Kolata, as it turns out, really knows rain and humidity. We swam out of the hotel lobby this morning into air with the viscosity of
. Now we're taking refuge as the streets go Venice style.
Yesterday we returned from the sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. Nearly five million people live on the Indian side alone (most of the territory is in Bangladesh), making ends meat with very difficult subsistence agriculture. Generally the only source of fresh water is man-made collection ponds, from which families draw drinking water and irrigate their rice paddies. Locals venture into the forest to harvest honey and approximately 45 lose their lives in tiger attacks each year. It is a beautiful and desperately tough place to live.
(Below, woman walks on the retaining dyke which prevents saltwater from flooding the village, and a trio sets up a net to capture fish at high tide.)
I won't even attempt to transition gracefully from the hardships of rural Bengal to the topic I want to cover today, which is working remotely with clients.
Just as our firm is built to allow remote collaboration within our team, it's fundamentally important to us that client work can be performed from anywhere. So here's a look at the systems we use to make that happen. By the way, these are all off-the shelf, easy options. Running a seamless virtual law firm doesn't take a maverick these days, and in fact it's a lot easier to get off the ground than your grandma's paper office was.
The core of our firm is Clio, which I consider to be the leading law practice management (LPM) application available today. Full disclosure: I'm grateful to Clio for hosting me as a visiting "lawyer in residence" while living for a while in Vancouver, BC, but they don't pay me anything to promote their product - I just like it.
In short, Clio is a (mostly) all-in-one solution for the main functions of a law firm. For purposes of working remotely, there are basically three core elements to this. First, our cloud-based client files live on Clio in basically the same way they would traditionally in a paper file. That is, each client "matter" gives us all documents, notes and client communications related to a particular matter. Here's what it looks like:
In other words, the whole client file is basically right there at our fingertips to easily click to anything we need. How cool is that?
Second, Clio gives us a client-facing portal so that our clients can access their file and communicate with us. Using the portal, clients can upload documents (or any file) using a simple drag-and-drop utility. They can also use the portal to send secure messages to us. The portal has 256-bit SSL encryption, which is one heck of a lot safer than the old file cabinet. The client portal is really a critical feature set for us, since one of the principal reasons for us being on the cloud is to make it easier for clients to share information with us.
Probably my biggest pain point with Clio at the moment is that it doesn't include a forms feature, which we could use to gather information from our clients at intake and beyond. Its API allows integration of Intake 123, but that form-creating application doesn't meet all our needs either, and of course I also don't want to pay for a new application to deliver feature sets I wish were already included in Clio. A couple days ago I built an intake questionnaire on our website using the Wordpress plugin, Gravity Forms. So far that looks promising, and could be spliced together with Clio via a Zapier if I opt for a pricey developer license.
Finally, Clio allows us to manage billing and collect payments from clients. Hourly and flat-fee billing is easily integrated into client matters, and it takes only moments to generate a new bill. These may be shared with the client through the secure portal. We use LawPay for one of our credit card processors, which integrates with Clio. So when clients receive the bill they can simply scroll down and complete a credit card payment on the same screen. LawPay's rates are higher than other credit card processors, but they are one of only a couple processors that are able to process deposits to a client trust account. Also, their support is quite good.
In addition to simply meeting our needs from a feature perspective, what I really love about Clio is the excellent user experience. It looks great and operates intuitively from a user perspective, both for attorneys and for clients. That's absolutely paramount. If your clients are going to be interacting with your firm through an application, then their experience with the application is their experience with your firm. Almost all of my clients enjoy using Clio, which means extra kudos for their overall experience with the firm.
My firm doesn't have a receptionist and never, ever will. Until recently we used Ruby Receptionist, which was aptly described by Ernie the Attorney as being the Seal Team Six of call-answering. Like other answering services, you point your in-bound phone lines at Ruby, and they answer calls following whatever instructions you give. It's hard to put my finger on why Ruby is so good, but basically these guys - mostly gals - are like client service ninjas. As a representative example, a Ruby called me one day to transfer a client call and heard Bollywood music playing in the background. Later that week a half dozen Bollywood DVDs showed up at the firm with a hand-written note from the Ruby. You can call that a gimmick, but I'm telling you, these folks know how to make you feel cared for, and more importantly, make your clients feel cared for. This is the most professional possible experience for clients calling your firm.
