All posts by Manuel Lamiroy

Google My Business for Law Firms

In an online world, legal consumers need to be able to find your law firm. Google My Business (GMB) plays an essential – and often overlooked – part in that.

What is it? GMB is a free online listing in Google’s business directory. It is available for businesses and organizations to manage across Google’s services like Search and Maps. What is important is that Google uses GMB listings in the local search results it presents. A well-organized entry in GMB therefore results in a better ranking in Google’s local organic search results, making it easier for people to find your firm. (‘Organic’ search results are the ones that are not paid for).

GMB offers other benefits as well. It allows you to manage your own information: you can specify areas of expertise, address, opening hours, your website and how you can be contacted. GMB also offers you several ways to interact with your target audience (see the overview of features below). Lastly, GMB offers metrics, called insights that allow you to better understand and expand your online presence (see below).

Google My Business offers several useful features.

Messages: people can use GMB to leave you private messages that you can reply to.

Questions and Answers are similar to messages, except that they are public, so people can see them in the ‘Knowledge panel’ of your law firm. (The knowledge panel offers a summary of your GMB listing and is what is shown in the local search results).

Posts are short announcements you make that have a limited life span. You can use them, e.g., for promotions, or to wish people a happy new year, to announce days with different opening hours, to announce new staff, etc.

Bookings allow people to directly make an appointment with your law firm.

A GMB listing also offers Reviews from your clients. Google has de facto become the largest review site.

Insights is the name Google gave to the metrics it provides with regard to your GMB listing. You can discover how people found your firm (e.g. what key words they used), where they came from, how many people directly clicked on the link to your website, or on the telephone link, etc.

So, how do you start using your GMB listing? Stacey Burke describes the process in four steps: claim the listing, have Google verify it, optimize it, and keep it active.

Step 1: Claim your listing. To be eligible for a GMB listing, you must be able to meet clients in person, either at your law firm’s physical address, or at their premises. If you haven’t claimed your listing yet, perform a search on your law firm’s name and address. If a knowledge panel appears with information on your law firm, it is already listed. If there is no knowledge panel (area in the rectangle) then you will want to create a listing following these steps from Google. To claim the listing, you will need a Google account.

Step 2: Verify your listing. To make sure not just anybody claims your law firm listing, Google will have to verify it first. This step is required in order for your law firm’s listing to be eligible to appear on Maps, Search, and other Google properties. Once you’re verified, it also means Google deems your law firm a legitimate business, providing third party verification of your company’s credibility when people search for your law firm online. To verify your listing, sign into your Google My Business account where you will see a “Verify Now” option. As part of the verification process, Google will contact your business to ensure your contact information is correct and legitimate.

Step 3. Optimize your listing. Once you’ve claimed your listing, you want to optimize it for the best search engine results. First, you have to add the basic information like the name of your firm, the phone number and other contact modalities, as well as the business category and location, the service area (=geographical area your law firm mainly serves), and opening hours. Optimizing your listing is an art in itself, and these two articles will greatly assist you in the process.

 

Step 4. Keep your listing active. In its search results, Google tends to favour law firm that remain active: make posts (e.g. to announce blog posts), answer questions, make sure to get reviews and respond to them, etc. Burke recommends checking your GMB listing once or twice a week.

 

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The Legal Technology Trends of 2019, part 2

In November, the American Bar Association (ABA) published its annual Legal Technology Survey Report. The report typically is accompanied by a series of detailed reports on specific subjects, that are published over a period of several weeks. In a previous article we dealt with the first three of those reports. In this article, we’ll have a look at the next five, which deal with practice management, budgeting and planning, technology training, solo and small firms. A ninth report was published on lawyer well-being, but it largely repeats items raised in the other reports.

Firm Culture

When it comes to demographics, the report found that the majority of respondents, no less than 71%, were male, although the gender gap decreased as age decreased. 33% of respondents was between 60-69, while less than 2% were under 29 years old; 21% were in their 50s.

With the exception of solo lawyers, the vast majority of lawyers still mainly work from a traditional office space. 34% of solo lawyers work from home. Overall, the profession keeps flexible working hours (offered by 77% of law firms) and mobile: roughly 50% of lawyers have telecommuted. 88% of those who telecommute work from home.

The report also found that there is a large and continuing gap between what the larger firms offer in terms of amenities, cyber protection, and training and what smaller firms offer.

Overall, lawyers are still working too hard, and continue to not acknowledge the strain this puts on their mental health.

Practice Management

Law Technology Today summarizes the following key points regarding the survey’s findings on practice management solutions.

Usage and satisfaction of Practice Management software: while the rest of the world increasingly relies more and more on technology, the legal profession hasn’t really followed suit. The use of practice management software has been more or less stagnant for the last four years. The majority of users of these packages remains satisfied with their usage.

Need for improvement and all-inclusiveness: one of the main problems with practice management software is that most of them are still only offering partial solutions. There isn’t any program that handle every aspect of law firm management. As a result, law firms typically must rely on several programs, where their interoperability leaves much to be desired.

