Lighten Up – Technology Audit

Technology gurus have spent years marketing, selling, and convincing us to add more and more technological tools to our lives. Many of us are old enough to remember that when we began our law practices, we prepared documents with typewriters and dictated on to tape. When we went home we listened to music on vinyl and made calls on a rotary dial phone. Now our briefcases are burgeoning with laptop computers, digital voice recorders, portable hard drives, and iPods. Like Batman, our belts hang with gadgets, from the ubiquitous cell phone to the increasingly standard (and constantly buzzing) Blackberry or iPhone. We’re awash in so many power cords that it looks like there are unruly mounds of black, plastic spaghetti piled under our desks.

It’s time to lighten up and run lean. No, I’m not talking about embarking on a rigorous exercise plan; rather, it is time to cast aside our obsolete technology and perform a ruthless technology audit. With each technological innovation you’ve embraced, you have added new hardware to your briefcase, desk, office and home. In order to fight this accretion of techno-junk, you need to identify the redundancies and start moving yourself away from some of the old and outdated technologies that are hanging around. Once you perform this audit you’ll see that while you likely have already adopted the replacement technologies, you are probably holding on to the old stuff chiefly out of habit.

Here is a six step technology audit you can undertake today to slim down your expanding pile of yesterday’s technologies.

1. Fling your Fax: The fax machine has been a feature of our offices for decades. It has been a well-used warhorse, but is also the first device to move from the desktop to the dumpster. The fax originally grew out of the need to transmit documents from one place to another rapidly — a need which has only increased over time. For the last dozen years at least, though, email has made transmitting documents easier, faster and less expensive. In the rest of the business world, when paper documents need to be transferred most folks scan the document and send it attached it to an email. We attorneys, on the other hand, still cling to our fax machines like life preservers in rough seas.

Viewed dispassionately, faxing is an expensive and inconvenient form of document transmission. Fax machines are expensive to buy and maintain and usually require a dedicated phone line. Some firms also maintain fax servers with the associated expenses that go along with that. Others utilize services like Efax.com or Myfax.com that bear corresponding monthly and usage fees. Typically, a law office spends between $100 and $1,000 per year just to have the option of sending and receiving faxes.

It is time for lawyers to abandon the fax in favor of email with scanned images attached. Nearly all of us have a scanner (and if you don’t, stop reading and go buy one now, they’re cheap) and an email account. Let’s fling our fax machines and be rid of this dated technology. We’ll save on phone lines, fax services and the annoyance of failed faxes and busy signals.

2. Ditch your External Disk Drive: Many of us have external hard drives sitting next to our computers and servers. The price of these drives, with their mammoth capacities, has dropped like a rock. A capacious 500 gigabit drive can now be purchased for as little as $150. As the prices have dropped, these drives have proliferated throughout law firms like mushrooms. They are often used as backup devices or supplemental storage for personal computers with small drives. The problem with these drives, however, is the lack of centralized management: they are scattered around our offices and no one really knows or manages what resides on each drive.

It’s time to jettison these drives and move all of your data to a centrally managed location. This way, all users can share and organize the data which leads to an ultimately more economical use of hardware. It also insures that you know what has been saved and archived and what has not and leads to better knowledge management.

It is now possible to store all of your firm’s data on an off-site server at a very reasonable price. These data repositories – which usually will have far better security than the servers sitting in our firms – allow password protected access by designated users over the internet. Anyone with a web browser can access the archive from home, office or anywhere with a web connection. One provider, JungleDisk.com, has very reasonable prices and allows users to pay for only the storage they use. Other providers such as box.net also have a long record of reliability. Check them out.

3. Ditch your Old Dictation Equipment: Many of us still have dictation equipment on our desks along with a word processing department that transcribes our dictation. Services such as Speak-Write.com allow an attorney to dictate over the phone, into the computer or on a digital recorder – all without the need for significant equipment or personnel. Some of these services also take advantage of the wage differences between the United States and other countries to perform the transcription at reduced rates. Additionally, speech recognition software, such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, have advanced greatly and permit a user to convert voice to text using only a computer and software, without the need or cost for human transcription. It’s time for your dictation equipment to meet up with the fax machine in the dumpster.

4. So Long Software: Software is another area ripe for pruning obsolete technology. For instance, lots of folks are now using Web 2.0 solutions like Mozy.com to manage the backup process for computer data. This eliminates the need to buy and maintain software and hardware for backups, and it creates a safe backup copy of all data at a secure, off-site location. Web-based office software suites, like Google Docs, are also leading some practitioners to move away from owning copies of Microsoft Office. Email software can also be easily replaced with hosted email solutions from providers like Google and Microsoft. The bottom line is that the fewer software packages an attorney owns, the lower his/her cost of maintenance and upgrades. It’s time to evaluate all new software packages on a case by case basis and to say so long to redundant applications.

5. Bye-Bye Burners: Most personal computers today come with built-in CD and/or DVD burners. Years ago, however, some of us purchased stand-alone disk burners that still take up valuable real estate on our desks. Most of us have towers of blank disks piled high in the office supply cabinets that we use for either storage of old data or transfer of data to someone outside of the office. Both of these applications can be done better and easier by solutions other than burning data to disks. The bulky, slow CD/DVD burner sitting on your desk can now be easily replaced with compact, fast USB flash drive smaller than a matchbook. USB flash drives are available in any office supply store and most of you probably already own one or more. A 4 gigabyte USB drive can be had for under $20. A 2 gigabyte drive costs less than $9.

USB flash drives are convenient for situations where data needs to be physically transferred to another rather than sent via the internet. While generally it makes more sense to email the data to the recipient, there are some instances, where that is not feasible. The most common of these situations is when the files attached to emails exceed the size limits accepted by the recipient’s email server which will block the email. (As an aside, it is inexcusable in a modern office, to have an email program that blocks large attachments; what’s the attachment size limit on your email solution?) When your attachment hits the size limit barrier consider online file transfer services like Yousendit.com, which allow for the easy transfer of very large files by uploading to a free website.

6. Keep Your Phone- For Now: While it is somewhat premature to abandon your phone system today, rest assured, that day is coming. Eventually we will have the option of using a hosted phone system rather than buying the expensive hardware and software currently at use in our offices. Some firms have already moved their systems to data centers or started using services like Gotvmail.com. Others are abandoning traditional phones in favor of providing cell phones with unlimited calling plans to all employees. It’s not yet clear what solution will eventually cast your phone system in the dumpster, but the possibilities are multiplying fast.

Technology, like money, is an excellent servant but a poor master. The point of technology is to make our lives simpler and more productive. In order to achieve that end, your personal use of technology must continue to evolve, casting aside the old and taking on the new. Simply piling the new on top of the old reduces the utility of the technology and ultimately impedes our personal effectiveness.

It’s not easy to cast aside technologies that you’ve grown comfortable with, that you’ve used in your practice for years. Growth is seldom easy, but nearly always worth it. Start your technology audit today and lighten up!

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