OSB Professional Liability Fund

Phone Systems: What Works for Your Firm?

June 26, 2020
by Rachel Edwards

As we move forward and adjust to the changing infrastructure due to the pandemic, it is a good time to think about what type of phone system works best for your law firm. Phone calls remain a very popular form of communication, despite other methods such as email, video conferencing, and client portals, and may be the preferred method depending on the circumstances. Below is a list of different phone system options to consider based on the needs and infrastructure of your firm:

Landlines

The traditional phone system uses a landline, meaning your phone calls are made through the phone cables connected to your home or office. Many homes and businesses have moved away from landlines for various reasons, such as lack of portability and the aging infrastructure of phone lines. According to a survey in 2017, 50.8% of American households use only cell phones and have done away with their landline entirely. That number has likely increased since then. While businesses have been slower to move away from landlines, the pandemic has forced many businesses to reexamine the usability of their traditional phone system.

Since the pandemic began, many law firms using landlines have had their calls forwarded elsewhere, such as to their home or cell phone. Or they’ve either had their voicemails forwarded to their email or dialed in remotely to check voicemails from the system itself. Yet these are not long-term solutions. Moving forward, if you want to discontinue using your landline and move your business number to another service provider entirely, that is called porting. With forwarding, you keep the same provider but just forward the number elsewhere. Porting is a more permanent option than forwarding. Contact your service provider to see if they are able to port your number, such as to a cell phone or VOIP provider, discussed below. You may not be able to keep your existing phone number, depending on the circumstances. And keep in mind that your service provider may charge certain fees for termination of your existing contract and for keeping the same number, so take a look at your service contract. Also, remember that you must keep your landline active before porting to the new provider.

Cell Phones

When using a cell phone, calls are transmitted from your mobile device to a nearby cell tower. Service can be spotty, depending on your provider and location at the time of the call. Yet with the increased number of cell towers and faster networks, spotty service has become less of an issue. Below are various options for using cell phones for business purposes:
  1. Personal cell phone. This is certainly not an ideal option, but for some clients, you may feel comfortable providing your personal cell number. Again, this is not a long-term solution. There are ways to use your personal cell phone without having to give out the number, such as utilizing a VOIP provider, which I’ll discuss below.
  2. Business cell phone. You may consider purchasing a separate cell phone to use just for business purposes. Many cell phone providers offer deals on purchases of additional phones and numbers as part of their package. Be sure to carefully evaluate the terms of service before purchase, as the needs of a personal and business phone differ greatly.
  3. One cell phone, multiple numbers. Some cell phone providers, such as Verizon and T-Mobile, and cell phone applications, allow you to use one cell phone, but they provide you with more than one number. This option avoids the issue of purchasing and maintaining more than one cell phone, and you are not forced to disclose your personal cell phone number for business purposes.
If you plan to use a cell phone for business purposes, be sure to check with your provider to make sure you are getting the best deal so that you aren’t paying additional fees if you exceed the limits on the plan. If possible, try to obtain unlimited talk, text, and data. Many providers now offer this option, even if it requires some negotiation.

VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol)

VOIP systems avoid landlines by moving phone calls to the Internet, which you then access either through your desk phone, computer, cell phone, or another mobile device. This option is usually more affordable than traditional phone services and cell phone providers. Many VOIP providers allow you to keep the same number by porting to the provider. You do need a strong high-speed Internet connection, as your computer and phone systems will share the bandwidth of your Internet connection. Depending on the service, many additional features are available, such as electronic faxing, audio and video conferencing, internal messaging, voicemail transcription, call forwarding, and options for text messaging if you want to communicate with clients via text without having to use your personal cell phone number. You can use a VOIP system in various ways, and you may be able to combine these systems, depending on your firm’s needs and the VOIP provider:
  1. VOIP-compatible desk phone. If you would like to continue using a desk phone, you can utilize a VOIP-compatible phone, which allows you to make phone calls from your desk phone through your Internet service provider rather than a phone line. Some VOIP providers, such as Ooma, provide you with this device as part of their service. You can find these devices online fairly easily, but make sure it is compatible with your VOIP provider’s service before purchasing. The VOIP provider may have suggested options or some that can be leased or purchased from the VOIP provider. If your firm finds it too difficult or expensive to replace your traditional analog desk phones with VOIP-compatible phones, yet you still want to use the same desk phones, the VOIP provider may be able to create a system allowing the phones to be connected to the Internet. So check with the VOIP provider to determine available options.
  2. VOIP application. If you don’t plan to use a desk phone, or you would like to maintain a desk phone in the office but also have the ability to send and receive calls from other devices, you can simply use a VOIP application. This is a software application from the VOIP provider that you can download onto whichever devices you plan to use, such as a computer, tablet, or cell phone.
There are many VOIP providers, including Google Voice, RingCentral, Ooma, Nextiva, Grasshopper and 8x8. Pricing ranges anywhere from around $10 per user per month up to $50 per user per month, possibly more, depending on the features offered, whether you are leasing or purchasing phones from the provider, and assistance needed in setting up the system. Keep in mind that some VOIP providers also integrate with practice management software. For example, Nextiva and a few other VOIP providers integrate with Clio, allowing you to connect phone calls to specific matters and track them for things like billing and notetaking purposes. So if you use practice management software, determine beforehand if it integrates with any particular VOIP providers.

Virtual Receptionist

You also may consider utilizing a virtual receptionist. A phone call to your number is forwarded to the company, a receptionist answers the call, and then provides a customized response to make it sound as though the receptionist is working in your office. Based on your instructions, the virtual receptionist can do such things as forward the call to you or someone else in your office or take a message. Some options include companies like Ruby, LexReception, Back Office Betties, PATLive, and Smith.ai. Pricing ranges anywhere from $70 per month up to $269 per month, based on the number of minutes used. Again, many of these programs integrate with practice management software. All of the virtual receptionists listed here integrate with Clio, and Ruby and Smith.ai integrate with Rocket Matter as well.

While the available options for phone systems may seem overwhelming, it is simply a matter of determining your firm’s particular needs and budget. If you have questions or need assistance in choosing a system that works best for you, contact the practice management attorneys.