Rise of CRM as an alternative: as a result of the limitations of existing practice management software, there has been an increase in the usage of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions in law firms.

Shifts in the Use of Laptops, Computers, and Mobile Devices: 57% of lawyers still use a desktop computer as their primary work computer. This confirms the downward trend of the last years and corresponds to the increase in the use of laptops as the main work computer, which now stands at 41%. This shift towards laptop computers can be seen mainly in large firms, followed by medium sized firms. For small firms the increase in laptop usage was limited to a 1% increase (to 35%), and for solo lawyers, the number remained the same at 40%.

The Continuing Increase of Remote Access: one of the main findings of the report is that lawyers are increasingly using remote access, with 73% of lawyers using telecommuting technologies in 2019, compared to 68% last year. These are mainly used to occasionally work from home.

Consistency of Fee Structures and the Adoption of New Technology: there was little change in how law firms charge. Most law firms, 69%, are still using hourly fees. Fixed fees saw a slight increase from 15 to 17%, which came at the expense of contingent fees which fell from 11 to 9%. Other fee structures remained the same.

Budgeting and Planning

There is some good news when it comes to budgeting and planning: in 2019, the law firms that have a budget for technology slightly increased their spending. Solo firms spent about the same as last year, and have no intention of spending more next year, where all other firms that have a budget intend to increase it for next year.

The report also advises to consider budgeting for technology training (see below), and to start using metrics to measure technology usage and the track what is working and what isn’t. “Plan well, spend wisely, and prioritize accordingly; technology is and will remain an essential part of running a law firm.” (Law Technology Today)

Technology Training

In 2019, lawyers need technology to efficiently run their practice. In fact, by now most bar associations require lawyers to be familiar with “the risks and benefits associated with technology”. To be able to use that technology effectively, training is essential. A majority of 82% of lawyers understand that technology training is important. The bad news is that in 2019, fewer attorneys had access to technology training at their law firms. Barely more than half of the attorney respondents to the survey had technology training available at their firms. The chance of having training available at the firm rises with the size of the firm, as was the case in previous years. Interestingly, the report also warns that solo lawyers may be overestimating their technology competence and underestimating their need for training.

Solo and Small Firms

Solo and small firms (with 2 to 9 attorneys) still form the majority of law firms: with 32% and 31% respectively, they’re good for 63% of law firms. When looking at the ages of the lawyers, the largest (10-year) segment consists of lawyers between 60-69.

The survey found that technology adoption among solo and small firms appears to be stagnant or declining. The only exception is the use of practice management software, which slightly more solo and small firms are using in 2019 than before. As mentioned before, rather alarmingly, less than 50% of solo and small law firms use file and email encryption, file access restriction, intrusion prevention and detection, web filtering, whole or full desk encryption, or employee monitoring.

 

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The 2019 Social Law Firm Index

Good2bSocial (www.good2bsocial.com) recently published its annual ‘Social Law Firm Index.’ It is study of social media marketing adoption, use, and best practices within the legal industry. The Social Law Firm Index analyses each firm’s presence on the internet and across social media and evaluates their social usage to extend thought leadership content and to engage with clients and constituents. It measures social media reach, engagement, and marketing performance on platforms that include Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Based on this information, the report also publishes rankings of America’s Top 200 law firms for best social media achievement.

The report observed the following trends for 2019:

  • There is a notable rise in ‘Paid Social’, especially on LinkedIn. When you publish an article, your followers or connections can read the article. That is referred to as organic social or organic reach. Paid social is when you pay the platform to promote your content as ‘sponsored content’ on other people’s accounts. The amount of law firms that uses paid social tripled over the last year, from 10 to 30%. LinkedIn remains the most popular platform for lawyers to publish and promote their content.
  • There is a decrease in the use of Facebook, and an increase in the use of Instagram. This reflects a general trend that is not limited to law firms: younger users prefer Instagram to Facebook.
  • People use more videos and podcasts. Traditionally, law firms mainly use blogs. But to stay competitive on social media, video is now a required medium, and law firms are increasingly starting to use video. There also is an increase in podcasts. (Our recent article on podcasts explained the benefits).
  • Law Firms continue to invest in marketing automation. “With marketing automation, your law firm can utilize various tools [to] save time, free up bandwidth and ultimately improve ROI. Time-consuming processes can be replaced by a system that can automatically send out emails based on an email response or website visit. When firms combine content with marketing automation, they can analyze what their clients engage with and how. By knowing more about your client, you can deliver better customer service.” (Legal Newswire)

The report always selects the best performers, and based on their performance, distills the current best practices.

