Business of law

Ethical Use of On-Line Form Tools by Law Firms

Prepared as material for

7 Keys to Managing the 21st Century Practice Washington State Bar Association Continuing Legal Education January 22, 2016 (Seattle)

Digital form tools can be really useful for lawyers

Let’s stop doing data entry whenever possible. That’s the basic idea. If anyone at your firm is routinely inputting lots of information, you might want to explore whether you could automate that system. How? Fundamentally it’s by letting the person who originally has the information – often your client – input it into your system without human intervention.

Here are a few examples of how you might use a form tool in your practice. If you’re one of the many attorneys who feel their clients “don’t use computers,” start looking at your clients’ phones. Chances are that the phone is a computer. The tools discussed here will work nicely on web-enabled mobile devices.

  • Prospective clients. Sales professionals religiously collect data on any “lead” that enters their “intake funnel.” Whether we like that language or not, it’s common for lawyers not to memorialize the contact information, etc., of a prospective client before s/he sets up an initial appointment. Form tools can channel prospect data into with whatever contact database or Customer Relations Management (CRM) tool a firm is using.
  • Do you make your client sit in your lobby and fill out a doctor’s office-style questionnaire before you meet with them? Worse yet, does a staff person – or even you – spend time filling in a questionnaire while the client talks? What if this form could be shared with the client before the initial meeting, and the answers saved in whatever format it is that you ultimately need them?
  • Routine case information. I’m an immigration lawyer and need the same information for most clients in a given legal scenario. Becoming a citizen? There’s a standard 15-pages worth of information I’ll need for any such case. Even litigators with highly fact-specific matters often have standardized information that they collect on each case. That could come straight from the client.
  • Customer satisfaction surveys. What do our clients actually think about us? We could always ask them. The easiest way is with the so-called net promoter score – a one question survey that assesses whether they’d actually recommend us.[1] Note that unlike other tasks described here, this one does not necessarily capture data protected by client confidence rules, so your choice of (free) tools may be broader.

The duty of tech competence

An attorney has an ethical responsibility to competently use technology that she chooses to deploy in practice.[2] Why? As a derivative responsibility with respect to her many fiduciary duties to a client. For present purposes the primary duty is that of safeguarding client information.[3] When using technology to handle client information, an attorney has the responsibility to ensure that the technology offers appropriate safeguards.[4] This is no different than saying that if an attorney elects to store client files in a warehouse, she needs to take appropriate steps to ensure the files are safe. Well, what steps count as appropriate in this context?

In 2012 the Washington State Bar Association’s former Committee on Professional Ethics issued Advisory Opinion 2215 concerning the use of online data storage by third parties (i.e., “cloud computing”).[5] Recognizing that it was “impossible” to give “specific guidelines” about appropriate security measures given the changing nature of technology, the Opinion sets forth seven considerations to be taken:

  1. Familiarization with the potential risks of online data storage and review of available general audience literature and literature directed at the legal profession, on cloud computing industry standards and desirable features. 2. Evaluation of the provider’s practices, reputation and history.3. Comparison of provisions in service provider agreements to the extent that the service provider recognizes the lawyer’s duty of confidentiality and agrees to handle the information accordingly.4. Comparison of provisions in service provider agreements to the extent that the agreement gives the lawyer methods for retrieving the data if the agreement is terminated or the service provider goes out of business.5. Confirming provisions in the agreement that will give the lawyer prompt notice of any nonauthorized access to the lawyer’s stored data.6. Ensure secure and tightly controlled access to the storage system maintained by the service provider.7. Ensure reasonable measures for secure backup of the data that is maintained by the service provider.[6]

Deploying this seemingly extensive test is supposed to require less sophistication than complete mastery of the technology at issue.[7] But the decision is clear that this due diligence inquiry should be made of any technology that handles client information. The crude bottom line is that client information almost certainly needs to be encrypted when it is stored “online.”

The duty to safeguard client data follows also from the attorney’s duty of competence.[8] The now-famous Comment 8 to Model Rule 1.1 states:

To maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, engage in continuing study and education and comply with all continuing legal education requirements to which the lawyer is subject.[9]

At last count 18 states have adopted Comment 8, though Washington is not yet one of them.[10] It is almost certainly a safe bet that ours will soon be among the jurisdictions adopting this generalized duty of competence. In the meantime, a Washington attorney still has a duty to competently deploy any technology that she chooses, pursuant to Advisory Opinion 2215. If adopted, Comment 8 would entail that an attorney might be blameworthy, not only for incompetently deploying technology, but for incompetently failing to use technology when doing so presents a benefit to her clients.

How encryption works, in 95 words

By default your data is stored online in the same format in which you access it. This means that if bad people can access the data, they can use the data as you can. Data encrypted while at rest is scrambled and requires a cipher to be used. So if bad guys get the data, it’s as much use as the Washington Reporters without a law degree. Allowing access to unencrypted data would be like a magic Washington Reporters series that beamed a law degree and 40 years of practice experience into the reader’s head.

Possible form solutions

Here are a half-dozen tools that I’ve personally experimented with for building forms. There are many more out there, but these are some of the biggest players. Other factors being equal, you’ll want to gravitate to popular tools, since industry reputation is one of the seven factors endorsed by Advisory Opinion 2215. As a bonus, support tends to be better for these established tools.

