Start-Up Tech for Any Budget

Vol. 31 No. 1

By

Bryan M. Sims (bsims@simslawfirm.com) practices with Sims Law Firm, Ltd., in Naperville, Illinois; he blogs at theconnectedlawyer.com. Nerino J. Petro Jr. (practicehelp@wisbar.org) is the practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

Not that long ago, equipping a law office for $5,000 was considered to be a challenge. While many things in the practice of law have increased in price over the last ten years, the costs of basic computer technology and software have decreased in many instances. As more and more attorneys, whether recent graduates or those leaving firms, open new solo offices, can they obtain the necessary technology on a reasonable budget? Can it be done for $1,000? What happens if you have a slightly larger budget of $2,500 or even $5,000?

To help answer these questions, I have asked my friend Bryan Sims, an Illinois practitioner who left a firm and went solo (and became a blogger at theconnectedlawyer.com), to provide his thoughts on equipping a new solo office. Bryan volunteered to address equipping a new office for $1,000 and $2,500. I will explore the possibilities on a budget of $5,000.

So, Bryan, when did you go solo, and what were the technological challenges you faced?

Thanks, Nerino. About three and one-half years ago, I left the firm I had been with for a number of years and opened my own solo practice. I remember how challenging those first months were, getting everything up and running and making sure that I had the technology I needed to run my practice.

It seemed as though every technology decision required trade-offs that I had to—but didn’t want to—make. Further, monetary constraints often required compromises that were less than ideal. Using my experience over the last few years, I have put together the following guides for buying technology for a new law office.

Obviously the solutions that I pick will not be perfect for everyone. However, the principles that I talk about should get you well on the way to properly equipping your office. Also, the prices I give here were what were available when I wrote this article. As with all technology, the prices change regularly, sometimes daily.

Equipping a Law Office for $1,000

Computer. The first thing that any new office needs is a computer. Obviously, there are a number of choices available. It’s easy to go to a big-box store and pick up whatever is on sale. I am typically not a fan of this approach for business-critical machines. Instead, I prefer buying a computer made for the business world. This usually means ordering one.

The real benefit to a business-level machine rather than a consumer machine available at retail is the level of support that you get. Typically, with a business machine, you receive technical support that is based in the United States and is manned by people who actually know what they are doing and are not simply following a script. Further, many of these machines come with on-site, next-business-day support. This means that if something on your computer breaks, a technician will be at your office the next business day to fix it. Try getting a big-box store to do that.

I am also a big proponent of using a laptop as a main computer. This gives you the flexibility to work from a variety of places. As I write this, Lenovo (lenovo.com) has a number of good deals on a variety of different laptops. I want a decent computer but would like to keep the cost at no more than 50 percent of my budget. The closest deal that I found for this is a Lenovo E431, 14” laptop, with an Intel i3, 2.4 GHz processor, Windows 8 Pro 64, a 500 GB hard drive, and 4 GB of RAM for $571. You can find other, similar models from that price to about $700 from both Lenovo and Dell (dell.com).

Printer and scanner. I am a big fan of the paperless office. This means that you need a scanner to scan documents into your computer and a printer to print them out. Normally, I am not a fan of multifunction machines. However, we are on a limited budget here, and a combination unit is really the only way to stick within that budget, even though scanning speeds are generally much slower with these than with a dedicated desktop scanner.

I found a Brother DCP-7065DN on Amazon for $130. It prints and copies at 27 pages per minute (ppm). It also includes automatic duplexing, as well as the ability to scan to file, scan to e-mail, etc. The copying and scanning features include an automatic document feeder with a 35-page capacity. This will likely do everything that you need and at a reasonable price.

Productivity software. Next we need some software to run on your computer. The first thing you need is some type of word-processing software. If you are on a really tight budget, you can always use Open Office (openoffice.org), which is free, or Google Apps for Business ($50 per year; google.com). However, the choice I would make, and the one that is most common, is Microsoft Office (microsoft.com).