  • Measurement and ROI: the law firms that score well clearly identify their goals and develop clear metrics to evaluate how well different strategies work.
  • Think like a leader: “Most Law firms produce client-centric content that discusses pain points or issues that their clients are facing. They are also publishing content that provides added value to their existing clients. Thought leaders also produce content on a regular and frequent basis, written in an easy-to-digest and understandable style and length.”
  • Employee Engagement: legal consumers want to know the people who will represent their interests and use social media to learn about them. The best performing law firms are investing time and money to properly train their lawyers and employees on the use of social media and digital marketing. They also use specialized platforms that offer employee advocacy tools, like LinkedIn, Elevate, PostBeyond, and Clearview Social.
  • Automation: as was mentioned before, more and more law firms invest in automating their marketing efforts. Notable is the increase in law firms using chat bots on their websites to engage with new leads, 24/7.

The report traditionally also focuses on the worst performers. These are the mistakes you want to avoid.

  • Making marketing decisions without data: The majority of law firms don’t use any metrics to evaluate and improve their marketing efforts. (Confirming what this year’s ABA Tech Report called ‘random acts of marketing’).
  • Having home pages and practice area pages on your website that offer low content. One important criterion, e.g., is whether the page answers the searcher’s query. Avoid pages that are thin on content or merely copy content that can be found on other pages. Are you using the right key words that will attract potential clients? “In today’s marketplace, firms need more than just a sharply designed website—they also need to make sure that they’re using appropriate key terms, that they have content that is both useful and relevant, and that there is an organized and logical home page.”

The report expects the trends it identified (and mentioned in the first part of this article) to continue in 2020.

 

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The Legal Technology Trends of 2019, Part 1

Traditionally, towards the end of the calendar year, two reports are published that shed a light on the state of, and current trends in legal technology. The American Bar Association (ABA) publishes its annual Legal Technology Report (often referred to as the ABA Tech Report), while Clio also publishes an annual report on trends related to legal technology. These two reports differ greatly in scope: where the ABA report is comprehensive, the Clio report tends to focus on one specific aspect. Also noteworthy is that after the ABA publishes its full report, it always publishes a series of articles, focusing on a specific theme. For each of these, it offers a summary and analysis of the findings of the report. Those articles are published over several weeks. At the time of writing, six out of nine have been published. In this article, we’ll have a look at the Clio Report, and at the first three articles on the ABA Tech Report. Next month, when all the articles will have been published, we’ll have a look at the remaining six articles on the ABA Tech Report.

In this year’s legal trends report, Clio investigated how 1000 law firms responded to prospective new clients who asked them some questions, either by mail or by telephone. They chose five common topics, and then sent 1000 mails with related questions to law firms that deal with those topics. They also made 500 phone calls.

The surprising findings of the report clearly demonstrate that law firms struggle to adequately respond to client inquiries. An astonishing sixty percent of law firms did not respond to the emails at all, and twenty-seven percent of firms did not answer or return phone calls. As part of its investigation, Clio also surveyed 2000 legal consumers on what their expectations were when approaching a law firm with their legal issue. Based on how these expectations were met, they created a scorecard for each of the 1000 law firms. Only two of the 1,000 firms surveyed got an excellent rating when it came to replying to emails. Things were only slightly better for the telephone responses, where 20 firms — or 7 percent of the total — received an excellent rating. There clearly is a lot of work to be done.

Let us now continue with the ABA Tech Report and have a closer look on its findings with regard to cloud computing, security, and websites and marketing.

Cloud computing

As was to be expected, the number of lawyers that use cloud services is still growing, with 58% of lawyers replying they were doing so, compared to 55% in 2018. As was the case in previous years, solo and small law firms lead the way, with cloud adoption around 60%. But compared to the rest of the business world, lawyers are still slow to move to the cloud.

The most important finding regarding cloud usage by lawyers, however, was the lack of security measures taken by lawyers when working in the cloud. The report warns that the situation is reaching a crisis point, as there were significant drops in the use of very standard cybersecurity practices. “Although lawyers say that confidentiality, security, data control and ownership, ethics, vendor reputation and longevity, and other concerns weigh heavily on their minds, the employment of precautionary security measures is quite low, with no more than 35% (down from 38%) of respondents actually taking any one of the specific standard cautionary cybersecurity measures listed in the 2019 Survey question on the topic.” (Law Technology Today).

Security

Last year’s report concluded that ” All attorneys and law firms should have appropriate comprehensive, risk-based security programs that include appropriate safeguards, training, periodic review and updating, and constant security awareness.” The same still holds true in 2019. In some areas, progress has been made, but as the situation with cloud usage demonstrates, other areas still need a lot of work. Most law firms need to take extra steps in designing and implementing security solutions.

Some statistics:

  • 26% of law firms reported having experienced a security breach in the last year, while a staggering 19% didn’t know.
  • In 2019, 31% of law firms reported having an incident response plan, up from 25% in 2018.
  • When it comes to encryption, 44% of lawyers encrypt their files; 38% encrypt their mail, and 22% use full disk encryption.
  • 33% of lawyers have cyber liability insurance, compared to 34% in 2018.

