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Five Steps to Killer, Inexpensive Phone Systems for Small Law Firms

Remember when you needed a consultant and a $10,000 phone system for your small law office?  If you’re not up to speed on the latest and greatest in Internet telephony, those days are over.

For $52 a month, a two person law office can hook themselves up with a large-firm telephone presence.  Two major technology advances paved the way for this revolution, namely, hosted PBX systems and computer-based calling via Skype.

Let’s start with Skype, the more familiar service for most people.  Before I get into this, I must ask to the eye-rollers out there: when’s the last time you tried Skype?  If it’s been a while, you’ll be blown away at the quality and reliabilty.

In addition to allowing video chat, screen sharing, instant messaging, and Skype-to-Skype calling, you can purchase an online Skype number for $6 a month, allowing you to receive incoming calls.  The latter is key to the setup I’m describing, so they first thing you’ll need is a Skype account with your own telephone number.

The second thing you’ll need is what’s known as a Virtual PBX system.  PBX, which stands for “Private branch exchange”, is a business telehpone system which allows for extensions, transfering calls, out-of-office messages, phone queues, and other functionality.

Phone.com, Grasshopper, and Phone Booth are all examples of virtual PBX systems.

With a PBX system, you’ll be able to have callers dial your law firm and receive a message like the following:  “Welcome to the Jones, Bierko, and Hill law firm.  You may dial the extension of your party at any time.  To speak with someone about the status of your case, press 1.  To inquire about a new case, press 2,” or something to that effect.

Armed with this knowledge, here’s what you need to do to set up a phone system for your small law office:

1) Sign up for Skype, and make sure you choose an online number.  It doesn’t matter what this number is, because the only party interested in your Skype number is your Virtual PBX system.

2) Take a look at Phone.com, Phone Booth, and Grasshopper, and choose a Virtual PBX system that matches the features you want.  You may want to purchase a 1-800 number or port an exisiting one over.  This is usually very inexpensive, below $20.00.

3) Create some extensions in your PBX, and point them to the corresponding Skype numbers.  You may also want to set up some call-handling rules, based on your software’s capabilities, such as how long to ring your Skype number before leaving voicemail.  Here’s a screenshot of my extension setup:

4) Record messages for the various PBX functions.  You’ll need voicemail.  You’ll need a closed message, a welcome message, and a “transferring” message when someone dials an extension or selects a category in the phone tree.

Recordings can be professionally done, and most computers have built-in capabilities to record audio.  If this is something you need help with, either a) find a tech savvy high-school kid in your neighborhood with a Mac to give you a hand or b) the PBX service might be able to recommend voice talent for you.

5) Tweak.  It doesn’t take too long to get most of this stuff set up, but you’ll want to test the different flows and tighten them up.  Remember, your phone system is a visible exterior of your law firm.  Make it pretty.

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