Four Tips for Getting More Bang for Your Tech Buck in 2011
Article Date: Monday, January 31, 2011
Written By: Erik Mazzone
Happy New Year!
Before we go on to talk about law practice management stuff, let's make sure we have our New Year fundamentals locked down:
• New Year's Resolutions made and broken?
• Post-holiday weight gain?
• Renewed commitment to frugality?
Good. Everything's in order. Let's talk tech. There are three kinds of lawyers when it comes to technology:
• the bleeding edgers (natural habitat: Best Buy; Apple store; passphrase: "the iPad was so two months ago")
• the tail enders (technology tool of choice: paper calendar, quill and ink; passphrase: "but Jim Croce just sounds better on an eight track")
• the middle of the bell curvers (favorite technology pastime: praying that the seven-year-old laptop lasts just a bit longer; passphrase: "New phone? I just learned how to use my last phone!")
If you fall into that last group, this article is for you. The middle of the bell curvers use technology in their law practices in the hope of getting more done. Sometimes it works out that way, sometimes it feels like more trouble than it's worth. And it feels too expensive all the time.
So for 2011, all you middle of the bell curvers, here are four tips for getting more bang out of your tech buck.
1. Learn to Use What You've Got
I am often asked by lawyers to recommend the most cost-effective technology for their law office? Invariably my answer is "the stuff you already own." This isn't meant to be glib – there is no better bang for your buck to be had than to unlock the potential of technology you already own. Zero marginal cost means any increase in productivity creates a stratospheric return on investment.
Let's take, for example, a software suite that almost all of you own and use everyday: Microsoft Outlook. Many of us spend all day with Outlook open and it functions as the de facto nerve center of a lot of law firms across North Carolina. How many of us, though, would claim to be experts in Outlook – real Outlook wizards? Mastering shortcuts and functions buried deep in the menus to shave seconds off each activity translates into minutes per day and hours per year of reclaimed time.
(Mac users stop looking so smug: have you really plumbed the depths of OS X? Hot corners and multi-touch gestures and so forth? There's always more to be learned.)
Make a commitment in 2011 to become a wizard of one software program. Pick any one you want but for my two cents the best choice is the one you use most. Microsoft Outlook or your practice management software or your internet browser. Pick one and resolve to read the blogs, books and website (all free or darn close to it) that will help you become an expert user.
2. Maintain Your Stuff
As some of you know, my dad passed away last year. Over the past months I've thought a lot about my dad and his many admirable qualities. One of those admirable qualities was that he took nice care of his stuff, and as a result it lasted for a very long time. For example, the guy was an absolute clothes horse and would frequently (and with some measure of pride) point out which of his shoes were older than me (for the record, I'm 40). He also had a 20-year-old Mercedes that kept on piling on the miles year in year out because it was so well maintained. And the other day I found in a drawer in my mom's house my first Sony Walkman from my 12th birthday, still in working condition with some awesome 80's headphones connected. You get the idea.
All of that points to two things: 1) my dad was one serious pack rat; and 2) he got a lot of useful life out the things he spent his hard-earned money on.
If you are going to follow tip #1 about wringing more use out of the stuff you already own, then it follows that you also need to take care and maintain that stuff so that it lasts a long time. Frankly, you're up against it trying to make tech last a long time. For reasons both obvious and beyond the scope of this article, hardware and software manufacturers are interested in getting more of your money and not terribly interested in your bottom line. They are benefited by you buying their next thing, not using their last thing.
In the world of tech, taking care of your stuff can mean several different things. For hardware, it means avoiding temperature extremes (don't leave your laptop in your freezing car, for instance, and don't let the closet with your server in it get too hot) and handling it like the fragile thing it is. Don't drop your laptop, shake it, use it as a fly swatter, etc. Maintaining software, by contrast, means downloading updates and patches whenever available (especially to antivirus!) and making sure you have the download code (or backup disk) someplace reliable in case of a crash.
For 2011, take your most important piece of hardware (computer, iPhone, whatever) and do a little research to find out how to take care of it. Then do the same with your most important piece of software (the one you've already committed to become expert in). Those two small steps will help you wring more value out of your tech and more bang out of your buck.
3. Check Out the Cloud
It's been hard for lawyers to avoid the concept of cloud computing over the past year or two, and 2011 will be no different. The cloud (or software as a service as cloud-based offerings are sometimes called) offers several opportunities to get more bang for your buck. Cloud software usually involves paying a monthly subscription fee for access to the software, a fact which causes palpitations in the hearts of cost-conscious lawyers. When you dig a little, though, the picture changes somewhat.
First, cloud-based software frees you from the need for a server. This avoids costs for hardware, software and maintenance. Second, even traditional, locally-installed software has gotten into the game of looking to get more of your money. Instead of a monthly subscription, traditional software vendors offer new versions (often called the upgrade cycle) which have built in compatibility requirements that over time require an attorney to upgrade even if she was happy with the previous version. Last, cloud-based software reduces the reliance on IT consultants, which along with licensing fees and taxes ranks as one of the least fun things in the world to spend money on.
A word of caution: the State Bar has still not reached a conclusion on the ethics of the legal cloud in N.C., though, so bear that in mind as you research cloud-based options like Clio (practice management), NetDocuments (document management) and Google Apps (office suite).
4. Shop the Deals
Finally, with the post-holiday spending spree in the rear view mirror, now is a great time to find some really great deals on everything from holiday cards to computers. There are lots of sites on the internet specifically designed to help you locate great discounts on tech stuff. If shopping around for discounts is not your style, at least try running a search on Google or Bing to comparison shop an item before you buy. Couldn't be easier and may save you somewhere between a little and a bunch. Last, if your shopping elan is more serendipitous than strategic, check out "deal of the day" sites like Woot or Groupon. Not necessarily tech related, but each day they feature some new, decent discount that may be just thing you didn't know you needed.
There you have it. Even if all your New Year resolutions have gone to seed, there is still time to commit to getting your tech house in order for the upcoming year.
Happy New Year and best wishes for a successful 2011!
Erik Mazzone is the Director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association. If you are reading this, he is your free, confidential law practice consultant. Call him (919-657-1580) or e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org ) him any time. Operators are standing by. Or you could skip all that and just check out his blog, LawPracticeMatters.com. Whatever works.
Views and opinions expressed in articles published herein are the authors' only and are not to be attributed to this newsletter, the section, or the NCBA unless expressly stated. Authors are responsible for the accuracy of all citations and quotations.