When buying Microsoft Office, it pays to shop around. For example, both Lenovo and Dell give you the option to purchase the software when you buy a computer. At Dell, I could get Office Home and Business 2013 for $190. At Lenovo, it was $220. On the other hand, you can get a one-year subscription to the cloud-based Office 365 Small Business Premium for $150. However, I found the best deal on Amazon. It is Office Home and Business 2013 for $166. It’s only a few dollars more than the Office 365 subscription, and I don’t have to pay a yearly fee for it.

In addition to Microsoft Office, you also need software to handle PDFs. Remember, we want to reduce paper; that means a greater reliance on PDFs. Given that we have only $133 left in our budget, Adobe Acrobat is not even a consideration. Fortunately, there are other options available. A possible choice is Nitro PDF Pro 9 (nitropdf.com). It has almost all the features of Acrobat Professional for significantly less money. Its price tag of $139.99 technically puts us $6.99 over our budget. That is fine, however, because I am going with a different option: Nuance PDF Converter Enterprise 8.0 (nuance.com). This version, which is comparable to Acrobat XI Pro, is normally only available in an enterprise setting. However, CDW (cdw.com) will sell you a single license for $122. This leaves us $11.

Although it is possible to do all your accounting and billing on paper or within Excel, that is far from an ideal solution. Fortunately, accounting software is not too pricey. QuickBooks Online (quickbooks.intuit.com) is available for $13 per month. This gives you invoicing ability as well as accounting capabilities in one place—and puts us a mere $2 over our budget on the day we open.

Backups. You always need to back up your data. Having it only on your computer simply ensures that one day you will lose it. But right now, we’re already $2 over our budget. Given that, I would start with using the free data storage available from companies such as Dropbox (dropbox.com), Spider Oak (spideroak.com), or Box (box.com). These services offer you secure data storage for free, as long as the amount of data you have falls within their limits. Once you have more data and a little more money, you can expand your backup options.

Just a few more dollars. If I had just a few more dollars over that $1,000, I would likely first invest them in increasing the power of the computer. As equipped, the laptop identified above is perfectly capable of the word processing, e-mail, and Internet browsing that most attorneys require. However, it never hurts to spruce things up a little. For example, for only an additional $80, you can increase the RAM from 4 GB to 8 GB. This would be the first change I would make if I could find an extra $80.

Similarly, although an i3 processor is fine, you can upgrade to an i5 for $70 or to an i7 for $205. Either upgrade will make a difference in how your computer operates now and in the future.

Finally, if I had a few more dollars, I would likely put it toward time and billing/case management software. Obviously, full-featured traditional software would cost you more than just a few extra dollars. However, it is possible to add cloud-based services that meet this need. For example, a month of Clio ($49; goclio.com), Rocket Matter ($59.99; rocketmatter.com), or MyCase ($39; mycase.com) falls within most people’s budgets, and it allows you to properly organize and track your files and clients.

Is this setup the best that money can buy? Of course not, we had only $1,000. However, with these items, you can run a law office quite well and without any problems.

Equipping a Law Office for $2,500

If you have a slightly larger budget, your options expand a little. My basic philosophies do not change. However, I can make some improvements in some of the devices that I buy.

Computer. Given a slightly larger budget, I would definitely go for a little more power. I found a Lenovo Ultrabook S431 with an Intel i7 3.1 GHz processer, Windows 8 Pro, 8 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB hard drive for $918. Best of all, Lenovo claims that this device will run for six hours with the included battery and weighs only 3.92 pounds.

This is a good choice and what I would likely go with at this price point. As noted earlier, however, similarly priced and equipped computers are available from other providers such as Dell.

Printer and scanner. As I noted above, I am not a big fan of multifunction devices. The main problem is that if one part breaks, you have lost both your printer and your scanner. Because of this, I like to keep different devices for different functions. If you don’t agree with that philosophy, you can grab the multifunction Brother DCP-7065DN that I discussed above.

