The Top 10 Low Tech, Old School Tools For a Physical Law Office

I'm just a caveman. New technology frightens and confuses me.

There has been a lot of talk about high tech tools to run your law office. Technology stuff is pretty cool, and I like to think our office has some pretty neat gadgets that make our lives easier. Maybe one day I’ll do a piece about it, but bloggers like Carolyn Elefant and Stephanie Kimbro already have, and they’ve done a good job.

Just this week, Carolyn Elefant wrote a nice piece about how technology is letting lawyers provide better, more cost effective service to clients. And believe it or not, Rachel Rodgers actually wrote something that wasn’t a piece of garbage describing technology she uses for her virtual office. (Yes, I said something nice about Rachel Rodgers. But don’t worry, more on her later).

Personally, I couldn’t live without my ScanSnap 1500, my Dymo TwinTurbo label writer, Google Apps, or Endicia.

While I’m not opposed to virtual offices, they’re just not my style. I like waking up every morning, putting on a suit, and meeting with clients privately in my office. Seeing clients regularly in my living room (which is two blocks from my office) or at the local coffee shop (also two blocks from my office) just isn’t for me.

But in addition to the high tech stuff that makes our office physically run, there is also a bunch of low tech stuff. So let’s talk tech, but not high tech. No, let’s talk low tech… old school.

In no particular order, here are my top ten low cost, old school low tech tools. (because Jamie thinks lists are so cool). You’d be surprised how cheap most of them are.

1. A hard calendar. Imagine this: you go into court. The judge says “I’m free on the 15th, 20th, and the 25th. Which one of those dates works for you?” It looks really silly if you pull out your iPhone and you’re trying to plug stuff in. However, it looks professional when you pull our your calendar and say “I can do the 25th, Your Honor.” Then you can write down the date and plug it in later.

I love my Google calendar, it’s great and it syncs with my iPhone and calendar apps. However, a good idea is to keep an electronic calendar, like Google Calendar, and back it up to your hard calendar at the end of each day. In addition to looking better in court, it also creates a dummy proof calendar system.

Cost? $0. My friend Jim Radmore gives them out each year. If you want one, call Jim and ask him for one. Tell him I sent you.

Bonus: It will also keep your malpractice insurance carrier happy. Retain your hard calendar when you’re finished with it for malpractice purposes.

2. Pens that write in blue ink. A lesson from my mentor James. “Some courts require an original signature. That’s why I always sign the original in blue ink. If you don’t want your documents getting rejected in county courts, sign them in blue ink.” I keep lots and lots of blue pens on hand for that reason. The original is always signed in blue ink.

Cost? Like, $3.

3. Yellow pads. When I was in law school, someone asked me why I didn’t take notes with my laptop. Truth be told, I have a short attention span, so the desire to play Mario Kart, check my email, and browse ProFootballTalk.com would be too much. Instead, I hand wrote all my notes and then put them into my computer at the end of the day. I took this habit with me into practice. There is no substitute for meeting with a client, breaking out your yellow pad, and writing stuff down. Preferably in your office or conference room. Then when you’re done, you can scan your notes and stick the hard copy in the file.

Cost? They’re cheap. I think they run $6.99 for about 12 of them.

4. Hot and cold beverages. “Hello Mr. Client. It’s nice to meet you. Would you like a cup of coffee, tea, water, espresso, or a soda?” I’ve found that clients like being offered a beverage when they come in for a consult.

For hot beverages, we use a Keurig and Nespresso machine. The K-Cups (which are expensive) are reserved for clients, while Leo and I buy regular coffee and brew it through an Ekobrew Cup. I like Chock Full’o Nuts. (otherwise we would probably go through a box of K-Cups each day. The amount of coffee we drink is absurd.)

Cost? Before we acquired the Keurig and Nespresso machines (gifts for pro bono representation), we had a normal coffee pot that cost about $12. I bought our fridge for $50 – it’s actually a wine cooler. We store soda and bottled water in there for clients. A case of soda costs about $5.75.

5. A real phone. “Hello Your Honor! Hold on, one sec, my phone is breaking up. I need to walk near a window. Okay. Can you hear me now?” I know the new trend is to run your law firm through a cell phone. In my opinion that’s unprofessional. It also results in “off the cuff” conversations. There is just no substitute for having a physical phone.

A lesson I learned from James about phone calls: “Be very selective with who you give your cell phone number to. Especially clients. They will harass you on the weekends, after hours, and whenever they feel like it. When they have your cell phone, they’ll expect you to be available to them 24/7. If all your calls go to a landline in your office, you can control when clients can contact you. Otherwise you will spend all your time on your cell phone, often talking to bad clients who want to suck up your time while neglecting your less needy good clients. Always return all your phone calls, but you need to control when they happen.” James gave out his cell phone number to about 20 people. He didn’t give to me until I had worked for him for over a year, and it was for emergencies only.

Another lesson I learned from James: “Off the cuff phone calls results in bad lawyering, so don’t take calls you don’t recognize. Let them go to voicemail. Then write out all the stuff you want to say before you call the person back. You would be amazed at how many lawyers will just blab and blab and blab on the telephone. They would never do that in a letter! I just sit back, listen, and takes notes. You need to be calculated in all your correspondence, including telephone calls. This applies to courts, clients, and adversaries.” James would have an outline of everything he wanted to say before just about any phone conversation that was law related. The outline was written on a yellow pad.