Websites and marketing

When it comes to marketing, the report again found there is much room for improvement, especially for solo lawyers and small law firms. The survey revealed that most of them do not have a planned approach to marketing in general, are clueless about online marketing, and may instead be engaging in “random acts of marketing.” For many law firms, it is unclear who oversees marketing, who is making the decisions and why. Law Technology Today summarizes the findings as follows: “The 2019 Survey results show that law firms—and especially solos and small firms—have a long way to go. Unless they begin to develop marketing plans and budgets, establish an online presence and regularly analyze whether their firms are reaching their targets, they will continue to face increasing difficulty competing for business.”

Some statistics:

  • Only 47% of law firms have a marketing budget, with some considerable discrepancies depending on the size of the firm: 94% of large firms, 61% of medium-sized firms (10 to 49 lawyers), 21 % of small firms (2-9 lawyers), and 17% of solo lawyers.
  • 86% of law firms have a website: solo lawyers are again lagging behind, with only 57% of them having one, whereas over 90% of all the others have a website.
  • The number of law firms with a blog has remained stable since 2016 at 30%, with solo lawyers again staying behind at only 9%.
  • More lawyers than ever – about 80% – are using social media. LinkedIn is still the most used platform at 79%, followed by Facebook (54%), Martindale (38%), and Avvo (23%). Noteworthy is that the reported use of Facebook and Avvo has declined over the past year.

Next month, we will have a look at the other findings of the report.

 

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Podcasting for Lawyers

In previous articles, we’ve discovered that legal consumers have become online consumers. To attract these online consumers, lawyers have to be active online, and build a solid online reputation. To achieve this, the most common medium lawyers use, are blogs. But there are many other ways, too, to stand out from the crowd. These include podcasting, live video streaming, and, e.g., Instagram. So, in this article, we will have a look at podcasting for lawyers. And for what it’s worth, Pat Flynn called podcasting the #1 content platform.

What is a podcast? The easy explanation is that it is a type of on-demand radio that you can listen to online, on your phone, computer, tablet, or internet radio. The Wikipedia goes into more detail and defines it as “an episodic series of digital audio or video files which a user can download in order to listen. Alternatively, the word ‘podcast’ may refer to the individual component of such a series or to an individual media file. Podcasting often uses a subscription model, whereby new episodes automatically download via web syndication to a user’s own local computer, mobile application, or portable media player.”

Podcasts are popular. Statistics for the US reveal that half of the population has listened to podcasts; 32% are monthly podcast listeners, while 22% listen on a weekly basis. The popularity of podcasts keeps growing, and their reach keeps expanding. That also applies to legal podcasts. (The list with sources below includes an article with some of the best current podcasts for lawyers).

Why should you, as a lawyer, consider starting a podcast, apart from the fact that they’re popular? There are plenty of reasons.

  • Podcasts are fairly easy to create. You only need a decent microphone and some recording software (which your phone, tablet or pc may have preinstalled), and once you’ve recorded your podcast, you can use one of the available platforms to distribute your podcast.
  • A podcast helps build credibility and trust, as well as a connection with your audience.
  • It’s easy to attract the right audience.
  • It’s a solid – and usually easier – alternative to video.
  • Podcasting fits into people’s lives: podcasting is the only online content platform that allows for passive, or indirect consumption. People can listen to your podcast while they’re doing something else, even while they’re driving.
  • You can get people’s attention for longer periods of time: the average YouTube video is 4 minutes and 20 seconds long. Podcasts on the other hand, typically are between half an hour to 2 hours long.
  • There is at present far less competition in podcasting than there is on other platforms. There are approx. 200 000 active podcasts, while there are 19 million active blogs and 1 billion YouTube users.
  • Podcasting Is the best way to scale intimacy: it allows you to build a stronger relationship with your audience, faster.
  • You can connect with influencers.
  • Scalability: with a podcast, you have your own scalable stage. Anybody anywhere can listen, and it’s easy to grow your audience.
  • In an online world, social proof is important. With podcasts, it’s easy to get plenty of testimonials: you can, e.g., feature members of your own audience who have done something or who have taken action after hearing your podcast. It shows that you inspire people and that you love your audience.
  • You learn to become a better communicator.
  • While this may be less appropriate for or applicable to lawyers, podcasts typically also present monetization possibilities, as many of them are offered on a subscription model. (There are many podcasts that, e.g., offer the first half of the podcast for free, and the second half is only available to paying subscribers).

So how do you get started?

  • The first step is to choose a topic you can commit to. Above all, make sure you would want to listen to your podcast. If you already have a blog, you can repurpose your existing content
  • Then you define your show description and organize the necessary artwork (logo, e.g.).
  • This step and the next are interchangeable: set up and thoroughly test your equipment, and
  • Create a plan or roadmap for your episodes (and stick to it, unless you have a good reason not to). Apart from repurposing blog articles, you can do interviews, have guests or even guest hosts. You can do mini episodes in between in, e.g., a FAQ format, where you answer one question.
  • Record your episodes and remember that audio quality is key: poor quality will instantly cause people to stop listening.
  • Edit your episodes: typically, some editing will be necessary to cut out hesitations while speaking, etc.
  • Publish your episodes: there are several platforms available, specifically for podcasting.
  • Launch your podcast to your audience.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into more detail, but you can find more comprehensive instructions in the articles listed below.