As is ever the case with technology, before starting to shop, first decide what problem you are trying to solve. Consider:

  • How are you going to be using this data? Is this background information about a client that you want to be able to reference later for context? Is this data that you want to be able to import into some form of document automation tool (Word can be such a tool)?
  • What type of data is being collected? Will you be capturing sensitive financial data, social security numbers, etc.? Or do you need to store only the client’s name and email address… or just a 1-10 rating of an interaction they had with your office staff?
  • What are the dividends you stand to gain? Are you collecting data for a use that’s core to your practice, used in daily client work? Or is this a small amount of information used for an isolated purpose? Some tools are cheaper and easier to implement than others.

Google Forms (Free)

Google offers an excellent, free forms tool that seamlessly integrates with Google Drive (also free). I use this tool often for various non-client scenarios. In the screenshot below, for example, I was creating a form to collect information about colleagues who expressed interested in collaborating with my firm.

Google recently revamped Forms, and its drag-and-drop interface is now even better than it was. The catch? Google Forms does not presently support encryption. There are, however, third-party services that can encrypt data on Google Drive, which is where information from Forms is stored.[11] A second limitation of Forms, however, is that it does not support “save and continue” functionality, which you need for anything beyond a very brief form. Imagine the anguish of spending ten minutes filling out a form, getting interrupted, shutting down your computer, and then realizing you need to start back at square one! Note also that Google’s terms of service reserve the right for its staff to access your data. The implications of that clause are debated, but it’s somewhat of a moot point in present context since the fact Drive data is unencrypted makes it problematic for many law firm uses.

JotForm (free for up to 100 submissions)

JotForm is a drag-and-drop form builder which is probably a great fit for many attorney uses. The user interface of the forms-builder is intuitive, if not beautiful. (See screen shot below). Happily, JotForm – as of pretty recently – supports encryption and also has a save/continue feature. The encryption tool is potentially clunky depending on how you plan to manipulate the data once a form is submitted.

WuFoo ($29.95/mo for “bona fide” plan)

WuFoo is another drag-and-drop form builder that works basically like JotForm. Personally, I feel their interface is easier to use, and that it’s easier to customize a great-looking end product. Like JotForm, WuFoo offers encryption. The rub – you have to pay for it.

Intake 123 ($9-$79/mo)

This tool was specially crafted for lawyers with security issues in mind. For this reason, it’s designed around lawyer “use cases,” meaning its templates and interface point you towards common law scenarios such as client intake. When I tried it, I didn’t enjoy my user experience. Their customer service was responsive, however, and the fact that they designed their tool for lawyers means that you could get (for example) an intake questionnaire set up more quickly than with other tools.

Gravity Forms ($39/license, not per month)

One last tool that I’ve experimented with is Gravity Forms. This tool is a plugin for your Wordpress site; if you don’t know what that means, probably stop reading. As of pretty recently, Gravity Forms allows for encryption and save/continue functionality. A major appeal is that you pay for the one-time license and are set to go. Easy to use, this tool can build a form that’s nicely integrated into your Wordpress site (though the other tools mentioned above can be embedded by a script). The fact that it’s hosted on your site’s host, though, means that if you bungle something, your data will be lost. This may or may not have happened to your author at the time he was experimenting with using this for a client intake tool (though if it did happen to your author, your author assures you that no actual client data was lost or compromised).

Pdf + Clio Hack (free)

The cheapest technology is always the technology you already have.[12] Consider the following scenario.

What I wanted to do was populate official immigration forms with information pulled from a database. I created customized pdf versions of the immigration forms, with unique identifiers for each field. Armed with that, I could pull data from any spreadsheet to populate the document. The trick was getting information from my client into the spreadsheet.

At first I tried using a JotForm, but it was cumbersome to do this with the encryption they offered. Decrypting and manipulating a particular set of client data was just a bit of a hassle. What to do?

We’ve long been users of WSBA-endorsed Clio,[13] a cloud-based practice management system I heartily recommend. Clio includes the feature of a secure client portal for the exchange of documents. So, we created a questionnaire (first in Word, then converted to pdf) with data fields whose names matched the immigration form we wanted to populate. The client simply completes the pdf on her computer or mobile device, then uploads it to her secure file on Clio. In two quick steps we extract the data from the questionnaire pdf (in .txt format) and import it into the immigration form. Mission accomplished.

What’s nice about this approach is that it keeps all client data isolated in that client’s secure case file. Instead of a master spreadsheet with lots of different client data, there just a single .pdf in the client’s folder, from which we can easily pull and manipulate data. Also, there wasn’t a dime of expense, time aside.

[1] Sam Glover, Net Promoter Score: the One Number You Need to Grow Your Law Practice, Lawyerist, Oct. 28, 2015, http://bit.ly/1m6OW3M.

[2]Cf. Megan Zavieh, Luddite Lawyers Are Ethical Violations Waiting To Happen, Lawyerist, July 10, 2015, http://bit.ly/1S9AdBc.

[3]See RPC 1.6.

[4] RPC 1.6, Cmt. 16 (“A lawyer must act competently to safeguard information relating to the representation of a client against inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure by the lawyer or other persons who are participating in the representation of the client or who are subject to the lawyer’s supervision. See Rules 1.1, 5.1 and 5.3.”).

[5] Washington Bar Association Advis. Op. 2215 (2012), available athttp://bit.ly/1zdnBBu (last visited Dec. 22, 2015).

[6]Id.

[7]Id. (“It is also impractical to expect every lawyer who uses such services to be able to understand the technology sufficiently in order to evaluate a particular service provider’s security systems.”)

[8]Id. (A lawyer has a general duty of competence under RPC 1.1, which includes the duty ‘to keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice’”) (quoting RPC 1.1).

[9] Model Rule 1.1, Cmt. 8.

