While dismissed by many people as a “dead” technology, the fax machine still has a place in many businesses, especially law firms. In this edition of The Collaborative Law Firm, we cover different ways to implement this vital technology in your office, with or without a dedicated machine.
One of the oldest collaborative technologies, fax (short for facsimile) machines allow the transmission of an image from one place to another over telephone lines. The earliest form of the fax machine (called the “Electric Printing Telegraph”) was actually patented over 30 years before Alexander Graham Bell received his patents for the electronic telephone.
It took nearly 100 years for fax machines to become commonplace in the mid-1970s with devices such as the Exxon Qwip, but one of the industries that adopted the fax machine in droves is the legal industry. The ability to send full documents across great distances was invaluable to the law firms of the 80s and 90s, and to this day the fax machine is a staple of many, if not most, law firms.
There was a period of time in the mid-1990s when it appeared that fax machines might even start becoming popular in the home as the devices finally started getting inexpensive enough that it was affordable for individuals to actually own them.
The use of fax machines started to dwindle with the proliferation of internet access, and especially when broadband internet became commonplace as it became possible to send documents to people in a much more convenient way. But this doesn’t mean that the concept of sending faxes is dead. According to a recent study by the International Data Corporation (IDC), 89% of small and medium-sized businesses still support faxing in one form or another.
The ability to send and receive fax messages is still a necessity, especially for businesses that rely heavily on paper records, including law firms. Fortunately, while the stand-alone fax machine may be a relic of the past, there are a number of options for continuing to use this still crucial technology.
In this edition of The Collaborative Law Firm, we’ll discuss the options that you have for handling faxes in your firm.
Stand-Alone Fax Machines
Starting off with the obvious, stand-alone fax machines still exist from a variety of manufacturers, including Brother, Panasonic, and Sharp. These devices are useful if you send so many faxes that you want to have a dedicated location in your office for sending and receiving faxes. If you want the convenience of a stand-alone fax machine, but you don’t want to take up a lot of space in your office, there are compact units available that take up very little space.
Like fax machines of old, in order for a stand-alone fax machine to be effective at receiving inbound faxes, your office will need a dedicated telephone line just for the fax machine. Many fax machines are prone to errors if they are connected to a digital phone system, so it is generally preferable to bring in a separate line for this purpose.
If you think about the modern fax machine, it shares features in common with other pieces of office equipment. In order to send faxes, a fax machine needs a way to read the original document, which is functionally identical to a scanner or copy machine. In order to receive incoming faxes, a fax machine needs to be able to print out the incoming document like a printer.
Because of this, it is extremely common to get an all-in-one unit that functions as a scanner, printer, copier, and fax machine in a single unit. Many of the more popular printer manufacturers offer all-in-one units that give you all of these functions without having to take up the space of four different units. HP has several lines of these multifunction printers available for almost every budget. If you do a lot of copying, you may consider a larger unit, such as one from Xerox.
To use an all-in-one printer to receive faxes unattended, you still need a stand-alone fax line, just as with a stand-alone fax machine above. However, even if you go with one of the more digital options below for receiving faxes, having an all-in-one printer/copier/fax machine may be more convenient for sending paper faxes, especially ones involving signatures.
You might even already have an all-in-one unit without realizing it. If your printer has a built-in scanner, check the back to see if there is a phone jack on it. If there is a phone jack, the unit is almost certainly also a fax machine.
Let Your Phone System Handle It
Many of the business phone systems that we discussed in our previous Collaborative Law Firm article support faxes natively, at least for inbound faxing. If you go with a self-hosted, Asterisk-based phone system, there are plugins available that support the detection of inbound faxes on each line. They automatically convert the inbound faxes to PDFs and email them to the owner of that line. This makes it possible to handle fax and phone on the same line and to receive faxes without the need for a fax machine.
Many of the hosted services that we mentioned also support both inbound and outbound faxing. RingCentral supports sending and receiving faxes through your standard phone lines, using the RingCentral app on both computer and mobile devices. They also support an email-to-fax system in which you can simply send an email to a special email address, and it will be converted to a fax that is sent out. If you download the RingCentral app on your phone, you can even take a picture of a document with your camera and send it as a fax.
There are a number of fax-specific services available if your phone system doesn’t support faxing, and you don’t want to change phone systems. eFax is one of the older but more stable services out there for handling both inbound and outbound faxes through email. If you don’t normally need fax services because you don’t receive faxes from other businesses, but on a rare occasion you may need to send a fax, there are a number of services, such as Fax Zero or Fax Burner, that let you quickly send a fax for a low cost or even for free without any ongoing commitment.
Can I do this with Email?
We would be remiss if we didn’t mention one of the main reasons why people believe that faxing is dying off. Email allows you to send documents across any distance with no additional cost over the service as a whole in a quality that surpasses the capabilities of most fax machines. Email works for almost everyone. No special equipment or service is needed on your recipient’s end for them to receive it.
Fax machines and fax services are still useful for sending a document to a target that doesn’t have internet access or prefers physical document transfers of signatures, but often a scanner combined with an email service will accomplish this task just as well, if not better, especially if coupled with a digital fax service like the ones mentioned above.
Long Live the Fax
While many people dismiss the fax as outdated technology, it is still very useful, and in many industries, including law, it is still a requirement to do business. We hope that this post has given you some thoughts for options on how to integrate this vital technology into your business. Stay tuned on this blog for future posts in this series in which we’ll cover other technologies that you will use every single day.
Editor’s Note: This article is Part VI of a series on the Collaborative Law Firm by Nicholas Moline, published with permission of the author, with first publication in the Justia Legal Marketing and Technology Blog.