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By Erik J. Heels
Tackling the daunting task of selecting hardware and software.
In choosing software, hardware and technology services, there are numerous things to consider. How can you tackle the daunting task of balancing the pros against the cons?
My friend Paul and I were recently discussing the security and privacy risks associated with using Web services such as social networking sites and Web-based e-mail. I commented that I was shocked at the eager willingness of some people—including lawyers—to trust these service providers with their data. Paul replied that most people use these services oblivious to the risks and are quite happy with the results. My problem, he said, is that I'm too close to the technology and, as a result, can't see the forest of advantages for the trees of disadvantages. Just like how an experienced auto mechanic would think twice about purchasing a stick shift from Oldsmobile.
This exchange got me thinking about the choices we confront in choosing technologies in general, and whether it's better to shun all risk or go out on a limb (or into the forest) when selecting tools for our practices.
When faced with a legal problem, lawyers analyze the facts, apply the law to the facts, and advise their clients on how to proceed. Lawyers are generally risk averse. When I was working at the communications company Verio in the 1990s, many business initiatives died an unceremonious death after the legal department concluded that the risks of proceeding were too great.
Similarly, when faced with the need to make a decision about a project or potential purchase, technologists will see risks or disadvantages that others won't see and, based on their analysis of what's required, will recommend a course of action that they believe is best for the company.
When a business needs to make a decision, however, it should consider all the factors—legal, technology, marketing, human resources and so forth—that affect, or will be affected by, the decision. No one factor should hold a trump card. A company that lets the legal department have veto power over business decisions will find itself taking a conservative path that may seem good for the long term but might doom the company in the short term. A company that lets the technology department kill projects because the technology isn't ideal might never get new projects off the ground.
Fortunately for solo and small firm practitioners, they don't have to face those kinds of barriers from other departments. You're the boss of yourself and, for better or worse, you decide on new projects and purchases on your own. So what's the course you want to take with technology tools?
The excellent books Selling the Invisible: A Field Guide to Modern Marketing by Harry Beckwith and Rules for Revolutionaries: The Capitalist Manifesto for Creating and Marketing New Products and Services by Guy Kawasaki and Michele Moreno make the point that a good solution today is better than a perfect solution tomorrow. A ready-fire-aim approach—meaning implement first, then iterate to fix mistakes—is generally better than a ready-aim-fire approach—meaning wait for the perfect solution, then implement. You've still got to aim. You've still got to fire. But you may need to reconsider the order.
So if you're starting a new law firm or starting a new initiative within your firm, don't be afraid to take risks. Consider the following issues as you choose software, hardware and services for your venture.
Should you use Windows, Macintosh OS or Linux? I use all three and have described myself as "operating system agnostic." True, I have criticized Microsoft for its monopolistic business practices, buggy software that puts my privacy and security at risk, and lack of innovation. Macintosh systems are certainly better, faster and stronger than Windows in all aspects—but they are also more expensive. I like Linux because it's opensource and allows you to embrace "freedom" in your operating system environment—but you pay the price with your time trying to get Linux to work.
So as much as I hate to admit it, Windows is the best operating system for a new law firm. You can buy computer hardware with Windows preinstalled from many vendors. (In fact, it's difficult to buy PC hardware without Windows.) Plus, there are more commercial software, shareware and freeware programs for Windows than for any other operating system.
The Macintosh is great and remains the best choice for multimedia, but the fact that you can only buy Apple hardware means there is no price competition. There is plenty of software available for the Macintosh that makes it possible to run it in a law firm, but certain applications are available only in Windows versions and that's not going to change any time soon.
Linux is cool, but idealistic notions of "freedom" are overrated. Just because a company decides to make its source code available for free doesn't make that company morally superior to a software provider with proprietary source code. Sun decided to make Java an open source project not because it was altruistic but because it has a business model that doesn't rely on software sales alone. Many of my firm's patent and trademark clients are small software companies whose businesses would cease to exist if they abandoned their software patents in favor of an open source model. Don't get me wrong, I love open source software and use as much of it as possible on all three operating systems. But certain key applications (for example, QuickBooks for billing) are not available on Linux. And probably never will be.
The right application for a particular job is the one that will do the job at a price you're willing to pay. I prefer applications that are available on all three operating systems over ones that are not—but I also prefer those that are free over those that cost, which makes it easy to choose OpenOffice for my office suite and Firefox for my browser. Always have your operating system and your budget in mind!
But you'll need more than word processing and Web browsing to run your business, so when choosing other software applications, you need to consider not only their capabilities and price, but also how easy it will be to switch to something else later. Take billing, for example. If you use QuickBooks today but want to eventually switch to Peachtree, make sure that the new program can import your data.
There are risks associated with using all technology service providers, but there are also rewards. Put another way, there are risks involved in not using certain technology services. For example, something that I cannot live without is the offsite backup and restore services from Connected.com (now part of Iron Mountain). About once per quarter, I need to restore a file that was accidentally deleted or modified, and Connected.com provides this service seamlessly and reliably.
What about the types of services I discussed with my friend Paul? I have previously avoided some Web services, such as business-oriented social networking sites like LinkedIn, that I am now reconsidering. I admit to focusing too much on the risks of such services (including privacy and spam concerns) without fully considering the potential rewards. Anyone with similar concerns can and should learn to temper them—or at least put them in their proper context. For example, rather than inviting people I know to join my LinkedIn network from within LinkedIn, I can separately call or e-mail the people first, from outside of the LinkedIn system, so I can't be accused of giving LinkedIn information that my contacts might not want shared.
Implementing new technology can make your business more efficient. Implementing the wrong technology can have unintended consequences. But if you do your homework and aren't afraid of making mistakes, you can undo a bad technology decision and move on. Often this is the better approach than not having acted in the first place.
Just as there are advantages and disadvantages to every make and model of car (yes, including Oldsmobiles), there are advantages and disadvantages to choosing any computer hardware, software and service provider. But in most places in this country, you need a car to get around. And you need technology to do your job. Fear not the risks, focus on the potential rewards. Get going— vroom, vroom, vroom!