General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Confessions of a Software Junkie

By Cynthia Alicea Dade

I admit it. I love computers. It’s not the hardware that seduces me. I buy a new PC every three years whether I need it or not. It’s the software that grabs me. I listen to the golden promises of how much more efficiently I can work, and I am hooked.

I bought my first IBM PC in 1983 and discovered Lotus 1.0. I learned to write spreadsheets in one feverish month and immediately set up a spreadsheet to prepare and print Forms 1041. Ever since, I have looked for software that will help me prepare tax returns, wills and accountings better and faster.

My mania was kept in check for many years by my partners who made me justify the cost of each purchase and the time spent in setting up the new software. When I went solo two years ago, I was limited only by my budget and my children’s nap and homework schedules.

My software adventures have certain common elements. I am incredibly cheap with my own money. I have delusions of grandeur because I think I can fix anything. I am incurably optimistic. I think that if I read the manual cover to cover before I install something, it will work perfectly. I often try to save money by cobbling together applications from software packages I already have rather than spending more on specialized software.

I should reveal here that my husband is a Unix and Sybase expert who programs fluently in seven languages. I attribute my survival as a computer user to him. He always manages to talk me out of throwing the computer equipment across the backyard.

My experiences have persuaded me of the validity of several rules that I will share with you as a cautionary tale.

Rule 1. Pick your software carefully.

Always decide what you want software to do before you buy it, then buy the product in your price range that most specifically meets your needs. Read reviews. Ask questions online. SoloSez and other ABA discussion groups are a wonderful source of practical information. If you do not have a modem and an Internet connection, get one. Some friend or family member can help you. Try to pick industry standard software. It will be around longer. Does anyone remember WordStar?

This sounds simple. Well, try to figure out what software actually does before you buy it without blowing your whole budget on a consultant. My very first software choice was my word processor. I had been using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS. After a frustrating flirtation with AmiPro 3.1 (since abandoned by Lotus), I decided to try Word 6. My husband already had it, so I could play with it to my heart’s content. Better yet, it had great mailing list creation features and I was planning to mail announcements to several hundred people. I could not tell you the differences between Word 6 and WordPerfect for Windows. I just knew that for my simple needs Word worked well and was easy to use. While I am in the minority, I am still happily using Word.

I actually did research my next major purchase, which was a document assembly package. I had spent years refining my will and trust forms and setting up assembly procedures to speed up document production and facilitate quick adjustment to law changes using my word processing packages. Now I was ready to take automation a step further. HotDocs 3.0 was a template-based package and FastDraft 1.0 was a text database-type package. I needed a text database package and so I bought FastDraft. Everything else was too expensive. This brings us to Rule 2.

Rule 2. Never buy a new version of software when it is first issued.

Not every company has good beta testing. A sure sign of new software is a version numbered [#].0.

Do I take my own advice? Are you kidding? I am a sucker for the newest and latest version of anything. I always buy the [#].0 version of software, even though I know it will have bugs. The pressure on software manufacturers is so great that they rarely beta test their software properly.

I bought a specially priced single user version of FastDraft 1.0 through the ABA and thought I was ready to roll. I beta tested its single user version for six months on Windows 3.1 and NT. Several versions later, I was finally able to assemble documents.

As soon as I had FastDraft up and running, HotDocs 4.0 came out with new features that surpassed FastDraft for a number of my applications. I resisted. The price came down. It was only $69. What a bargain! I could not resist. I bought it. I installed it. I uninstalled it. Finally, I reinstalled it and figured out how to use it, sort of.

While I will never buy the 1.0 version of anything again, I have still not fully learned my lesson. I recently purchased Amicus III (AKA Amicus 3.0) after happily and successfully using an earlier version for eight months. Amicus planned for problems and allowed me to use my old version after the installation of the new version. This was a good idea because I could not generate Word documents through HotDocs with the new version of Amicus. Technical support advised me to download version 3.0.1 from its Website and to buy a newer version of HotDocs (5.0, of course). I did both. I then had to call Amicus technical support again to install the new (and presumably debugged version) because the installation program could not find a file that existed in two places on my computer. I will eventually figure out how to use my old HotDocs templates with the new version.

