I’m presenting before a very small group of new solo practitioners tonight. They’ve formed a support group to help one another deal with the hassles and cope with the emotions of starting a solo practice. It’s an innovative idea implemented by Erik Mazzone, our North Carolina Bar Association, Practice Management Advisor. I’m thrilled to be able to help.
I’m going to suggest that they keep it simple when it comes to technology and that they avoid buying a bunch of stuff. I’m sure there are many alternatives to my suggestions, but I don’t want to overwhelm people with choices so I’ve deliberately narrowed the field.
Here’s my list of suggestions –
First on my list is a laptop. The laptop makes you more mobile than the desktop. I’m a Mac fan, but I think it’s reasonable to select a Mac or PC. I’d suggest spending about $1,500 on the Mac or $1,000 on the PC. You’ll end up with something comparable at those price points. By the time you add virus protection and a bit of software to the PC the gap will narrow, but ultimately this is a personal preference thing.
I’d add a laser printer next. I’ve had good luck with a small laser printer by Brother that cost about $100. There are plenty of good units out there and I’d focus on keeping it cheap. I’d also suggest a scanner. You’ll want to start this new practice paperless and a decent scanner is essential. I’m in love with the Fujitsu Scansnap S1500. It works like a charm and comes in a Mac or PC version.
Next up is a phone. You’ve got to have a smartphone for your practice. Get an iPhone if you can tolerate AT&T. Get the latest Droid from Verizon (this month it’s the Incredible) if AT&T is awful in your area. Get an unlimited plan and start calling people to drum up some business. I’d also add a layer to the phone system and sign up for a hosted PBX service so I can route calls, add staff (eventually) and give my clients the sense that there’s more going on here than me and a cell phone. Phonebooth and Grasshopper would be my first choices.
Your going to need a website for your new practice. To keep it simple, I’d register my domain at GoDaddy and build a website with SquareSpace. You can’t make it much easier, or less expensive, than this combination.
Mail is an important part of running a solo practice. It’s central to much of what we do. I’d suggest buying a postage scale and some stamps. If that feels overly simple then I’d suggest Stamps.com for postage and SimpleCertifiedMail.com for sending certified letters.
I really think it’s important to start your practice off with a case management system. I certainly don’t want you to run out and buy a server and load it up with expensive software. I’d suggest considering the three key players in small firm, hosted, case management arena – Clio, Rocketmatter, and Advologix. I’m partial to Advologix because it’s built on Force.com (the platform for the very successful and well-funded Salesforce.com).
While those are all good systems I think they have plenty of room to grow and are struggling to keep up with some of the rapid development of the non-legal systems. I’d carefully consider CentralDesktop.com and that’s probably what I’d encourage a brand new solo to use given the current state of the market.
In addition to a hosted cased management system, there are several other software applications I’d employ. I’d purchase a copy of Microsoft Office (some solos I know have purchased the student license during school and are still using it). I’d rather use Google Docs for all my wordprocessing and spreadsheets, but you’ll likely find that you need Office to deal with some of what you get from clients and opposing counsel.
My email sysem of choice would be Gmail. I’d go ahead and sign up for the Google Apps for Business package that will allow you to use your firm domain name as your email address rather than using a gmail address. If you have some issue with using Gmail, then I’d look at Rackspace. Another option, and this is what I’d probably do, is to hook up with DNAmail. They can set you up with Google Apps or Hosted Exchange email. They’ll handle the setup for you.
When you get some revenues flowing I’d manage my time and billing and accounting using the case management system I selected (if you go that route) and I’d add Freshbooks or QuickbooksOnline to handle anything not handled by the other system.
Beyond all that, I’d sign up for a fax account with myfax or efax so that some dinosaur lawyers can send you faxes. I’d also get an account with SugarSync, Box.net or Dropbox for use as my file storage repository and for automatic backups of my laptop.
I think that will get you started. You might, of course, need some practice specific software. For instance, in my practice we use a child support calculator and a tax analysis program. Eventually, you’ll want a document assembly product and you may, depending on your state, need a legal research product. Some bar associations provide Fastcase for free.
I’ll remind folks that they can always buy more stuff down the road. Personally I belong to the “guy that dies with the most gadgets wins club”, but I’d like you to survive your first year so I’m discouraging buying everything in sight.