General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine
By Michael Trittipo
If you have a car, you periodically consider whether to keep the one you have or get a new one. Of course, getting a new one doesn’t necessarily mean you get rid of the old one. The same should go for the computers and similar tools you use in your practice.
You know what questions to ask when deciding about the car, and not to be overly swayed by a car dealer’s talk. But many people find computers more mysterious than cars, and confuse computer dealers with consultants. You don’t have to. You can use the same basic approach when deciding about the computer as you do about the car. The differences between the options may involve RAM and megahertz instead of mileage and transmission wear, but the approach is at heart the same: focus on what you want or need to do .
So if the equipment and programs you have do everything you want and need to do, keep them. If something isn’t broken, it doesn’t need fixing. There’s nothing wrong with "being a dinosaur" so long as you’re still satisfying clients and yourself. "It’s newer" is never alone a sufficient reason to change. Market obsolescence is not functional obsolescence. Only the latter provides reason to upgrade. But if what you want or need to do can’t be done as easily, quickly, cheaply, or well as you want (or not at all) with what you have, it is time to weigh the benefits of an upgrade, and decide what to do with the existing equipment and programs.
This approach means there are no bright lines. There is no magic bright-line test for whether a certain car mileage or age should automatically trigger buying a new car. Nor is there one for what minimum processor power or RAM you need. But there are some clear signs when you need to upgrade.
When to Upgrade
You can’t run the software programs you need to with the equipment you have.
Whatever you do, you do through software. What you want to do drives what software you need to have, and your software choices should drive your hardware choices, not vice versa. If what you want to do can be done with the software you have, and the software you have or plan on using runs well enough with the computer and other equipment you have, you don’t need to upgrade.
But maybe your existing software is more than your computer handles well, and you spend too much time waiting for your computer to do what you tell it to. Or maybe your software won’t, say, compare two versions of a document and redline the differences to flag them for you. If having the redlining would make a difference in how well you can serve your clients or how much time you have, then you may need new software. And the software you can buy to do what you need done may only run well on a faster machine with more RAM.
Of course, what software you need depends partly on how much you know how to get out of your software. There are people who can figure out how to make DOS or Linux programs on older machines do things that other people pay big bucks to have Windows 98 programs make more obvious. You may not want to upgrade just to be able to do something that you already could do easily enough if you just experimented a bit.
You can’t use other equipment you need to, with the equipment you have.
Your software may do everything you want it to, but you may still need new equipment. You may simply need more room, like a larger hard drive to store more. These are simple additions, but you may find it easier or cheaper to get a new system than to figure out what new drives would be compatible with what you have and how to install them. You may want a faster modem, but find that your computer’s in-and-out ports won’t go fast enough for it. Any situation like these means it’s time to upgrade.
You can’t easily or cheaply get the equipment to work as needed, or can’t afford to waste time trying.
Some people enjoy keeping old cars running, to the point of changing engines and scouring junkyards for parts. They like (or have to) "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." They can add RAM or a new hard drive to a computer themselves, and count the dollars saved vis-à-vis a new machine, not the time taken. But for many lawyers, this is not a real option. If it isn’t, it’s time to upgrade.
You develop new needs, or learn of a better, easier way to do something, that you can only do with newer equipment.
Strictly speaking, one might argue that lawyers could practice without telephones. But few clients would be happy today with a lawyer they couldn’t reach by phone. A need or legitimate want can be for any ability that helps you practice law better, paying off in more time or money or greater satisfaction or confidence.
People who used Cliff’s Notes in college and commercial outlines in law school to get black-letter law may want a shorter, bright-line answer. Strongly consider upgrading if:
• your monitor is under 17" diagonal
• your processor is not at least a 486 33 MHz
• your hard drive is under 250 MB, or has fewer than 40 MB free
• you have less than 8 M RAM
• you do not have a modem that can connect faster than at 14,4
• you do not have a CD-ROM drive
• you do not have a scanner
• you do not have room on a computer for tickler and calendaring, accounting, conflicts-checking, forms or document assembly, document indexing, or time and billing software
• you are by necessity running only DOS programs, not Windows or Linux
• your computer hasn’t been upgraded in four years or more
• you would have to spend more than $500 on any upgrade (other than a monitor) that will result in less than you can buy new for $1,500.
These landmarks are not a substitute for the basic question, "what do you need to do?" The bottom line is always about what you can do, at what net gain or loss of time, money, or comfort, not what equipment or software you have. But many people who meet one or more of the conditions mentioned above are likely to find that an upgrade could make their practices and lives easier or more profitable. Running WordPerfect 5.1 (DOS) on a Pentium II/300MHz because you know it well and can search and replace on a 50-page brief in under a second is one thing. Running it because a ’286 6Mhz computer leaves no choice is another.
How High is "Up"grading?
