Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners, Technology

Size Matters: Small Firms and Big Technology

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Size Matters, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

We all know that it is only a matter of time before we are replaced by computers. As Elie explained a few weeks ago, the legal community is already predicting how computers can do the work of junior associates. I guess we can breathe a momentary sigh of relief after Rep. Rush Holt showed Watson who is boss. But I personally have been preparing for this day since 1985, when I first learned about Vicki from Small Wonder.

With the writing on the wall, it seems like there is no better time for us to embrace our computer brethren. And small law firms should be leading the charge.

My firm is not at the bleeding edge of legal technology. There are mid-level associates who still insist on dictating their briefs. We only recently converted to using Microsoft Word. Mark-ups are old-school (i.e., a red pen is used to mark-up a paper copy). And all associates are expected to be conversant in Morse Code. As an aside, this has actually come in handy when I send out my daily S.O.S.

But there are some small law firms doing big things with technology….

According to Mike Moore , in The Changing Definition of the “Small Law Firm”:

Today, a good lawyer practicing alone or with a handful of colleagues can accomplish far more than that same lawyer or team could’ve several years ago. The difference today between working with a smart lawyer at a large firm and working with a smart lawyer at a smaller firm just isn’t nearly what it once was. It’s not even close. Technology can democratize virtually anything, and the practice of law isn’t exempt.

It would seem that a small firm with high-tech capabilities would be even more impressive than a big firm. The small firm would charge less for the same work, and since many small firms are slower to get tech-savvy, the tech-savvy small firm would stand out amongst the competition.

Not convinced yet, small firms? Talk to Ernie the Attorney, who has embraced the use of technology in his solo practice. He is paperless and high-tech. According to Ernie:

The practice of law is—in many ways—an information processing enterprise. The lawyer who can gather key information quickly, and then process it efficiently (at a reasonable cost to the client) will do better in the long run than his or her competitors. Large law firms have no advantage whatsoever when it comes to technology; if anything technology is a hidden trap. Lawyers who believe that they don’t need to know much about technology in order to make good decisions are dangerous to their clients.

But you don’t have to take my (or Ernie’s) word for it. State bar associations are recognizing how important it is for small law firms to have access to technological innovations. A post on Law.com discusses how state bars are offering discounts on technology to small law firms.

So how can a small firm use technology to compete with Biglaw? Well, I do not know exactly, but I know it is possible. I mean, I work at the firm that uses typewriters, remember?

I have spoken to some of my tech-savvy friends, and here is a non-exhaustive list of things that small law firms can do to be high-tech:

(1) Invest in a sophisticated document management system;
(2) Invest in sophisticated comparison software to compare document versions;
(3) Have a designated technology person (note: the title might have been a little more legit sounding), or if that is cost-prohibitive, use an outside vendor that offers technology support; and
(4) Purchase associate robots (i.e., if Watson and Vicki procreated and sent their baby to Harvard).

Are you aware of any small law firms using technology to innovate in their practice, or are you a computer reading this article? Write me at valerie.l.katz@gmail.com.


Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small law firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at Valerie.L.Katz@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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