The phone affair: Redefining the relationship between a lawyer and his phone

Issue November 2014 By Dmitry Lev

Just as seeing a payphone or an answering machine is a rarity these days, so, too, should be seeing a phone plugged into an old phone jack in a modern law office. If the constraints of an old style phone are not obvious, the advantages of modern well-configured voice-over-Internet-protocol (VOIP) systems should be self-evident.

For starters, the main phone number for a law firm does not need to have a concrete physical location. Because providers have redundant backups, the phones will always be answered and will always greet clients, regardless of power outages, floods or hurricanes. The calls can then be routed literally anywhere: the home number of the telecommuting associate, the mobile number of the partner in court for the day, the voicemail of the assistant handling the medical records or even to simultaneously ring all three numbers where the solo practitioner may be found on a given day. The system can also be programmed to recognize who is calling and to route that person's call to a predetermined extension or, if necessary, to advise that particularly problematic caller that no one is available.

When a call is routed to a mobile or a home phone, an alert is utilized to advise that an office call is coming through. Thereafter, an automated screening process is used to identify the caller, which enables the recipient to accept or reject the call.

To the caller this is all transparent and the caller will never know that the call is being answered anywhere other than the ABC Law Firm headquarters. In the event the caller leaves a message, there is no need to wait for someone to return to the office only to hear, "You have 17 new messages," because the implication is that 10 of them already hired other lawyers. Instead, the voice message can be turned into a text message or an email, and sent to as few or as many key people as the imagination (i.e., business plan) desires: perhaps a virtual assistant in Canada screening new client calls, or the associate who can speak Swahili to the particular client, etc.

Returning calls is just as transparent: Regardless of where the return call originates, even if it's on a cruise ship headed for Bermuda, the person receiving the call would only see the main number for ABC Law Firm, and no private or home number would ever be revealed.

Fax machines are a thing of the past, as well. Most VOIP systems will have integrated digital fax capabilities, meaning that one would send a fax by simply sending an email with an imaged document to a special address, and it would be delivered like an ordinary fax on the other end. Similarly, faxes are received as attachments to emails which could be routed to anyone on the team, or kept on a centralized location for everyone at the office to access from wherever they may be. No more paper jams or busy signals, or the realization that the expected settlement agreement is collecting dust in a fax machine in a closed office over a four-day weekend.

Perhaps the most significant advantage is that virtually no special hardware or expensive equipment is required. The systems integrate into existing computer networks, mobile phones and, yes, even the old style analog phones, but with the power to control and route calls seamlessly. No more PBX boxes, or those messy bundles of colored wires hanging from the basement ceiling. VOIP works over network cables already in place wherever there is a desktop computer, or as a part of the wireless network in the office.

If the law office needs to relocate, there would be no interruption in the phone system, because it is not tied to a specific physical location. There is no need to change phone numbers or worry about down time. Setting up at the new office is as simple as plugging things into the wall - as long as there's Internet, the phones are up and running. But even in the event of an Internet outage, the VOIP system remains unaffected to callers, as it will continue to answer and forward calls as programmed.

On the administrative end, detailed reports can be generated showing every call made or received through the system. This is useful in a variety of contexts, from billing to responding to the client who erroneously claims that his call was never returned.

The cost is, perhaps unexpectedly, usually less than existing monthly service from major providers, and scalability is a breeze. Adding an extension requires a few keystrokes on a website instead of costly and time-consuming appointments with the phone company.

A law office considering a switch to VOIP should conduct due diligence and compare options among various providers. For starters, those averse to technological leaps can have their VOIP systems configured exactly like their old phone systems, and then slowly begin the process of implementing new features over time. Once the freedom and flexibility of VOIP is fully realized, there is no going back.    

Dmitry Lev is the principal at the Lev Law Firm, based in Watertown. His practice is focused in the areas of bankruptcy litigation, personal injury and criminal defense. Lev has been using VOIP in his office since 2008 and he is in his second year as a member of the Law Practice Management Section Council.