The good news is a physical landline is totally unnecessary. Our phones are run over the internet through a company called Nextiva. VOIP (voice over internet protocol)  is great. It does everything a land line phone does and much more. The cost is $75 a month for two phones ($900 a year, plus $160 for the phones) but having a physical phone is absolutely worth it. Nextiva is great because you can just add phones as your firm expands. I also like being able to dial extension 100 and get Leo, because it’s way better than shouting from our offices. (“Hey yo, brah… could you send me that link to that YouTube video again? I wanna put it on my wife’s Facebook wall.”)

Call me (call me) on the line Call me, call me any, anytime

6. Filing cabinets. You know how I know that my clients’ files are secure? Because they’re kept in filing cabinets. (as opposed to in my trunk or the bedroom where my cats roam free.)

Cost to us? Free. We collected 5 large filing cabinets when tenants moved out of our building. I picked up a small one at the thrift store. (The cool magnet was a gift from Rick Horowitz. Thanks, Rick! Anyone reading this: feel free to send us swag. We dig it.). While filing cabinets are expensive new, I’ve found it easy to get them second hand from other businesses, particularly ones moving out of our building. If you want filing cabinets, find some businesses that went under. Usually they’ll just give them to you because they are too difficult to move.

On a side note, anything I get from Scott Greenfield or Brian Tannebaum IMMEDIATELY goes into the “Evil” drawer:

7. Chairs and a big lawyer desk. Last week Brian Tannebaum wrote about the Great Stupid office debate. I completely agree that an office is a must have for any attorney, especially one starting a practice. There is nothing more lawyerly than pulling a client into your office, shutting the door, pulling out a yellow pad (not your iPad), and saying “Tell me about what’s going on.”

However, one big obstacle to having a physical office is furnishing it.

The good news is you would be amazed at how much free furniture you can acquire from former tenants in your building. Almost all of my furniture was acquired second hand or from a thrift store. My big lawyer desk came from a former tenant, as did my cool red chair. The client chairs were antiques I found at a thrift store. You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to have nice furniture, nor do you need to furnish your office in Ikea. (People know it’s Ikea. Do not furnish your office in Ikea – get stuff from the thrift store if you can’t afford high end furniture.)

Cost to furnish my office? Under $500. I went with a “shabby chic” look because you can buy lots of “shabby chic” stuff from antique stores and thrift stores. And I like it. We have an antique record player in here where our coffee machines sit.

Again, no Ikea. Get hand me down old stuff before you go to Ikea.

8. A trial bag. If you intend to do any litigation work, you will need something to drag lots of documents into court. This “something” is called a trial bag.

How I acquired mine: I was working at AnapolSchwartz as a law clerk. I approached one of the partners and said “Hey, that old trial bag. Do you mind if I have it?” The partner said “I’m pretty sure it’s broken, so take it.” I had it fixed. Wah lah! Trial bag.

9. A typewriter. Yes, the federal courts and many large cities have made great strides when it comes to electronic filing. Unfortunately, many rural and county courts have not. If you intend to practice in smaller counties, chances are they will have specific documents, many of which have carbon copies. (meaning you can’t just PDF them and make form fields). The reality is there will be documents you will have to create on a typewriter.

Cost? Ours ran about $20. We found it on Craigslist.

[UPDATE]: Leo tells me that we paid $60 for the typewriter, and it’s the same model Francis Ford Coppola wrote The Godfather on. It’s also sitting on a desk Leo got from Ikea. Bad Leo.

10. A Law library and books. Yes, much of what you need is available online. However, there are certain things that aren’t – practice manuals in particular. There are many practice manuals that you will want to consult often. For us, the Philadelphia Civil Practice Manual is used almost weekly. While online content is great, there are many materials you will want to own so you can refer to it regularly. Lawyers have been reading physical books for centuries, and I doubt this will change.

Plus, the books also look cool and give you the appearance of a “real lawyer.”

Cost? Most of what we acquired came from retired lawyers or materials from CLEs. Just keep your eye out when other lawyers are leaving their office. Save all your CLE materials. James also gave me some of his old stuff. We still buy new books that are relevant to our practice.

While all the technological advances are great, and they allow lawyers to provide better, cheaper services for clients, there are still a lot of “old school” tools that are necessary for a good law practice.

2 Responses to The Top 10 Low Tech, Old School Tools For a Physical Law Office

  1. Leo M. Mulvihill, Jr. says:

    Errata & Addendum:

    1) That Olivetti Lettera 33 was $60. I purchased it from a typewriter collector who’s also a fine arts professor at Drexel. It was worth every penny because it will never break.

    Bonus: same model on which Francis Ford Coppola wrote the script for The Godfather.

    2) Most of my office furniture is Ikea. I think it’s quite suitable and holds my books well.

    3) Take better pictures of my office next time.

  2. Also a big fan of ScanSnap (h/t to Grace Suarez for that idea).

    One thing I like to do with CLE materials is scan them, run OCR to make them searchable, then dump each section into computer folders by topic: voir dire, DUI experts, etc. Over time I can build up a pretty good library, and OCR search helps me find vaguely-remembered issues or cases quickly.

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