Not mailing it in anymore

The U.S. Postal Service’s decision to stop Saturday mail delivery later this year made me think about the last time I bought a stamp and how much I don’t use the post office for personal mail. (I don’t even know the cost of a stamp, but if I’m not mistaken, I think the price recently increased.)

Like many people, I pay my bills online, send emails and text messages. My work-related mail is handled by the staff at the office, who also take care of the postage. When I do have to send personal mail, I simply bum a stamp from someone. Then, when I ask how much I owe them, the normal response is “I don’t know. I’ve had these forever stamps for forever.”

In terms of work, I prefer to communicate electronically but I still send a lot of unnecessary mail. I’ve been told time and time again that I need to keep a paper trail “just in case.” If I need to send something important, such as discovery responses, a follow-up letter or a motion that is time sensitive, I usually send an email followed by mailing the hard copy.

I ask myself almost every time when I drop the envelope in the outgoing basket, “why am I sending a duplicate copy when I know they will receive the email today”? But it doesn’t stop there. Depending on what was sent, I have to make at least two copies of what I already have stored in my email’s outbox — one for the office, one for my case file. That is a lot of duplicate copies, which are probably unnecessary.

I understand the theory behind having duplicates but I think it may be getting a little out of control given the current technology. Is it really necessary to have three or four copies of the same thing stored in three or four different places? I’m not sure if other attorneys are in the same boat as me, but I am all for moving toward the world of a paperless legal community.

Eagerly awaiting electronic filing in Maryland

Do you ever wonder where are all those neat gadgets we were promised in age-old sci-fi shows? Things like flying cars, lasers capable of incinerating matter and our outpost on Mars? I want all of those things, too.  

But I’d settle for electronic filing of pleadings in Maryland state courts.  

I’m working on a couple of federal cases right now and I am reminded how much I love electronic filing. No more envelopes. No more stamps. No more paper copies sent out, no more paper copies coming in. The elegance of a “ /s/ ” signature, the sophistication of “Print to PDF,” the ability to file something at 11:59 p.m. (not recommended, but possible).

Sure, there are tradeoffs. The federal court system requires a $350 filing fee for civil cases, about $200 more than state court. You need a modicum of technical ability and hardware, which can be tough for some “old dog” lawyers or solo practitioners. To me, though, it’s all worth it to be able to know immediately that filings are successful and to be able to download a reliable case docket at the touch of a button.

So where is our state court version? The last I heard, we’re still working on the prototype, which will be tested in Anne Arundel County this year. The full statewide (including appellate courts) roll-out is reportedly expected by 2016. Maryland Electronic Courts has some details, though it appears they are still working out the ever-important pay system.

For my money, I’d prefer a system like the federal courts — pay a fee up front and not worry about paying a fee for every single document filed. A simple, flat fee is the way to go. It’s easier for accounting and it just feels better than penalizing lawyers for filing more documents.

Doing battle with law firm forms and procedures

Speed is life.

A board game I played in high school stated this matter-of-factly. Star Fleet Battles, the classic game of starship combat (based on the even more classic show Star Trek), could have been describing the law. Though, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say “inertia is life.” It doesn’t usually matter so much that you go really fast as it does that you keep moving.

The law is like a chess game — it’s important to keep moving or the game stagnates. Too much time between moves and you forget where the pieces are: you have to reacquaint yourself with the board. That takes more time and prevents further moves.

This is why the hardest file in the office to work on is the one that is just a little outside of our comfort zone. It might be that collections case a family law attorney randomly picked up or the contract case a personal injury lawyer is working on for a friend. It’s difficult sometimes to get over the fear or uncertainty of “Exactly what is it that I’m supposed to do?”

This can even apply to files of the same ilk as the majority of your cases. If you are too busy, a new file might come in and lay around for a few days. Then you get even busier and it gets shoved to the bottom of the pile or lost in a heap of “to-dos.”

This is why it is important to have forms and procedures for every typical step in the life of a case. Something comes in and the next steps can be assigned without much thought.

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Digital signatures on Word documents

About six months ago, I was talking to a “seasoned” lawyer about my solo practice. After hearing that I had no secretarial support, he commented that technology has enabled young lawyers to do things cheaply.

It’s true — those of us who are comfortable with the computer can put off hiring other employees. Lawyers who grew up in a world of dictation and typing pools are less able to function completely on their own. Younger lawyers, in most cases, can type for themselves, and can handle most of the formatting issues that accompany letter- or pleading-drafting.