[10] Robert Ambrogi, 13 15 17 18 States Have Adopted Ethical Duty of Technology Competence, LawSites, Dec. 17, 2015, http://bit.ly/1MGgSS1.

[11] Dennis O’Reilly, Two free ways to encrypt Google Drive files, CNet, July 2, 2013, http://www.cnet.com/how-to/two-free-ways-to-encrypt-google-drive-files/.

[12] Actually, not always, since your time is valuable, and wasting time on ineffective tools can be very costly.

[13]Cf. www.goclio.com.

Redfin is cheaper and better than a real estate agent. Will you be the Redfin of legal?

Redfin is cheaper and better than a real estate agent.  Will you be the Redfin of legal?

This February my wife and I decided to sell our house, give away many of our possessions, move in with my mother, and spend more time traveling the world. That’s all well-trodden territory these days, except for the house-selling part. In lieu of a traditional agent, we sold through Seattle-based real estate startup Redfin. Not only did Redfin offer a superior client experience, we netted a substantially higher value through their lower fee model. Fellow lawyers, I submit there are some lessons to be learned from these folks.

Can law firms profit from limited license technicians?

Can law firms profit from limited license technicians?

Washington is the first state in the country to granted a limited law license to non-attorneys. Termed Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLTs), these professionals may operate their own firms or work along side lawyers. In this month's edition of the Washington Bar Association's magazine, I debate Jerry Moberg on whether there is a business case for law firms to hire LLLTs. The bottom line is that I think it's possible for firms to make this work, but it will be harder than many anticipate.

Leveraging technology - MSJDN materials

Leveraging technology - MSJDN materials

The day after returning from a month in India I was proud to talk to the Military Spouse JD Network about technology tools in law firm. Forrest Carlson, Bill Hayden and I spoke about tools for working remotely as an attorney.  At the request of our organizers, here are the materials from the presentation.

Working remotely - 4 top resources for lawyers

Working remotely - 4 top resources for lawyers

Later this morning I'm heading over to Seattle to talk to the folks at the Military Spouse J.D. Network about technology tools for working remotely. Pleased to be sharing the podium with co-presenters Bill Hayden and Forrest Carlson. Since email is a scourge upon the earth, I figured that I'd post presentation materials here rather than fill up attendees' inboxes.

India Pt. 5 - Greatest foodie travel hack ever

Forgive me, since this has nothing to do with anything that's helpful to anyone professionally. But it may change your life when you travel. It may be that the rest of the traveling world has known about this since time immemorial, but this was an epiphany for me: you can design your own menu at bad restaurants.

Allow me.

The problem. 

Cities and large towns tend to have plenty of restaurants that serve the local population and consequently serve food that is both (1) good and (2) what locals want to eat. Those are the two core qualities you're probably looking for as a traveler. The problem arises in small towns and villages where you might find yourself en route to some tourist destination. Right now, for example, I'm in Yuksom, Sikkim, which is the jumping off point for some great Himalayan treks. It's small enough that the population can't support an eatery catering to locals, so the only joints are selling to travelers.

That is a recipe for disaster.

What you end up with is the classic "backpacker's" menu, the definitive feature of which is the banana pancake. These black holes cater to the the least common denominator of the perceived Western and Israeli palate. Full of boring carbs and blandness, it's a foodie's worst nightmare. Example:

The solution.

Buy your own ingredients! Why this had never occurred to me I will never know. The other night we sat at the only local eatery, which featured one (bad) vegetable dish on the 6-page menu. I asked the owner if he had bindi (okra) - he did not. But I remembered seeing a vegetable stand down the street. Five minutes and $.87 later, I came back with a bag of veggies. With only the very basic perimeters of "no oil, no salt," we got back some lovely, spiced veggies.  For the hassle of cooking our bag of veggies we were billed $1.58.

The following night we took this to the 102-level and bought our veggies in advance so we could wash them ahead of time. (I wasn't sure how much TLC the staff would want to devote to the surprise prep).

You can see the sort of set up that this type of eatery has - here's a look at the main station's mise en place.

You're breaking the cook's flow by asking him to prep your veggies (or whatever), so expect to pay some sort of premium. But if you're at this sort of joint, that's probably not going to break your bank.

Here's a look at the results. I'm not saying this is James Beard territory. But if the other options are chow-main or faux pizza, this is high living indeed.

A related nuclear option is to take over the kitchen altogether. I've attempted this only once on this trip, after being served a grease-bomb of an omelette in a tiny tea hut. Since Jules is militantly opposed to grease, I politely asked the cook to step aside and just did the omelette myself. Wasn't a masterpiece, but it was an improvement. I'd recommend trying this only in pretty small or not busy spots. But I know view taking over the kitchen as a legitimate option to lousy food. 

Conclusion.

Never except the reality with which you're presented. If the restaurant doesn't have what you want, go buy if for them, pay them to cook it, or do it yourself.

India Pt. 4 - Communicating with clients

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 

lassi

. 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.

Clio.

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.

If you want to try Clio for free you can do so here.

Phone answering.

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.

Earth Class Mail.

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.

Skype.

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.

Google Voice.

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.

Nextiva.

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 biryanipuri with channa, and luchi with Bengali veggies and fish (made by yours truly with a lot of help).

