GPSOLO December 2009
High-Tech Penny Pinching
Penny pinching is certainly a timely topic. Cutbacks, tightening of money everywhere, red ink in the financial industry, reductions to corporate general counsels’ budgets, and cutbacks and furloughs in state government have dominated the news for 2009, and there’s no indication 2010 will bring an abrupt change.
So how can lawyers, particularly solos and small firm lawyers, use technology to save a few pennies (or dollars)?
Well, if you really examine the application of technology to saving money, you have to note first the age-old aphorism that time is money. Most lawyers—and, in fact, most individuals—seem to find themselves with more things to do than time to do them. Too many penny-pinching ideas have the potential to cost you too much time for too little benefit.
Technology is supposed to save us time, but “cheaping out” with technology that wastes our time is no value at all.
Adopting penny-pinching tools that cost people a lot of time in the workplace would defeat the purpose, particularly for a solo lawyer.
Use What You Have, Just Use It Better
It you don’t have a dozen word-processing keyboard shortcuts that you’ve committed to memory and use routinely, you are not a power user. If you don’t routinely use macros as you draft your documents and correspondence, you are using your powerful twenty-first-century word-processing software less efficiently than legal secretaries used IBM Selectric typewriters a few decades ago.
I know you’ve heard it many times before, but it’s true: Training is an important part of the equation of technological thrift. It is often extremely challenging for lawyers or law firm staff to take off an entire day for a training class. Most of us feel that we retain more from “bite-sized” bits of training rather than an entire day, anyway. Many products now have free online training videos, and some are even geared for the legal profession, such as the free Adobe Acrobat training videos and numerous step-by-step sets of instructions for law firm tasks provided by Adobe’s Rick Borstein—just do a Google search for “acrolaw.” (For more on training, see the article “Effective Software Training for Law Offices” on page 20 of this issue.)
Tightwads Carry Laptops
This may seem unusual to some—a laptop will generally cost more than a similarly equipped desktop. But generally speaking, a laptop is now suggested for the solo or small firm lawyer because you can take your work with you anywhere. A true tightwad would never own two separate computers when one would do. This is true even if you have a home computer, at least if it is used by other family members. Even a tightwad recognizes the danger of finding out the home computer has been gummed up because of malware, numerous add-ons, or other issues that impact too many family systems when you need to spend the evening working on a brief.
The true tightwad will have a laptop computer dedicated to professional use, unless he or she lives very close to the law office.
So what about the latest trend in hardware, the netbook? A netbook is essentially a low-powered small laptop. Many lawyers who are power computer users will never be happy with a netbook and will desire to purchase more powerful hardware. Some lawyers will opt for a desktop system and also have a netbook for road trips and working at home. But for the lawyer on a very tight budget, a netbook (at around $300) may provide an option to use the Internet and do word processing in the office and anywhere else. Even the tightest tightwad will probably opt for an external monitor and full-sized keyboard to attach to the netbook when working in the office. Probably this solution will not suffice for the long term, but for the lawyer on an extremely tight budget, it is workable nevertheless. (For more on netbooks, see this issue’s “Road Warrior” column on page four.)
One of the ironies of a netbook purchase is that buying Microsoft Office to have word-processing, spreadsheet, and other basic applications could exceed the cost of the computer itself. Many are turning to the Open-Office suite available at www.openoffice.org for a completely free office suite. The statements on the Open-Office website are pretty clear:
OpenOffice.org 3 can be downloaded and used entirely free of any licence (sic) fees. OpenOffice.org 3 is released under the LGPL licence. This means you may use it for any purpose—domestic, commercial, educational, public administration. You may install it on as many computers as you like. You may make copies and give them away to family, friends, students, employees—anyone you like.
Others may turn to Corel’s Word-Perfect Office suite ( www.corel.com), long a mainstay of many law offices, as a less expensive alternative to Microsoft Office.
Although this article is written from a PC-centric point of view, many satisfied lawyers use Apple computers in their law practices and would make the point that, even though the initial acquisition costs are higher for Macs, they are the true value proposition when you factor in the user’s time, training, reduced concerns over malware, and fewer needed additional software purchases.
And while we are discussing the hardware, it should be noted that inkjet printers may have a seductively low price but have much higher costs of operation and may not provide the result a professional wants. The true tightwad recognizes that the office printer is no place for a lawyer to opt for the least-expensive option.
