If you are reading these articles in order, you now have an idea of what your office space is going to look like. Now we need to turn to equipping your office; filling it with the stuff that will turn your law practice into an efficient machine.
There’s an expression I recently heard that I love because it is so descriptive of the attempt to do something with the wrong tools. “Painting with peanut butter.” Theoretically, you CAN paint with peanut butter, but it’s just not the best choice.
Some have the same attitude toward technology. They get locked into a method, and when something better comes along, they respond with, “what I’m using works just fine.” But it’s not. After a while, your technology becomes so dated that you are painting with peanut butter.
I currently have a case where opposing counsel uses a typewriter for all his pleadings. It’s not quite as bad as it sounds, because he doesn’t type a new pleading from scratch every time. Instead, at some point in history, he went through all his typed pleadings, and created “forms” by copying sample documents, and whiting out all the words that change from case to case. Now, to create a pleading, he puts the form in his typewriter and types in the words that are unique to the case. Of course, no pleading is going to match every case, so there are a lot of cross-outs and attachments to make his “forms” fit the case. It looks terrible and unprofessional. I assume he does not show the court documents to his clients, because I can’t imagine that even the most unsophisticated client would find this practice acceptable.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who are constantly adopting the latest software and equipment in an attempt to be on the bleeding edge of technology, and become less efficient by doing so.
I recently read an article by an attorney who listed all the programs he uses to keep himself organized, and it was painfully obvious that in his attempt to be organized, he has become incredibly inefficient. He proudly wrote that when his secretary quit without notice, after working there just a few weeks, he lost very little time figuring out where she was on all her projects, because he used a system whereby he would write out all of her tasks every week, and then he would upload those tasks into a calendar and the firm’s case management system. He then explained the system he uses to sync the office calendar with his Google calendar so he can review all of the information remotely. His secretary was required to update her status on each project at the end of each day. If she wasn’t able to complete the task by the assigned time, she was required to put in her summary what had prevented her from finishing the task. First, no wonder she left, and second, what an incredible waste of time.
I too have a system that would permit me to know what tasks my secretary had not completed if she left without notice. It’s called a to-do list. We keep a written to-do list on the secretary’s desk, and she checks off the tasks as they are completed. If a task is really important, and I want her to give priority to that task over the others, there is a system in place for that as well. I put a star next to the task. If she leaves, the uncompleted tasks would be those that do not have check-marks next to them, and the new secretary would resume where she left off. This system includes a remote access and daily reporting system as well. I call the secretary and say, “how’s it going?”
You need to find the comfortable center between these two extremes, where you are not chasing the latest and greatest at the cost of efficiency, while at the same time not painting with peanut butter.
In this article, I will take you through the equipment and systems I use to keep my office running smoothly and efficiently, and offer some tips for equipping your office. I hope it goes without saying that my methods and preferences may need to be modified to fit your particular circumstances, but as the saying goes, you need to know the rules before you can break them. View these suggestions as the results of more than 20 years of experimentation. If you choose to use other methods, that’s fine, just be sure you have a valid reason for doing so, lest you find yourself painting with peanut butter.
I begin with your telephones, because they are the lifeblood of your firm.
You don’t want or need a “phone system”, at least not in the sense that term is normally used. Just because they’ve always seen it done that way, when opening a new office an uninformed attorney calls the “phone guy” who comes out and installs an expensive telephone system, ensconced in its own phone room. (I speak from experience, because that’s exactly what I did at our first office, although I at least had the sense to buy a used phone system.) What a waste.
We use “off the shelf” phone equipment (AT&T SB67138) from an office supply store that has one base phone for our legal assistant, and all the others are cordless phones. Each phone is programmed with the name of its owner, and those names show up on the base. When a call comes in, assuming we don’t just pick it up ourselves, the legal assistant answers the phone, and then talks to the intended recipient through the cordless phone, before putting through the call. Anyone answering on any of the phones can put a call through to the appropriate person.
There are a couple of huge advantages to this arrangement. The first is that there is no wiring required, beyond getting the main lines to the base station. You won’t need to incur the expense of bringing in a “phone guy” every time you move or need to add another phone. We decided it would be nice to have a phone in the conference room, so we just bought an extra handset, plugged it in and typed in “Conference Room”. Installation complete. The handsets can be programmed with different rings and ring volumes, and the ring can be turned off altogether, which is what we did in the conference room.
The other advantage is that you have a cordless handset, and are thus free to wander the office while speaking to a client. I’ve seen these contraptions that can be used with traditional phone systems, that plug into the phone and allow you use a headset, but since the phone has to be lifted out of the cradle to answer the call, it has a little mechanical lifter so you can answer and terminate calls remotely. What an unnecessary hassle.
I sometimes use a headset with my cordless phone, but I discovered that the speaker phone function was outstanding. So long as I have the phone fairly close, the caller hears no difference whether I am holding it to my face or using it as a speaker phone. This frees my hands to go right on typing while I am taking a call. The volume can be turned up to a high level so that there is no difficulty hearing the caller.
Also, so long as I have the phone with me, I can always be found for calls. Whether I’m in the storage room going through documents, or in the kitchen making myself a sandwich, whomever picked up the call just tells me through the phone that I have a call, and I take it. No more office-wide, “Mr. Morris, please pick up line one”, or “I’m sorry, Mr. Morris must have stepped away from his office” to callers.
As I explained in the article about office space, we would have to hire three people just to keep up with our call volume, so we all answer the phones. Each phone has caller ID, so again due to the portability, I can have the phone with me wherever I go and answer the calls that I can see are for me.
I really like that this phone system creates an intercom system. My partner insists on initiating discussions about cases by shouting to me from her adjoining office, not realizing I can’t hear her over the mellow mix I have playing on Pandora. With the push of two buttons, I can put her on intercom, and carry on a shout-free conversation. Just about any good phone system permits this, but again the cordless handsets afford much greater flexibility. When my partner shouts at me and gets no answer, she can use the intercom, and find me in the kitchen making aforesaid sandwich.