India Pt. 3 - Communicating with the team

This week Jules and I are holing up in the storied and fascinating city of Kolkata. The ex-seat of the British raj, this steamy metropolis with its crumbling colonialism channels Myanmar's Yangoon more so than it's larger Indian sister city, New Delhi. Bracing for what we (correctly) figured would be a pretty intense urban experience, we went further up-market with our accommodation than normal, having learned the value of an oasis when traveling in urban India. We wound up at the astoundingly nice, and recently restored,

Lalit hotel

. Though by no means a budget  room, at the cost of a Holiday Inn in the U.S., let's just say your dollar goes much, much, much further in these parts. Compare this ("free") breakfast with the pre-packaged wasteland of an $80 motel.

(Yes, breakfast does come with malaria tablets).

After getting hopped up on three cups of chai, how does one collaborate with a law firm squarely on the other side of the globe? Here's a look at some of the tools we use every day at the firm, whether I'm one zip code or many time zones away.

First, a word about who the team is. The core of our law firm is just two attorneys, myself and the extraordinarily capable and amiable Gustavo Cueva. Gustavo has primarily responsibility for much client contact, and the sort of legal research and analysis tasks traditionally done by an associate. The vast majority of routine, commodity legal drafting is done by a large team of contract attorneys that operate independently from the firm. Delegation is made to those attorneys on a task-wise basis. In a typical case, after Gustavo has collaborated with clients to secure all the required information and documents we need for an immigration process, the contract team with be tasked with drafted and quality-review testing the appropriate legal forms, which are then modified and reviewed by Gustavo or I. That whole process is a discussion by itself, but I mention it just to give context for the communications that are going on within the firm.

So here's how we roll from a communications perspective.

Email.

We don't use it. Okay, that's a fantasy, but we move closer to the reality every day. Email is the scourge of professional life. We waste a quarter of our time farting around in our inboxes and there's no correlation between inbox time and actual productivity.

For team-communication purposes, there are two main problems with email. First, email is a terrible way to organize information relating to client matters. The painfully classic example of this is attorneys printing out email threads to put into a paper file. But even paperless folks have to find a hack (here's ours) to file emails with the relevant client file. Even if you do this well, it's still devilishly hard to put follow conversation threads and backtrack to figure out what's transpired in a case.

The second issue is the pure volume of emails. Most professionals get 100 or (many) more emails per day. Email puts critical communications on the same importance level as newsletters, Netflix renewal notices, and "professionals" who are "reaching out to you" (a creepy phrase). Our Golden Rule at the firm is that email is the communication medium of last resort.

Trello.

If I'm such a kill joy on email, what do we use instead? Thanks for asking. The answer involves much more than just a communication tool, and goes to a core commitment to how we manage the firm. That's the use of a set of project management practices developed in the technology sector, which are referred to as Agile. (Disclaimer for legit Agile gurus: I in no way claim to be one, I'm just one attorney trying to bring some sanity to projects at our our firm).

Attorneys are project managers whether we embrace that title or not. Whether you're litigating or doing transactional work, you're almost certainly working on a complex, multi-stage process with lots of known and unknown variables. Lawyers may be relieved to know that there are entire disciplines devoted to the science of project management, with over a century of knowledge ripe for poaching. Born largely out of project management in tech fields, Agile is a primo example of these goodies.

A discussion of Agile is way beyond the scope of this post. (Absolutely the guy to guy to follow on this issue is friend John Grant over at Agile Attorney). For my purposes, though, a core idea is to know at all times what's keeping a case from moving forward. At the firm, we think about cases as being in a production line, not because we view our clients as widgets, but because they hired us to get something done for them. They don't give a darn if we open a file - or worse, "paper it over" - for them; they just want us to accomplish the goal that brought them in our door.

From this need to know what's going on at all times was born one of the hallmark features of Agile management - the kanban board. This visual tool gives us a consolidated dashboard where we can collaboratively view every single client case and understand where in the "production" cycle the matter is. Here's basically what it looks like:

Kanban boards are traditionally done using sticky notes on a wall - if you've seen any movie about startups you've probably seen one. But since we have a decentralized work environment, we use a tool called Trellofor a cloud-based kanban board. That's what your're looking at above. At a glace, we can tell which lane a particular client matter is in. In the Williams matter, are we waiting on documents from a client before we can proceed? Are we waiting on our contractors to do a first draft of documents? Or does Gustavo need to do a final review of work product?

On the level of a particular client matter, all activity is documented within a client "card." Clicking into the card, you can see (above) that there's a master to-do list of high-level stages of the case progression. An activity feed below captures everything going on in the case - we basically use this as a catch-all case documentation as you might see in the notes section of a traditional paper client file. Finally - and very important - we can communicate to other team members within a Trello card. So instead of emailing Gustavo that I need him to ping Mr. Williams about a missing document, I flag Gustavo in the card and make the note. This goes a long way towards keeping all case-related chatter in one spot, so we can easily audit what we've been doing on a file.

If you're looking into using Agile in your practice, consider LeanKit as an alternative to Trello. LeanKit has a much more robust feature set, which isn't necessarily a good thing if you're just trying to get off the ground with a kanban board. A critical improvement, though, is that it allows a board-within-a-board,  so to speak: within a particular card you can create a second, simpler board with task cards. So using LeanKit, you could have a master client board, as shown above, and then track advancement of individual client tasks within the card, using the same sort of card system. Another very exciting tool to Agile lawyering is Lawcus, which will be the first LPM system built entirely around Agile. Built by neat guy, Harry Singh, Lawcus is doing a private beta right now, but you can probably get a try-out if you ping Harry.

