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ResearchWire - Expanding the Solo Practitioner or Small Firm Resources with the Internet

By Michelle Ayers, Published on July 1, 1998

Michelle Ayers is the Principal of Ayers Information Network, L.L.C., in Philadelphia, PA.

(Archived August 1, 1998)


As a small business owner, I am keenly aware of the need to run an efficient office. One of the ways to run a solo or small law firm efficiently is to understand the power of the Internet.  The Internet is understood by many as a method for communicating (email), a marketing tool (website) and a research tool (search engines, indexes and directories). Yes, these are valuable resources for a small firm, but there is more to the Internet as a resource.

The purpose of this article is to give the "solo practitioner" and the "small law firm" (hereinafter "SP’s/SLF’s") some pointer’s on how to use this resource to obtain maximum benefit to practice law in the digital age. 

In addition to the 3 biggies: email, Websites and research, other topics this article will cover are: Internet telephone products; continuing legal education; law firm management; faxing over the Internet; intranets/extranets; push technology; forms; the power of discussion lists; staying current with live news broadcasts and marking up documents simultaneously.


Email

Large firms started using email when their clients demanded it as a way to communicate during on-going litigation. For SP’s/SLF’s, email can not only put their firm on equal footing with the big firms, but also allow the firm to operate with less staff. Email functions have improved greatly in the last year or so. For a review of some of the top email products and their functions see:

http://www.cnet.com/Content/Reviews/Compare/Emailclients/

http://www.zdnet.com/products/grids/emailutil.html

Marketing

Thousands of law firms have Websites. If you don’t, get one. It will become a prime marketing tool for the SP/SLF. What if you don’t know the first thing about creating a Website? While you can do it yourself, this is one DIY project on which you may want some help. Setting up a presence on the Web with a home page can be quite time-consuming and hiring a professional web design firm can become expensive. To keep costs down, you may considering contacting a local university that has business or library science schools. There, you may find an enterprising student willing to design your page for an affordable price.

Here are some resources to help you get started to decide how to approach this task. 

For a review of Website development software http://www.byte.com/art/9607/sec13/art10.htm

http://www.byte.com/art/9607/sec13/art10.htm

How to market your Website http://www.ljx.com/firms/sites.html

 

Research:  Legal and Non-legal

Conducting effective research on the Internet can either be economical and rewarding or a flat-out frustrating experience for the novice searcher. However, it pays for an SP/SLF to take the time necessary to become knowledgeable about this aspect of the Internet. The reason is simple: many publishers are bypassing the traditional commercial database services and going directly to the web. Also, courts are publishing their opinions directly to the Web. Knowing where to find quality legal research sites is not always clear. While you may not want give up your Lexis or Westlaw account just yet, there are several important quality websites that a SP/SLF can use to (just about) replace these resources.

Fee-based legal research Website

http://www.versuslaw.com/

"Full-text opinions from Federal and State Appellate Courts in one searchable collection on the Internet. With court opinions updated daily, V. is one of the most comprehensive and current sources for legal research on the Internet."

 

Quality no-fee legal research sites

http://www.law.indiana.edu/law/v-lib/lawindex.html

"In 1992, Indiana University School of Law--Bloomington was chosen by CERN, originators of the World Wide Web Consortium, to be the host of the Virtual Law Library . The World Wide Web Virtual Library is a collection of subject related Websites maintained by institutions throughout the world, each administering a different subject. Material within the Virtual Law Library is organized by organization type (i.e. U.S. Government Servers) and by legal topic (i.e. Contracts). There is also a list of search tools and other comprehensive sites for law. "

http://gsulaw.gsu.edu/metaindex/ 

"This page illustrates the use of searchable legal indexes on the World Wide Web. Only specifically legal indexes in the U.S. are included."

http://www.law.cornell.edu/

"The server offers the LII's collection of recent and historic Supreme Court decisions, its hypertext versions of the full U.S. Code, U.S. Constitution, Federal Rules of Evidence and Civil Procedure, recent opinions of the New York Court of Appeals and commentary on them from the liibulletin-ny, the American Legal Ethics Library, and other important legal materials -- federal, state, foreign and international. It holds the LII's e-mail address directory of faculty and staff at U.S. law schools as well as contact information on other people and organizations in the field of law. It is host to the Cornell Law Review, and offers information about Cornell Law School and the Cornell Law Library."

http://www.virtualchase.com/  

"The Virtual Chase TM Guide to Resources for Legal Professionals provides annotated hot linked references to resources legal professionals might find useful in conducting research on the Web. Arranged by type of information sought (e.g., case law, news sources, etc.), the Guide assists users in selecting a resource likely to answer the question. "

 

Internet Telephony

With Internet telephony, phone companies have a lot to be nervous about. Essentially, for the price of a dialup connection to your local Internet Service Provider, you can talk to anyone anywhere in the world. You can even attach voice mail to you emails. Here are some resources to help you chose a telephony product that is right for your firm.

Net telephony software reviews

http://www.paritysw.com/tenapp.htm http://www.zdnet.com/products/chatuser/downloads.html

 

Continuing Legal Education

Nearly every bar association has a resource on the Web listing their upcoming schedules and offerings. What will be interesting for the SP/SLF to watch is how quickly these courses are offered interactively so you don’t have to leave your office. Check to see if your state allows CLE credit for taking Internet classes or participating in online listserv discussions.

