Making the Most of Your Physical Network

Volume 38 Number 4

By

About the Authors

Daniel J. Siegel is the principal of the Law Offices of Daniel J. Siegel LLC and president of Integrated Technology Services LLC, a consulting service for attorneys. He is the author of The Lawyer’s Guide to LexisNexis CaseMap and Changing Law Firms: Ethical Guidance for Pennsylvania Law Firms and Attorneys.

Law Practice Magazine | July/August 2012 | The Law Firm Profitability IssueJUST AS MAINTAINING YOUR PHYSICAL HEALTH IS CRITICAL TO YOUR WELL-BEING, maintaining your office’s computer network helps assure your firm’s well-being, saving money, boosting productivity and preventing problems that would paralyze your operations. Despite this, many lawyers take their networks for granted and perform maintenance and upgrades on an emergency basis, rather than planning ahead and preventing problems.

The problem is particularly acute for small and solo firms that often create their networks haphazardly, merely growing them as the firm grows, and without using a central server. Improperly wired, these networks are often assembled by linking computers via network routers, using an old PC to store data instead of a proper server. A server is a physical computer that controls who can log in to your office’s network, stores your firm’s data, and allows users to access and share information.

Eventually, firms outgrow this type of peer-to-peer network, and need to install something more traditional and stable. Alternatively, older networks may show signs of age (the wiring may be old and transmit data slowly) or the central server may need to be replaced (after operating for years without any real upkeep). At those times, it is important to choose the correct vendor and have a plan for the upgrade and implementation.

Consequently, planning for a network upgrade can influence your firm’s bottom line in both the short and long term. In the short term, proper planning can assure minimal downtime, allowing users to maximize productive billable or fee-generating time, and avoid the cost overruns that can occur as the result of poor planning. In the long term, using a well-designed and maintained network can avoid outages, and minimize or eliminate the downtime associated with unplanned maintenance and other emergent situations. Here’s a checklist of how to get the most out of a network implementation or upgrade.

DON’T DO IT YOURSELF.

First, networks are complicated, and setting them up requires the type of specialized knowledge that lawyers don’t have. This means getting help before, during and after implementation. Consult with firms that know networks to get their recommendations. The experts know more than you do, and they’re more up-to-date about new technology that can help you even more.

Second, don’t try to set up the network yourself. You didn’t go to law school to set up networks; you went so that you could help clients. Your time is better spent allowing the network engineers to do their thing while you earn a living.

TALK TO MORE THAN ONE FIRM.

Unless you have a long-standing relationship with one vendor, you should interview multiple companies and evaluate their proposals and their “personalities.” You need to work with these people, and they need to work with you. Consequently, you want a vendor whose opinions you trust, who provides information without “geek speak” and who makes you feel comfortable asking questions. If you don’t like the vendor or can’t understand the answers you receive, don’t hire that company.

TRY A LOCAL FIRM.

Is the firm you are hiring nearby, or will you incur significant travel costs? If there is a problem after installation, how quickly can they be on site and get you up and running? While vendors can access your server remotely and perform some diagnostics and other actions, if the hardware needs on-site service, will it take hours or days for the company to arrive?

CONSIDER FLAT-RATE PROPOSALS.

Many attorneys offer flat-fee billing because clients don’t like their bills to be higher than expected. Many network/computer vendors offer flat-fee billing for the same reason. Ask your vendor if it offers both hourly and flat-rate billing and, if not, if it will cap the cost at a certain amount. And if there is the possibility of overtime, make certain that the vendor can’t simply stay late and keep the meter running without your specific approval.

GET A WRITTEN PROPOSAL.

A written proposal is critical, not only because it outlines the cost of your project, but also because it specifies what the vendor will do and in what time frame. It’s the contract that we would advise every client to obtain.

IF YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND THE PROPOSAL, ASK QUESTIONS.

Never assume that you understand everything in the proposal unless you really do. Many network vendors speak and prepare their proposals in the language of technology that you and I simply don’t know. Make sure that you understand what the proposal encompasses—otherwise, you could be in for unforeseen cost overruns.