Trello (or LeanKit) is by no means an all-in-one law practice management (LPM) system, and doesn't pretend to be. We very happily use Clio as our cloud-based LPM system - more on that in the next post about communicating with clients. Obviously we want to be sure that all our activity on Trello finds its way into a client's master file in our LPM system. Luckily, Clio has a great application program interface (API), meaning its developers make it easy for Clio to play nicely with other applications. We use a third-party solution called Zapier, which is basically a tool for helping various web applications work together. Using a "Zap" that we created, any new activity on a client's Trello card it is automatically registered as a case activity in the notes section of the client's Clio matter. In reality, we almost never reference the notes section of Clio to review the case activity, but if Trello ever died on us we'd have all the activity safely archived in Clio.

Bottom line: from a productivity and collaboration standpoint, Trello is absolutely at the core of our daily work life.

Google hangouts.

When we're in the same time-zone this is a tool we use frequently. We use the chat function for the sort of quick questions that might traditionally cause an associate to tap on the partner's door. I try to avoid much of this though, since even small interruptions can take a very heavy toll on productivity - we really overestimate how good we are are multi-tasking. If a chat is more than a couple back-and-forths then it probably merits a focused conversation via phone or video chat.

Speaking of video chat, we often use that for our very short daily standups where we review the day's battle plan. We'll also use it later in the day if there's a particularly thorny issue needing discussion; I find the face-to-face quality of video really helps versus phone.

With a 12-hour time difference there really isn't much need for contemporaneous communication while I'm working from abroad, though we have used the chat function a few time.

Let's get cooking.

Hope that's a helpful overview of our team collaboration tools. Coming up next, working collaboratively with clients on the cloud.

After morning computer time, I'm off to learn some Bengali cooking.  The cuisine utterly mind-blowing, featuring lots of light, subtle flavors like banana leaf-wrapped river fish with a mild yellow mustard sauce. The green blob in the picture below was tiny shrimp in a sinus-clearing horse-radish like mustard stew with taro leaves. Like nothing I'd ever had in the best possible way.

Can a Single Fee Agreement Combine Flat Fees and Hourly Fees?

In flat fee cases, sometimes the attorney wins and sometimes she loses. But sometimes an attorney stands to lose much more badly than others. Take a family law or immigration matter, for example, where the client is represented on a flat fee and then commits a criminal law violation. May a fee agreement specify that work beyond a specified scope be billed at a flat rate? In other words, may a lawyer combine flat fee work and hourly work in a single fee agreement? A rigorously scientific survey conducted over lunch (n=6) suggests the answer is no. (In other news, the bánh xèo – Vietnamese savory pancakes – at Long Provincial are outstanding.) Several experienced colleagues, who regularly use flat fees, all believed that a single agreement may not combine a flat fee with hourly engagements. We’ll call these “combined fee agreements.”

The survey results caused me to panic, since I’ve been using combined fee agreements in two ways:

  1. Multi-stage cases. We’re an immigration firm. Bringing our foreign clients into the U.S. generally involves a multi-stage process: initial petition followed by application to the U.S. State Department. Because the second step involves substantial variance from case-to-case, we often bill the first step on a flat-fee basis and the second step hourly.
  2. Hedging. We also use combined fee agreements to plan for the possibility a case will become more complex than anticipated. These cover primarily new factual scenarios such as criminal violations by clients and changes in law. “Oops we didn’t realize this was a tough case” is emphatically not a basis for kicking-in hourly billing.

If you too use combined fee agreements, however, there is no cause for panic. In fact, Comment 16 to RPC 1.5 explicitly acknowledges that combined fee agreements are permissible, subject to red tape. Here’s what you need to keep in mind.

 

[This post first appeared as a guest piece for the Washington State Bar Association's Side Bar blog]

Lessons from a Legal Tech Startup: One Month as a “Lawyer in Residence” at Clio

Desk photo provided by Clio
Desk photo provided by Clio

This February, I headed up to Vancouver, B.C. to have a kid and spend some time as a “lawyer in residence” at the legal technology startup Clio. Regarding objective number one: my wife is a psychologist who practices part-time in B.C., and we decided free healthcare for the new baby sounded pretty good. Joshua Lenon, who serves on the WSBA Future of the Legal Profession Task Force, heard about the trip and offered to let me pilot Clio’s new incubator initiative. Essentially, Clio generously invites attorneys to share coworking space at their office. In exchange, Clio gets to benefit from bouncing ideas off lawyers who use their product.

Clio, for the uninitiated, is a cloud-based law practice management platform. Originally, they started as a collaborative project with the Law Society of British Columbia. After later spinning off as a private enterprise, Clio raised an astounding $27 million in venture capital, making it the most well-financed legal technology startup in the world.

The product offers an all-in-one solution for calendaring, invoicing, and communication/document management. Crucially (from my perspective), it provides a secure environment to exchange documents and messages with clients anywhere they can get an Internet connection. Full disclosure: I’m an avid Clio user and find it integral to the operation of my firm, but Clio hasn’t given me any carrots for writing this blurb.

Spending the better part of a month at Clio was an interesting window into the caffeine-fueled world of a tech startup. (To bring employees back down, there’s also a keg on tap.) Here are a few thoughts about how lawyers might borrow from the way Clio works.

1. Track personal and organizational goals. Like another small tech startup called Google, Clio uses “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs) for all employees and divisions within the organization. The key idea behind OKRs is to set measurable targets so everyone can meaningfully judge success or failure. Teams and individuals set both actionable objectives (stuff they want to do) and measurable results (stuff they want to see happen). The OKRs are a big deal at Clio. They’re revised on a quarterly basis and organizational OKRs are reviewed weekly at a companywide meeting. (Which meeting, it should be noted, comes with a catered lunch that may or may not involve beer on tap).

