Those Indispensable Devices

Don't Laugh, Lawyers Still Use These

At a resent CLE, a newly fledged solo (she being in the process of outfitting her office) seeing that I was taking notes on a Mac, asked me about the software and hardware I used in my practice and what I thought were “must-haves”. So, here is my short list of “indispensables”

  • My Snapscan 1500. Every original document that comes into the office relating to a client matter gets scanned and the original is sent to the client. This way, the client can track the progress of their matter and I don’t have to invest in file cabinets.
  • Crashplan. You’ve got to have backup software and Crashplan allows me to back up to locally attached media as well as to a private cloud. I get the advantage of having local media for quick restores and the redundancy of off-site storage. The fact that I can use my own private cloud means that I keep my data under my control
  • Daylite & Billings. Daylite is a business productivity manager – that happens to work well as law practice management software and Billings tracks time & expenses and generates invoices. The programs share data with each other and the real strength of these programs lies not in the vast array of things you can do with them, but in the fact that you can be productive with them right out of the box.
  • My Mac’s (a desktop & a laptop). Sure, you have to buy into Apple’s walled garden approach to hardware and software, but that’s not an entirely bad thing – I’m looking for stability and consistency in my business hardware and I really don’t care if I can tweak a few more cycles out of the CPU or if I can install the latest beta version of a piece of software. I do care that I spend little to no time on IT issues – initial setup, from unpacking the boxes to having the system up and running with all software installed, took less than 90 minutes and I’ve not spent more than 30 minutes in any one month since on computer issues. These little buggers work.
  • A typewriter. Now this one is a little practice area specific, but if you have any dealings with residential real estate in MN, then sooner or later you are going to run into a need to complete a certificate of real estate value (CRV). This is a 3 part form that has no electronic equivalent – it has to be physically filed and must be either hand- or type-written. Since my handwriting is so abysmal, were I to complete a CRV by hand it would look more like a prescription than a legal document – so a typewriter is de rigueur.

It went bump in the night

Well, I knew that one day I would lose a disk, but I really didn’t need it to happen today, I really didn’t need to lose the disk with my database on it, and I certainly did not expect a 2 month old disk to pack up and go south. The cool thing is that I was down for less than 90 minutes and half of that was spent running to the local big box computer store to get a new drive.

It took all of 3 mouse clicks and less than 45 minutes for CrashPlan to do a complete restore from my on-site backup. Had I not wanted instant gratification, I could have restored from my off-site personal cloud in little over 2 hours. Had I ever wondered about justifying the cost of having a highly redundant back up system, today put all my doubts to rest. Rather than spending countless hours rebuilding my contact list, document database, forms, etc. I went to lunch while my hardware and software did their thing.

Building A Practice: Stepping Up The Hardware

Admittedly, the basic hardware for a law office is not very sexy, but utilitarian seldom is. It will get the job done until the money starts rolling in. Now, should you want something a bit more, here’s what I’d add:

  1. A large LCD monitor, and a bluetooth keyboard and mouse. While that laptop keyboard and screen are fine for on-the-go work, for long hours at a desk, an external monitor, and a fullsized keyboard and mouse will significantly reduce eye, neck and finger strain.
  2. A plain paper scanner (preferably one that will scan both sides of a page simultaneously). Anything that will reduce the amount of paper in your office is a time-saver. It is far easier to keep a digital client file organized than it is to track all the paper associated with the hard copy version.
  3. A removable USB hard drive system like the Iomega REV system. This is a backup to your backup. The idea is to have a set of periodic backups that you can store at a remote location and can cycle through on a periodic basis. This way you have a series of backups so that you are not dependent on any single storage device to preserve your data.
  4. A dual monitor desktop computer.  Add this last, it ties you down and eats up desk real estate and for most purposes does not add a great deal more functionality than that provided by your laptop.

Building A Practice: The Minimum Hardware

I was recently discussing the hardware requirements for a new firm with a colleague and we distilled the bare minimum hardware requirements to: a laptop with at least a 15″ display, a black & white laser printer,  and an external USB hard drive at least as big as the laptop’s internal drive.

The laptop should be a desktop-replacement class machine. Leave the ultra-portables for another day, this machine is going to be your office workhorse and should have the computational “horsepower” (CPU speed, system memory, and disk space) to be able to run multiple applications simultaneously, and should have a full-sized keyboard so you can type on it comfortably for long periods.

In terms of print quality, speed, and longevity, single function, black and white laser printers shine. It is even possible to find black and white laser printers with auto duplexing, multiple paper trays and support for both envelopes and legal paper in the sub-$500 price range.

Combine an external USB drive and an on-line backup service like Mozy or Carbonite and you have the bare minimum for a redundant backup system. Use backup software like Retrospect to create a  mirror image of your system disk on the external drive will provide immediate access to your data should your system disk pack it in. Regular incremental backups to an on-line service will allow you to keep a copy of your data in a relatively safe off-site location. It may take longer to rebuild from incremental backups, but at least they will be there should a catastrophy wipe out your office.