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Chances are you know someone who’s using free or consumer-class VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) solutions and making long-distance calls for “free.” But is this VoIP technology suitable for a law firm like yours? Will it provide the business-class security and reliability you expect in your firm’s phone system?

VoIP, commonly referred to as IP telephony, Internet telephony, broadband telephony, broadband phone and voice over broadband is the technology used to transmit voice conversations over the Internet or through any other IP (Internet protocol)-based network. With VoIP, voice conversation is broken up into packets of data that are transmitted over the Internet or over a proprietary broadband network before being reassembled on the terminating end of the call.

Business-class VoIP provides tight integration between your firm’s desktop and phone technologies. The benefit to your firm? Single directories, unified messaging (voicemail to e-mail), and self-management of your phone configurations all from one interface.

Recent research indicates that VoIP is here to stay. A November 2005 survey by Infonetics Research found that VoIP adoption is well under way, with 14 percent of small, 23 percent of medium and 36 percent of large-sized organizations already using VoIP products and services. By their estimates, nearly half of small and two-thirds of large organizations in North America will be using VoIP products and services by 2010.

Osterman Research also believes that the market for VoIP will increase substantially, growing from 13 percent of all e-mail users in 2005 to 64 percent of all e-mail users in 2009.

The bottom line is that law firms and professional services organizations of all sizes are using VoIP today in a stable, secure and productive manner.

“Traditional phone service includes a PBX (private branch exchange), which uses proprietary software and hardware. These proprietary solutions require specialized, often expensive, expertise to manage and maintain. A VoIP phone system allows the firm to converge voice and data services onto a single IP (Internet protocol)-based network. Voice is simply another application layered on top of the network, enabling organizations to manage one network instead of two,” explained Angeline Mullinix, mindSHIFT Technologies VoIP product manager.

“This provides firms with the benefit of consolidation and easier management. It also decreases operating costs associated with the voice network and frees up valuable IT or telecom resources,” added Mullinix. This cost reduction realization, in addition to the benefits of increased functionality and improved productivity and mobility are commonly targeted as the three key motivating factors that ultimately lead businesses to move to VoIP.

VOIP makes easy some things that are difficult to impossible with traditional phone networks. Standard features include call forwarding, hold and transfer and three-way conferencing. Advanced features include:

Simultaneous ring, enabling one incoming call to ring multiple phones simultaneously;

Selective and remote call forwarding;

Unified messaging, enabling users to receive and listen to voicemail in their e-mail inbox via a .wav file;

User self-service, enabling users to control various features and functionality either from a Web browser or by telephone; and

Click-to-dial, enabling automatic dialing when users click on a phone number in their e-mail, on a Web page, or in LDAP directories.

The predominant tools that law firm employees use every day are e-mail and their phones. VoIP solutions integrate these tools to make employees more productive. When users get a voicemail in their VoIP mailboxes, they also receive an e-mail in their Outlook inboxes with the voicemail attached as a .wav file. They can then save, delete, organize and manage voicemails in the same way they manage their e-mail.

VoIP is also a great time-saver and productivity tool for your firm’s road warriors. It can enable your employees to connect anywhere in the world and appear as though they never left the office. You can forward calls to your cell phone or other landline, allow your desk and cell phone to ring simultaneously or sequentially with the same incoming call, and receive calls transferred from anyone in the office to your VoIP phone, cell phone, or landline no matter where you are.

Many organizations find that the cost for a managed VoIP network can be significantly less than a traditional PBX environment. VoIP providers offer flat-fee telephony plans that include local phone calls as well as domestic long distance.

If your firm has multiple offices, VoIP typically provides cost savings because expensive PBX systems don’t have to be set up at each location. There are also some cost savings due to using a single network to carry voice and data. This is especially true if you have existing under-utilized network capacity that you can use for VOIP without any additional costs, or if you’re expanding to new offices and don’t have to wire multiple networks.

“The benefits over a traditional phone solution are numerous and have made a difference for many businesses. The question is not if we all move to VoIP, but when,” said Mullinix.

VoIP is a proven technology that is here to stay. So what are the key factors to consider when evaluating and choosing a VoIP provider? Learn about the key selection criteria for your firm’s VoIP system, and ensure that the provider you choose will be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of your growing firm in the Sept. 26 column, “A Buyer’s Guide to VoIP.”

EDWARD J. GRUBB is president and cofounder of Network Alternatives Inc. (NAI). He has more than 20 years of experience in law office computing. NAI is a nationally recognized provider of full-service, cost-effective and reliable technology solutions for law firms and other professional services organizations. NAI provides solutions that are distinctively tailored to meet its clients’ needs and include: application hosting, document management, file management, consulting, network integration and customer support. Contact Grubb at[email protected].

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