GPSolo Magazine - December 2003
Mac: The New Lawyer’s Best Friend
As a solo, I’ve had an all-Macintosh law office since the early 1980s; over the years I have added and tweaked things so they work well for me. If you’re just starting to set up your own office, you may face this task with some trepidation. This need not be the case, however, because in today’s world, having a Macintosh may well be one of the best things you can do for yourself.
First, it is true that Macs presently inhabit relatively few law offices. However, with the ease of networking provided by cable or wireless and the underlying benefits of OSX (10.2, Jaguar, was upgraded to Panther in late October), a lawyer needn’t have the same computer as everyone else. (Indeed, I know of one lawyer with his Mac who was the only one online and operational in an office of 200 when a virus struck all their Windows machines a few months ago.) You should evaluate your needs based on personal choice and economics. In both areas, getting a Mac and running OSX gives you a premium experience.
There’s no doubt that the design of Macintosh computers is aesthetically pleasing, and your new computer will turn heads. I have the Cube (the handsome, totally silent “box” of a computer) and just upgraded it because I won’t be parted from it, even for a newer machine. Together with my Apple Cinema display, the unit catches the eye of everyone coming into my office, as does the flat-panel 800 MHz iMac that my paralegal uses and my titanium Powerbook that I take on travels. If you have to spend a lot of time with a computer, you might as well enjoy pleasant company!
Although Macintosh computers traditionally have seemed to cost more than PCs, the total cost of a system is not only what you shell out for the box itself but also the total for software purchases, upgrades, support, security systems, and maintenance. Studies have shown that Mac ownership actually is less costly over a period of years than are the virus-prone, constantly changing PC boxes running Windows. As for maintenance, I find myself working directly on my computers, fixing problems myself and rarely needing to call in a consultant or tech person. Usually I can resolve problems myself, through calling Apple support (the warranty period covers three years with the purchase of Apple Care, which is well worth it) or asking friends in my local user group or the MacLaw list (www.maclaw.org).
Assuming that you’ve decided to get a Mac, what should you do next? You can buy a refurbished or used Mac or a new one, but if you’re just starting out, it might make sense (financially and otherwise) to get a refurbished machine, running OSX, from a reputable vendor (such as www.smalldog.com or www.powermax.com). For example, refurbished iMacs, including at least a 40 GB hard drive, CPU, and monitor, can be found for as little as $700 to $1,300, depending on the chosen configuration. Your next decision will be whether to get a laptop or a desktop model. If you decide to spring for new hardware, the new G5s seem to have a lot going for them in terms of computing power and price—perhaps more than you may like or need (unless you’re into gaming). For example, a new, roaring-fast G5 with an 80 GB hard drive as well as other features now sells for $1,800 and up, depending on how you configure it. For the most part lawyers don’t do super-computing; we communicate, research, and write. All you need is a machine that will help you do these things efficiently. Increasing numbers of attorneys are getting laptops as their main computer, making sure they choose models with large monitors (like a 15- or 17-inch Powerbook) or employing “mirroring,” connecting the Powerbook to a larger, separate monitor through software and cabling. Either way, using a laptop as a main computer is economical and handy. The unveiling at the Paris Expo this past fall of Apple’s three new Powerbooks, with even more power at excellent prices, makes this option even more tempting (they range from about $1,500 for the 12-inch up to $3,000 for the 17-inch model, again, depending on how you configure the computer).
Having a portable Powerbook—the 867MHz model—works for me. It’s fast enough to handle the usual lawyerly pursuits and also has a CD burner (and reader) so I can read or make CD copies. It has an airport card, which allows Internet and network connections through the use of wireless technology, in the office or at a coffee shop, and I can painlessly connect to the Internet when traveling, either through the internal modem or a wireless account. The main danger of using a laptop as your primary machine is the same one that crops up with any computer that is a primary storage unit: possible destruction and loss. If, however, you get into the habit of making regular backups of all your files (as you should!), you should be fine. The Mac.com site is great for off-site backup storage capability, or you can set up an external FireWire hard drive or burn to CDs. I cannot stress too much that regularly backing up your computer’s data is a must—the information may be irreplaceable, and also you owe it to yourself and your clients to guard and preserve confidential information.