Happy Podcasting!

 

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The New Legal Economy

In an article, published in Law 21, on 20 September 2019, Jordan Furlong shared his insights on the emergence of “the new legal economy.” In it, he describes how the legal profession first evolved from being the profession of lawyers into a legal market. And now we are seeing the next major transformation, where a new legal economy is starting to take shape. Several evolutions indicate that this indeed seems to be the case. Let’s have a closer look at what’s happening, and what the implications are.

Less than a century ago, the legal profession consisted only of lawyers, and they were the only ones offering legal services to legal consumers. Then, in the last decades we saw how a new legal market came into being. Two evolutions played an important part in that. The first one was that law firms started being managed like companies, which meant that more and more non-lawyers started playing a part in law firms, and that lawyers started changing the way they worked. A second evolution was the rise of Alternative Legal Service Providers, where the market was disrupted by non-lawyers offering legal services.

Evolution 1 – the de-lawyering of law firms: As law firms became commercial legal service providers, they started focusing on service delivery, on productivity and profitability. Running a law firm these days requires skillsets like project management, data analytics, design, business basics, digital basics, risk prediction and management, talent management, strategic planning, financial management, vendor management, technology support, knowledge management, growth and development management, communications, litigation support, workflow automation, and others. Law firms now often have law librarians, legal knowledge engineers, legal data analysts among their staff. Some bar associations are even considering allowing law firms to have equity partners. In this new market, law firms must serve more clients and serve them more efficiently, holistically, empathetically, and cost-effectively. This evolution has led to changes in who works at law firms, and in how lawyers work.

Evolution 2 – Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs): In recent years, we have also seen a sharp increase in non-lawyers providing legal services. The services they offer at this stage typically focus on litigation support, legal research, document review and e-discovery. In less than three years, the number of law firms in the US that use the services of these ALSPs has tripled. By now, more than 1 in 4 law firms already uses their services. And a recently published survey by Thomson Reuters revealed that about 52 percent of corporate Canada either already uses alternative legal service providers for litigation support or will do so within the next five years.

Apart from these two main evolutions, there are other changes affecting the legal market as well. These include “the rise of legal process improvement and outsourcing, the technology-driven commoditization of legal work, the growing sophistication of large law firms and law departments, and the slow but steady liberalization of legal regulation.”

Furlong notes that throughout all these market changes, one thing has remained largely constant, and that is what lawyers do. The market evolutions described above are changing the how lawyers work, and to some degree who is active on the legal market as well. But thus far, it has had relatively little impact on the what lawyers do. And now that too is about to change.

Traditionally, lawyers did mainly two things: offer legal advice (including the drafting of contracts, etc.), and litigation. With the progress being made in Legal AI, we are seeing ALSPs who are offering legal advice, and are offering services like automated and smart contracts. (Though a German court has just ruled that automated contracts still have to be supervised by lawyers).  And more and more, legal consumers are going out of their way to find ways to avoid litigation. Both of these changes directly affect what lawyers do.

Furlong: “The old legal economy consisted of paying lawyers by the hour to do every legal task that needed to be done. In the new legal economy, systems, software, and structures are going to integrate, automate, delegate, and eliminate countless legal tasks by which lawyers once made a living.”

Because of this, it becomes essential to redefine what lawyers as well as law firms are and what they do. In this context, Furlong says three important questions must be answered:

  1. What now constitutes “legal work”?
  2. How will legal work be done?
  3. What will lawyers do?

Something to think about.

But rest assured that we here at INFORMA keep on closely following all these evolutions to be better able to serve you.

 

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Using a CMS for your website

A question that is frequently asked, is what CMS to use for your law firm’s website. In this article, we’ll first look at what a CMS is, and analyze some statistics. Then we’ll consider whether you need one, and if so, what all to consider when you make your choice.

What is a CMS, or Content Management System? The E-Digital defines a CMS as “a software application or set of intertwined programs that allows you to create and manage your website’s digital content. In other words, a CMS grants you the ability to upload, edit, and delete content from a website without having to know HTML, CSS, or other coding languages.”

Let’s have a look at some statistics. There are close to 1.5 billion websites on the Internet. Of those, about 172 million are active. A majority of websites, 56.4%, use a CMS. WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are the most popular CMSs. WordPress powers 34.6% of the websites on the Internet, while Joomla is used for 4.9%, and Drupal for 3.1%. When we look at CMSs on the Internet, WordPress is good of 61% of those, while Joomla is good for 2.8% of the CMS market, and Drupal for 1.7%.

The first question to investigate, is whether you need a CMS, or whether you’re better off without one. There are pros and cons to each.