But I want separate devices. For a printer, I will get the Brother HL-5470DW (brother-usa.com). This is a monochrome laser printer that prints at 40 ppm. It includes wireless and Ethernet connections and automatic duplexing. It holds 300 sheets of paper and is available at Amazon for $170. If you would like the option of a second paper tray, you can get the HL-5470DWT. I am a fan of the second paper tray, but the price increase to $335 is too steep for me right now.

Now that we have a printer, we also need a scanner. For this, I would go with the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 (fujitsu.com). This is available on Amazon for $405. It scans at 25 ppm. In so doing, it scans both sides of a page at the same time. This means that you do not have to worry about missing something on the back side of a sheet of paper.

Additionally, the ScanSnap includes a copy of Adobe Acrobat X Standard. I believe that most attorneys should make use of the additional features that are found in Acrobat Pro. However, Acrobat is an expensive piece of software, and getting the Standard version for free is not something to ignore.

The best thing about the ScanSnap, and why I recommend it to anyone that I talk to, is that it is so easy to use. You simply put your document in the automatic document feeder and press the blue button. Shortly thereafter, the document appears on your computer screen.

Productivity software. Heading to the software portion of the budget, we have $1,007 left. As I noted earlier, Microsoft Office is available at a variety of different price points. As before, I see no reason not to go with Office Home and Business 2013 for $166 from Amazon.

If you hate Microsoft, you can go with WordPerfect. The X6 Legal Edition is available for $379.99 from WordPerfect’s website (corel.com), or WordPerfect Office X6 Standard is available from WordPerfect’s website for $130.

Just as before, you need something to handle your PDFs. Although the ScanSnap comes with Adobe Acrobat Standard, Acrobat Pro has a few features that attorneys need and will justify the additional upgrade cost. These features include things such as redaction, PDF document comparison, and form creation in Adobe FormsCentral. Typically the cost of upgrading from standard to pro is $200. At the time of the writing of this article, however, the upgrade is only $170.

Despite this discount, however, I will again grab the Nuance PDF Converter Enterprise 8.0 from CDW for $122. It has the features that I need, it works well, and it saves me a few dollars.

The other key piece of software that I need is something for my accounting. I would likely go with QuickBooks Pro 2014. From Amazon, it is $180. The real benefit to this software is its popularity. Any accountant that you hire should know how to work with QuickBooks.

Although QuickBooks also can do time and billing, I prefer something legal specific for this. Plus, I believe that a large number of efficiencies are gained by using legal-specific case management software. In this instance, I would likely go cloud-based, selecting from Clio ($49), Rocket Matter ($59.99), or MyCase ($39). Each of these works slightly differently, and one may work better for you than another. For purposes of this article, I will use the midrange price point ($49) as our cost for this service.

Backups and security. Good backups are a key component to any computer setup. I recommend, at a minimum, at least one local backup and one remote backup. For a local backup, an external hard drive will work just fine. A 500 GB Western Digital My Passport is available from Amazon for $65. When you have more money to spend, you might consider buying another for extra security; that way you’d have one to keep at home and one for the office.

Also, you need a remote location to back up your data. MozyPro is available for $26.98 per month for 50 GB (mozy.com), Carbonite is available for $59.99 per year for unlimited storage (carbonite.com), and CrashPlan+ Unlimited is also available for $59.99 per year (code42.com). Given these choices, I would go with one of the $59.99 yearly plans.

In addition to having a good backup system, you should also have antivirus software. A variety of these software packages are available from a number of different companies (Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky, Bitdefender, Trend Micro, AVG, etc.). I typically choose the one that has the best balance between price and reviews. In looking at the prices, it appears that most are priced between $15 and $40. I will figure this cost at $30.