But I said we used Ruby until recently - why the change? Because we transitioned our firm's brick-and-mortar presence from our stand-alone office to a Regus facility. Most folks are familiar with Regus, which is a world-wide operation selling nice office space and ancillary services. There's a Regus office 10 minutes from my hotel in Kolkata which I could be using at no additional cost if I wanted. For the marginal cost of only $100/month I tacked-on call answering service to our service plan, compared to the $500-$600 I had been paying for Ruby. Frankly the quality is no where close to Ruby. I'll often get the receptionist calling to say that "someone" is on the line for me, whereas a Ruby wouldn't bother me until she'd taken down the caller's full name, contact information and favorite color. I'm hoping that we can work on the quality, but meanwhile I certainly don't mind the cost savings.
This one is a relatively recent experiment for us. As hard as we try to be paperless, you just can't always get away from it. In immigration practice, for example, the federal agencies insist on sending most notifications by snail mail. As a paperless practice, this means someone has to open and scan all the notifications. When we started outsourcing our back-office work last year, that meant there was no non-attorney on site at the firm, and my poor associate ended up with mail duty. That sucked for him and for the firm, since there were better uses of his time.
Enter Earth Class Mail (ECM). These guys, with locations all across the U.S., basically allow you to outsource your mail room. For roughly $125/month we get a mailing address in Seattle to which all of our snail mail gets sent. When it arrives, it automatically gets scanned and uploaded to this mailbox for my (or whomever's) review:
The scanning can be done in black-and-white or color, and of course is done with OCR, rendering .pdfs with recognized text, rather than a flattened image, so you can cut/paste and search the document.
So far so good with ECM. As a very important note, however, understand that this is not a solution for gaming Google. With ECM you can buy either a post office box or an address that looks like a street address with suite number. Back in the wild west days of SEO, folks could fool Google Local into thinking that such an address was an office location, which did great things for your search ranking. ECM still seems to play into that misconception with some of its marketing material. Misconception because Google has cracked down on this game and won't rank such an address on Local. Incidentally, this is also a problem with Regus, since Google will not list an address from a shared office facility on Local. Frankly, that's a major, major drawback of using Regus.
Hardly creative, but this is our go-to solution for video conferencing with clients. It's basically a network effect issue, which is to say that a video conferencing application helps us only if our clients use it. Doesn't do a us a lick of good if we have a killer conferencing application that our clients don't use. Skype is ubiquitous, and in fact many of our international clients already use it on a daily basis. Plus, it works great and has all the features we care about, including 3-way calls on my premium account. 2-way video calling, of course, is totally free on Skype.
When I first opened the law firm we used a free Google Voice account as our primary office number. This virtual line can be forwarded to ring on any number of designated devices. So, for example, when we started using Ruby, the Voice number would ring to Ruby, who would then forward the call to me. Voice isn't a feasible solution for anyone other than a true solo, in my opinion. It's basically impossible to forward calls (Ruby forwarded on its own lines) and calls got sporadically sent to voicemail accidentally.
But a great thing about Voice is using it for SMS text messages. Users can text to the Voice number, which can be viewed in the Google Voice page or in your Gmail inbox. We found that many of our younger clients were more comfortable texting than calling us, and this made it easy. A caution, however, is that texting etiquette typically calls for quick turn-around, so you do need to set some expectations about how text messages will be responded to.
After finding that Voice wasn't meeting the phone needs of the growing firm, we upgraded to Nextiva's Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service. (We still keep the Voice number, primarily for purposes of SMS texting). For those who haven't looked into it, VOIP basically offers you something that functions just like a traditional phone line but operates via your internet connection. The quality just as good as a traditional LAN line, and we've never had an issue with dropped calls. A great think about Nextiva, and VOIP lines generally, is that they're so highly portable. So, in theory, if I want to work from a particular office, I can just plug in my phone there and suddenly have my office line in that location.
But devil is in the details. Sadly, Nextiva doesn't play nice with Regus's network setup (or vice versa). So I was frustrated to learn that our Nextiva phone lines simply won't work at our new office location. Our hacked solution is to forward the Nextiva lines to Regus's system, so we may end up just ditching Nextiva since Regus will provide us with a number at no additional cost. (I'm hanging onto the Nextiva number for now in case our love affair with Regus doesn't last).
I include Nextiva in the list of virtual tools, even though the jury is somewhat out on how we'll be handling voice-calls on an ongoing basis.
(Above, artisan prepares statutes for durga puga, the most celebration on Kolkata's Hindu calendar, which involves launching statues of the goddess into the river).
That's basically it for our core client communications systems. With the tools above I can work on any of our client files anywhere in the world with an internet connection. If others have recommended alternatives to our choices I'd be very interested.
And now, gratuitous food porn. In order of appearance, mutton biryani, puri with channa, and luchi with Bengali veggies and fish (made by yours truly with a lot of help).