spec PC should cost around £400. A decent, lightweight laptop with good battery life, around £500. Additional monitors for both will cost around £100 each.
- Mobile printer – £200 for a mid-range one.
I appreciate that the idea of incurring such costs during this economic crisis may not appeal to some of you, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Investing in some or all of what I have mentioned above will improve your productivity. Improving that improves everything else.
The current pandemic may have already prompted you to look at how your firm is structured and how work is carried out. I hope that my opinion and experiences give you the final nudge to invest in the technology available. Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss matters further. Next article, virtual reality headsets…
- Criminal court briefing: Coronapocalypse?
- Employment: Unfairly anonymous?
- Family: When experts miss the mark
- Human rights: Judicial review refusal does not need oral hearing
- Pensions: Members' benefits: compensation and protection action
- Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal
- Property: Code to recovery
- In-house: “So, how are you?”