Be aware that not all cordless phones are created equal. We went through a number of systems before we found the AT&T SB67138 phones. Each time we moved to new office space, we tried a new phone system. They all worked fine, but each had one or two inherent annoyances. One common problem was that the volume was just a tiny bit too low if the caller was soft spoken. It was as though they all went to 10, but they needed to go to the Spinal Tap 11 (if you haven’t seen the movie, that will mean nothing). The AT&T SB67138 phones are plenty loud and come with none of the issues we encountered with the prior systems.
Incidentally, some blanch at the idea of using cordless phones for confidential client conversations, harkening back to the days when cordless phones used AM frequencies and could be monitored with a scanner from Radio Shack. Today’s cordless phones use what is called Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) encryption. Cordless phones using DECT are very secure. Like anything, someone really bound and determined to listen in on your calls could probably hack the system, but so could they also hack a traditional phone system just by accessing the phone room.
Even if you launch your firm as a true solo, I would not try to get by with less than two incoming lines. If you implement my marketing information, you will not be alone for long, and will soon have at the very least a secretary, legal assistant or paralegal. Until then, you gain the advantage of immediately receiving messages from callers. With a 2-line system like the AT&T 86109, if you are on the line, any incoming calls will roll-over to the second line, and then if there is no answer, will be picked up by the built-in answering machine. Yes, the same thing could be accomplished by buying voicemail service from the phone company, but why incur that monthly expense?
Bottom line on phones: You do not need to invest in an expensive phone system. Buy a cordless phone system from an office store that allows for expansion. You’ll save big money on the system itself, the installation, and future expansion. Test if for a couple of weeks, and if you don’t like it, return it for a refund and try something else.
You need to be able to send and receive faxes. Yes, fax machines are incredibly archaic when you think about it. The sound of the old beep-bop-boop modem connecting to the other machine is laughable. But laugh all you want, you still need to be able to send and receive faxes. More and more clients are learning to scan documents and email them to you, but you will still run into clients who are not up to that level yet and want to fax you something. Many of my clients have figured out how to use a scanner, but still don’t know how to adjust the settings. If I ask them to send me a ten page document, I get ten individual .tiff images, 8MB each.
You can buy a plain paper fax (incredibly, they do still sell faxes that use thermal paper) for about $89, but I recommend just buying an all-in-one printer that includes a fax function. Your physical fax machine will be used only for OUTGOING faxes. For incoming faxes you should use an Internet fax service like efax.com. Faxes come into the fax service and show up in your email as a PDF document. You can save them right into the client directory. No worries about keeping paper and toner in the fax machine, no busy signals for senders, and no having your fax machine tied up with a 100 page incoming fax right when you need to send a fax. Even though you only have one fax number, efax can receive multiple faxes at the same time. Plus, you can set the faxes to be forwarded to multiple email accounts, as well as an efax app on your cell phone. You may not care if a late night fax arrives, but I like to see them right away in case I’m getting ex parte notice. It gives me more time to plan.
I know some attorneys have dumped their fax machines and use an Internet fax service for both incoming and outgoing faxes. They just scan the document and save it as a PDF, and then send it to their faxing software or email it as an attachment. Nothing wrong with that, but if you are sending a fax, it is much faster to just fax it using a good, old-fashion fax machine. If you are unpersuaded, bring your laptop and scanner to my office, and we’ll have a fax show down. I’ll bet I can stick a document in the fax machine and fax it faster than you can scan and send it with your fax program.
Getting back to fax machines, most of the time attorneys dump their fax machine under the false belief that it will save them the cost of a dedicated telephone line for the fax. That’s actually a false economy, because I’ve figured out a very simple way to avoid that expense.
We have four incoming phone lines, each with its own number of course, but as far as the public is concerned there is only the one main number. Incoming calls go to line 1, but if it is in use, the call rolls over to line 2, etc. I use the last line as the fax line, with a simple line-splitter for the fax machine. On the menu of the fax machine, I turn off the receive function, because I don’t ever want the fax machine to pick up an incoming call that ends up on line 4.
When someone in my office sends a fax, they can tell from the fax machine if someone is on the line, but even if you try to send a fax while the line is in use, nothing happens. The fax just scans the document into memory and waits until the line is available. Remember, we use it only for outgoing faxes, so the line is never occupied with an incoming fax. This technique leaves all your lines available for incoming calls (except for the occasional few minutes when you are sending faxes), without the cost of a dedicated fax line.
If you do want a dedicated fax line for whatever reason, here’s a way to do it for less than $20 per year. I just started an experiment with a MagicJack that is working very well. You’ve probably seen the ads for MagicJack, which is a VOIP system (voice over Internet protocol). Originally, a MagicJack had to be plugged into your computer, but now you just plug it into a wall outlet and plug in a network cable, and it makes and receives phone calls (or sends and receives faxes) through your Internet connection.
The printer in my office is an all-in-one with printer, scanner and fax. I plugged it into the MagicJack, so I can now send faxes from my office and don’t have to go to the fax machine. Even better, it provides an additional phone line for the office. If the phones are getting busy, I can use the MagicJack line to make outgoing calls (with a cordless phone of course), and that way I’m not tying up one of our four lines.
I refer to this as an experiment because part of me is rebelling at this low cost solution; worried that it will sound like I’m calling clients from the free football phone I got with my Sports Illustrated subscription. But so far it has been great, and I’ve tested it repeatedly with calls to my wife, children and friends, and they cannot tell I’m talking to them on a VOIP system. From what I have read, the MagicJack is every bit as good in sound quality as even much more expensive systems like Vonage. It really comes down to the speed of your Internet connection. Our office has a crazy fast Internet connection, so the MagicJack works great. A MagicJack line is currently $99 for five years of unlimited calls to the U.S. and Canada.