Anything I can do to speed up my secretarial assignments is going give me more time to work. One such time saver is using a digital signature in Word documents. With a digital signature, you won’t have to print a document, sign it and then scan it back in so that your electronic file has a final copy. You can sign the document from your keyboard by pasting a signature directly into the Word document.

From there, you can print that document with the signature ready for mailing or you can save it as a PDF for your electronic file. This is particularly useful when you don’t need a hard copy — for example, if you are going to email the document, or send it out by electronic fax. Here’s how:

  1. Sign your name on a blank piece of paper; scan it in and save it. It will probably be in PDF form, and you need to convert it to something else, like a JPEG or a PNG file. One way to do this is to open it up as a PDF and use the Snapshot tool to select the signature. Then, paste it into Microsoft Paint, and save that on your computer as a JPEG or PNG file.
  2. On the Insert tab, click Picture.
  3. Search for the location of the signature, select it and click Insert.
  4. Resize the signature if necessary.
  5. Right-click the signature, and select Size and Position.
  6. On the Text Wrapping tab, select Behind Text (this way, only the signature itself will show up, and not the white space).
  7. Move the signature to the desired location.

If you sign your name in a color other than black, and if you have a color scanner, it will appear in that color on your documents. Of course, it will print as black-and-white unless you use a color printer.

If you have a paperless office, digital signatures can be used in conjunction with the Print to PDF feature. Instead of printing out hard copies, just save the electronic version and store it on your server or in the cloud. For the occasional letter or pleading, this won’t save much time. Aggregated over the course of a week (I probably sign 30 letters/pleadings per week), it can really add up.

How a good website can help make it rain

When I was planning the journey that is a solo practice, I realized the problem that is inherent in plaintiffs’ personal injury law: the money comes really late. The average small automobile collision case will not settle for at least five months, and if a lawsuit needs to be filed, it could be nine or twelve months before a resolution. Serious auto collisions and medical malpractice cases take much, much longer.

Some attorneys manage to pay their bills by dabbling in other types of work, often criminal defense or family law, where the lawyer can charge hourly or flat rate fees. I knew that I didn’t want to do family or criminal work but I still wanted to find a way to at least break even in the first year and pay rent for my modest Timonium office. So I starting writing web and blog content for other personal injury lawyers.

For the medical malpractice webpages, I try to do some research on what other lawyers are writing about, both so I don’t miss anything and so I can figure out how to be different. The one thing that stands out, more than anything else, is which medical malpractice firms get to the top of my Google search results page.

Sometimes the firms’ sites are impressive and the amount of effort put into building the site is clear. In some cases, though, the web content is poorly written, contains very little information and was updated five or ten years ago. How do those firms get good Google results? Perhaps they are following some of the “black hat” practices that Google is working on weeding out. But for most of them, the age of their website matters. Google and the other search engines have a higher amount of respect for websites that have been around for a while.

You’ve heard the saying, “the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.” For lawyers or law students who want to get out in the world and start a practice, join a practice or who have no idea what to do, my recommendation is simple: start a website or two. They don’t need to be extravagant, they just need to have a domain name, some general content (with good keywords and phrases) about whatever practice area you think you are interested in, and an automatic contact form (for those who are licensed to practice).

If you’re not ready to take cases yet, you can refer them out. If your future law firm handles that type of law, you can use the cases you bring in to negotiate a higher salary. More importantly, if you go solo, you might have a ready-made revenue stream, or at least a website with some “stickiness,” when you make that move.

Pushy salespeople, disappointing results

I should know better than to take these calls, but I’m almost pathologically afraid that I’m missing something.

That’s why I feel compelled to answer, and talk to, every potentially credible Internet marketing company that calls me. In this business you cannot rest on your laurels — the stream of new cases needs to keep flowing, otherwise the cash stops flowing and the office doors will shutter.

I had two of these calls recently. One was from a company that we all know well (we’ll call it SuperEgo Inc.) which has branched out from print services for lawyers to online marketing.  They have a rating system for lawyers, and the Superist-Duperist lawyers get the privilege of seeing their names online (for a price, of course).

SuperEgo Inc. also links the lawyers’ websites from their main pages and they told me that their main pages get oodles of hits from the web. Ergo (they want me to believe), my website will get HUGE NUMBERS of hits from POTENTIAL CLIENTS.

That all sounded good, but it quickly broke down with a little cross-examination. What distinguishes my firm from all the other firms that have links on the website (nothing). How many click-throughs, on average, do each of these law firm websites get? She couldn’t tell me the statistics, claiming there is no way to keep track (that’s wrong), and that this was a new program and they didn’t have that kind of data. I told her I’m not interested in advertising without some data to help me decide how good of an investment it was.

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