  • Take-away: Lawyers often have laudable goals like, “Do great work for clients,” “Deliver value,” or “Grow my firm.” What does that even mean? Unless we set measurable goals for ourselves, we are guaranteed to neither succeed nor fail. If client satisfaction is the issue, put together a poll (use a freebie like Google Forms) that measures the operationalized version of that concept, and set a goal for improvement. Maybe your poll will reveal clients are already highly satisfied and you can set other priorities. If you want to think really big: what would happen if we stopped talking about “increasing diversity in the profession” and “improving access to justice,” and restated our goals in terms where success or failure is measurable? Maybe lawyerdom itself needs some OKRs.

2. Have priorities — and know what they are, too. Last year, on another trip to Vancouver, I sat down with Derek Rawlings and some folks from the software development team. I (selfishly) pointed out that it would be helpful if Clio could draft immigration forms based on questionnaires. Derek immediately understood the value, and riffed on how the concept could work for other form-driven practice areas like bankruptcy. But when I came back to Clio this year, nothing had happened to make that feature a reality. Why? “The Clio dev team keeps a database that currently has 3,203 improvements that we want to add to our product,” says Derek. “Each quarter we sit down as a team and decide which feature we’re going to launch, based on how big of an impact it will make for our users.” In the technology world, says Derek, “it’s better to get one thing 100% done than four things 25% done.”

  • Take-away: We lawyers have drunk the Kool-aid of the busyness cult. Being perceived as nauseatingly busy is some sort of credibility ante in our circles. Has a colleague ever responded to, “How are you doing?” with an enthusiastic, “Great! I’m really limiting my involvement in unimportant committees and I’m turning away most prospective clients to avoid undue stress.” Instead of focusing on doing a lot of stuff in our firms and our professional lives, what if we shifted to doing the right things? And maybe fewer of them. There are a million professional development activities you could do, but how do they stack up to your personal objectives? You did define them, right (see above)? I found myself inspired to say “no” to recent invitations to do some committee work, and have spent precisely zero seconds regretting those decisions. Thanks, Derek.
Clio employee walking white dog in lobby
Clio employee walking white dog in lobby

3. Institutionalize out-of-box thinking. Over lunch, I asked Neil Shankman, who heads marketing at Clio, to explain the difference between the marketing and business development departments. “At Clio,” he explained, “our Biz Dev department exists to pilot new ways we can build the Clio brand. So, for example, the fact that you’re here, testing out the incubator concept, that’s a Biz Dev initiative. Once the program is established it will be handed over to another department and Biz Dev will be working on something else new and interesting.”

  • Take-away: Think about carving out some of your time/money resources to pursue far-out ideas. Last year a bunch of law geeks, led by Dan Lear, threw a lot of energy into Seattle’s first Legal Technology Startup Weekend. None of us really had a clear idea of what was supposed to come of the event — it just seemed like a good idea at the time. But interesting projects and relationships resulted. (Miguel Willis, for example, an exceptionally motivated and creative law student at Seattle University created an app to help law students buy and sell textbooks). Think about reserving some resources in your organization and professional life for totally new things that will probably be a waste of time, but might open new doors.

4. Open lines of communication. The Clio office is built physically and operationally to facilitate cross-pollination of ideas within the organization. All employees, including CEO Jack Newton, work in an open-plan office, sitting collectively at long desks. (There’s debate about whether open design facilitates or hampers productivity).The company uses Google Apps (me too) for email and calendaring, and employees use the chat function for quick real-time exchanges. And every Friday, the company takes a big chunk of time to sit down together in a community meeting. Each department checks in and reviews its OKRs (see above) in front of the whole company; each month, the CEO gives a more granular presentation on where the company stands.

  • Take-away: What are you doing to make sure you hear the best ideas from everyone in your organization? At my own tiny firm, we have a Trello board where ideas for improvements can be posted, and we’ve instituted a policy of reviewing the board each Tuesday morning. Chances are that support staff and associates are best positioned to know where an organization is ineffective day-to-day.

Open invite (by proxy). If you find yourself visiting Vancouver, consider stopping by the Clio office and taking advantage of their incubator program. It’s a great place to hang out (and maybe work), and there is a lot that lawyers can learn from the legal technology sector. And regarding the main purpose for that trip to Vancouver: Kai McLawsen was born healthy and strong on March 7. He’s already hard at work at his dad’s law firm.

[This post first appeared on the Washington State Bar Association's Sidebar blog]

Free and low cost technology for starting a law firm

Free and low cost technology for starting a law firm

These materials outline some basic ideas for how free and low-cost technology can help you manage the day-to-day operations of your law practice. The tools described here are appropriate for the technology phobic and computer-impaired.  These are tools to make your life easier and your practice more successful, not toys for geeks. The ultimate criterion for these tools is easy: do they improve your practice? If the answer is no, trash them and spend your time elsewhere.

Ethical challenges of using flat fees

Ethical challenges of using flat fees

We argue that attorneys need to better safeguard clients when using flat fee billing. Even in jurisdictions, like Washington, where flat fees become property of the attorney when they are paid, lawyers need to have systems in place to ensure clients can receive partial refunds if needed. The system we propose can be called "trust accounting lite."

Solo attorneys: Who's got your back? (You need a backup)

This article was initially published as: Solo Attorneys: Who's Got Your Back? You Need Backup Counsel to Protect Your Clients and Yourself, Greg McLawsen and Russell Mikow, The Bar News (Journal of the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association) (August 1, 2013)


[Greg's note: This article was written in the first-person at a time that I was still a solo attorney.]

