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My top free tools for law firms and other small businesses

Carolyn Elefant recently provided her list of free tools for starting a law firm. In this same spirit, I would like to present my list of top tools, all of which I’ve used at various times myself.

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Carolyn Elefant recently provided her list of free tools for starting a law firm. In this same spirit, I would like to present my list of top tools, all of which I’ve used at various times myself. (Some of these echo her recommendations.) Before I do that, let me quote from her blog:

Though I don’t believe that it’s necessarily prudent or always cost-effective to run a law firm on freebies alone, free services, when used appropriately can give lawyers a wide range of capabilities that once would have been cost prohibitive.  And of course, don’t forget that yet another free tool for starting a law firm is MyShingle!

via Some Free Tools for Starting A Law Firm : My Shingle.

Before proceeding, let me remind anyone with confidential client information to be particularly careful, as you do not want to let an accidental slip-up reveal such details to the entire Web. (And there’s an open debate on whether it’s a good idea for attorneys to keep confidential information on 3rd-party servers, so think about that before doing it. I think it’s fine, personally, but you should think about the issues first.)

First, before we move on to tools to manage your business, you might want to consider alternatives to the very expensive Lexis and Westlaw. One new choice is Google Scholar, which has added case law to its index. I’ve written about some other choices before, along with more inexpensive alternatives,  including:

  • Your local law library, where research is generally free
  • FindLaw, a free case law database
  • Fastcase, a reasonably priced legal research service (not free)

Once you can do research, you’ll need clients. In addition to the usual (paid) approaches, consider establishing your presence on Twitter, connecting to others on LinkedIn, and networking with your old classmates on Facebook.

Of course, once you have clients, you will need to keep track of them, along with your projects. You’ll also need to bill them. For this, I recommend either Cashboard (“time tracking, expenses, invoicing, estimates, and online payments done your way”) or FreshBooks (“Send, track and collect payments quickly. Great for teams, freelancers and service providers”). Both interface with Basecamp (below) to provide effective invoicing and billing. I have used both Cashboard and FreshBooks, and both are excellent choices.

Although you may be small, or may not even have more than token office space, you may want or need to work with a team — whether that’s collaborating with a virtual paralegal or a law student intern, or with a more specialized attorney. For this, take a hint from professional Web developers, and consider 37signals’ Basecamp. It lets you share files, meet deadlines, assign tasks, and centralize feedback.

Microsoft Exchange may cost much more than you can afford — and it certainly is more complex than you need. But you still need what it provides, especially email and calendaring. Throw in Web-based document editing and collaboration tools which are quite capable of replacing Microsoft Word for most document preparation tasks, and you have a winning combination in Google Apps. Basic services are free, but you may wish to upgrade to a paid business account for guaranteed service-level agreements and support.

You’re going to need to manage your telephone presence. Google Voice can help give you a central number for all your clients, and even transcribes your voicemails to text — all for free. (Consider VoIP services and Internet fax services to save money, too. One nice tip: Box.net, mentioned below, allows you to send faxes via efax.com for free.)

You’ll need a Web presence, too. While you can certainly use free blogging services like WordPress.com or Blogger (both recommended), you’ll probably want to buy a custom domain so you look more professional.

I highly recommend backing up your documents off site. Mozy is one nice choice — there’s a free intro plan, and paid plans if you need more space or service. Box.net is a good storage space if you need to collaborate or share files. Additionally, Dropbox provides simple cross-platform synching, so your laptop (which you’ve encrypted, right?) and your desktop files stay up to date.

All of the above provide fine services when you are starting out, and can grow as you grow. Just remember not to be cheap when it really counts — once you have some income coming in, I recommend an upgrade to the paid versions of these services to get full and professional support.