Bargain hunting makes the tightwad feel that life is truly worth living. The Internet provides many opportunities for great deals.
But the time-value continuum still plays out here. To be a great value shopper, you have to do your homework well in advance. Some of the best deals online are the clearance specials and one-day specials where a limited number of some items are promoted by mass e-mail. Some truly great deals can be obtained in this way, but you must have done advance homework, as the items may sell out in 20 minutes or an hour. And if you haven’t researched in advance, what looks like a good deal may not be one when you unpack it.
Sites such as www.pricegrabber.com and www.dealuniversity.com are searchable and give you a great opportunity to comparison shop. They also feature great deals from various merchants. You see a list of the day’s featured bargains, and a click of the mouse button takes you to the vendor’s site. You should also check Google Product Search (click on the “Shopping” link from the Google home page) to apply the power of Google to your online shopping.
It is a personal preference whether you want just to visit the sites periodically or subscribe to their e-mail alerts for bargains. Other bargain shopping sites for technology items include www.geeks.com, www.tigerdirect.com, www.surpluscomputers.com, and www.jandr.com.
Online auction site eBay ( www.ebay.com) has become a household name. But many do not realize that there are now a huge number of online vendors on eBay selling at a fixed price. Although you would assume all of these bargains may be located through Google Product Search, anecdotal evidence suggests that may not be always true and that you may find a better price for some types of items by searching eBay directly.
Here’s one search tip that may help from time to time. Every item has a unique identifier assigned to it called a SKU, or stock-keeping unit. When you find the item you want listed online and want to look further, you can copy the SKU into your clipboard and paste it into the search function of search engines or shopping sites. This isn’t foolproof, as merchants sometimes add codes to the SKU to designate color or other variables.
If you really want to bargain shop, an old-fashioned subscription to Consumer Reports ( www.consumerreports.org) may be in order, as well as visiting the various sites with product reviews, such as www.cnet.com, www.pcmag.com, and www.pcworld.com.
Just because you prefer to buy from a brick-and-mortar store in your community doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check online. This writer has used Internet coupons several times. The best experience was seeing an Internet special for a 42-inch flat-screen TV. When I got to the store, the price was right, but the TV was only 37 inches in size. I mentioned this to the clerk, and he said, “Yeah, since it was the same price as the 37-inch and we only received two, we just left them in the back for the first two people who asked. You want one?”
I’m watching that TV as I write this.
Marketing Your Practice Online
Lawyers who have paid for traditional advertising in newspapers or Yellow Pages know how expensive that can be. Internet advertising can be much, much cheaper—or just as expensive, depending on what you chose to do and how much professional assistance you require. If you are going to hire a professional website designer, do yourself a favor and shop around. A lot.
If you are adventuresome or starting on a shoestring budget, you can find some companies that will let you reserve your domain name and host a basic website for a very inexpensive rate. Some even have templates for the do-it-yourselfer to build a simple site in a few minutes. When I learned my own name was available as a dot-com, I took the advice of a local tightwad and used Verio.com to register my domain and host a simple site for the price of $20 for two years. That price even included a single e-mail address, to be forwarded to another account. To have a personal website and a business e-mail for that domain at $10 per year is a tightwad bargain. (Note: As the lawyer starts promoting his or her website, a large number of visitors may exceed the band-wdith allowed under these ultra-bargain basic packages. But you’ll likely be happy to pay extra for that.)
Most lawyers should also invest some time in building free online profiles as well. A Google profile is absolutely free for those who register with Google and will appear at the bottom of the page of search results when someone searches for the individual’s name in Google. The Google profile can provide links to the attorney’s website and online content as well as biographical information.
Social networking sites are booming, and many lawyers are actively participating in and networking through services such as Facebook and Twitter. Whether this is the right concept for you and would be effective for you is for you to decide. But it is not debatable that these activities, although completely cost-free, do require an investment of your time.
However, Linked-In ( www.linkedin.com) is a business-oriented site that allows you to publish an online résumé that is mostly available to everyone and indexed by the search engines. Historically, Linked-In has not had as much of the posting and interactivity of the other social networking sites, although it is adding more of that now. But there seems to be no reason why you shouldn’t have a Linked-In profile, publish it to the world, and allow others to link to you, even if you feel you do not have time for a significant investment in online social networking. (For more online marketing tips, see the article “Law Firm Marketing 2.0” on page 32 of this issue.)