A question for all solo attorneys: what would happen to your clients if something happened to you? The issue is not just for practitioners entering their golden years; accidents can befall even "young" attorneys. Imagine the impact to your client if your firm failed to meet a litigation deadline. What might your liability be if this could have been avoided?

Working as a law clerk for Kitsap Superior Court, Greg saw what happened when a solo practitioner passed away unexpectedly. His staff worked hard to protect client interests, but as non-attorneys they could not move for continuances in matters with fast-approaching deadlines. What would happen to your clients if you were bedridden with pneumonia or stranded by an airport closure?

As solo practitioners, we decided early in our practices that it was important to protect our clients in the event something happened to us. We struck up two different coverage agreements, one for succession planning in the event of death, the other for coverage if we become temporarily unavailable.

This article outlines factors to consider in identifying a backup attorney. Our backup attorney contract is available here. The WSBA also has a useful handbook available free of charge. See WSBA, Planning Ahead: A Guide to Protecting Your Client’ Interests in the Event of Your Disability or Death (undated).

Why bother?

Professional responsibility. The ABA's Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility has advised that a sole practitioner has a duty to plan for protecting client interests in the event of the attorney's death. ABA Op. 92-369 (Dec. 7, 1992). This mandate arises from the duties of competence and diligence. RPCs 1.1 and 1.3. The ABA Committee opined that even though an attorney/client relationship might terminate upon the death of the attorney, the attorney's fiduciary duty carries on, making prospective planning vital.

Your insurance requires it.   Most malpractice policies, including the WSBA-endorsed policy administered by Kibble & Prentice, require the insured attorney to have a designated backup. According to John Chandler of Kibble & Prentice, "it is universally expected in the insurance world that solos make arrangements for a backup attorney." An informal poll of solo practitioners we know suggest that many solos have at most an informal arrangement with another attorney to provide backup. Yet a vague arrangement that another attorney “has your back” is skating on thin ice.

Liability. It takes little imagination to envision how the unexpected absence of an attorney could greatly prejudice a client. In our line of work there are plenty of instances where a missed immigration deadline could destroy an individual’s ability to remain in the U.S. In transactional work, what if your unexpected absence caused an offer to expire unanswered. If damages could have been avoided by providing a backup attorney , this liability could land on your doorstep or fall to your estate.

Factors to consider in choosing a backup attorney.

Selecting a backup may be the most challenging aspect of this process. Who could competently walk into your law practice and run with the ball to protect your client’s interests? Who knows the area of law that you practice? Currently WSBA has no formal tools to help attorneys identify backups. Consider turning to WSBA’s Solo and Small Practice listserv, or reaching out through the TPCBA.

In our case, Greg’s practice is limited to immigration law, but Russ also does bankruptcy and consumer debt work, so our coverage agreement is limited to immigration cases only. If your primary practice area is family law, you don’t want your backup surprised to find herself defending a securities derivative action. You may also want to limit the backup’s responsibilities to time-sensitive matters (we did) to make clear the backup doesn’t need to draft your Ninth Circuit brief just because you’re stuck in Maui for a couple of days.

What triggers the backup?

Establishing unavailability. On a practical level, how does a back-up determine the other affected attorney is “unavailable” so that he knows when to act? In an ideal world, the affected attorney would call, email or text the backup to provide advanced notice. But a key goal of our arrangement was to provide coverage for unexpected absences, such as a medical emergency.

Our coverage agreement allows the backup attorney to use all evidence and information that can be deemed reasonably reliable, including communications with the affected attorney, his family members, representative, or opinion of health care professionals. We included a hold-harmless provision in the event a backup attorney makes a reasonable and good faith, but incorrect determination of unavailability.

How does the backup attorney get paid by the affected attorney?

We chose to compensate each other for backup work at an amount that was substantially reduced from our normal hourly fees. The main value to each of us is the reciprocal coverage arrangement itself. We also agreed that in no event would the total amount charged by the backup attorney exceed any flat fee originally charged to a client. In the event the fees incurred by the backup approached 25% of the total flat fee originally charged by the affected attorney, the affected attorney could chose to transfer the file to the assisting attorney after the client’s approval has been obtained.

Independent contractor.

A vital aspect of coverage agreements is to clearly spell out nature of the business relationship between the affected attorney and his backup. The agreement should clearly establish that the backup attorney is an independent contractor for the affected attorney, and the agreement should expressly disclaim an employment relationship. This minimizes the affected attorney’s liability for the backup attorney’s actions, and the requirement to pay payroll taxes, and other employer obligations.

Client representation agreements.

Our standard legal services agreements contain express consent to our backup attorney arrangement.   First, consent is required to give rise to the attorney-client relationship that would allow the backup attorney to provide legal coverage for the client. But moreover, we want our clients to understand that arrangements are in place to safeguard their interests. The fact we formally arrange for backup coverage is an additional value offered to our clients (at no cost to them). To keep it simple we each use identical language in our standard legal service agreements. We also give the client the option to decline to proceed with the backup, and may retain a different attorney, in which case she may be entitled to a partial reimbursement.

Representations to clients.

We were very concerned about avoiding any representation that could accidentally give rise to an attorney-client relationship, other than in the limited backup context. Were a client to fall into a dispute with her attorney, we wanted carefully to safeguard against inadvertent liability to the attorney’s backup.   We include an express disclaimer in our representation agreements, explaining that the backup attorney has no involvement in a client matter save for the limited backup function. We were also concerned about client perceptions since we are in a shared office suite. As a partial solution we agreed to create signage on our respective office doors clearly stating "This firm is associated with no other business or attorney in this building."