You can also get a MagicJack app for your smart phone that lets you use your MagicJack phone number on your cell phone. The app works great, and although I haven’t really found a use for it in my practice, I can see its potential. Occasionally I have to give my cell phone number to a client so we can coordinate at trial or something, but I’m always a little nervous about giving out my personal number. This would allow me to be reached on my cell phone, without actually giving out my cell phone number.
Bottom line on fax machines: You can get one for little or no cost (if your printer is an all-in-one) and it doesn’t require an extra phone line, so why not have one available for the convenience?
The undisputed champion scanner for law firms is the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 (an upgrade from the prior S1500). I’ve never owned one, but lawyers can’t say enough good things about this scanner. With that said, they are pretty pricey at about $425, and here is how I have gotten along without ever buying a dedicated scanner.
We actually use a few methods to scan and send out documents. All pleadings, discovery and correspondence are scanned by our legal assistant as they are received, using the scan feature on our copy machine. When she scans a document, she can assign it a name using the copy machine’s screen, but any document she scans appears on her computer monitor, and it is faster to assign it a name using the computer keyboard and then save it to the appropriate client directory. Since those documents are already in the client’s directory, we can just drag and drop them into an email when the need arises.
If it arises that an unscanned document needs to be emailed, each attorney has a Brother MFC7860DW in their office. We have been using these for years, and they are real workhorses. I’ll talk about this printer in more detail later, but if a printed document of 35 pages or less needs to be emailed, we just put in the Brother, hit the scan button, and select the email option. It scans the document, and pops up an email on the attorney’s computer monitor, ready to go with the document attached. We just add the email address and subject line, and hit send. We can then save the scanned document to the appropriate directory in case it is needed again in electronic form.
Until we got a dedicated copier, we had used the Brother printers for all our scanning for years. The Brother MFC7860DW comes with Paperport scanning software. You can configure the software to use your client directory by default, so within Paperport, you just highlight the appropriate client, and the scanned documents go directly to their directory as PDF files.
Once we leased our copier, its scanner is much faster and handles larger documents, so that now handles most of our scanning. By comparison, the Fujitsu ScanSnap scans at 25 ppm, whereas our Panasonic DP-8060 (which as you will see in a minute costs us nothing) scans at 60 ppm. Note, however, that the Panasonic is strictly black and white, while the Fujitsu does color. If we need a color scan, we just use one of the Brother printers. Our copier is linked to each computer, so when you insert the document to scan, it shows all the computers in the office, and you just send it where you want it to go and it pops up on that computer when the scanning is done.
Bottom line on scanners: You absolutely need scanning capabilities for your office, but they can be handled without the cost of a standalone scanner, either through your copy machine or an all-in-one printer with Paperport software. However, if you want to move toward a paperless office, and intend to scan all incoming documents, and you don’t want a dedicated copier, then the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 would be your best choice.
We have used a number of printers over the years, and the make and model we finally settled on was the Brother MFC7860DW. It is the fastest (27 ppm), most reliable printer we have found for the price point. It is ranked very highly by computer magazines. It lists for $299, but the going price is usually around $199, and that includes the Paperport scanning software, which is about $70 to purchase separately, bringing the effective price of the printer down to about $129. I stumbled into a $150 deal at one of the office supply stores, and picked up a couple of extras just to have them. I haven’t seen them that cheap since, but you may want to check all suppliers before making the purchase. At the time I am writing this the model is still available, but even if the model number changes by the time you read this, a printer in that “family” should still be available. Click on the image of the printer to be taken to its listing on Amazon. If there is a newer model, Amazon will tell you.
The MFC-7860DW is an all-in-one, and handles printing, copying, scanning and even faxing (although I am the only one using mine as a fax as discussed above). It is also wireless, and you can get the free iPrint&Scan app that allows you to print from or scan to just about any smartphone or tablet. Since we have a printer in each office, we just use the USB connection. Nonetheless, the wireless feature is there is there if you need it. It also has an Ethernet connection. It even prints two-sided, and the paper tray can accommodate up to legal size paper.
As you probably know, the business model for printer manufactures is to get you in as cheap as possible and then kill you on the toner or ink. To make sure you don’t cheat and buy reloaded cartridges, some install computer chips in an attempt to foil the after-market manufacturers. We have never had any problem with reloaded cartridges on our Brother printers, and using them is far cheaper.
At the time I am writing this, an authentic (OEM) TN-450 high-capacity cartridge for the Brother printer sells for $68 at Staples and $45 at Amazon. That’s crazy talk. We pay just $15 for remanufactured cartridges from SuppliesOutlet.com, and I have seen other companies selling remanufactured cartridges for as little as $10 on Amazon (although I have not tried those and cannot speak to their quality). We can even feel good about doing our part for the environment because we are recycling.
Even if you are alone in your office, I would recommend having at least two printers. If you are having an emergency, that will be the moment your printer breaks down or runs out of toner. Plus, if you have multiple printers, you can run multiple printing jobs at the same time. I also suggest that you get printers that all use the same cartridges, so you are not having to “stock” multiple types of cartridges.
Bottom line on printers: Buy the brand you trust, but be sure to buy the same printers for the entire office so you don’t have to stock various cartridges, and confirm that aftermarket cartridges will work in the printer you select because OEM cartridges are just too expensive.
I suppose there could be a legal practice that would never need to print or copy any color documents, but I can’t picture it. Even if the need to print a color document for the practice never arises, you may just want to print out an article to save in full color.
My color printer of choice is the HP Envy 120, but it is way more than a mere printer. HP offers a service called e-Print, which allows you to assign an email address to the printer. Anything sent to the email address prints on the printer. Here is how I use it in my practice.
I’m meeting with a new client in the conference room, and although they brought me most of the documents I need to review, they left an important document back at the office. No problem. I give them the email address of the printer in the conference room, they call their office, and while we continue our meeting the document prints out on the printer. Yes, their office could email or fax me the document, but that would require coordinating with someone in my office to watch the fax machine or email, and to bring me the document when it arrives. Plus, if the document in question is a color document, it arrives that way. Try that with a fax.