Pro:

  • With a CMS, no web programming experience is required. Most ISPs have wizards that install your CMS for you, and you can be up and running within a short period of time. Adding content is fairly easy.
  • Easy collaboration and Access: a CMS typically allows several users to publish content, which also allows them to collaborate.
  • Search Engine Optimization: most CMSs have tools, either preinstalled or as optional plugins, to manage and improve Search Engine Optimization.
  • A CMS can – but doesn’t automatically – offer better security. (See below). When there is a serious new security threat, typically within hours a patch may be available.
  • Cost effective and affordable: WordPress, Joomla and Drupal are all available for free, and will probably offer the functionality you need, without having to hire a programmer to customize them for you.
  • CMSs are constantly being updated. There are quite a number of ISPs who specialize in one or more of the CMSs, and where those updates of the CMS are included in the hosting price.
  • CMSs typically also come with built-in search components that allow the visitors of your website to search your content.
  • The functionality of a CMS can easily be extended with plugins, which may be available for free or at a price.

Con:

  • Overkill: if you just want to create an online brochure of your website, and its content won’t change much for several months or years, then a CMS is probably overkill.
  • Bloat: a CMS has a lot of built-in functionality that you may not need but can’t remove. The content you may want to publish may be limited, and with a CMS you may end up with a system that is many times the size of your content.
  • Database access: to run a CMS, you need to have a database included in your hosting package, which may make hosting more expensive.
  • Maintenance: CMSs are constantly being updated, as are their plugins. With a WordPress website that is not hosted with an ISP that does the CMS maintenance for you, you should check at least once a week whether there are updates for your CMS or plugins.
  • Security: if there is a security risk for a CMS or for a plugin you are using, then your site is at risk. Popular CMSs and plugins are targeted constantly by cybercriminals.
  • The themes and plugins that are available for your CMS may not be exactly what you need or want, in which case you will have to hire someone for customizations. That will probably end up costing more than if they were done for a website that doesn’t use a CMS.
  • CMSs allow more people to publish content, but each additional user increases the chances of something going wrong.

So, is a CMS right for you? As a rule of thumb, you can’t really go wrong with a CMS, especially if you plan to have a blog or publish articles, etc. But if you’re only planning to have a website that functions as an online brochure, with content that won’t change much for months or years, then a CMS is probably overkill.

The next question then is which one to choose. For that, several items should be taken into account:

  • The overall cost: there is the cost of hosting, and possibly of configuring your CMS. To get the layout and functionality you want or need, you may have to use themes and plugins that come at a cost. Customizations will add to that cost.
  • Ease of use and maintenance: not only of the actual CMS, but also of the plugins and themes you plan to use.
  • Ability to customize: does the CMS offer what you want it to? Can plugins help?
  • Performance and system requirements: the system requirements for Drupal are typically higher than for Joomla or WordPress.
  • User and permission management.
  • Support for multilingual sites.

Probably each one of the three major players will meet your needs. WordPress typically is the easiest to use and maintain of the three, while Drupal is – by far – the most complex. I would generally not recommend Drupal for smaller or medium-sized law firms, unless you have a whiz kid that’s familiar with it. For bigger law firms, especially if they have their own servers as well as their own IT department and want to use an internal system for documentation or knowledge management, Drupal can be a good fit.

For smaller and medium-sized law firms, WordPress and Joomla are good options, and WordPress is used for far more websites than Joomla. That doesn’t necessarily make it the best fit for your website, though. When you want more advanced user management or if you want to have a multilingual website, that functionality is built in in Joomla, where WordPress relies on third-party plugins. For multilingual sites, to do things properly, WordPress has to be set up as a multi-site WordPress configuration, which complicates things. Joomla supports multilingual sites out of the box.

 

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Legal AI is still biased in 2019

In October 2017, we published an article on how legal Artificial Intelligence systems had turned out to be as biased as we are. One of the cases that had made headlines was the COMPAS system, which is risk assessment software that is used to predict the likelihood of somebody being repeat offender. It turned out the system had a double racial bias, one in favour of white defendants, and one against black defendants.

To this day, the problems persist. By now, other cases have come to light. Similar to the problems with the COMPAS system, e.g., algorithms used in Kentucky for cash bail applications consistently preferred white defendants. The situation is similar in the UK, where a committee concluded that bias and inaccuracy render artificial intelligence (AI) algorithmic criminal justice tools unsuitable for assessing risk when making decisions on whether to imprison people or release them. Algorithmic bias was also discovered in systems to rank teachers, and for natural language processing. In the latter, there was a racial bias with regard to hate speech, as well as a gender bias in general.

To research and address the problems with Artificial Intelligence, the ‘AI Now Institute’ was created.  Bias is one of the four areas they specifically focus on. They found that bias may exist in all sorts of services and products. A key challenge we face in addressing the problems is that “crucial stakeholders, including the companies that develop and apply machine learning systems and government regulators, show little interest in monitoring and limiting algorithmic bias. Financial and technology companies use all sorts of mathematical models and aren’t transparent about how they operate.”