In addition to having antivirus software, you should also protect your computer with encryption. I am a fan of TrueCrypt (truecrypt.org). It’s secure, it works great, and it is free. Unfortunately, TrueCrypt does not yet have a version that is compatible with Windows 8. If I elect that for the operating system, I will need to choose another encryption product. Right now I would probably go with Symantec Drive Encryption, which retails for $94 (symantec.com).

Tablet. We have $241 of the $2,500 left. I want to spend it on a tablet. I have used a tablet in my practice for more than a year now, and I love it. I use mine all the time and do not hesitate to recommend it to anyone. It is especially useful if you have a paperless office. With a tablet, you can easily retrieve your documents from anywhere that you can get an Internet connection.

Given the money left in the budget, I would likely exceed my budget slightly and grab the 32 GB Google Nexus 7. It is available on Amazon for $269. This puts me $28 over the budget. If I absolutely could not spend that extra $28, I would go with the 16 GB version for $229.

Either choice gives you a great device at a reasonable price. A close runner-up in this selection would be the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3, which is available for $280 for the 8” version with 16 GB of memory.

Just a few more dollars. If I had just a few more dollars to spend, I would likely consider the following options. First, I am a big fan of FileCenter for file management. It is not document management software, but it has a large number of features that make it a great solution for managing your files. It is available at lucion.com, and the pro version costs $199.95.

Second, I would likely look at adding one or two external monitors to my setup. I use two external monitors at my office desk; however, adding one is a good place to start for most people. The monitors that I recently purchased are 21.5” and cost $188 each. Depending on your preferences and the quality that you demand, you will likely spent $120 to $250 per monitor.

Additionally, I recommend a wireless keyboard and mouse. These are available from about $50 to $150. I recently purchased a Logitech MK710 keyboard/mouse combo for $70 (logitech.com) and have been happy with it.

Finally, if I had a just a few more dollars, I would likely forgo the Nexus 7 and grab an iPad mini. The new iPad mini with Retina display costs between $399 and $829, depending on the amount of memory that you want and whether you want a cellular connection. My recommendation here is to buy as much memory as you can afford. My primary reason for grabbing an iPad over an Android tablet is that there are a number of legal-specific iPad apps that just are not available for Android tablets, such as TrialPad, TranscriptPad, and iJuror, to name a few. I use several of these apps in my practice, and all things being equal, I prefer a device that will handle the legal-specific apps.

As I noted above, my choices for this budget point may not be right for everyone; for instance, you may hate my printer choice. However, I hope that I have given you something to consider when equipping your office for $2,500.

Equipping a Law Office for $5,000

Computer: I agree with Bryan that going with a laptop can make a lot of sense for a new solo office. In addition to Bryan’s reasoning about buying a business-class machine, I will add that you are also able to purchase Windows 7 Professional or Windows 8 Professional when buying a business-class machine. These are the operating systems of choice for your office.

I’m going to take a different approach than Bryan, however, and start with a dedicated desktop machine in the office: the Dell XPS 8700 desktop with Windows 8 Pro 64-bit, a fourth-generation Intel core i7 CPU, 8 GB of memory, a 1 TB hard drive, and 802.11 and Bluetooth wireless capabilities. It includes one year of next-business-day service and McAfee LiveSafe Internet protection. The cost at the time of writing was $799.99.

The Logitech MK710 wireless keyboard/mouse combination for $70 that Bryan likes is a good choice, so I’ll go with that as well. Then I’ll add two monitors: the Acer S231HLBbid from newegg.com for $139.99 each. I’ll add a Planar 997-5253-00 dual monitor stand for $79.99 to hold both of them and make it easier to rotate them between portrait and landscape mode.

So the total for the dual monitor computer desktop system is $1,229.96.

Printer and scanner: If you can afford it, having a desktop scanner along with a printer is more productive and more efficient than having just a desktop multifunction machine such as the Brother DCP-7065DN or even a larger version from companies such as Kyocera or Konica. The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 just plain works and for $405 is a good deal. I’m going to go with an inkjet for my printer, as many models now cost no more than laser printers to operate. Plus, I like the ability to print in color. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8600 Premium is a multifunction printer that can attach to a network or wireless device. It scans, prints, and faxes, has built-in duplex printing, and comes with two 250-sheet paper trays and both a starter set and a full replacement set of ink cartridges. Amazon price $246. Total for scanner and printer is $651.

