Let’s talk about some time-saving legal tech

The pandemic brought a lot of lawyers into the world of legal technology. Here’s a set of recommendations for integrating more tech and freeing up more time in ’22.

By Todd C. Scott   


Time, time, time, see what’s become of me, While I looked around for my possibilities. – Paul Simon, Hazy Shade of Winter

There’s no time like the start of a new year to think about whether you could be getting things done more quickly by embracing some of the latest tools now emerging for lawyers. Attorneys are entering an era in which the tools and processes we use for the practice of law are changing in fundamental ways—hastened by social distancing, the desire to work from remote locations, and the emergence of hybrid law offices where you and your colleagues may be working from farther away. 

As an attorney in private practice, if you did not already have up-to-date technology systems when covid struck in 2020, chances are you began pursuing them hastily. Topping the list of systems attorneys embraced in 2020: 

  • cloud-based, remote audio-visual systems for communicating in real time with legal colleagues and clients;
  • cloud-based document production tools for creating and sharing electronic copies of documents—including electronic signature tools for obtaining remote, electronic signatures; and 
  • cloud-based data storage tools and mobile hardware tools for the creation of a safe virtual law office environment. 

For legal professionals, the great leap forward into advanced cloud-based systems was long overdue. In 2020, the state of law office technology advanced about 10 years in less than 10 months. And not a moment too soon, since research indicates that consumers have embraced technology much more since the pandemic began. Consider the following data from “COVID-19’s Impact on the Legal Industry,” a recent study published by Themis Solutions, the makers of Clio

  • 58 percent of consumers said that technology is more important to them now than before the coronavirus pandemic.
  • 50 percent of consumers say they are more comfortable with technology now than before the coronavirus pandemic.
  • 52 percent of consumers say they use more types of technology tools now than before the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawyers responding to the Clio survey also reported that they plan to continue using technology after the pandemic in several ways:

  • storing firm data in the cloud (96 percent);
  • supporting electronic documents and e-signatures (95 percent);
  • accepting electronic payments (96 percent);
  • using practice management software (96 percent); and
  • meeting clients through videoconferencing (83 percent).

The lasting changes to the legal profession brought about by the pandemic may also influence changes aimed at improving efficiency and accessibility in the judiciary. Any added efficiencies to the judiciary may impact the widespread concern for access to justice and the overall affordability of legal services. 

So how can lawyers take advantage of the solutions that are changing the practice of law to create more time savings in their day-to-day practice? The time-saving solutions identified here focus on the core systems attorneys and their staff have relied on for decades to provide legal services in a timely fashion. Perhaps the greatest opportunity for time-saving tech solutions in your law practice lies in the long-standing methods and processes used to produce, send, store, and save documents in the firm. Client expectations about communication have changed along with their growing reliance on tech, providing lawyers an opportunity to rethink how their lobby should look if their clients will only be visiting them online. 

Here are some key possibilities to consider in thinking about time-saving technology for your practice. 

No more intermediaries: Client portals for quick, secure collaboration

In an era when attorneys have advanced their personal and professional technology by leaps and bounds, perhaps the most significant technology for improving firm efficiency is just now emerging. Client portals may be the most significant advancement of our time in how attorneys and clients collaborate to conduct business, and the attorney universe has only recently begun to embrace it. 

A client portal allows clients to have access to their personal and secure file space on your firm website. Chances are you are already using client portals when you log into your health care provider and gain access to information that is personal to you, such as test results. Client portals are also valuable for communicating privately with clients to share large documents. CPAs and tax preparers routinely use client portals to share packages of forms prepared exclusively for their clients, and so should attorneys. 

There are many good reasons lawyers should be embracing portals. Clients enjoy having one secure, accessible-from-anywhere spot where they can find all the documents related to their legal matter online. Client portals bring peace of mind for both attorneys and clients when sharing documents and communicating with each other. 

Top-level security is perhaps the most significant reason why lawyers should now be embracing client portals. Improved client service is another.  Portal technology maintains client documents on encrypted web servers, where only persons with login credentials can gain access to the information. Additionally, both the attorney and client can be notified by email if information has been added or exchanged in the portal, so you will always be alerted when your client responds to your most recent request to review documents.

Don’t worry if all of this sounds too futuristic—client portals are actually quite easy to use. It involves the same technology that you may already be using when you save a legal document on a cloud-based platform. There are a few different ways client portals can become available to you, and you may already own the tools to make it work for your firm.

Web developer portals 

The advanced portals you may already be accustomed to using—through online banking, health care providers, and CPAs—are typically designed and integrated into a firm’s website by a custom website developer. The cost for hiring a developer to do the job can range from $5,000 to $50,000; the cost factors include the features, design of the website, and efficiency of the developer. Don’t let the price of this portal option scare you off, especially if you are already working with a website developer who makes changes to the website used by your firm. Many website developers have templates and packages that can quickly and easily add a client login portal to the site you already have at a reasonable price. If your business plan calls for big changes in the way your firm and your clients collaborate during their legal matter, hiring a web developer to tailor a client portal to your firm’s needs is your best bet. 

