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Steven J. Best practiced law for about 11 years before he was bitten by the office automation bug. “I found I was more interested in automating my practice than in practicing law,” Best said. So he started a part-time business, Best Law Firm Solutions in Atlanta, to help other attorneys automate. Two years ago, he made the jump to full-time consulting and now heads a four-person office. Best offers some advice for lawyers who are considering office automation: Q: Why should a lawyer consider automation? A: There’s an old adage in law school. The professors used to say, “Look to your left and look to your right — one of you isn’t going to make it through law school.” The competition who automates will be able to access information faster, and — as a result — handle more cases and make more money. Technology and automation is an investment in the future of your law firm. Q: What kind of automation processes should an attorney be considering? A: There are a number of different types of products that lawyers can look at to make their practice more productive. The bottom line is being able to access information faster and take that information that you access and turn it into dollars. Types of software we recommend that lawyers look at typically are computerized time and billing software and good word processing software. … Then, consider things like good e-mail programs, high-speed Internet access and an online legal research service. Of course, I always recommend any lawyer in any type of practice use a case-management system. And it’s vital to have a good working backup system. In the event something crashes — and unfortunately we’re all subject to that — you can put yourself back to where you were 24 hours ago. I can’t tell you how many offices I walk into that have no backup system whatsoever. Q: What is step one? A: The key factor is to take time to do the research, just as if you were researching a case. There are a lot of online resources. Cnet.com, ZDnet.com, Law.com. [Law.com is an affiliate of the Fulton County Daily Report.] There are magazines that lawyers can look to — Law Technology News [a publication of American Lawyer Media, and an affiliate of law.com], Law Office Computing — all of these publications and Internet sites will help lawyers make the right choices on things like hardware, networking, software, etc. The problem becomes, who has the time to do all that research? It’s vital to find a good law office technology consultant to help you make those choices. Even though you’ll pay for those services, what you’ll get in return is someone who brings you the best of the best. … Clients can go into court and represent themselves. But they don’t. … By the same token, if you look to a good legal technology consultant, it’s the same thing. Q: How much does a consultant cost? A: You get what you pay for. On average, a consultant in the Atlanta area charges somewhere between $100 to $140 per hour. If you’re in that range, then most likely you have someone who’s good. You might have someone who charges $175 per hour who’s the best of the best or someone who charges $90 who’s good. You should ask for references and be sure that you’re working with someone who can do everything he or she says they can do. It’s very much like shopping for a doctor, lawyer or accountant — get recommendations. Q: What are the biggest mistakes you see? A: A lot of people who jumped on the automation train are miserable. Not only do you have to budget for the product, but you have to budget to learn how to use it. [Without training] you can buy the best software, with all the bells and whistles, and won’t use 10 percent of the product. … [The smart bet is] jumping on the automation train slowly. Q: What’s the biggest barrier to automation for attorneys? A: The up-front cost. Q: How much should a firm budget for automation? A: The price really depends on the product that they are purchasing. Case-management software, for instance, a three-person firm with one lawyer … should probably budget $2,000 to $3,000 up front, for installation, customization and training. A product off the shelf is $299 to $499, but you need to budget [an average of] three to four times that for initial training and customization. And budget for ongoing training. Don’t be in a rush, and don’t force the staff to rush. Q: How long after installation before an automation product really starts to help a firm? A: I call that “the valley of despair.” You’re at a certain level of productivity at your firm and want to go to another level. But first you have to go through this valley of despair to get there. The only way to shorten time is through training. Many firms called us in two to three years later — they never got [a program] up and running properly. I tell firms to expect to be in that valley for 30 to 60 days. I have other firms up and running in a week. But on average it’s 30 days. Lawyers — because their schedules are so hectic and busy — don’t have time to sit in and learn. But you have to budget some time every day to really learn this stuff. Dana Dratch is a free-lance writer in Atlanta.

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