General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

Volume 17, Number 4
June 2000


BY Robert Woodke

We've all been faced with the need to upgrade to the newest computer technology. But what do you do with the computer you're replacing? Should you automatically send it to the dumpster when an upgrade is scheduled, or are there more useful alternatives?

Some computer consultants refer to anything less than a Pentium 200 as a "boat anchor"; while that may be one alternative use, it's not the only one. Technological obsolescence does not mean functional obsolescence. Even an old 286 processor can perform word-processing tasks and operate all that old DOS software on your shelf (although you should avoid using older software for date-sensitive functions).

According to the Detwiler Foundation, a nonprofit organization headquartered in San Diego, more than 11 million personal computers are taken out of service in the United States each year. Only about 5 percent of those are donated to schools, charities, or nonprofits. About 65 percent end up in basements, garages, or warehouses. Fifteen percent are resold and about 15 percent are either recycled or thrown out. This article offers suggestions to help reduce this waste of resources.

Around the Office

Attorneys who practice family law may find a computerized baby-sitter useful. If your clientele includes families and young parents, you might take an older computer, pick up some older versions of game software, hook up a joystick or other game controller, and put the computer in your waiting room to entertain children towed in by their parents. Sure, the computer may not run the latest graphics or most high-test programs. But by offering the youngsters a technology-based diversion, you may be able to conduct business with their parents more efficiently. (Your receptionist also may be more productive, if the computer reduces impromptu baby-sitting caused by unexpected youthful visitors.)

If you're still running software in your firm that is not cutting edge, it's possible to take an older machine and use it for a variety of business tasks. By limiting network access to firm employees and attorneys, you reduce the risk of breaches of client confidentiality and other security risks that unrestricted access involves.

For example, WordPerfect Suite 8 will run on a 486-66MHz machine with Windows 95 (the minimum for operating this software). You can set up a workspace where clients can review and modify discovery responses or other documents without interfering with machines on your office network used for daily production.

An older computer can be used in the hiring process to determine proficiency with software, as a training tool for teaching new hires or interns, or as a workstation for temporary help or summer interns. While they may be used to a bigger and better machine at law school, summer interns will prefer an older machine that still runs most of the productive software rather than sharing an up-to-date machine with one of the firm's full-time members or employees. An older, non-networked machine also can pinch-hit in those awful moments when the network glitches and you need that pleading or contract document yesterday.

You can also use an older machine to convert your standard documents from older software versions to the newer Suite 8 or Suite 2000 versions. Or convert old 51/4 floppy data onto current storage media. These tasks might be performed by an OJT (on-the-job training) student from a high school, a son or daughter of an employee, or temporary help, again without compromising the network or firm databases.

Assuming that the old machine has sufficient capability, it might be a serviceable test bed for the inspection and trial of new software. This way, you can avoid the risks associated with installing new software on a production machine. You will be able to protect the integrity of your network and its data, isolate potential problems, and avoid lapses in productivity.

Finally, the machine you are replacing can be a source of repair parts for companion machines of the same vintage still in use at the office.

Home Is Where the Motherboard Is

If it's relatively powerful, taking home a retired office computer can help you expand your productivity to evenings and weekends. Consider the possibilities: word processing, keeping track of your personal checkbook and other personal finances, and surfing the 'Net. Your kids may be able to use it to produce their school papers. After adding games and controllers, a machine that you might deem unworthy for production can be fun for the whole family.

An additional use might be for writing and testing your own programs (that is, if your talents lie in this direction). In the same vein, it can be used to teach other family members how to use or program computers.

One older lawyer took a retired machine home, tore it down to its basic components, and reassembled it. He did this to get over his fear of the computer and reluctance to use one in the office. After he had successfully put the thing together and made it run again, he was able to overcome his fear and reluctance to learn how to use the device.

A Boon for Others

In recent years, several initiatives have been launched to make computers available to our nation's elementary and secondary schools. Perhaps most notable is the Computers for Schools Program operated by the Detwiler Foundation. The program noted a huge gulf between the state-of-the-art, high-end computers used in business and the virtual absence of computers for students in many of our nation's classrooms.

In some states the ratio of students to computers is higher than 12 students for every computer, and even greater when the comparison is the number of students to a multimedia computer. If the 11 million personal computers taken out of service could be donated and made useful to schools, there would be a computer for every four students.

The Computers for Schools program accepts donation of old computers. The machines are upgraded and refurbished at locations throughout the country. Most of the work is done through job training programs at correctional facilities, community colleges, and vocational institutes. This allows the donated computer to serve the dual purposes of training inmates or students in useful and saleable trade skills as well as providing computers to students. The program is very cost-effective. It costs between $250 and $500 to transport a computer, refurbish it, and place it in a classroom, compared to $1,200 to $1,500 to purchase a new computer.

You can find the Detwiler Foundation on the web at, or you can call 800/939-6000. The foundation has collection sites in Hawaii, Minnesota, and California. Donation receipts are provided by the foundation. CRECER (Computer Recycling for Education and Community Enhancing Resources), a similar organization headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, can be accessed at These are just two examples of programs working to put used computers into schools in our nation. For a directory of such programs you can access the PEP National Directory of Computer Recycling Programs at pepsite/Recycle/ recycle_index.num. That index shows 33 states with programs and also offers information about national and international programs.

The 21st Century Classrooms Act for Private Technology Investment provided a special tax break for companies that donate computers and related equipment to a school before the equipment is two years old. Unfortunately the law does not extend to individuals or sole proprietors, and the law, passed in 1997, will expire in 2000 if not extended by Congress. The law permits a write-off of the full purchase price of donated equipment rather than the depreciated amount.

Schools are not the only institutions that can use donated computers. For example, Goodwill Industries in a variety of locations accepts donations. The machines are used to train disabled people about computer repairs and/or programming, and then are sold at low cost. The funds generated by sales go to support the programs.

Check out the Electronics Reuse and Recycling Directory maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at recycle/direrec.num, where you'll find an extensive list of organizations, contact information, and information on original equipment manufacturers who have programs for taking back electronic products for reuse or recycling; businesses that dismantle, repair, or refurbish such items; scrap dealers; charitable organizations; and material exchanges that connect buyers and sellers. If you're not online, you can call the EPA's RCRA Hotline at 800/424-9346 to obtain a copy of the directory.

Whimsical Uses for Old Computer Equipment
  • That old 286 makes a mighty doorstop. Even strong winds and heavy oak conference-room doors have failed to over-come the 286 stopping power.
  • Use the old machine as an impressive, if somewhat cumbersome, paperweight.
  • Write a program that displays your firm name and logo on the old beauty, and set the monitor running in your window to create a rather unique electronic billboard.
  • The old tower makes an unusual high-tech end table or planter stand.
  • Fashion a funky coffee table for your waiting room out of two old towers covered by a piece of plate glass.
  • If you're retiring larger numbers of old towers, stack them with planks to make a stylish bookshelf.
  • An old tower can be a serviceable stepstool for reaching high shelves in the file room (this use is strongly discouraged by OSHA).

Robert Woodke is the managing partner of the Bemidji office of Brouse, Woodke & Meyer PLLP. He is a frequent lecturer and author on law office management and technolgoy topics. He is a member of the editorial board of GPSolo's special Technology & Practice Guide issues.

Back to Top