Client portal software

Out-of-the-box client portal software services are an easy and affordable option if your small firm wants a simplified and secure way to exchange documents and information with clients. Added features to read an invoice or pay their bill are available through integration with other products you may already be using such as QuickBooks Online, DocuSign, Hubdoc, or any software tools from the Microsoft Office Suite. Popular out-of-the-box client portals include Suitedash, Huddle, and SmartVault. These tools are all cloud-based subscription services and range between $19 and $99 per month. 

Case management portals

If you are already using a cloud-based case management solution for managing client information, documents, and calendaring tools, chances are you already have a cloud-based portal at your fingertips. Some of the most popular cloud-based case management tools (like Clio, PracticePanther, MyCase, CosmoLex, Smokeball, ProLaw, and Rocket Matter) include client portals. Clio is the most widely used case management tool for lawyers in North America and its Clio for Clients (formerly known as Clio Connect) comes with each Clio subscription. The features allow Clio license holders to share and exchange client documents and information in a secure web environment. Clio for Co-Counsel allows attorneys to easily share matter information from your legal practice management software (notes, communications, contact information, and more) with co-counsel.

“A lawyer’s time and advice, and his or her digitized form templates, are their stock in trade.” —Abraham Lincoln 

No more paper. Embrace the cloud. 

Lincoln may not actually have mentioned digitized form templates and cloud-based file storage in his advice about good lawyering, but if he were around now he surely would agree that digitizing documents and storing them in the cloud is no longer aspirational, but necessary for efficiently saving, storing, securing, and transferring client data. 

There are three goals for creating, storing, and transferring your digital documents and templates that will take you into the stratosphere for efficient and time-saving lawyering. It’s likely that you have already accomplished the first goal, which is to save and store your digital documents in a safe, cloud-based online environment supported by a reputable vender. Two more tasks—converting frequently used documents to digital form templates and mastering the tools that allow you to obtain electronic signatures—are the next steps in your ascent toward digital document paradise. 

Document cloud storage

Cloud services for storing legal documents are the safest way to protect your client’s information from theft, loss, or accidental destruction, so long as your cloud-based vendor offers standard security features. Use a cloud service that encrypts your files both in the cloud and on your computer. Encryption ensures that service providers and their administrators, as well as third parties, do not have access to your private information. Attorneys have a significant obligation to protect the confidential information within their clients’ documents, so it is critical that you review the user agreements for any cloud-based vendor to ensure that your document files will always remain encrypted, and that your firm retains exclusive ownership of the information uploaded to the file storage service. 

Microsoft OneDrive raised industry standards for delivering and storing documents safely in the cloud by introducing standard encryption while the document is en route and at rest. Safe document storage also became much more affordable when OneDrive added a free terabyte of cloud-based document storage for purchasers of the Microsoft Office Suite products or any popular Microsoft document production tool, such as Microsoft’s Surface Pro. 

Digital form templates

Your most frequently used documents can be converted to digital form templates using several different popular document production tools. Microsoft has always offered the ability to add merge fields to any document created with MS Word—but digital form templates are best if they are created within the tool that will be merging data with the form. For Clio users, that means investing in Clio Grow

Clio Grow is a tool available in the Clio Suite that adds to the data-merging features and functionality of Clio. Clio Grow helps you manage your client data for client relationship management, client intake procedures, workflow automation, and reporting and data insights. It is also a tremendous document automation and e-signature tool. 

There are two types of custom form templates that can be created using Clio Grow: text templates for creating forms in Word documents and SMS text formats, or PDF templates. A text editor template allows you to build a custom template simply by filling in the basic form content through typing or pasting the form information that will appear in all versions of the document. After that, you replace the specific contact and matter details in the text, and any other variables within the document, using the appropriate merge fields available in your form builder tool—such as client name, address, etc. Once the template is saved, it becomes a permanent part of your document template library and can be used for creating form documents that are finalized in MS Word or SMS text. 

A PDF template editor creates form with fields in Clio Grow by uploading a PDF document and overlaying certain fields directly onto the document. PDF document templates are most commonly used for standardized legal documents like government filing forms. When putting these templates together, you will be asked to select which type of data fields you need to build the custom field template. After that, building the custom template involves dragging and dropping the custom fields, including signature fields, into the document. Once you choose to save the custom document template created from a PDF file, it will be added to your list of custom document templates for later use in any matter. 

Adobe Acrobat Pro is still one of the best tools for creating fillable PDF form templates. The Adobe tool will create form templates from practically any file format, including .docx, .xlsx, .txt, and of course, .pdf. Adobe Acrobat Pro creates form templates in a manner similar to Clio Grow: by uploading your document, selecting form fields from a list on the toolbar, and clicking on the document where you want to add the field. You can drag the form field box to make it any size to fit your form document. 

e-Signature tools 

A new solution for finalizing contracts has been making its way through state government agencies throughout the U.S., adding warp-like speed to the notoriously glacial contract approval process historically found in state agencies. Beginning with a few receptive outside vendors, these agencies introduced e-signatures using e-Sign Live, a software application making inroads in the government approval process. The result has been a greatly shortened contract approval process in state agencies throughout the U.S. (including Vermont, which reported a government approval process reduced by at least 75 percent). In some cases, contracts are finalized within two business days.