Extensive national listing of CLE programs on the Internet state-by-state

http://www.netlawtools.com/cle.html

http://www.romingerlegal.com/CLE.htm

 

For readers from my home state of Pennsylvania see http://www.pbi.org/

                                        Earn CLE credits for surfing the Web                                           http://www.findlaw.com/07cle/cle/

 

General Reference

Zip codes, area codes, postal rates, maps and directions, business addresses, Amtrak & airline tickets, Federal Express and UPS packages shipping status. These are among the many reasons large firms keep paralegals, secretaries, law office managers and law librarians running around. The savvy SP/SLF can use these resources on the Internet. Here is a list of reference sources to add to your bookmarks.

 

Faxing Over the Internet

The Internet allows the SP/SLF to fax to someone who doesn’t have a fax machine but has email. The SP/SLF can also send and receive faxes from private Websites when you are on the road. While these may take some tinkering to properly understand how to set up and use these products, the benefits to the SP/SLF should be obvious.

Review of new faxing capabilities over the Internet http://search.zdnet.com/pcmag/pclabs/nettools/1708arch.html

 

Intranets/Extranets

If the list above hasn’t been enough to convince the SP/SLF to look into all the resources the Internet has to offer, than this one should do it. (An "intranet" is essentially a website that only those in your firm have access to and an "extranet" is a website exclusively for you and some of your select clients.) Yes, there can be a fair amount of downtime in setting up an intranet or extranet, but the benefits are huge. "Do something once and use it many times" is a business adage that applies here. Get your new employees up to speed fast by having all your firm policies on your intranet. Set up your library online. Use an intranet for a conflict checking systems. Use it for subject specific conversations between your clients or employees so that face-to-face meetings are not as necessary.

Extranets can allow your clients access to general firm information that is not included in your website. Sections of extranets can be devoted to select projects you are working on for your clients. Designing an efficient intranet/extranet is a time-consuming affair that is probably best outsourced to a consultant. ("Do what you do best and hire the rest" is also another worthwhile business adage that applies.) But once set up and functioning, the long term benefits to the SP/SLF can further help to level the playing field between you and the big firms. Visit these sites to learn more:

For books reviews on intranet/extranet issues check for book reviews            http://www.amazon.com and select "intranet" as your keyword. 

Law Journal Extra offer great tips for starting your firm’s intranet http://www.ljx.com/intranet/intra.htm

 

Push Technology

When you download push software, your computer acts in a more intelligent manner. How? You select the topics that interest you; plug them into push software ( Pointcast is one of the most popular) and select how often you want these topics loaded onto your screensaver or to your email. You now have better control over the topics you want to keep current on without having to do daily searches to find them.

                                    For one of the most popular push software                                     http://www.pointcast.com

For a review of push technology and software http://www.cnet.com/Content/Reviews/Compare/Push/

 

Forms

Whether you are looking for local forms for your geographical area or need an occasional form from another state jurisdiction, the Internet is a good place to get them. We have selected two of the many form sites for you to bookmark.

http://www.legal-businessforms.com/ http://www.quickforms.com/

 

The Power of Discussion Lists

Whether you participate or just "lurk", listservs can be a great place to keep current on the latest legal topics. There are listservs on all kinds of topics for lawyers: technology, Y2K, specific 'hot" legal issues and more. To learn the differences between listservs, newsgroups and the like, we refer you to Mailing Lists and Newsgroups, the Real Treasures of the Internet, by Guy Alvarez, Page 5, Col. 1, The New York Law Journal, February 6, 1996 at:

http://www.ljx.com/forumpages/020696s2.html

This site keeps track of listserv's of interest to attorneys http://www.regent.edu/lawlib/lists/list-law.html

 

Staying Current with Live News Broadcasts

Listen to the radio or watch TV while working. One way to do two things at once! You will have to download suitable application software to utilize these applications. Also, your PC will have to be up-to-date enough to accommodate these applications. Test your computer to see if it is capable of allowing you to listen to the radio with this site:  http://www.news.com/radio/ftc.html

 

Marking Up Documents Simultaneously

As lawyers get more comfortable with the practicing law in the digital age, marking up documents simultaneously with clients or other counsel will become routine. To learn more about this powerful application here is some general reading on the topic: 

http://www.cio.com/cio/ciomag/archive/040197_et.html http://search.zdnet.com/pcmag/features/teamware/sb3.htm

 

Law Firm Technology Management

Whether it's selecting a new network or deciding whether to go for a speech recognition system, the Internet is the place for up-to-date information to help attorneys in any size firm with their selection. Rather than wait for the latest law technology magazine to hit your desk, use the Internet as a resource for product reviews and testing. Here are just a few resources:

Law Office Technology: http://www.ljx.com/tech/

Review of speech recognition tools: http://www.winmag.com/library/1997/1201/winla112.htm

Battle of the Browsers: http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/ct170.htm

 

Conclusion

As you can imagine, becoming efficient with these tools will level the playing field between the big firms and the SP's/SLF's. Keep in mind that this efficiency is not without its price. That price is your precious time. Some of the suggestions above can be implemented immediately (research, reference resources, CLE, forms, to name a few); others will take quite a bit of time to implement. You must be willing to make the time commitment to educate yourself, staff and other firm members and make the necessary decisions to implement your selections. Doing this now will put you ahead of the digital curve every lawyer will have to circumvent in the not too distant future to have a successful practice.