Similarly, how many times has a client had a document, email or photo on their cell phone that they want to show you? Just tell them to send it to print; the HP Envy 120 printer shows up on their phone as a printer.
I love the form factor and usefulness of this printer, so much so that I bought a second one for my office. It is perfect for the conference room because it doesn’t look like a printer. When you print to it or when it receives an email, the front panel swings up and an arm swings out to catch the paper as it prints. It is a flat bed copier if you want to copy any documents brought by a client. There is one small sacrifice for the mega-cool form factor; there is no document feeder. Copies are strictly one page at a time on the glass. For my use, that has not been a problem because I seldom need to copy a multi-page color document during a meeting. If I do, then I just walk a few more steps to one of the Brother printers, and scan the document in color.
For my own part, I like to check email on my iPhone throughout the day when I’m away from the office, but then it shows as “read” on Outlook when I’m back at the office, sometimes causing me not to follow up on an email. If I see an important email, or if a client emails an attachment that I know I want to print for the file, I immediately email it to the printer in my office, where it is waiting for me when I return. Next to moi, the HP Envy 120 printer is the coolest thing in our office. The price of HP Envy 120 printer can be as high as $299, depending on where you buy it, but Amazon has the lowest price I have found, at $150 (like all Amazon items, prices fluctuate).
If you were forced to buy genuine HP ink cartridges for this printer, I could not recommend it. The price for an HP 60XL cartridge is about $37 at Staples and Amazon, which is ridiculous. However, third party cartridges can be had on Amazon for $7 or less, and I have never had any problem with these cheaper ones.
One tip regarding aftermarket ink cartridges that applies to the HP Envy 120 and many other inkjet printers. The “real” cartridges come equipped with a chip that communicates the ink level and other information to the printer, and if you try to use an aftermarket cartridge, you’ll get an error message. With the HP Envy, you can just close the error message and carry on, but some printers won’t budge when they smell a knock-off. To avoid even that slight annoyance of having to close the error message, look for aftermarket cartridges that say “chip-reset” or “ink level indicator”.
And one final tip for your ink and toner cartridges, as well as all your office supplies. Money has time value, meaning that it is a waste to spend money any sooner than you have to, meaning that if you stock more supplies than you need to, that’s a waste of money. There is the additional reality I have experienced on occasion, whereby I buy 20 ink cartridges because I find them on sale, and then the printer craps out and that model is no longer available.
To solve these problems, Amazon Prime is a wonderful thing. I don’t mean to be a shill for Amazon, but the unlimited free two-day shipping that comes with Amazon Prime allows you to order one of something when it is needed, without concerning yourself with the cost of shipping or waiting until you have $50 worth of stuff to order to get free delivery from some office supply store. (And as much as I like to support local brick and mortar stores, the price at Amazon is almost always less; sometimes drastically so.) We used to keep a cabinet full of supplies, and hoped that we’d notice when we were getting low on something before running out at a crucial time. Now, we store one backup ink or toner cartridge at each printer. When the ink or toner runs out and the cartridge is replaced with the backup, we tell our legal assistant to order a replacement, and with one-click ordering on Amazon, the entire process take about 45 seconds. Never running out of supplies is a beautiful thing.
Incidentally, if you are a Rewards member (which is free), Staples now offers free shipping on all orders from Staples.com, with no minimum. As stated, Amazon will usually offer a lower price, but sometimes Staples will be running a sale on a particular item. We now make it a practice to check both sites when ordering, especially when it is a higher priced item. That amazing $150 price I found on the Brother printer was at Staples, which was $49 cheaper than Amazon on that particular day.
Bottom line on color printers: The price point of the printer will be set by your need for color documents. I don’t use the color printer often, so I can get by with a slower output in exchange for the other features of the HP Envy 120. If you have a greater need for color documents, you may need to go with something faster, or even a color laser printer.
You can absolutely run an office without a dedicated copier. The Brother printers we use all have a copier function, and for many years that’s all we used. For large copy jobs, we use a copy service that picks up and returns the documents in a few hours, and the cost gets billed to the client.
Indeed, in a couple of ways multiple printers beat a dedicated copier. When you are racing to meet a deadline, you can print multiple copies of a document simultaneously just by sending the document to multiple printers. All our printers are on the network, so anybody can use anyone else’s printer. They also save steps, because if I’m putting together a brief and my legal assistant creates the table of contents and table of authorities, she just prints them to the printer in my office.
However, copy machines do have the advantage of faster copying and the ability to handle larger jobs, plus cool features like collating and stapling. Eventually we found that there was no reason to avoid the cost of a copy machine, because it pays for itself. We leased a networked copy machine that works like a printer. When printing a court document for filing and service, I just print to the copier. It prints, collates and staples all the copies I need for court, service and filing. It even does double-sided printing and copying, and auto detects the paper size. If you stick in a legal size document, or print a wide spreadsheet, it automatically copies to that size paper. It has multiple paper trays for the different paper sizes or types, and the main paper try holds five reams of paper. It even 3-hole punches the documents, which makes putting together an exhibit book just that much easier.
Perhaps best of all, there is no charge for toner. I would estimate that our printers were averaging about $30 per month for toner for the entire office, and that doesn’t include the cost of the drums that need to be periodically replaced. With the addition of the copier, that cost has been greatly reduced because we print so little to the those printers.
There is also no additional charge for servicing the copier. If the copier breaks down, the company is out to service it, usually on the same day and no later than the next day. The copier has been very reliable, and on the rare occasions when it has broken down, we just go back to printing to the Brother printers until it has been fixed.
