Please tell me this article, Three Online Tools Making It Easier to Leave Biglaw and Start Your Own Practice by ATL columnist Zach Abramowitz is either sponsored content for the technologies profiled — or a joke. Because as I’ll discuss after the jump, the tech tools featured by Abramowitz –Casetext legal research, LawGeex contract analyzer and Logikcull’s cloud-based discovery platform are either not yet ready for prime time, or not presently useful for most solos and smalls. I’ll also tell you which tools I think are indispensable to starting a firm in 2016.
At the outset, let me say that I don’t dislike any of the tools that Abramowitz mentioned in his post. It’s just that they’re not mission-critical to getting a new practice off the ground.
For example, although Casetext may have some promise in replacing costly services like Westlaw’s headnotes, the platform isn’t there yet. Casetext allows users to highlight key portions of, and comment on judicial decisions with the thought that this user-generated content will offer valuable insights on the cases. (As an aside, Casetext’s neat We Cite Project which maps case relationships based on law student input is surprisingly accurate and a great teaching tool). Unfortunately, to date, most of the “user input” I’ve seen at Casetext is recycled content already posted on JD Supra or on a law firm website. In addition, there are currently many more robust free or low cost legal research tools such as Fastcase (free though many bar memberships) or Google Scholar that work right now and therefore are most useful to a lawyer starting a practice.
Another tool mentioned by Abramowitz, LawGeex sounds really cool and potentially promising: it’s an AI-powered contract analyzer that analyzes contracts to determine how the terms stack up against other similar contracts in the Lawgeex database. The system will then generate a report, letting users know if they’ve left out key terms. For a new solo who may not have access to quality forms, Lawgeex is potentially a godsend – but it’s currently so limited (applicable only to employer contracts) that it won’t offer much value.
Finally, Abramowitz mentions Logikcull, a cloud-based e-discovery platform that’s easy to use. But for most solos starting out – even those leaving big law – much of the litigation that they’ll handle will either take place in state court where e-discovery isn’t pervasive or involve parties who maintain paper files. So while Logikcull and other e-discovery platforms are good tools to know about, they’re not something that I would characterize as mission critical to most new law firms.
So having criticized Abramowitz, what tech software or cloud tools do I view as indispensable to starting a new practice?
As a caveat, my suggestions assume that a lawyer starting out will have the necessary hardware – some type of computer or laptop and a smartphone to communicate with clients and access the internet – as well as use of word-processing tools even if it’s just Google Docs or Open Office since these will also convert documents into PDFs which is necessary for court filings. The tools discussed below are extras that need to be procured separately from the default tools already incorporated into most hardware products. With that, my three suggestions follow:
Method for Invoicing and Accepting Payments Online One of the most important issues for a new firm is cash flow, and one of the ways to expedite payment is to accept it online so that it’s transferred immediately into the lawyer’s operating account or trust account (depending if it’s considered a retainer payment or earned on receipt). You don’t want to limit yourself to credit card payments only but rather have the ability to accept payments directly from a potential client’s bank account as well. Services like Paypal and Stripe accept both ACH and credit card payments as do many of the law practice management platforms (many of the law firm specific services like LawPay offer this service through a third party and there’s an extra cost associated with it).
As for invoicing, most of the law practice management systems – MyCase, Clio, RocketMatter, Zola, Practice Panther, Cosmolex (phew!) and others all offer tools for invoicing – not to mention other functionality. But to me, one of the most significant features of law practice management platforms is the ability to invoice and accept payments – so I’d only choose a platform that supports both of these mission-critical functions.
Autoresponder/Newsletter Software It may seem counter-intuitive, but one tool that solos and smalls ought to set up right out of the gate is some type of auto-responder/newsletter software. Though it may seem like a product that creates newsletters isn’t necessary until you build a client list, auto-responders and newsletters help you develop a list. My favorite is MailChimp for several reasons. With Mailchimp, you can easily add a link to an email, your business cards or website inviting prospective colleagues and clients to subscribe to your list. Once you’ve captured the contact, you can send regular newsletters about current legal issues, or simply occasional updates on news from your firm. You can even use MailChimp to announce your new law firm to existing contacts. On top of that, Mailchimp is free for up to 2000 subscribers and extremely easy to use. Plus Mailchimp is sufficiently well-known so if you can’t figure it out on your own, you can easily find support on freelance sites like UpWork.
Substantive Research Tools Even though I’m queen of the free, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to substantive research tools, and will openly admit that for many practice areas, free research tools alone won’t cut it. For example, even though many bar associations include Fastcase in the cost of membership,that benefit may not give you access to all of the Fastcase libraries and you’d need to pay extra to access them. Moreover, much as I despise the WEXIS duopoly which has hindered innovation in legal research for decades by stomping out competition, they may be the only game in town for niche practice areas with specialized research needs – like tax, telecom, energy or immigration. You don’t necessarily have to subscribe to these services, but at least familiarize yourself with places, like a law school library or a courthouse, where you can use them at a public kiosk.
Meanwhile, while more general practice areas – criminal defense or family law – could theoretically rely on free services, practitioners in these fields may benefit from purchasing forms or specialized treatises to save time in getting up to speed on issues and preparing pleadings. Investing in these resources at the outset will guarantee the reliability of your research and more importantly, save time.
Now it’s your turn. In your view, what tech tools are mission critical when starting a law firm. Chime in below; the comment section is open.