I have attended my share of legal tech conferences in the last few years (as we all do), and I couldn’t help but notice that in comparison with events from, say, 5 years ago, many of them didn’t have any actionable content for attendees. The audience (lawyers, by a large majority) was sent home at the end of the day feeling like there was nothing left to do but watch the (AI, blockchain, you name it) train pass.
Yet, I’m a firm believer that there is still a lot of room for significant productivity improvements in a fairly traditional legal practice setting, and some of them are relatively simple. I would call these “boring game changers” in the sense that nobody would invite you to a conference to talk about them anymore. However, it’s still something that can (I’m not exaggerating) be a game changer for those who care to try them.
For the purpose of this post, I felt like going back to simpler times with none of the great AI and blockchain hopes and anguish, and talk about practical tips for lawyers. Since I’m no longer in practice myself, I regularly consult with my geekest friends about productivity enhancing tips, and I have now accumulated a few of them. Below is a summary of what I found to be the most useful tips I gathered over the last few months.
A little while ago, my friend Claire Mazzini (read more about her here) recommended Calendly, a scheduling system, which I find is the best way to book one-to-one meetings with people outside your organization.
Basically, it helps you to set up a webpage with a calendar that is synced with your Outlook or Gmail (or else, I suppose) calendar. You can create different types of appointments that people can book themselves, for instance a 60-minute in-person meeting at your office, and a 30-minute phone call. Thus, when someone writes to ask you to meet, you can send them a custom URL to the right type of appointment on your Calendly page, and they can select themselves the time that works best according to your availability. It’s likely that you will only need that email to schedule a meeting. Considering how our professional lives often seem like an onslaught of back and forth scheduling emails and endless Doodle forms, this is a godsend.
I specified “outside your organization” in the previous paragraph because within an organization, one person’s availability is generally visible to their colleagues, so you don’t need an app like Calendly to schedule meetings. But even inside your organization, you might want to have a little more control on when people can book you, for instance if you want to “soft block” some time every Friday to review client invoices or, better yet, call your mother.
My friends Francis Tourigny and Marc-André Séguin from innovative business immigration law firm Exeo Law take it a step further and use Acuity Scheduling, which apparently has even more features than Calendly (including getting clients to pay up front for meetings by credit card if this is something that makes sense in your practice, even if that’s not something they do themselves).
These same friends, Francis and Marc-André, swear by Trello for improving delegation and collaboration on client matters. I have tried Trello but it was probably too heavy for the size of the team I used it with (Hi Sarah!). However, my friends swear by it as being, you guessed it, a game changer. If you want to use Trello for the practice of law there are a few resources online, but this text, even if slightly dated, will give you a glimpse of what kinds of improvements it can bring to a law firm’s workflows.
They also swore by Pandadocs as a tool to create dynamic and good-looking documents, circulate them to signees, and track the progress of the signature process through a dashboard. The Pandadocs site has a legal industry specific page if you’re looking for a better way to get clients and prospective clients to sign stuff.
They also use Hubspot (not cheap, but well worth it they say) to manage their digital marketing and convert leads to business. If you’re interested in this, here’s a nice post on how a personal injury law firm uses it.
They are also Clio users and love it.
The above doesn’t look like much on paper, but with all these systems set-up and integrated with each other, Francis and Marc-André have built a largely automated legal practice. They say they spend very little time emailing (among other unproductive activities), and that allows them to concentrate on delivering more value to clients while being more profitable. They say they can “squeeze 2 days of work in 1”. It’s probable that in exchange for a large enough donation to their not-for-profit For The Refugees, they can share more of their secrets with you.
Another friend who preferred to stay anonymous talked to me about the integrations between Outlook and OneNote that are often underused, if not completely unknown (I’m not a OneNote user myself). She specifically mentioned how useful it was to her to be able to share notes with other participants to a meeting. You will find some other good OneNote tips here.
The massively underused “boring game changer” for lawyers (and their firm’s CFO): text expansion
I continue to be a big fan of text expansion even if I don’t use it as heavily as when I was outside counsel. Simply put, text expansion is like a custom, and non-annoying, autocorrect that works in all your applications (i.e. it’s not like the custom snippets in Word that will only work… in Word). This is particularly helpful to help alleviate the pain of drafting elegant, descriptive, typo free, and contemporaneous narratives for your time entries.
For instance, I had created shortcuts for the name of all the colleagues I work the most frequently with (for instance “js” for John Smith) and for routine actions (e.g. “tc” for “Telephone conversation with) so that in order to write “Telephone conversation with John Smith” I only had to type “tc [tab] js [tab]”.
The [tab] button is the trigger key (you can pick another one) that tells the text expansion app to make the pre-programmed replacement since it would be quite inconvenient to have an app that writes “farfetelephoneconversationhedness” every time you write “farfetchedness” to criticize your adversary’s argument.
You can create shortcuts for anything really, but I would start with:
- Text of statutes and regulations you refer to all the time in your practice;
- Frequent client and matter names;
- Expressions you use all the time (e.g. in trademark law, a concept we frequently referred to as the “likelihood of confusion” could become something like “liconf”).
You can even create shortcuts that are more dynamic, for instance one that would insert the content of your clipboard at a few different places in boilerplate text. You can add some formatting (e.g. if you’re into diligently putting statute names in italic).
This is not an endorsement for hourly billing or legalese, but as long as these things exist, we should at least make them quick and typo-free. Frankly, large firms should have training on text expansion considering how much pressure they put on time keepers to enter their time on a daily basis, with good narratives at that.
U.S. lawyer and veteran legal tech consultant Brett Burney has a lot of resources on text expansion. He swears by Text Expander and even has a course specifically on this which you can get at the (very literal) domain name http://www.textexpanderforlawyers.com/
Can dumping Microsoft Word improve your practice and your life?
Finally, a friend who also preferred not to be named (more on that in a future column maybe) told me how he improved his practice radically by dumping Microsoft Office (especially Word).
With Microsoft Word, he believes that Maslow’s Law of the instrument is at play, and that lawyers tend to overcomplicate the process of drafting documents (and the documents themselves) just because Word offers complicated text-editing tools. I’m with him on this and I would note that in his book The Shallows, author Nicholas Carr writes at length on how the tools we believe to be neutral and interchangeable can dramatically change how we think. This even applies to the world’s best minds: Nietzsche for instance apparently had a very different writing style when he became blind and started working with an early typewriter called a “writing ball”.
My friend’s firm policy is to use the default styles of the most basic text editor, and not add any manual formatting. This results, first, in improved productivity because the documents are simpler and lighter. Second, their work can be exported to any type of format used by their clients, for instance a standard employee confidentiality agreement that can be turned by the client into an online form. He says Word is responsible for preserving a culture where we all work on documents as if they were to be printed, when in fact most of what we all draft today is not intended to be printed and would actually benefit from being purposively prepared as something that will inevitably be turned into a dynamic tool or incorporated into a system.
While I hope some of the above tips will help you, I can’t help but wonder if the best “boring” game changer you can apply isn’t indeed to use simpler tools.