Software and Services: Free Is Always a Great Price
In the early days of computing, shareware and free software utilities were a part of many computer users’ bags of tricks. Now the function of many of these utilities has been incorporated into larger applications or the operating system. But there are still several totally free applications that can make a lawyer’s life easier.
The value of having the ability to do a full text search of all documents on your computer or of all e-mails lurking in your in-box in other folders cannot be overstated. Microsoft Vista included a decent desktop search function, but many prefer a separate application (and many still use XP rather than Vista). Google and Yahoo offer desktop search functions, but many consumers prefer an application not associated with these giants. Copernic ( www.copernic.com) offers an award-winning desktop search utility you can download and install for free.
Many lawyers and consultants (including this writer) believe that all lawyers need to have a copy of Adobe Acrobat Professional to create and manage PDF files, among other things. It is a powerful, popular, multifaceted tool. A competitor is Nuance’s PDF Converter Professional 6 ( www.nuance.com), which offers a lot of PDF creation and management features for a more affordable price of $99. There are also some very inexpensive utilities that serve as a PDF printer, such as Cute-PDF ( www.cutepdf.com) and pdf995 ( www.pdf995.com). However, these programs do not have the features that Adobe Acrobat and PDF Converter include and are really of limited use. For those who have upgraded to Microsoft Office 2007, a free Microsoft Office Add-In, called Microsoft Save as PDF, can be downloaded at http://tinyurl.com/2oreng. Word-Perfect users have had PDF printing functionality included for many years now.
Many lawyers are learning that web-conferencing software, which allows lawyers to share a desktop with others, can be a time-saving tool, as when several lawyers need to proof a document. Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro ( www.adobe.com) is one of many tools that provide web-conferencing for a monthly fee. However, Adobe Acrobat Connect-Now supports up to three meeting participants in its free version. Dim-dim ( www.dimdim.com) is another web-conferencing service. It allows you to web-conference with up to 20 participants with its free version.
Although the free calculator supplied with Windows is functional, a much better calculator is Moffsoft Free-Calc, available for free download at www.moffsoft.com/freecalc.htm.
Of course, it is hard to discuss great free services without mentioning all of the free services from Google. Everyone knows of Google search, but registering with Google gives you access to Google’s great Gmail service, the online Google Docs (a great way to jointly prepare a document among co-authors), Spreadsheets, Google calendar, the ability to build a customizable home page with iGoogle, its Picasa digital photo service, and many more free applications.
Microsoft OneNote ( http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/onenote) is a popular digital notebook and organizer application and is a great tool at $99.95. Evernote ( www.evernote.com) is a similar application that allows you to store your digital information in an online notebook that can be accessed by any of your devices (and on your computer when off-line) for free. Its built-in OCR (optical character recognition) makes text inside images searchable. However, if you start using Evernote frequently, you may end up subscribing to the premium version at $45 per year.
We all know that deleting a file doesn’t mean it is really gone. Sometimes lawyers need to clean a hard drive, whether it is to take it home for a family computer or to get rid of some buried infestation. Try Darik’s Boot and Nuke ( www.dban.org) at our favorite price: free.
Skype ( www.skype.com) is well known as an Internet-based telephone and web-conferencing service. It is free to connect with other Skype users, and one can call all phones worldwide with either the pay-as-you-go or the monthly flat-rate subscription service.
Remember the Milk ( www.rememberthemilk.com) is a powerful to-do list site that gives you several ways to get reminders (e-mail, SMS, IM) and many ways to create those reminders.
You can be a tightwad and be more green at the same time with Green-Print ( www.printgreener.com ), which gives a preview window so you can see only what you need when printing a web page. We’ve all had the experience of printing a web page and finding more rolled off the printer than we wanted or needed.
There are lots of offers for free downloads of utilities and other programs online. But downloading and installing something is a good way to infect your computer with malware. The tools listed in this article are mainstream and can generally be assumed to be safe. (As always, you download at your own risk.) But if you learn of a new downloadable that sounds great, it is suggested that you see if it is available from the download service at cnet ( http://download.cnet.com/windows); that way, you have some assurance that it is safe and malware-free.
I hope the above tools will help you practice law more smartly and cheaply at the same time. Remember, even after the economy begins to improve, pinching pennies will never go out of style.
Jim Calloway is the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program. His award-winning blog is Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com, and he is co-producer of the monthly podcast The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology at www.abanet.org/lpm/lpt.