This brings us to Rules 3 and 4.

Rule 3. Always back up your entire disk before installing or upgrading software.

You can undo any mess by restoring your old setup. My best purchase was a Jazz Drive. It has saved my sanity many times over. A cheap, high-capacity tape drive will serve your purpose very well. It will also facilitate the regularly scheduled backups you should be making. Do not rely on the uninstall features of the software or of Windows.

Rule 4. Be prepared when you call technical support.

When your new software starts talking back, write down everything you did and all of the error messages you see on the screen. Little things like "general protection fault 123" can mean a lot to the technical service representatives at the software company. Try to recreate the problem several times so that you are sure you are not missing any steps. Check the Website for answers to frequently asked questions or "FAQs." This may be a problem that you can solve yourself. There may be a software patch you can download from the Website.

If the error is not preventing you from working, you may want to send an e-mail about your problem. Some companies offer free or reduced-fee technical support by e-mail. This also allows you to be civil when you feel like telling the software developer that she or he is a blithering idiot.

You may be on the telephone for a while. Call for technical help after your children are asleep, if at all possible, and use a portable phone. I have folded a lot of laundry while on hold. If you do not get a satisfactory answer, ask for a higher level technical representative. Most companies have senior representatives to handle complex situations.

Rule 5. Decide how much to spend and then be a little flexible.

My frugality often works against me, which is another way of saying I am too cheap. Once I could assemble documents, I bought a laptop and started looking for clients. I was not done with my software shopping though. I now needed to keep track of my referrers and my clients. I sprang for an Office 95 upgrade. I looked at Amicus but decided that I could live with Schedule+ for addresses and appointments and Access for client and referrer databases. This was a big mistake. However, since I do not quickly admit my mistakes, I spent countless hours setting up custom databases that required that I reenter information from Schedule+ into Access and that ate my hard drive in great gulps. A year later I installed Amicus and cheerfully spent several evenings transferring information and learning how to generate address lists for mass mailings. At that point I had two personal information managers and two document assembly packages.

Rule 6. Frugality sometimes breeds a healthy caution. Before you buy new software, think long and hard about whether the extra features are worth the upheaval to your system.

I sometimes do exercise caution in upgrading software when I am conservative about changing my operating system. I think of software like house renovations. New applications are like redecorating a room, which is bad enough. A new operating system is like moving the house to a new foundation. I waited until late 1996 to use Windows 95. I will probably skip Windows 98 and eventually use the next version of NT.

I also still have the Internet browsers that came with my computer, Netscape 2.1 and Microsoft Explorer 3.0. They fill my modest needs and I am unwilling to devote time and energy to upgrade them. After all, I do not need to download graphics. We use my daughter’s computer for that. Also, I know I will get updated versions free with my next computer.

I send my faxes manually and use voice mail from the telephone company even though my Compaq came with a telephone answering system and I have four pieces of software to send faxes from my PC. Either the software did not work well or it required that I maintain a duplicate address book. If I needed to do a lot of faxing, I would buy something tailored for it, but my low-tech solution works fine for now. I have two scanners, one for each office, with different OCR packages, but I do not need to standardize them as I do not do much scanning.

I use Quicken for bookkeeping (it came with the PC) and an Excel worksheet for billing, which works well for the small number of bills I send each month.

Rule 7. If you are a sole practitioner, make certain that your backup attorney knows your system.

I recently realized that someone had to know where to find my work on my computer in case I dropped dead. I called upon a dear friend and fellow trusts and estates lawyer who bought her first computer in 1977. Much to my surprise, our friendship has survived a tour of my hard disk.

Conclusion. Learn from my mistakes and misadventures. Pick your software carefully. Never buy a new version of software when it is first issued. Always back up your entire disk before installing or upgrading software. Be prepared when you call technical support. Decide how much to spend and then be a little flexible. Frugality sometimes breeds a healthy caution. If you are a sole practitioner, make certain that your backup attorney knows your system. n


Cynthia Alicea Dade is a lawyer in New York.

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