A modern law office needs more than furniture and smart lawyers in order to run. We use computers to write briefs, send emails, review evidence, generate invoices, and manage firm finances. In the realm of law office technology, there are good tools and bad tools, overpriced tools and underpriced tools, secure tools and insecure tools. We’ll be highlighting different types of legal technology throughout the year, so we’re starting with the basics. For more, check out our post on practicing law in the cloud for more suggestions, and follow us on twitter to get updates when we post about new technology. In this post, we’ll cover the basic must-haves of legal technology for any practicing lawyer. We'll not cover what we consider to be the best law practice management software options but instead focus on additional tools that it helps to have in your toolkit.
In this post, we’ll cover the basic must-haves of legal technology for any practicing lawyer.
Computers & Operating Systems
Most lawyers we know use Windows machines, a handful use Macs, and none (that we are aware of) use Linux. The reason for the popularity of Windows as a platform for law offices is that most people feel that MS Word, MS Excel, and other key Microsoft productivity tools run better on Windows. This was our sense as well, but Microsoft just released Office 2016 for Mac, and I recently subscribed to Office 365 so that I could download the upgraded tools and take them for a test drive. Despite some difficulty authenticating the downloaded software, I got Word and Excel running nicely on my Mac. My first impression is that the new release is a major improvement over the 2011 version (the previous major release). The styling in Word and Excel is improved, and the apps now feel better on Mac. There’s a good chance I would use a Mac rather than a PC for managing a legal practice after the Office for Mac upgrade. What matters most here is that your hardware is recent enough to run your software, and that you’re using software that you find intuitive and easy to use, but that also allows for seamless collaboration with your colleagues, clients, and vendors. It’s hard to be effective with a laptop or desktop that is years out of date with an old operating system and slow processor. If you use Windows, make sure to upgrade to the new releases (no one should be using XP anymore). The same goes for OS X updates.
For years, I stubbornly resisted purchasing Adobe Acrobat. I did not believe that PDF editing software could ever be worth the nearly $500 sticker price, and I stuck to less expensive options. Then I had a case where Acrobat’s robust redaction and Bates-labelling features were necessary, and I shelled out the purchase price. I quickly realized I should have spent the money years before; I found Acrobat to be a superior product in almost every aspect. My firm ended up buying a total of 5 Acrobat Pro licenses. Fortunately, it’s now much easier to start using Acrobat with Adobe’s new Cloud SaaS model. Monthly pricing means that it’s possible to start using the software without spending a large sum upfront. I wish there was a free PDF editor with similar capabilities, but as far as I am aware, there is not. As long PDF files remain the standard for business document exchange, Acrobat will be a valuable (if not indispensable) tool.
File Sharing & Backups
For years, I used Dropbox in my practice, but it always felt like a consumer-facing application, and we would run into various syncing bugs with our large dataset. We migrated to Box.com in 2014, and we were very happy with the change. Box had several features that set it apart as a business tool: robust account administration with fine-grained user management and permissions, easy-to-use selective syncing, automatic document versioning, and the wonderful Box Edit feature. With Box, it’s typical to leave most of your directories unsynced with your local machine, even when you’re frequently opening and editing files in those directories. This pattern of keeping data in the Cloud works because, with Box Edit, you can actually open files from the Cloud using Word and Excel without first downloading them to your computer. Further, each time you save a file, Box creates a new version so that you can easily roll back to an older version. With the large volumes of documents we deal with in the practice of law, cloud-based storage is often an ideal system for document storage and collaboration. No need to email files back and forth - simply open the file in Box, DropBox, or a similar application, make changes, and save. It can be accessed by anyone the folder was shared with and the changes can be tracked. Also, no need to worry about crowding your computer with multiple versions of files as the documents are stored in the cloud and don’t take up your limited disk space.
As more and more legal technology moves to the cloud, more and more aspects of our practice require the use of passwords to access data. Indeed, to have the most secure law office software, a password manager is a must. The best passwords contain no English words, no personal data - they should be a random mix of letters, numbers, and special symbols and the same password should never be used for more than one application. Of course the trouble there is that there is no way we could remember numerous random characters for legal technology tool we use. That is where password managers like 1password come in. 1password and products like it store all your logins and passwords in a password protected vault, and they generate random passwords for you. This leaves you with only one password to remember (make it unique!) but still allows you to make each of your passwords random, different, and therefore more secure. This protects you, and your clients, from breaches due to brute force attacks, or from hackers discovering from your social media that you love your dog and guessing your password is his name. It also makes using cloud based legal technology even more secure.
There are many other key tools the modern law office - such as practice management software, e-discovery tools, voice-over-IP phone systems, accounting tools, and document automation (the list goes on). The legal technology discussed above, however, includes tools we feel no law office should work without. In the coming months we will feature other legal technology tools we feel are essential.
Whenever you are choosing legal technology (or technology of any kind), we recommend researching vendors carefully and considering security before running any software from the web. If you’re looking for safe and reliable software recommendations, check out www.lifehacker.com. Also check out the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Buyer’s Guide, the International Legal Technology Association’s Sponsor List, and blogs like Lawyerist and Above the Law for more recommendations of technology created for the practice of law. We will also cover new and exciting legal technology throughout the year. Follow us on twitter for updates.