We lease the copier for $80 per month on a three-year lease, but given the savings on toner and drums for all our printers, the effective cost is probably closer to $40 per month. Better yet, we create a copy code for each client, and the copier keeps track of the copies so we can pass those costs through to the clients. The same is true when we are printing a document from our computers. A screen pops up and asks for the client code. Unlike many firms, we don’t believe in using copies as a profit center, but we do charge the actual cost of the copies, and thereby completely cover the cost of the copier, so it really isn’t costing us anything. Again, given that we now save so much on toner and drums for the printers, the copier not only pays for itself, but it reduces our overhead.
Look around for deals. Copier sales is a very competitive business and the competition makes for some great opportunities. I have seen deals where they provide you with a copier for no charge, and you pay only for the actual copies. You could pass that cost through to the clients. I have never pursued this arrangement because you must guarantee a monthly minimum, but it might work for you.
Bottom line on copiers: You can absolutely get by without a copier, and I completely understand not wanting to take on that additional overhead. However, if you negotiate a good lease with free toner and maintenance, the copier will pay for itself and it is far faster then a traditional printer, so don’t be penny wise and pound foolish.
I won’t wade into the Apple versus PC debate, beyond observing that pretty much every program and computer accessory works with a PC. Apple does a fantastic job of positioning itself as mainstay computer company. Through product placement, if someone opens a laptop on a television show, it will almost always be an Apple with the glowing logo. But the reality is that only about 10% of computers are Apples. A long time ago I was on the Betamax of computers (an Osborne running CP/M for you historians) when the world went IBM, and I hated being the ugly stepchild. I’d read about some cool new program, and it wouldn’t be available for my computer. Because of that experience, and because I have long seen Apple users experiencing the same thing, even if you could convince me that something makes Apple computers better than PCs, I will give up the slight improvement knowing that when I get a hankering to, say, start dictating my documents, the latest version of Dragon Naturally Speaking will be available, whereas the Apple version was ported over and doesn’t quite work the same. I use at least five programs right now, including the case management program that is the core of my practice, that are not even available in Apple versions.
And don’t even get me started with the whole “but an Apple can run any PC program” argument. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, hated it. The response to that claim seems pretty apparent. If Apple can run any PC program with no compromise, then why would Apple versions of programs even exist?
Of course, Apple has become so mainstream that admittedly its users sometimes get the last laugh. I use a program called Scrivenor for writing my books, and that software began as an Apple program, which is superior to the later written PC version. And although I use a number of programs that are not available in an Apple version, presumably I would have found something equivalent if I was using an Apple computer. Still, I’m perfectly content with my PC, and the operating system is now rock solid. (OK, I think I waded into the debate a little.)
Here is all I have to say about computers. Don’t cheap out. It is the primary tool of your trade, and you will be using it all day, just about every day. Ignore the conventional wisdom that attorneys don’t need a lot of computing power since they use their computers primarily for word processing,. You will be pushing the resources of your computer with multi-tasking. If you are like me, you soon end up with 20 tabs on your Internet browser, and that alone uses a lot of RAM. Plus, who knows what you will decide to do tomorrow? What if you decide to start marketing your firm with instructional videos? You need some real computer power to edit videos.
Get a 64-bit model with a fast processor, at least 12GB of RAM, a two terabyte hard drive, and no less than four video outputs for the reasons I will explain in the next section. Speaking of RAM, I used to have to warn you be careful of which version of Windows you were using, because that dictated how much RAM could be used. It does no good to load your computer up with 12GB of RAM if the Windows version you are using can only use 4GB. However, beginning with Windows 8, you can access at least 128MB of RAM regardless of which version you are using, EXCEPT that 32-bit computers are still limited to 4GB.
Desktop versus Laptop, and the use of Multiple Monitors
In my never to be humble opinion, you should not use a laptop computer as your main computer. I’ve heard the arguments (“you can take your office with you”), and in my early years I used only a laptop, but the primary reason you need to use a desktop is so you can use multiple monitors.
I was writing for a number of computer magazines back in the day when Microsoft took us to a graphical interface with the introduction of Windows. It seems laughable with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, but many people resisted moving to a graphical interface, arguing that it was less efficient because your hand had to leave the keyboard to operate the mouse.
I see that same short-sighted resistance when I tout the benefits of multiple monitors. If you are still using one monitor, your efficiency will take a quantum leap when you add two or three more. And you’ll gain even greater efficiency when you pivot two of those monitors to a vertical orientation.
At one time I was up to six monitors (three over three), but I found that with larger 24″ monitors, I could get by with four, since you can put up two programs with each using half a screen. Windows 7 made this easy because you can drag a window to the side of the screen, and it automatically resizes to take up exactly half the screen.
Here is how I use my four monitors. Starting at the far left, the monitor is horizontal, and shows Time Matters (my case management program), AIM (the instant messenger program which we all use to communicate and to send blocks of text and links when working on a joint document), Slacker Radio (playing my mellow music mix), NoteScraps (a great capture everything program), and the video feed from the Foscam video camera in the lobby so I can see anyone arriving at the office. Moving to the right, the next monitor, also horizontal, has Evernote on the left, and Outlook on the right. The next monitor is vertical, and usually is occupied by the Chrome Internet browser. The entire Internet world is vertically oriented, and if you have not used a vertical monitor for the Internet, you will be shocked at how much more information you can see all at once. Finally, on the right most monitor, is Word Perfect or Word. With a vertical monitor, you can see the entire page all at once. It make absolutely no sense to do word processing on a horizontal monitor.
With multiple monitors, when you are researching cases on Westlaw or whatever service you use, you can cut text from a case and paste it into the brief you are preparing, without ever having to switch between windows. If you are taking text from an old Word document and pasting it into another, you can put one instance of Word on one monitor, and another on a second monitor, and move text from one to the other.
When the email received “ding” rings out, you can without missing a keystroke glance over to see if the incoming email is something you need to deal with.
The benefits of multiple monitors is undeniable, and while you could kludge something together with a laptop at the core, it would not be as quick and efficient. For example, most laptops have a second video output that could be used for a second monitor, and you could even plug in a USB to video adapter to push a third monitor, but as I said, very kludgey, and who wants to start every day by setting that all up?
