Small Firm, Big Lawyers...the advantage of smaller firms

By Jay Sheppard:

Like many of you on the East Coast, I've been spending my Sunday without power, thanks to Hurricane Irene. As I write this Sunday night, we're in our eighth hour without electricity. Thankfully, other than losing some small branches and a bunch of leaves, we fared pretty well in what was left of the tropical storm. And the Red Sox swept their storm-related Saturday doubleheader, so there's that.

But without electricity, I'm writing this post by candlelight and quill pen. OK, not really. Candlelight and iPad. But consider that I'm sacrificing one of my ten hours of iPad juice for this instead of beating my kids at Cut the Rope, or whatever. I know: you can thank me later.

Actually, losing power got me thinking about just how much I rely on electricity and computers and iPads and iPhones, and also how much that reliance has increased since I started law school, 20 years ago this week. And over the years, I came to appreciate just how much technology has allowed small firms to compete with our Biglaw colleagues.

What are the five biggest ways that technology has empowered (if you will) small firms?

1. Access to better operating systems.

Most law firms are using Windows XP as their main operating system. Some people might even tell you that they like it, although you really gotta wonder about their sanity. To be sure, it's less buggy and more stable than Windows Vista or even Windows 7. But Windows XP was launched ten years ago last week. Seriously? You're using an operating system from that was developed during the Clinton Administration? So many law firms love to tell people on their websites how innovative they are, yet they use absurdly outdated techonology like a ten-year-old operating system.

Blog writing the way Oliver Wendell Holmes used to do.

In contrast, small law firms don't have anti-Apple IT departments, and so might actually consider getting a modern computer system. My current operating system, Mac OS Lion, came out last month, not a decade ago. But don't worry: Lion's features and benefits will probably show up in Windows 10 or 11, and at your Biglaw firm about a decade after that.

But it's not just a Mac thing. A small firm is also more likely to have Windows Vista than a big firm is. Likewise, small-firm lawyers have a better chance of carrying the latest iPhone or Android device, while their Biglaw counterparts are still lugging around their 2002-ish BlackBerries.

2. Small firms can get technology faster.

Because of their size, smaller firms generally don't have dedicated IT departments. For the first eight years of my firm's life, I was the IT department. Fortunately, I knew enough to be able to navigate through the basics of a small firm's computing needs. When we had grown to a certain point and it finally became necessary to get more-sophisticated help, I was able to hire a part-time IT consultant with plenty of small-firm experience to step in and be our firm's IT department.

One result of this is that it allows small firms to make technology decisions on a much-faster basis. For example, in 2003, my team and I were able to remotely access all my firm's computer files without difficulty. By contrast, many large firms did not have this ability for several more years, or at least did not have it available to their associates. I always got a kick from the idea that a tiny law firm like mine could pull up files from anywhere in the world, while my Biglaw competitors would have to send a messenger with a thumb drive. Or a laptop. Or a fax.

3. Technology removes the size advantage.

At the beginning of my legal career (also at a small boutique), larger firms had a real advantage over us because of their size. They could throw countless associates and paralegals and other staff members at a problem, while we were stuck dividing up the work among five lawyers and a single assistant. Back then, that type of disparity in resources could make a difference in the outcome of a case or the ability to get hired for an engagement.

Not anymore. Technology has evened the playing field in many areas. Never once did I feel that my small firm would have difficulty competing with Biglaw firms based on size. Over the years, because of our noncompete-litigation practice (where both sides usually hired management lawyers), we went up against five of the Am Law 100 firms and had victories against each one. The ability to use technology to search for precedent, or analyze boxes of documents, or whip out a brief with a few hours' notice - all these things that technology enabled us to do removed the competitive advantage that larger firms used to have over us. Sure, there are some practice areas where you really do need a larger firm, but not nearly as many as before.

4. Small firms benefit more from social media.

As a small-firm lawyer, I was able to use social media to build, strengthen, and leverage my firm's brand. Since 2006, I've been able to establish a presence on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and three different blogs (including this one). Most individual Biglaw lawyers have not been free to do that. To be sure, their large firms already have a well-established brand, and that's great. But the individual lawyers who work there generally don't have the same ability to make names for themselves, and many firms have restrictive policies on the use of social media. Even the firms who have dipped their toes in Twitter and blogs have done so primarily by repackaging generic newsletter pieces and dense client alerts.

5. Technology impresses clients.

This last reason can be written off as superficial, but I think there's something to it. I've seen clients' faces light up when I've used the latest technology. A few weeks after the iPhone was introduced in 2007, I bought one for each of member of my firm's team. This helped clients think of us as early adopters of technology, and I believe gave them more confidence in us.

When the iPad came out last year, I made a point of using it in depositions. I uploaded all of the written-discovery documents into my GoodReader app. Then, instead of referring the deponent to the typical stack of photocopied documents, I'd flick and pinch on the iPad screen to pull up the bookmarked documents, then ask him, "Is this your signature?" while I highlighted it on the glass. Yes, I was showing off, and it wasn't necessarily any more effective than the stack of photocopies. But it was potentially intimidating to the witness, and more importantly, it showed our client (one of the world's largest banks) that we were on the cutting edge. And that gave them comfort.

Using advanced technology is a fairly simple way to give your small firm an edge over your larger competitors. If you're not as geeky as some (like I am), do some homework or go to a tech-related CLE or two. Technology can help make your small firm more powerful.

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