OBTAIN WARRANTIES.

Get warranties, through either the server manufacturer or your vendor, for all of your equipment. That way you know what, if any, costs you will incur not if, but when, an outage occurs. Most companies will offer same- or next-day on-site service. Remember, if your network is down, no one is working, so prompt service—at a known cost—will help get you up and running quickly and without any surprise fees.

BUY THE BEST EQUIPMENT YOU CAN AFFORD.

Your server is the heart of your entire firm’s technological operations. As a result, the better and more current the hardware and software you use, the longer your server is likely to last, extending the time (often years) between upgrades. Don’t skimp on it. Make certain that you have the most up-to-date equipment and software you can afford. Remember, you want to perform network implementations and upgrades as infrequently as possible.

REMEMBER THE CABLES.

Your cabling (the wires in the wall) should be the most advanced possible. The current standard, Cat6 cables, enable data to move more quickly than Cat5 cables. Cat6 is considered more reliable, so using them will prevent connectivity and other problems, along with complaints about how slow the network is.

DETERMINE IF OVERTIME IS PREFERABLE.

Sometimes paying for overtime makes sense. If 10 employees will be out of action for eight hours while the network upgrade occurs, that’s 80 hours of productivity lost. If the vendor regularly charges $120 per hour, and charges $180 per hour for overtime work, it pays to do the work at night or on a weekend because although it will cost you an additional $500, that’s peanuts compared to the value of regaining 80 hours of productive time.

SEEK CLARITY.

Have the vendor tell you about any proposed hardware and software, and to explain why your office needs that item. If the vendor is offended by your questions or cannot provide a reasonable answer, consider other companies.

ADDRESS CONFIDENTIALITY.

While at your office, the vendor may see or hear confidential client data. The vendor should agree in writing that all of its employees are aware that any client or confidential information they learn about may not be discussed or disclosed to anyone outside the firm.

MAKE A LIST OF ALL OF YOUR EQUIPMENT, LOGINS AND PASSWORDS.

At some point, you or someone from your office will need to know the server password or have a question about your network. You should receive a list of all of the computers the vendor worked with, and all of the accounts (both logins and passwords) it created. Save this information where you and your staff (or at a minimum, your office manager) can locate it. If not, you will have to contact the vendor, who may charge you for providing this routine information.

BE CERTAIN THE PROPOSAL ADDRESSES YOUR DATA AND DATA SECURITY.

When putting in a network, it is easy to forget all of the other items essential to the network, such as firewalls, anti-virus software, backup systems, and surge and power outage protection. Make sure that all of these types of items are included in the proposal, and that your network is secure from intrusion, including wirelessly. Unless not physically possible, every computer on your network should be hard-wired to each other and should not rely on wireless technology, which can be fickle. If you provide wireless Internet access to visitors to your firm, make sure that the “guest” network is separate from your offices and that anyone who logs into the network as a guest cannot see or access your firm’s data.

USE ONLY LICENSED SOFTWARE.

Using software that isn’t certified or legally licensed is stupid and illegal. Purchase only licensed products and maintain a list of all software installed in your firm, with the license numbers and date of purchase.

FIGURE OUT WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE IMPLEMENTATION.

When the vendor is done, will it be performing any other services, or is it handing the keys to you? You need to know this, and you need to know what the costs will be for post-implementation work. And if questions arise about the implementation, do you pay for those answers?

SEE IF THE VENDOR WILL BE INSTALLING ANY THIRD-PARTY SOFTWARE.

Where possible, many vendors will perform maintenance and other tasks using remote technology such as GoToMyPC, LogMeIn and Remote Desktop. You need to know if the vendor will be installing the software, and to specify that the vendor cannot activate or use the software without your express permission and knowledge. The vendor should also agree to notify you if and when it needs to access your server or workstations (your individual users’ computers).

Installing or upgrading a network is a major undertaking, and can affect your firm’s bottom line. As a result, asking questions and planning ahead are critical to assuring a smooth transition and helping you focus on generating more revenue.

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