To set up multiple monitors on a computer used to be a bit of a do-it-yourself project. When I bought a computer I had to make sure it had sufficient available video slots for additional or replacement video cards. Then I would buy video cards that could run two monitors each and install them. That was all pretty easy, but then the set up process was a hassle, because I had to go into the Windows set-up, and set the monitors sizes, position, resolution and orientation. Sometimes the settings wouldn’t “stick”, so when I rebooted I had to tweak the settings again.
Now it is far simpler, because most computer makers realize that users want to run multiple monitors, so it is built in. Lawyers are behind the curve in this regard, but gamers and day-traders have long used multiple monitors.
I’m going to geek out here for a minute, but just know that it is now a really simple matter to buy or modify a computer so it can use four monitors. If you want to modify your existing computer, any computer store should be able to add the necessary video card, and many will do it for free when you purchase the card. If you are buying a new computer, just look for one that comes with four video outputs (in a pinch, you could get by with three).
If you are happy with your current desktop computer but want to use multiple monitors, then you can buy single video cards with four video outputs. The NVIDIA NVS 510 2GB GFX (C2J98AT) is what I recommend. So long as you have a PCI Express slot in the computer, you are good to go. My computer is an HP Pavilion HPE h9-1210t (no longer available) which came native with four video outputs, but they are a menagerie of output types, requiring multiple adapters. The NVIDIA is a much cleaner solution because all four outputs are mini-DisplayPorts.
Now let’s talk about the monitors themselves.
Just as your televisions went from basically square (4×3) to widescreen (16×9), so have computer monitors. Obviously for the advantage of going vertical, you need widescreen monitors (turning a square monitor on its side doesn’t accomplish much). Here is what I recommend.
I use a mix of 22 inch and 24 inch monitors. For my set up, although they are great in horizontal mode, the 24 inch monitors are just a little too tall in vertical mode. I have to look up to see the top of the page, and it can lead to neck fatigue over the course of a day. Therefore I use two 22 inch models for my vertical monitors. HP doesn’t make my particular models (HP W2207H and HP W2408h) anymore, but they are still available on Amazon and are an amazing value ($130) from the price when new ($460). But I would recommend the LG IPS231P-BN 23-Inch Pivoting Monitor.
This monitor hits the perfect 23″ sweet spot for either vertical or horizontal orientation, and it just looks cooler to have all matching monitors, rather than mixed sizes. Also, the tiny frame around the monitor is great because it allows you to place the monitors just that much closer to one another in order to minimize your side to side head movement. Finally, the native resolution is 1920 x 1080, which is the same as my 24″ monitors. The resolution of a monitor dictates how much information can be displayed all at once, but high resolution is pointless if the text is so small you can’t read it. Because these monitors are so large, the text is crystal clear even to my aging eyes. At $170, these are a screaming deal.
By the way, you don’t necessarily have to buy a pivoting monitor to use it in vertical mode. Look for a monitor (perhaps even the one you have) with what is called a VESA mount. Just like the flat screen television you probably have in your home, if a monitor comes with a VESA mount, you can remove the stand and attach it to a wall or desk mount. I’ve provided a picture to illustrate what I’m talking about. In the picture, the monitors are still in horizontal mode, but the mount allows them to be pivoted 90 degrees. Those things you see attached to the back of the monitors are the VESA mounts.
Bottom line on multiple monitors: Once you have started using multiple monitors, with a mix of horizontal and vertical screens (also referred to as landscape and portrait), you’ll realize that working with one screen borders on unethical, because it takes so much longer to complete a project. It’s comparable to doing all the research for a motion for summary judgment using an old dial-up modem versus a high speed Internet connection. They both get the job done, but one is much more efficient and hence far less expensive for the client.
If it’s just you, then you won’t need to worry about networking for a while. But as soon as you add a second computer for a secretary, legal assistant or attorney, then create a network that shares all resources. All your files should be kept on one of the computers and accessed with a peer-to-peer network, or on a server.
Speaking of files, in all your office operations, assign a few of your brain cells to the task of watching for inefficiencies. If you find yourself repeatedly drilling down through directories in order to get to files, then take few minutes to get better organized. Word and Word Perfect both allow you to set your default directory when opening a file. Even if the directory is on a networked computer or server, set the default to the folder where you keep the client files. In other words, when you click on the icon to open a file, you are presented with all the client folders with no drilling down to them.
We keep directories for active clients and archived clients. You want them both readily available because you will frequently be referring to documents in the archived files as a beginning point for a new document you want to create, but you don’t want to wade through both old and new clients every time you want to open a document. Thus, when a matter concludes, that folder is dragged into the archive directory, so that the default directory always contains only active files.
You can even adjust the size of the window that pops up when you click open file. Why scroll through the list of active clients? Expand the size of the window to fill the entire screen so that when you click open file, you are instantly shown the entire list.
A wireless network can be used initially in order to avoid having to run any network cables, but eventually you want to migrate to a wired network. The reason is that wireless networks add a layer of complication. When I added a couple of workstations for contract attorneys, I tried to get by with wireless connections to their computers. It worked the vast majority of the time, but on a far too annoying basis, they would come to me because they’d lost access to the network. Also, some programs, Time Matters for example, won’t work across a wireless network.
Speaking of files, you need to backup your files of course, but you also want them accessible when you are out of the office. You should keep a local backup, and equally important, an off-site backup, in case of disaster or theft. Many firms use Dropbox or some other service to keep their files, but you have to pay for that storage, and there are the confidentiality concerns that arise when you are storing client files on someone else’s server. One great way to get around this is with your own cloud backup. There are a few hard drives you can buy that connect to the cloud, and my favorite is the WD My Cloud 3TB Hard Drive. What a great system. For just a little more than you’d pay for a year of Dropbox storage, you own your own cloud storage, with none of the worries about privacy.