Regardless of the computer you choose, you will need other machines and software in your new office. Because deciding on these can seem overwhelming, here is a list of items and considerations that can help you envision the various needs of your law office:
1. Dialup, cable, or DSL? If you can get either of the last two, do. You’ll have continuous Internet access and will be able to conduct research without wading through volumes of cases or waiting for your modem to connect. If you opt for DSL or cable or will be online for long stretches of time, you must have some sort of firewall protection. Continuous web access opens you up to attacks from hackers and other vandals. OSX provides its own firewall, which may suffice, but getting a router or hub that will provide a hardware version may be the better option. Software applications also can provide virus and firewall protection.
Of course, your risk of being infected with a virus is limited somewhat by having a Mac and using the OSX system, but you can never be too careful—it’s best to have at least one antivirus program on your computer. If you sign up for a .Mac account through Apple ($99.95 per year, www.apple.com), you will receive a free Virex program, which may be enough to cover you at the beginning.
2. Peripherals? You can get various stand-alone printers, copiers, fax machines, scanners, and the like, but be sure to consider relatively inexpensive multifunction machines that do all these things in one box. To be perfectly honest, some do not scan well with OSX, so determine whether that is a function you really need. Others do just fine, a few with the help of software programs such as VueScan (www.Hamrick.com), which increases the machine’s functionality.
I’ve already mentioned getting an external FireWire hard drive that can double as a backup disk or even go from office to home and back with you. If you do opt for a Powerbook or iMac, you’ll have a CD burner, which is convenient if you want to take documents or files with you on disk rather than paper. I’ve frequently copied a client’s entire digital folder and had pleadings and discovery easily accessible when out of town for a deposition or investigation.
3. Backup system: I cannot state it too often: Get reliable backup software—and use it. I use Retrospect from Dantz (www.dantz.com), but there are many fine products on the market. LaCie (www.lacie.com), which makes external FireWire hard drives, provides a free program (Silverkeeper) that works well. Another benefit of .Mac membership is the free software program Backup, which will do much the same thing.
4. Productivity software: Although I try to avoid Microsoft products (having AppleWorks and the translator MacLinkPlus allows me to do that easily), it may be just as easy to buy Office v. X and have clear cross-platform capability without the need for translation. Other OSX alternatives on the market may be less expensive than Office, so check around; the open source market is quite active these days.
5. Financial software: You will need time and billing software, financial accounting software, and perhaps record-keeping software. I currently use Timeslips (www.timeslips.com) for Mac but soon will convert to a FileMaker Pro (www.filemaker.com) template-based system because Timeslips will not be upgraded to OSX. FileMaker Pro lets you keep records and other data and also track time—and produce the bills and invoices that will help keep your lights on. I use Quicken for Mac (www.quicken.com), others I know use MYOB AccountEdge (www.myob.com), and a number of other similar programs exist. The main necessity is for financial and timekeeping/billing programs to be reliable, properly record your time, and provide a clear audit trail of business income, expenses, and trust account activity. For further information, you should consult my earlier “Mac User” column, “ Alternatives to Timeslips Billing Software” ( GPSolo, June 2003).
Additional peripheral hardware such as address labelers and software applications such as calendaring and media might be useful, but it also might be best to wait a bit before investigating these. As a new solo, your focus will be the efficient and effective practice of law. With a Macintosh computer and the basic software and hardware discussed above, you’ll be able to practice on a par with any firm.
Victoria L. Herring practices in Des Moines, Iowa, in an office that has used only Apple/Macs since the early 1980s. She can be reached at email@example.com.