Productivity software: Here I will make a different choice than Bryan: Office 365 Small Business Premium for $150 per year. Not only do you get desktop versions of MS Office but also web streaming versions along with 50 GB of Outlook e-mail storage.

I’ve been a long-time Acrobat user and continue to use it on a daily basis. However, if I had to buy it new, I would forgo the Acrobat XI Professional upgrade and save $30, opting for Nitro Pro 9 for $139.99. Version 9 adds features such as Outlook integration, and it has the best user interface by far of any of the major PDF creation packages.

For practice management, time, billing, and accounting, I’ll opt for online products such as Clio for practice management and Xero for accounting (xero.com) or use ActionStep (actionstep.com), which includes accounting. This puts the price at approximately $70 per month or $840 for the year.

I also like FileCenter from Lucion software as it works with both desktop and cloud-based storage, including DropBox and Google Drive. FileCenter adds $199 to the total.

Backups and security. I like having redundancy when it comes to protecting my data but also like being able to access it when I am out of the office. I’d love to add an ioSafe 214 network-attached storage device (iosafe.com), but it is just too much for my remaining budget. Instead, I’ll opt for two of the new Transporter Sync devices for $99.99 each (filetransporter.com) and pair them with two STBV2000100 Seagate Expansion 2 TB USB 3.0 external desktop hard drives for $89.99 each (seagate.com). One will be at the office and the other will be at home. I can synchronize files between Transporters as well as between computers and mobile devices. I get backup and a private cloud with no ongoing monthly charges. I’m still going to want to back up my critical data online, and the options that Bryan gave are fine. So I will include $60 per year for a single computer using a personal backup plan. For the purposes of this article, I will select CrashPlan, which I already use. One of the features that I like about CrashPlan is its ability to back up to external drives as well as continuous online backups of selected files.

We already took care of the anti-virus and malware protection with the McAfee LiveSafe subscription for the first year with the computer purchase. After the first year, you can renew your McAfee subscription or use one of the other products available such as Avast Internet Security (avast.com) or Norton Internet Security (norton.com). As I opted for Windows Pro and will immediately upgrade to Windows 8.1 when I get my system, I can use Windows built-in BitLocker encryption to protect my system.

Laptop and tablet: I still have $1,350.09 dollars to spend, so what shall it be? If I am going to work with Windows 8, then ideally my tablet and a laptop should also run Windows 8. There are times where you need a laptop and times where you want something you can hold in one hand. With my remaining budget I’m going to get both. I have the option of buying a Dell Venue Pro 8” Windows 8 tablet at the same time I buy the computer for $299.99, so I will add that to the computer order. For my laptop, I’m going to opt for a new 2-in-1 device, specifically a Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13” (model 59366357), which after coupon on the Lenovo website is $1,099. The Yoga has an Intel third-generation Core i5 CPU, 8 GB of memory, 256 GB SSD, and Windows 8 64-bit. It works as laptop or, if you fold the screen over, as a tablet.

So with everything I’ve detailed, the total comes to $5,048.90—just a tad over our budget. Your costs may vary based on the time you buy, what discounts are offered, and tax rates that apply. You can make different decisions and opt for a laptop rather than a desktop and put additional money into a different printer or desktop practice management, time, billing, and accounting software. The reality of having $5,000 to spend on technology is that you can do quite a bit with the amount today—more than what you could have done just a few years ago.

Conclusion

We will leave you with these final thoughts:

$1,000 gets you the basic technology needed for a new solo office.

$2,500 gets you a better technology base and is probably a more realistic amount to budget.

$5,000 opens up your options and allows you to build a stronger technology base that will require less upgrading in the near term.

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