One problem I encountered with personal cloud storage is that it is not as accessible and omnipresent as Dropbox. In other words, if I install a new app on my iPhone that requires storage of files, inevitably it will offer a link to my Dropbox account, but there won’t be an equivalent link to my own cloud storage. But the WD My Cloud 3TB Hard Drive recognizes this reality, and its own app links to your Dropbox account. This allows you to use both, and with the massive storage offered by the WD My Cloud, you probably won’t need to go beyond the free storage Dropbox offers.
If you want to provide even more security for your files, then consider a slightly more expensive mirrored drive. For example, Western Digital offers a 6TB My Cloud Mirrored Hard Drive for about $299 on Amazon. This drive uses a RAID 1 Mirror Mode, meaning that everything is backed up to two hard drives. So, you’ll have your files on your local computer or server, and those files can be backed up onto an inexpensive external hard drive in the office, as well as away from the office on your personal cloud, where it has yet another back-up. Yes, that is a lot of redundancies, but remember it’s a modest, one-time expense. That’s a small price to pay to never have an “oh my God I just lost all my files” moment.
Here is a video I found about the WD My Cloud 3TB Hard Drive, demonstrating how it works and how to configure it.
A Free Back-up Method
Speaking of backing up your files, here a simple technique that can save you a lot of heartache. This has nothing to do with protecting your files from disaster. Rather, this is for those instances where you open a prior motion for summary judgment, because it arises from the same issues as the current case and will save you and your client about 20 hours in preparing a new motion for summary judgment, and find that your paralegal used the file to prepare a Notice of Ruling, but forgot to save it under a new name. In other words, your beautifully crafted motion for summary judgment is now gone, replaced by a Notice of Ruling (but still bearing the name, motion for summary judgment).
Back in the day, when you saved a word processing file, the file you originally opened was saved as a .bak file. Somewhere along the way, someone must have decided that was creating just too many files, and that feature is now off by default. But both Word and WordPerfect still offer that option.
— Click File, Options, Advanced, then scroll down to “Save” section, and put a check mark in the box “Always create backup copy”.
— Click Tools, Settings, Files, then put a check mark in the box, “Save original document as a backup at each save”.
If your program doesn’t match these steps, then you may have a different version. Just do an Internet search for “how to create an automatic backup document in [name and version of your word processing program]”.
Speech to Text / Dictation
If I failed to convince you above of the virtues of multiple computer monitors, then you are apparently a Luddite and I probably don’t have a chance of winning you over on dictation, but it is another technology that will add a quantum leap of efficiency to your office.
I’m not talking about dictating files that are then given to your secretary for transcription (although you can do that as well). I’m talking about software that allows you to create documents with your voice, instead of the keyboard. If you are resistance to dictation software, it may come from the fact that your experience was similar to my own.
The only viable dictation software for about the last ten years is Dragon NaturallySpeaking, by Nuance. I tried it once long ago (it actually came with Word Perfect at one time) but never really got into it. It was only about 90% accurate, and the time spent editing out all the mistakes it created ended up being comparable to what it would have taken to type the document in the first place. In my case, I’ve gone through that process of trying to make it work a couple of more times. I was sent a review copy at some point, and even paid to upgrade it to keep it current, but never go into the habit of using it.
However, I finally forced myself to take the time to implement it and to develop my technique, and my efficiency has soared. I am a very fast typist, but I cannot type anywhere near as fast as I talk (no one can, that’s why we pay the big bucks to court reporters, and even they must constantly tell people to slow down).
With briefs to write and multiple blogs to feed, I need to be able to create quality documents quickly. I just talk into my computer, even gesturing as though I am explaining something to someone, the only difference being that I end sentences with punctuation and say “new paragraph” when appropriate. I don’t look at the computer monitor during the process. I found that the time it took to edit by voice (“select ‘Brad Berry’, spell it, B R A D B U R Y, go back”) was the time-consuming part of the process. If I make a mistake, I just say “fix this” and keep going. (I used to just say “crap”, but I didn’t want that to mistakenly end up in a document.) I just get it all into the document and then go back and edit.
[Update: I’ve modified my technique slightly as I’ve gotten more comfortable with the Dragon Naturally Speaking software. If I pause to collect my thoughts, I take a look at the screen and read what I’ve just dictated. If I see a mistake that just involves replacing a word, I fix that with Dragon because it is so fast. For example, if I dictated the word “collage” and Dragon heard it as “college”, I just say “correct college”, and Dragon instantly highlights the word and offers a list of all the similar sounding words. Then I just say, “choose 3” and it’s done.]
I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking on my computers at the office and at home, as well as on my laptop. Writing an article with the keyboard seems so last millennium. It’s like the scene in the Star Trek movie, where the crew travels to the past (our present), and Scotty sits down at a computer and starts talking. When that doesn’t work, he picks up the mouse and talks into that. Finally, when Bones points to the keyboard, Scotty says, “how quaint.”
At the time I fully implemented speech to text into my practice, the current version of Dragon NaturallySpeaking was 12. Nuance then offered a free upgrade to version 12.5, and either because I was getting more comfortable with the software or the technology got better, that is when it really seemed to hit its stride. The misuse of words (using “threw” when I meant “through”) almost never happens. The accuracy is phenomenal. Even though I’ve been using it for some time now, I am still amazed by the accuracy. Sometimes, even when I mumble, I’ll look up at the screen and see that Dragon got it right. As an example of how good the program has gotten, when I just dictated the word “Dragon”, it knew to use a capital D. Somehow, contextually, it knew I was talking about the program, and not a dragon.
Nuance just released version 13, which makes version 12 an even greater bargain. Every time they come out with a new version, they tout the improved speech recognition, but version 12 is so good that it’s hard to imagine that version 13 could be appreciably better. If you want to try dictation, my suggestion would be to buy version 12 (it will automatically upgrade to 12.5) at the bargain price for now. You can always upgrade later. In fact, you can get version 12 with a digital recorder for about what you’d pay for version 13 without the recorder. BUY THE PREMIUM EDITION, not the “home” edition, because the latter lacks some nice features. As I write this, Dragon NaturallySpeaking 12 Premium Edition is about $75, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 13.0 is about $175.
