Opening up to open source software can save the solo practitioner thousands of dollars in software licensing fees, yet most attorneys do not embrace such solutions to cut costs. Open source software is often more functional than its commercial competitors.
The open source movement grew out of frustration with large software companies refusing to release their proprietary software code. Companies that build operating systems and software applications need independent developers to improve the value of their own products. It is the wide compatibility of third-party software that makes an operating system valuable.
In the 1990s, volunteer programmers organized projects and started making their own software and their own rules. The prime directive of the movement was simply that everyone should be able to modify code. With much of the programming performed by volunteers, ownership belonged to the community. The project organizers primarily wanted to get the source code out and attract more volunteers. This open contribution platform resulted in the rapid evolution of open source programs. Today, they are a commodity for the large corporation, governments, and the solo attorney.
To the normal user of open source software and most lawyers, the value is not in modifying the code. Most users do not possess the skill to edit software, and having the license to do so is not the allure. What matters is that software performs well, and provides a solution without going over budget.
Thousands of open source applications are freely available for your computer, web environment, and mobile device. Below are a small handful of free programs that might help your practice run efficiently without increasing expenses.
One of the most popular open source applications is Oracle’s OpenOffice.org suite of office applications. The free download was originally developed as an alternative to Microsoft Office. The suite comes with applications for word processing, spreadsheets, database management, desktop publishing, and presentation creation. All but the desktop publishing tool (OpenOffice Draw) are compatible with their Microsoft Office counterparts.
After Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems, some OpenOffice.org contributors decided to create a new project outside of Oracle’s umbrella. That project is LibreOffice. The two office solutions are very similar, but many in the development community are shifting loyalties to LibreOffice. Linux operating system, Ubuntu, discontinued support for OpenOffice.org in their latest release, choosing to include LibreOffice with their standard distribution.
Both applications easily install on your Windows, Mac, or Linux-based computer.
Nothing is more valuable than time, especially billable time. The Kimai Open Source Time Tracking project is a great solution to keep track of your billable hours if you are not using a case management system.
Kimai is a web-based solution, which means that it will need to be installed on your website. Most web hosting companies provide basic installation services for $20–$50. You can test the application using the demo available on the project’s website.
The functionality of Kimai is what makes it attractive to the small law firm. You can set up users, customers, projects, and tasks. The users would represent you, an assistant, or paralegal. The customer would reflect your client, projects would reflect cases, and tasks break down the various aspects of the case.
With the users reflecting you and your assistants, each task is connected to a project (case) that is connected to a client. After a few people have worked on the case, you can export the detailed timesheet to a PDF or spreadsheet. The program also supports invoicing, but that function is anemic at this stage of the project.
WordPress started as an open source blog but has evolved into a fully expandable content management system. The platform is widely used by law firms of all sizes as it is widely supported and intuitive. When needing additional features and functions, the free repository of add-ons (referred to as plugins) is almost 16,000 strong. Other plugins are available but may come with fees. Most web-hosting companies offer a one-click install of WordPress or will install it for a small fee.
Here are some free WordPress plugins that have helped law firms take their online presence to the next level.
Blubrry PowerPress Podcasting Plugin
Podcasting is an incredibly effective way to get an audience, and show your knowledge and expertise while attracting new clients. Putting aside an hour every other week or once a month to record a podcast can pay off for your practice. The Blubrry PowerPress Podcasting plugin can be added to your WordPress site with three clicks. No manual installation is required thanks to the built-in WordPress plugin installer.
Once you record a couple episodes of your podcast, the plugin simplifies formatting of the podcast feed and prepares your podcast for iTunes. It also provides links to help get your podcast approved in iTunes.
This plugin is a great way to give your clients large-firm convenience by enabling them to pay their invoices online. It installs with one click like most WordPress plugins, but fully configuring it may require a little patience or a helping hand from a friendly geek. Once set up, it is very easy for you and your clients to use it.
When you add an invoice to WP-Invoice, it emails a notice to your client. The client then clicks on a link where they can pay the invoice online. With little technical savvy, you can set up PayPal as the payment provider. For a more traditional payment solution, the plugin works well with Authorize.net’s credit card payment gateway.
The plugin’s developer, Usability Dynamics, Inc. supports the plugin through an active online forum.
The free plugin gives your clients a convenient payment solution that is set up with minimal expense.
Although WordPress has become a full content management system, it stays true to its provenance of being a high-powered blog. You should be blogging regularly to keep your website active and up to date. Twitter Tools helps broadcast your blog by automatically Tweeting your blog entries. Once configured, this plugin will automatically tweet your blog posts to your Twitter profile with a shortened URL linking back to your blog.
By synching your blog with your Twitter profile, you can blog and stay active on Twitter simultaneously. The tool also allows you to automatically create blog posts of your tweets. Both functions are easy to set up.
Google’s Gmail service is free with many perks to professional users. From the ability to use Google Docs to sending email as email@example.com rather than the traditional gmail.com extension, it is a powerful email system with more features than many paid solutions.
However, Gmail has a few shortcomings. If you have an assistant, you will not have any control over their account or access should they change their password. Also, setting up the domain name requires that your site be hosted somewhere else with a mail server that allows email forwarding. For the serious lawyer, there is Google Apps.
Under their small business plan, Google Apps offers a solution for $5/month per user or $50 per year. However, before getting out your credit card, scroll down to the bottom left corner of the Google Apps website and look for a tiny link under “Solutions” that looks like this: Google Apps (Free).
If you require fewer than 10 email accounts, you can use Google Apps free of charge. The free Google Apps comes with Gmail (with the account ending in your domain name), Google Docs, Google Calendar, Google Sites, and business-level security. You will see Google Ads in your free Google Apps email just as you do in Gmail. Google Apps supports most major mobile operating systems, so connecting with your iPhone, Blackberry, or Android device will be simple.
From marketing your law firm, basic office tasks, time management, and customer service to email and document sharing, open source software and free professional grade services can help you run a small practice with the same technology used by Fortune 500 companies. Open source technology is quickly advancing, making it the more functional option and the most economic.