There has never been a better time for attorneys to make e-signature tools a regular part of their document-production process. When the great migration of attorneys working from home began in spring 2020, there were few processes that required a lawyer to intervene manually when engaged in document production. You don’t need envelopes, postage meters, or high-end laser jet printers if the documents you produce from a home office are simply going to be sent to colleagues or clients through an electronic delivery process. But that smooth transition to a home office grinds to a sudden halt if the document requires the signatures of others who are likely working from their own home offices throughout Gopher Country. 

Adobe Sign is one of the best e-signature tools and it’s as easy to use as sending an email. The process starts by opening Adobe Sign, entering the client’s email address, and selecting the document that you would like to send. If the document does not already have a signature field in it, you simply drag and drop fields into the document to be signed at the places that require a signature. Then save it and send it. The signer gets an email that quickly walks them through the steps needed to complete and sign the form. And signing is as simple as a finger on a phone or a tablet—or, if the signer prefers, a typed signature in the appropriate form field. When the signer is done, both you and the signer will get a secured PDF copy of the signed document. 

The features in Adobe Sign allow you to track a document in real time, so you know when the document is viewed and when it is signed. To ensure that only the intended recipient receives the document for signature, there are security features like identity verification and passwords to protect the file. There are also options that allow a sender who needs multiple signatures to control the sequence in which the recipients are able to sign. For example, person B would not have the ability to sign the document until person A has successfully completed their electronic signature. 

No more notebooks: Microsoft OneNote for organizing everything 

For lawyers who may be looking to organize some of the chaos in their computers, and use a lot less paper in their day-to-day processes, OneNote by Microsoft may be the software tool that you have been looking for. For this author, it was the single new software tool that brought by far the most value to my transition to a home office, and it had been in my Microsoft Office Productivity Suite for years. 

Microsoft describes OneNote as “your digital notebook,” and if you use it to its full potential, you may never have to create a file folder or notebook again. OneNote organizes all your digital information the way lawyers once used notebooks or binders with tabs, sections, and pages. The idea is to create digital workbooks for any project—or, more likely, client matter—you have, adding sections for each of the major tasks within the project. The pages within each section can hold any digital information: letters, notes, emails, texts, images, audio files, video files, PDFs, spreadsheets—literally anything you can copy and paste can be inserted into the pages of your workbooks as a link or as visible text or images. 

The most typical way for lawyers to use OneNote is to create a workbook for each client matter or project, and then create sections in each notebook the way you would organize the subfolders within each client file. For example, a OneNote workbook may be titled “SMITH.JOH.21-01,” representing the first file you’ve created for your client John Smith in 2021. The sections within the file may be labeled “Notes,” “Pleadings,” “Correspondence,” “Transcripts,” “Invoices,” or just about any other task area associated with the client matter. Your notes and correspondence sections are likely to fill up quickly with copies of emails and texts related to the file, but you can add an unlimited number of pages in each section just by clicking the “+ Add page” button while you build the digital files. 

A couple of tips if you decide to start using OneNote to organize your work computer:

  • Color-code your workbooks the way you would your work files, reserving some colors for client matters and others for additional operational, educational, and personal matters. 
  • Use the search tool in OneNote to find any information that may be hiding on any page in any workbook. The search tool will allow you to use a search term for finding information in any document or note within any workbook.
  • OneNote is ideal for saving video files and audio files directly in the workbooks related to your client matters. For example, if you conduct an initial client interview via Zoom and you recorded the interview, simply drag the video file into the client workbook in the appropriate workbook section and you’ll always know where to find it. 
  • If you have a touch screen tablet with a stylus pen, such as the Microsoft Surface Pro, your handwritten notes can go directly into the client matter workbook in OneNote. While in a client interview you can click the “Insert Audio” option and your device will start to make an audio recording of the event while you are entering handwritten notes using your stylus pen. 
  • OneNote also comes with a fairly accurate dictation feature that allows you to dictate notes directly into any page of any workbook. 

Do you need OneNote if you already use case management software for client matters? The answer depends on how you are currently using your case management software. You may want to consider using OneNote in addition to your case management software if you have been looking for a way to organize office information not directly related to your client matters, such as vendor files, lease agreements, employee contracts, and personal files. 

One last thing to keep in mind. In recent years there have been a few variations in OneNote’s user interface, as it came in different versions (OneNote for Office 365, OneNote 2016, and OneNote for Windows 10). Fortunately, Microsoft has begun phasing out previous versions of the software for the one with the best, most intuitive user-interface: OneNote for Windows 10, which is pre-installed on all Windows 10 devices or available as a free download from the Microsoft Store. 

TODD C. SCOTT, VP of risk management at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Company, has been a law practice management advisor for over 20 years. For more information on law office technology systems or any other practice management matter, please get in touch by email: tscott@mlmins.com