For the record, I’m using yet another version referred to as Dragon Professional Individual. Nuance has dropped the “NaturallySpeaking” moniker, and just refers to this latest version as Dragon. At $300, this is obviously a more expensive version but it has a feature that I think makes the extra money well spent. You can create word combinations that then insert whatever text you have designated. For example if I’m dictating an email, when I say “standard signature block”, Dragon inserts all of my contact information and the disclaimer.
I’ve just started using this latest version, so I have not yet taken full advantage of this feature, but I see that it is going to be a huge time-saver. For example, when I create a demurrer, I pretty much use the same three paragraphs every time that set forth the legal standards for a demurrer. I can now set it up so that when I say “demurrer law” Nuance will automatically insert those three paragraphs. I could accomplish the same thing with any text expander program, but this is super efficient.
Be sure to click around on Amazon to see what is available, because there are a number of permutations. For example, at the time I am writing this, you can buy Dragon Professional Individual for $300, but there is a special Dragon Professional Individual BLUETOOTH edition that comes with a Bluetooth headset for the same price. Alternatively, if you take my suggestion and buy version 12 for $75, and decide you like dictating your documents, you can then Upgrade from Premium 12 to Dragon Professional Individual for $150, resulting in a savings of about $75 over the $300 price.
You can do much more than dictation with these programs, including operating your computer. For example, you can open your email program, dictate an email to a client and send it without ever touching the keyboard. For me, though, I just use it for the lightning quick entry of text; mostly for articles and letters. For court documents, where I will be cutting and pasting research and moving around arguments, I still find that the “quaint” keyboard is the way to go, but even there I use Dragon to speed up the process. To start dictating, you just say “wake up” and the mic turns on and Dragon types whatever you say. So, when I am preparing a brief and come to a point where I am going to insert my brilliant analysis, I just say “wake up”, dictate in all that I want to say, and then say “go to sleep”, at which point I return to typing.
Here is a good video that illustrates what you can do with Dragon. This video is for version 13, but it is just the same for the other versions.
Notice in the video that she is dictating directly into the documents (Word, Outlook) she is composing. That is how it works for most programs (even Word Perfect!), but if you call up a program that does not link to Dragon, it just opens a dialog box. You dictate what you want, click “transfer”, and the text you just dictated is pasted into whatever program you are using.
There is a Dragon Naturally Speaking Legal edition that is about $700, but so far as I can tell the only added feature is a built in lexicon for lawyers. For my purposes, I would have no reason to spend that extra money. You can teach Dragon any word, and if it is a unique word that is unlikely to arise in the future, such as a legal term or someone’s name, I use a simple word in substitution, and then do a global search and replace when I go back to edit.
A few words about headsets.
Some of the versions of Dragon come with a headset.The quality of the headset you use will directly impact the accuracy of the dictation (to a point). As you can imagine, the quality of the headset included with the software is going to be a compromise between price and quality. I’ve tested a number of headsets, including the one that comes with Dragon and a Bluetooth headset. I really liked the Bluetooth headset because I could pace while dictating (it seems to help my thinking), but it seemed that the accuracy suffered. (This was not the Bluetooth headset that comes with the Bluetooth edition of Dragon, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of that headset.) Out of all the headsets I have tested, I achieved the best results from the Logitech ClearChat USB Headset H390, which is less than $35. And this is probably getting way too specific, but another reason I like this headset over the one that comes with the software is because it is a stereo headset, as opposed to the type with just one earpiece. As we established earlier, I like listening to my mellow mix while working, and this lets me do it.
Although headsets presumably give the best accuracy, I recently had an epiphany that has increased my productivity even further. I don’t like wearing a headset all day, so the headset was providing just enough of an impediment that I would keep typing rather than to take a few seconds to put on the headset. Back when I first started using dictation software, the quality of the headset was essential and, in fact, Nuance published a list of “approved” headphones that would work with its software. Even though I have become a complete zealot as regards dictation, I was still operating under the assumption that a quality headset was essential. Then I happened to notice, during the setup process, that the instructions included details on how to use your laptop’s internal mic. “Well,” I said to myself, “if I can use the internal mic on my laptop for dictation, why can’t I have a desktop microphone in front of my monitor?” I now have a microphone on a desktop stand, just to the left of my keyboard, and the accuracy appears to be just as good as with a headset, which is to say, very good. Now, speech to text is seamlessly incorporated into all that I do. Whereas, before, I thought in terms of whether I was entering a dictation session. In other words, if I was about to prepare a brief, I would put on my headset in order to be ready for any dictation. Now, the microphone sits there patiently, waiting for me to say “wake up” and dictate something. Sometimes I use dictation for more challenging passages, because I don’t have to worry about any tricky spellings. Watch this. Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. I knew Dragon would know that word, even though WordPress marks it as misspelled, and offers no suggestions.
If I still haven’t completely sold you on the virtues of dictation, invest 99 cents (free if you are a Kindle Unlimited subscriber) and get the e-book How To Write A Book Without Typing It in 6½ Easy Steps. This very short e-book contains a wealth of information about the advantages to dictation, that go beyond the mere efficiency. The author argues, and I agree, that dictation leads to better, more natural writing.
When you think about it, storytelling existed probably thousands of years before the written word, and the practice of using a keyboard as a means to communicate thoughts from one to another is a very recent development. Rather than viewing speech-to-text dictation as some new technology, it should rather be viewed as a return to the storytelling method that is in our genes.
Time to get to work.
Now that you have selected your comfortable and awe inspiring office space, and fully equipped it, it’s time to get to work. Go to the next article to learn the single most important decision you can make to have a satisfying law practice.
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