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Little Comforts That Make Work (And Life) Lots Easier

by Carol L. Schlein, Esq.

Instead of hearing my alarm clock one recent morning, I woke up to the sound of my uninterrupted power supplies beeping in my home office. At 6:15 a.m., our neighborhood lost electric power. I fumbled in the dark until I finally shut down all the computers followed by the battery backups. They were set to shut themselves down but I was afraid the beeping would wake my family. While there are flashlights in various parts of the house, there was no light immediately available in my office. Although the obvious answer is to keep a small flashlight in my office, it made me realize that even a well thought out disaster plan probably will have some unanticipated glitches.

When the electricity fails, it gives one time to reflect what can be done to be productive without the technology we now take for granted. When the office phone began to ring, I suddenly realized I was without my voice mail system and my caller ID. Talk about a double whammy! I couldn’t tell who was calling, nor could the person leave a message. To further disrupt my routine, my telephone headset was not functioning because I hadn’t put batteries in it; rather, I set it up to be plugged in with the power adapter.

My morning routine was further disrupted when I was unable to check e-mail. Despite several tools to filter spam, checking my e-mail still consists mostly of eliminating the 100 to 300 junk messages each day and handling the 10 to 20 genuine pieces of e-mail.

Fortunately, I was scheduled to meet with a client in New York City. I had charged my cell phone and laptop the night before so they’d both have full battery power the entire day. Luckily, I also had synchronized my Palm Pilot and my practice management program’s data on my laptop with the office files. While the power was expected to be out only a few hours, if necessary, I was able to work on my laptop.

One unfortunate consequence was that since this was two days before Christmas, I had given my assistant permission to work from home. With out power, she was unable to access our office files through as she normally does when working outside the office. We made sure when recently switching e-mail hosts to include web access to e-mail. This allows us to access a website, type a domain name, user ID and password to handle incoming e-mail.

This power outage gave me a chance to review how we handle emergencies in our office. First, I purchased a small flashlight for the office and put batteries in the telephones and other devices that accommodate both power sources. I also reviewed how the uninterrupted power supplies are set to function. If they’re set up correctly, they should automatically shut down a computer during a power failure.

Client relations

This also is a natural time to reflect on the year just ended and the upcoming 12 months. Evaluate what worked well for your firm and what didn’t. Did you intend to send holiday cards only to find you began compiling your list too late? Was it a burden to create a mailing list to invite clients to an office function? If you use a program like Time Matters, start the new year right and customize it so you can add a field to track whether you’ll send those on your firm’s contact list a holiday card. If you have several mailings each year or host client events, you can make the field a list of choices or possibly have several fields to accommodate all the options. For example, you may send some cards to people at work while others are sent to their home. A “mail to” field can help you select the destination and choose the correct fields for the envelope or label.

The beginning of a year also is a good time to review your client retention and marketing efforts. Can you easily determine how many potential clients contacted your office in the past year? How many of them became clients? Any clue how they found you? Any idea what made some hire you while others went to your competitors? The answers to these questions can be helpful when trying to budget your marketing dollars and estimate annual income. Does it pay to advertise in the Yellow Pages if the majority of new clients came from reading the column you write for your local paper? How much work did you do for each of your ongoing clients? Do you have the tools to determine whether your marketing efforts were effective? Are you tracking how potential clients found you? If it was through a Google search, maybe you should enhance your firm’s website or buy a Google ad (those boxes to the right of your search results, which aren’t even that expensive!) to attract more potential clients.

If you didn’t have as much work from existing clients, maybe you should speak with them to find out why. Of course, circumstances change and the economy has been better in other years, so it may not be due to factors within your control. Could it be that your bills weren’t timely? Did you fail to return phone calls or reply to e-mail requests promptly?


How about your firm’s finances? Did you have a good year? Can you easily compare this year to last? Are your accountants receivable out of whack? This might be a good time to review how you’re handling delinquent clients. Many firms wait until a client hasn’t paid for 60 days or more. The sooner you attempt to collect, the closer you are to the time the work was performed. Clients will be more satisfied with their attorney’s work around the time the work was done and makes them more willing to pay. Combining that with regular billing so the balance doesn’t exceed what the client can reasonably pay makes a better collection policy.

Did some types of work earn more money than others? Extrapolating this information from your accounting and billing programs will help predict 2004 income. Among the reports to look at in your accounting program are the profit and loss statement comparing the year just ended to the previous one, noting large changes, either up or down. If expenses are way up, consider how to bring them under control. If your income is lower, think what you did differently and what you can do to improve receipts. The billing program can tell you which practice areas and which attorneys were responsible for any gains or losses. If you haven’t tracked your work like this, start now to monitor who brought in what work, who realized the most receivables actually collected and what types of work comprise your practice and its revenue. Even the most basic law office programs can be configured to collect such information.

Electronic bills

Submitting bills electronically may shorten the time between the work performed and the receipt of payment. The latest versions of the leading billing programs allow you to “print a bill” to the Adobe portable document format (.pdf) that can be e-mailed as an attachment to clients. The added bonuses are saving on postage and staff time to stuff envelopes, and probably more appreciative clients on the receiving end.

Consider other aspects of your office that could use improvement. In most firms, client based e-mail has increased dramatically. Consider implementing programs and policies that allow you to better manage incoming and outgoing e-mail. For example, some practice management programs allow you to connect client related e-mail to their case record, which gives you and your staff a more complete picture of the status of cases.

Keep a watch on remote access tools that allow you to better serve clients and accommodate your staff. As more firms and clients move to high speed internet access, the pressure to allow clients to see selected information about their case electronically will begin to grow. Some vendors of litigation support and case management programs already have products that address this need. Similarly, the tools to enable remote access of office systems by your staff have become more affordable, more reliable and easier to set up and use. As a result, such technology will result in better client support from multiple locations.

In small firms especially, it is difficult to offer salaries and benefits comparable to larger firms. However, lifestyle choices and flexible hours are often a key attraction for both staff and professionals when choosing a smaller firm. Being able to let key people work from home or control their work schedule is one of the main ways to attract high caliber personnel.

Having the right combination of people and tools will enable a meaningful evaluation of your firm’s health and plan for a healthy and profitable 2004 and beyond.