"Upgrade or not?" can mean either "replace or repair?" or "add or change some component?" Either way, the question of how much to spend arises. The answer depends, as ever, on what you need and want to do. But for several years, it has been possible to give a fair ballpark figure for a typical lawyer, for whom upgrading means buying new: few lawyers will need to spend much more than $3,000 per seat upgrading to a brand new desktop. Around that price you are likely to get the most for your money.
Instead of buying new, upgrading can involve adding or changing components. Some upgrades of this type are simple and inexpensive. Adding RAM is one. Doing so is easy, very inexpensive, and almost always make a noticeable difference in how fast the computer will do what you tell it to. Other component upgrades are harder for many people. Changing the central processing unit chip is such a task —doable, but potentially frustrating (and often not providing the performance benefits one might expect, since there may be bottlenecks elsewhere, not so easily upgraded). Replacing a hard drive might fall in this category for some people—although there is software available to make the task almost as easy as changing modems. Many typical component upgrades cost only $200 or less. But even the cost of two or three $200 upgrades may make rethinking the "upgrade or buy new" question worthwhile. Putting $600 of new components into a system four years old may not be the best deal.
So think past this month’s budget. You probably wouldn’t put $1,500 into a car worth only $2,000 if you could buy a newer used one for $3,000. Few four-year-old computers are worth more than a few hundred dollars. Getting your money’s worth out of an old machine makes sense. But pouring more money into an old one than you’ll get back out in resale or in saved costs doesn’t.
Needs You May Not Know You Had
Think also past direct task-focused needs. Your client needs your expertise, not just a piece of paper from you. So too, you don’t just need to get a job done; to practice well you also need to know whether there’s a better way. "We’ve gotten along just fine for years as is" is not a sufficient analysis. Attorneys got along just fine for years, writing by hand, and when needed, paying printers to set lead type for briefs by hand. So when considering what you need, always do so in relation to what other lawyers may have, against whom you might have to compete; and in relation to what savings of time or money you might make for yourself, that you couldn’t before.
One way of satisfying the need to know "is there a better way?" is to subscribe to one of the ABA’s e-mail lists where solos or small firm lawyers talk about what they use to make their practices easier. You can find a list of these e-mail groups at
Another need related to upgrades is the need for stability, and for even investment. If you have more than one computer in your office, you should weigh the possible benefits of avoiding having to upgrade all of them at once. By planning to replace some fraction of them—never all—periodically, you can spread costs. Using a rotating schedule can also meet a need to know whether some work you’re currently doing, whose difficulty or time burden you now take for granted, might be done much more easily or quickly. You also never have to risk as much on any single upgrade.
Listing all possible new upgrades to ease a practice would be pointless. But here is a starter list of some areas that many lawyers neglect, not realizing how they might make their lives easier:
Sure you can read the 12" monitor. But you might be surprised how much less eyestrain a 17" or 21" monitor might bring; how much easier it is to do your work with it.
A scanner lets you make a picture of a document once, then use that picture over and over again, without having to rescan it in the photocopier or fax machine. You can copy it, print it, fax it, turn it into a form, annotate it, even turn it into an editable document if you have OCR (optical character recognition) software. This saves time and money on retyping documents from scratch. Not all law offices need one. But yours might profit from it.
Quite apart from the potential benefits of CD-ROM research, so much software comes only on CD-ROMs that if your computer is old enough not to already have a CD-ROM, you may need to upgrade simply to be able to load any other new software you need. In any event, installing from a CD-ROM is often faster than from slower, multiple floppy disks. Installing CD-ROMs on older machines may require installing special drivers, but most brand new computers will come with a CD-ROM already installed.
Every time you print a document just to be able to fax a copy, you lose time and money. It takes time to print the document, costs money for the paper, and takes more time to go get the document from the printer, then go put the document on the fax machine, then wait for it to send. Whether it’s your time or a secretary’s, it’s time wasted. If you or your secretary can fax it from your computer in the background (i.e., and still be able to use the computer to do other work for your clients), you should be better off. There is decent fax software for DOS machines and applications, but the best available is for Windows machines.
Without a modem, you can’t either fax from your computer or send or receive e-mail. E-mail is rapidly becoming as essential as the telephone or fax. Quite apart from making communication with clients easier, e-mail also makes it easier to bounce questions and ideas off colleagues, no matter where located, via e-mail subscriptions to group discussions. The web has glitz; e-mail delivers substance. (There are perfectly good DOS e-mail programs; so this upgrade could be only $100 or less for the modem.)
If you practice with other lawyers, you may want a better way of coordinating many people’s calendars, or who will be using what when. You could use a paper calendar or reservation sheet in a central location. Or you could use networked calendar software. But to do the latter, you would need to network the office’s computers. To do the networking could require an upgrade.
