Home is where the computer is

Among the barrage of tables and statistics in a recent survey from the Law Society – Trends in the Solicitors' Profession, Annual Statistical Report 1995 – there is one sentence that stands out.

"There has been little change in the structure of private practice. Growth in the number of firms was almost entirely accounted for by an increase in sole practitioner firms," it says in the summary.

The survey points out that since 1985, the number of sole practitioner firms has grown by 34 per cent. The growth in technology is undoubtedly one of the factors behind this.

Nicholls & Co is a sole practitioner firm recently established in Norwich by Simon Nicholls. The practice, based at his home, is heavily reliant on a £4,000 hi-tech system.

Nicholls was previously a partner in a substanial provincial firm, which gave him plenty of office backup and support. The downside of this comfort was the substantial overheads. Nicholls' criminal and licensing work means that most of his time is spent outside the office, in court or visiting clients, with lots of time spent travelling between appointments, a particular problem in East Anglia.

As a result of his reliance on support from the office, Nicholls had not been closely involved with client accounting procedures, especially as most of his work was legal aid funded.

At first, he was concerned about starting up on his own. "The thought of going it alone was a daunting prospect," he says. "But not having staff costs and office leases to support has created a sense of freedom, and by making sensible use of modern office automation equipment I am always available to clients. I can now make much more efficient use of my time than ever before."

Nicholls has accumulated an impressive array of technology in his new office, including a mobile phone, a pager, a digital answering machine, a powerful desktop PC, a 2Mb Psion Series 3a portable computer, a Canon BJ10 EX portable printer, a modem and a Hewlett Packard Office Jet LX printer. The Hewlett Packard also serves as a copier, fax and page scanner.

"When surrounding yourself with technology you have to be careful that you use it wisely," says Nicholls. "I learned a lesson when I first started. I had a couple of answering services, one on my mobile phone and another on my machine in the office. It got a bit confusing and some people left more than one message for me on both machines. Now I've simplified things, and reduced my costs, by having only one message service on my digital answering machine. It advises the pager when a new message is received and also tells me the call length and cost.

"It is quite possible to run an entire criminal legal aid practice from the Psion," says Nicholls. He uses the Advocate system designed for the Psion by Julian Gibbons, a lawyer based nearby in Great Yarmouth.

"Using Advocate allows me to open files, complete attendance notes and value work at both standard and enhanced rates, no matter where I happen to be," says Nicholls. "There are programs for court diaries, mode of trial guidelines for all types of offences, time limits, PACE alarms, and all aspects of legal aid work including green forms, court duty solicitor, police station attendance, and magistrate and crown court appearances."

The Psion can be linked to the PC back at base using the PsiWin communications system. Nicholls has installed a Pentium PC running Windows 95 and Microsoft Office v7.

"I plan to establish electronic communications with a number of other sole practitioners, which will enable us to pass work to each other," says Nicholls. "I now have an email address and receive a lot of my instructions via fax.

"In fact, I prefer to send my letters by fax if possible. It's cheaper than the post, certainly less time consuming than addressing an envelope and it's 'greener' by saving paper."

Wherever possible, Nicholls transmits fully formatted word processing files to his associates, saving them time and money when it comes to redrafting documents.

"I look forward to using the telephone service on our local cable company when it becomes available later this year," he says. "I foresee many advantages from this service, including free local calls and quicker data transmission speeds."

The practice is a working example of the benefits technology can bring to modern practice. By carefully combining several technologies, all of which are available from high street shops, the sole practitioner can achieve the same levels of automation and efficiency enjoyed by many fee earners using large scale systems in bigger firms, at a fraction of the cost.

"I've not discovered a downside as yet," says Nicholls. "I had to progress from nothing to becoming Mr Technology in the space of a week. You have to prevent the technology becoming a barrier and make sure it is seen as a benefit. In fact, I am now more available to the public and my clients than ever before."

If the trend towards sole practitioners continues, the profession can expect to see many more products and services becoming available for this buoyant sector of the legal industry.

Nicholls & Co email address is nicholls.co@netcom.co.uk.

Advocate is available from Paradigm Software (01424) 212021 and costs £179 ex VAT. Annual charges are £60.