Operational information.

As a practical matter, how can an assisting attorney step into the affected attorney's shoes if required under the coverage agreement? To perform essential functions, a backup attorney will need access to client files and an understanding of the affected attorney’s office procedures. At a minimum, each attorney will need to provide the other with computer login codes, general business and IOLTA account information, and any other information that would be required to competently step into a client matter. Greg drafted a 30-page office procedure manual, which turned out to be a helpful exercise in identifying more efficient office protocols. WSBA advises that a third attorney should be assigned the role of signatory for the affected attorney’s IOLTA account to provide for “checks and balances.” Planning Ahead, supra, at 1-2.

Liability Insurance.

The affected attorney and his backup must each have his own liability insurance. An affected attorney's failure to confirm such coverage on the part of the backup attorney could potentially lead to a malpractice claim by a disaffected client if the assisting attorney's legal representation is deficient.

Conclusion.

A solo practitioner may have a long, successful career without ever needing another attorney to help out in an emergency. But the stakes are too high, and in our view the diligent practitioner should not ignore this important client safeguard.

Groupon for Lawyers: Does this marketing strategy make sense — or cents?

Is it ethical for attorneys to advertise on “daily deal” websites like Groupon and LivingSocialMy article in the current Jul-Aug 2013 issue of NWLawyer discusses some serious ethics issues: •  Are daily deal sites a form of paid referral? •  Does an attorney engage in fee splitting with a non-lawyer? •  Are trust accounting rules satisfied?

My personal conclusion is that daily deal advertising is ethical — so long as safeguards are taken.

But is it a good idea?

Attorneys will take home only 25% of the purchase price of a service offered on a daily deal site. Sites require a 50% discount from the “shelf price,” then the site takes half of the discounted price as a marketing fee. For one attorney, this worked out to $13–26/hr for the work performed. This deep discount is far below the value of a service, so the marketing will be a success only if it leads to other work.  This could come either as additional work for the same client or through referrals.

Restaurants sometimes complain of “low-quality” bargain-hunting customers.  A St. Louis attorney who marketed $99 will packages via Groupon found this not to be the case. (View the ad here). In his experience, clients who found him via Groupon returned the respectful treatment they received from his law firm.

Attorneys may believe their dignity will be undermined by a marketing media associated with discounted donuts and beer tastings. But, as I argue in the NWLawyer article, this attitude is at tension with the goal of making services accessible and affordable. In my view, the tastefulness of a Groupon ad should be judged by its content, not the company it keeps.

[This post first appeared on the Washington State Bar Association's Sidebar blog]

Is Google Voice the right (free) phone system for your practice?

A version of this article was published by the American Immigration Lawyers Association


Law firms now have many alternatives to traditional multi-line phone systems. My firm uses Google Voice for its primary office line, and you might want to consider this uniquely powerful tool for your practice, even in addition to your current system. [Edit: we now use a LAN line through Regus in addition to Google Voice]

What do you get? Voice gives you a single phone number that rings to multiple devices and locations. A Voice number can ring directly to your desk, your office staff, your mobile phone, and a call answering service, to name just a few possibilities. Since Voice is a “Voice Over Internet Protocol” (VOIP) setup, calls can also be made to and from your desktop or notebook computer. I normally use my Voice line from an iPhone, but I’ve place calls from Europe on Voice using my tablet PC.

Fun functionality. Voice gives you much more than the ability to have a single number ring to multiple locations. A Voice number comes with its own online voicemail system, that also transcribes and emails your voicemails to you (if you want). I find the transcription quality reasonably good and certainly enough to get the gest of a call.

Voice also gives you the ability to send SMS text messages from your online Voice account or from email (if you’re responding). This can be tremendously helpful for communicating with younger clients. While drafting this article I used a series of brief messages with a client to quickly clarify a document request, complete payment arrangements, and setup an appointment. Also, text messages are easy to preserve in your client files.

International calls are extremely low cost over Voice, similar to other VOIP providers (India and Mexico City are both 2¢/minute). If you have an existing mobile (not landline) number, it can be converted into a Voice number for a fee of $20 (your mobile carrier may charge additional fees).

Voice has apps that work on all major data-enabled mobile phones, making it easy to place calls from your cell using a Voice number. One clunky aspect of Voice is that calls ring first to your device; you answer and then the intended caller is connected.

Marketing campaigns. The functionality and freebie-ness of Voice make it an attractive option for tracking marketing efforts, since you can setup a unique number for a given effort. A particular listing can be assigned its own number so you know how a client found you. Also, voicemail messages can be customized based on the caller’s number. Client-specific messages seem mostly creepy, but attorney colleagues – for example – could be funneled to a mercifully shortened message.

Drawbacks. I’ve found audio quality to be overall great, and this was echoed by other AILA attorneys who use the service. Quality appears most problematic when I make/receive calls using my computer rather than mobile. Although I seem to experience the most problems with 1-800 numbers and institutional phone systems, others didn’t share this experience.

Information sent though Voice is subject to Google’s general terms of service. These terms reserve to Google the right to access account content, and ethics experts debate whether use of Google products violates an attorney’s duty of confidentiality and/or waives privilege.  This should be seriously considered by an attorney choosing to use one or more Google products. Also, Voice allows the ability to record and transcribe calls, but this feature should be used with extreme caution as jurisdictions vary on the disclosure requirements for recording communications.

Voice might or might not be a good fit for your practice, but it’s at least worth exploring for some limited uses.