So, what is algorithmic bias? The Wikipedia defines it as “systematic and repeatable errors in a computer system that create unfair outcomes, such as privileging one arbitrary group of users over others. Bias can emerge due to many factors, including but not limited to the design of the algorithm or the unintended or unanticipated use or decisions relating to the way data is coded, collected, selected or used to train the algorithm.”

The AI Now Institute clarifies that artificial intelligence systems learn from data sets, and that those data sets reflect the social, historical and political conditions in which they were created. As such, they reflect existing biases.

It may be useful to make a distinction between different types of algorithmic bias. Eight different types have been identified thus far:

  1. Sample bias is the most common form of bias. It is when the samples used for the data sets are themselves contaminated with existing biases. The examples given above are all cases of sample bias.
  2. Prejudice bias is one of the causes of sample bias. Prejudice occurs as a result of cultural stereotypes in the people involved in the process. A good example of this are the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk practices. In approximately 83 percent of the cases, the person who was stopped was either African American or Hispanic, where both groups combined only make up just over half of the population. An AI system that learns form a data set like that will inherit the human racial bias that thinks people are more likely suspicious if they’re African American or Hispanic. So, because of prejudice, factors like social class, race, nationality, religion, and gender can creep into the model, and completely skew the results.
  3. Confirmation bias is another possible cause for sample bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to give preference to information that confirm one’s existing beliefs. If AI systems are used to confirm certain hypotheses, the people selecting the data may – even subconsciously – be inclined to select the data in function of the hypothesis they’re trying to prove.
  4. Group Attribution Bias is the type of bias where the data set contains an asymmetric view of a certain group. An example for that was Amazon’s AI assistant for the Human Resources department. Because Amazon had far more male engineers working for them than female engineers, the system concluded that male engineers had to be given preference over female engineers.
  5. The Square Peg Bias has to do with selecting a data set that is not representative and is chosen because it just happens to be available. It is also known as the availability bias.
  6. The Bias-variance Trade-off. This is a bias that is introduced to the system by mathematically over-correcting for variance. (An example to clarify: Say you have a data set where 30% of the people involved are female. Therefore, females are effectively underrepresented in your data set. To compensate you use mathematical formulas to ‘correct’ the results). This mathematical correction can introduce new biases, especially in more complex data sets, where the corrections could lead to missing certain complexities.
  7. Measurement Bias has to do with technical flaws that contaminate the data set. Say you want to weigh people and use scales, but they’re not measuring correctly.
  8. Stereotype Bias. The example given above with Amazon also qualifies as a gender stereotype bias. There are more male engineers than female engineers. That may lead systems to favour male engineers, and/or to preserve the ratio existing in the data set.

The good news is that as we are getting better at understanding and identifying the different types of algorithmic bias, we also are getting better at finding solutions to counteract them.

 

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Marketing Essentials for Law Firms

For most, if not all law schools, marketing is not a part of the curriculum. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Practicing law is one of the liberal professions, and as such is ruled by its own ethics which typically limit the marketing options of their members. While there may be differences from country to country and even from bar to bar, when it comes to marketing, lawyers are not allowed to do what companies are. Still, for the things that you are allowed to do as a lawyer, there are certain basic marketing principles that always apply, even whether it’s writing blog articles or about what you put on your website.

It is beyond the scope of one blog article to give a thorough introduction to marketing. So, we will stick to some essentials. These can be summarized in five sets of questions.

The first set of questions has to do with your target audience: Who is your target audience, and what are they looking for? You must identify your target audience and learn about their needs and their interests. Are they big businesses, small business, or specific types of individuals? You have to find out where can reach your target audience: e.g., on what social media they are, etc.

The second set of questions has to with differentiating yourself from the competition: What sets you apart from the competition? Who is your competition? What are they doing? What services are they offering? What makes you different from them? This does not have to be limited to legal services, but also applies to the whole ‘customer service’ aspect of things: how client-centric are your competitors, and is your law firm?

The third set of questions has to do with the message you want to communicate to your target audience: What is your message? This applies to any communications you have with clients or potential clients, whether it’s a blog article, a video, an image, your website … Your message has to be tailored to suit your target audience.

The fourth set of questions has to do with the presentation of your message: how do you present your message? This applies to the medium you choose, to the language and the visuals (imagery and video) you use, as well as the layout, … One important aspect of the language you use, e.g., is the readability of your texts. All of these, too, should be chosen to best suit your target audience.

A fifth set of questions has to do with building customer loyalty: how do I retain clients, and create repeat business? It is a good habit to regularly do specific campaigns for your existing clients.

Once you have answered all those questions, you can proceed to the next two groups of questions. These largely fall into two separate categories: questions about the operational aspect of your marketing, and about your online presence.

With regard to the operational side of things, you must ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my business plan?
  • Will I handle my marketing internally or do I outsource?
  • What follow-up process do I have for prospective clients?
  • How many clients can I handle, at most?
  • What are my marketing goals?
  • What does my marketing budget look like? As a rule of thumb, it is generally recommended to spend at Least 2.5% of your revenue on marketing.