Of course, networking won’t magically change what people do. The software has to actually be used, not merely usable, in order to satisfy a need. If enough lawyers won’t actually use it, you don’t need it, and so shouldn’t upgrade to get it. As always, focus on what you want to do. If you in fact won’t do something, then you don’t really want to.
continuous speech recognition
This is probably not a need yet for most lawyers. If your needs are like most lawyers’, you should keep an eye (or an ear?) on it, but it is still likely to be unsatisfying to many lawyers in typical situations.
New Year’s Eve Next Year
This may be one of the biggest reasons to upgrade sometime in the next year and a half. One might think that a word processor often wouldn’t much care whether it’s 2000, 1900, or 1800, any more than a fountain pen would. But there can be surprises even here. A DOS word processing program might not show a document created in "00" in its "File/Open" menu, for example. Document tracking programs that delete documents based on age may care. And accounting, timekeeping and billing software may greatly care what century it is, as will any case management, tickler, and calendar or docket programs. Do you need to know you can go to work on January 2, 2000?
You may not need to upgrade for any of these reasons. You may not send or receive enough faxes for the timesaving to make any difference; may need more to avoid wasting time on distracting e-mail than on saving time with other e-mail, and so on. That’s fine. So long as you base your decision on what you need and want to do, not what is merely possible to do, you’re using the right approach.
In with the New—But Not Out with the Old?
Unlike car sellers, most computer sellers don’t take trade-ins. Moreover, you may not want to get rid of an old computer as soon as you get a new one. Depending how you have done backups, you may need to keep the old computer long enough after you get the new one, to transfer programs and data from one to the other. You could make the transfer many ways, via back-up media, floppy disks (many, many of them, perhaps), modem to an external storage place, null modem or serial cable, or otherwise. But some transfer will usually be needed.
You could, of course, sell the old computer to someone other than the new computer’s seller. The usual suspects apply: ads in the newspaper, flyers at the local grocery or other neighborhood spot, or a local used-computer store. You might also donate it to a local church or school or nonprofit.
In any event, you face an issue when disposing of your old computer that others don’t. You need to be sure it contains no client secrets or confidences. It’s not enough to "delete" the files. "Deletion" merely removes an index entry of a file’s existence. Where the file was stored, the disk’s magnetic layer still is the way it was—and an interested snoop could still read it. He or she wouldn’t even have to be very technically sophisticated; commonly available utilities let anyone do this.
Indeed, even after another file has been written to the same place on the disk, the magnetic layer may keep enough of a hysteresis "shadow" or "memory" of the previous polarization to allow someone to still read what it used to say. (Athough doing so would take a more sophisticated and equipped snoop.) To avoid the risk of a client’s secrets or confidences being disclosed, you should use software that "wipes" the disk (writing and rewriting random nonsense bits to all places that should be blank, to eliminate all ghosts of their previous magnetization). Throw out or pass on hard disks only if they’ve at least been "wiped" like this.
If you have storage space enough, you might want to not get rid of the old computer at all. It might not meet what you now think of as your new level of needs—but in an emergency that takes out the new computer, you might suddenly find it very useful to be able to pull out the old one, dust it off, and get something done. Or you might choose not to take the old computer out of use at all—rather, use it for jobs you don’t want to use the new one for. You could use it for backup, or as a server, or as a back office machine running only some programs that you don’t need at your fingertips each day.
Parts are often useful for similar reasons. The old keyboard may not be as comfortable as the new one for everyday use. But having it around when the new one has a cup of coffee or a glass of soft drink spilled on it could be a godsend. Likewise for the 31⁄2" floppy drive—or for that matter, the 51⁄4" one. The author recently found that the only copy of a DOS mouse driver needed for a foreign language program he was installing for an exchange student was on a 51⁄4" floppy disk. Being able to pull an old unused drive off a shelf and put it temporarily in her computer so as to install the driver was extremely useful.
You needn’t become a packrat; not everything is likely to be useful. There’s no point in keeping a 2400 and a 9600 modem in addition to the 28,8 modem when you upgrade to the 56K one. Most lawyers wouldn’t find it practical to keep old memory chips around, or to try reusing them (although it’s possible). But a law office that has room for multiple Bates stamps and some old corporate seal presses not used in years can find room for other old, but not broken, equipment. It is cheap insurance. When deciding what to keep and what to throw out, go back to basics yet again: what are you most likely to need? No one carries a spare engine for his or her car; almost everyone has one spare tire or a run-flat system.
You ask clients "what do you want to do?" not "how novel a legal theory would you like to use?" Ask the same about your own needs, when deciding whether and what to upgrade or keep. n
Michael Trittipo is Director of Technology for the Minnesota State Bar Association. He has previously written for the GPSSFL/Technology and Practice Guide on the ethics and technology of encrypting e-mail. In addition to his Pentium, he still sometimes uses a 286/6MHz with a 20M hard drive.