The last set of recommendations focuses more specifically on your online presence (website, blog, social media, etc.). Legal consumers are online customers: more than 90% of people with a legal issue look online for solutions first. If they need to get a lawyer, they mainly find them through recommendations and through online searches. But the vast majority of people looking to hire a lawyer will check that lawyer out online first, i.e. before contacting them. So, from a marketing point of view you should:

  • Have a (well-designed) website. Does your website live up to the current best practices?
  • Optimize your website for search engines: What are the keywords your target audience will be looking for?
  • Measure and track all of your marketing efforts. In a future article, we will focus more on the relevant marketing metrics, and what you can learn from them.
  • Install Google Analytics on your website, not only to keep track of who visits your website, but also to see which pages work and which don’t.
  • Maintain a digital database of all contacts so you can follow up effectively
  • Create Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn pages, because it is more than likely that that is where your target audience will find you.
  • Get reviews, testimonials, etc. In an online world, social proof is essential.

In future articles, we will deal more in detail with some of these aspects.

 

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An introduction to Cloud Solutions for Law Firms

More and more law firms are using cloud solutions. The most recent statistics available show that in 2018 nearly 55% of law firms used cloud solutions. That also leaves 45% who still don’t. In this article, we will give a short introduction to cloud solutions for law firms. We will look at some definitions and at the differences between public, private and hybrid cloud. We’ll discuss what solutions are available for law firms, as well as the pros and cons of cloud solutions.

The following definitions (in quotes) all come from Margaret Rouse from techtarget.com.

Cloud computing is a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted services over the Internet. These services are broadly divided into three categories: Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). The name cloud computing was inspired by the cloud symbol that’s often used to represent the Internet in flowcharts and diagrams.”

“A public cloud is a platform that uses the standard cloud computing model to make resources, such as virtual machines (VMs), applications or storage, available to users remotely. Public cloud services may be free or offered through a variety of subscription or on-demand pricing schemes, including a pay-per-usage model.”

When we think of the cloud, we typically think of the public cloud: online music and video streaming services as well as social media services are typical examples. Gmail, Google Apps, OneDrive, SharePoint, e.g., all are public cloud services. You probably already use the public cloud to store media (photos, videos, …), document, backups, etc.

Private cloud is a type of cloud computing that delivers similar advantages to public cloud, including scalability and self-service, but through a proprietary architecture. Unlike public clouds, which deliver services to multiple organizations, a private cloud is dedicated to the needs and goals of a single organization.” Private clouds are typically used by major companies and educational organizations like universities who have their own IT departments. Law firms who use their own private cloud are rather rare. It typically only makes sense for large firms, with multiple sites and with their own full-blown IT departments, to even consider setting up private cloud servers.

What are the main differences between public cloud and private cloud solutions? With a private cloud, you are responsible for the entire acquisition, setup and management of the cloud solution. With a public cloud solution, your data are stored with the hosting provider who does the management and maintenance of the data centre. When choosing what is best for your law firm, you must take into consideration the overall cost (one-time vs. recurring), the data capacity, and the levels of reliability and security. For small to medium-sized law firms, a public cloud solution typically is recommended.

Hybrid cloud is a cloud computing environment that uses a mix of on-premises, private cloud and third-party, public cloud services with orchestration between the two platforms. By allowing workloads to move between private and public clouds as computing needs and costs change, hybrid cloud gives businesses greater flexibility and more data deployment options.”

What cloud applications are law firms using? Most law firms who use cloud solutions use cloud versions of Law Practice Management Software. Most providers of Law Practice Management Software offer a package of standard solutions with optional extra modules. There also are providers who focus on just one aspect like case or document management, or backups, or accounting, … Two other areas where cloud solutions are commonly used are eDiscovery and Legal Research.

What are the benefits of cloud solutions, compared to the more traditional setups?

  • Security: cloud hosting providers typically are more secure than local solutions. It is one of the most important reasons law firm decide to move to the cloud.
  • For most law firms, cloud solutions are more cost effective: there is low upfront cost because you don’t need to invest in servers, and there is a low maintenance cost as the hosting provider takes care of maintaining the servers and the software.
  • Cloud solutions typically have a simple setup and configuration: often it’s as easy as going online and signing up to be able to start working.
  • Cloud solutions have built-in disaster preparedness which include off-site backups.
  • Remote access: cloud solutions are accessible from anywhere and at any time, with any device with an Internet connection. Remote access also makes outsourcing and client portals easier.
  • Scalability: cloud solutions can handle one-person law firms, as well as law firms with hundreds of users.
  • Cloud solutions typically run on any platform.
  • Cloud solutions offer automatic software updates.

There also are some cons:

  • Internet access is required. If you don’t have Internet access, you can’t access your data.
  • Recurring monthly or annual cost per head can be high for larger firms.
  • You have no control over price increases.

 

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