October 01, 2011

Working from Home: The Technology You’ll Need

Peter LaSorsa


There are many good reasons to work from home. First, you can save a great deal on rent. You can also save on transportation—no fuel expenses, no wear and tear on your car, no train fares, no parking costs. Lastly, you can dress down, eat better, and improve your quality of life. In order to work from home, however, you must be able to move the office into your house. Subpar Internet connections, inadequate computer gear, or lack of cell phone coverage in your area won’t cut it. Here is a guide to what you will require to effectively move your office to your house and work from home.

Computer. Let’s start with the computer. Should you get a laptop, a desktop, or both? If you are going to be looking at the computer for six to ten hours a day, I suggest either a desktop with a large monitor (21”) or a laptop with the same monitor hooked up to the laptop. I prefer the latter option for two reasons. First, you don’t have to sync up the information when you travel because your laptop can go with you when you travel. Second, it is less expensive to purchase just one computer, and the laptop is versatile and therefore the way to go in my opinion.

So what type of laptop should you go with? I have the MacBook Air and love it. It is light as a feather, has great processing power, and isn’t wanting for anything. Even though it doesn’t have a CD/DVD drive, it has software that allows me to load software on another computer on my hardwired or wireless network, and then the software loads on my MacBook. The MacBook comes with an 11- or 13-inch screen; I went with the 13-inch (13.3-inch, actually). I won’t go into all the tech specs because you can look them up online, and actually for most lawyers, they aren’t that important. (Prices range from $999 to $1,599, depending on the model.) The Mac powers up quickly and is easy to use, and its operating system is taking over a larger share of the market every day.

If you sit in front of a computer all day, do yourself a favor and spend a little more on a quality external monitor. As I have gotten older, I find I need a larger screen; I use a 27” monitor by Apple, and it is a terrific addition. It has a 16:9 aspect ratio and an astonishing 2,560-by-1,440 resolution. Yes, it is fairly pricey at $999, but stop by an Apple store and see what your eyes are missing.

For software, I suggest purchasing Microsoft’s Office for Mac suite. It includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint in the basic Home & Student package ($149.99) and adds Outlook in the Professional package ($279.99). The other software that all lawyers should purchase for their home office is Adobe Acrobat X. Don’t confuse Acrobat with the free Adobe Reader; you want the full Acrobat program (prices start at $139 for an upgrade and $299 new). You also might want to consider dedicated legal or practice-management software. The list of such software is daunting and beyond the scope of this article.

Internet. Your home office needs a cable modem (usually free through your cable provider) and a wireless router—and you’re ready to go. Make sure you encrypt your network so a password is required before connecting to it. I also suggest not including the words “law office” or something similar in the network name. Someone searching wireless networks may be more inclined to try to hack into a law office network rather than one called some bland name.

Routers are inexpensive, and remember: Your best technology friend is the worker at Best Buy or Office Depot. Take full advantage of this person, and he or she can show you the best router to get and discuss the various features. Tech people love to show how smart they are, and usually the people working at these stores are young and very tech savvy.

Telephone. There are two telephone options: a traditional landline or a cell phone. Personally, I use cell phones. I have one for my Chicago office with a Chicago area code and one for my downstate office with a downstate area code. Cell phone plans are better than those for a traditional landline, and you have instant access to a cell phone while in court, driving, etc. There’s no downside; if you don’t wish to answer calls after a certain time at night, just shut the cell phone off or put it on vibrate. You would be surprised how much business I can get done from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm and then take a few hours off the next day. Most clients work 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, and it may be hard for them to spend time on the phone during business hours discussing their legal matter. Make sure your cell phone is a smartphone or personal digital assistant (PDA) of some sort, whether it be a BlackBerry, Android, or iPhone. I have the BlackBerry Storm and am getting ready to upgrade to the iPhone when the next iteration (iPhone 5) is released on the Verizon network. I use my phone for e-mail, calendaring, and, of course, telephone calls. It is nice to have the calendar handy when on the go—especially if you are a solo. Check the various cell phone providers, their coverage maps, and their plans, and pick the one that makes the most sense for you.

Printer/fax/copier/scanner. I use the all-in-one Brother 9040. It cost $99 on sale—and they are always on sale. It prints in black and white, does envelopes, and has a multiple sheet feeder as well as a manual feeder. It comes with great software that allows you to scan and create PDFs, JPGs, and other image file formats. I do not recommend a color printer or leasing a big machine as you see in traditional law offices. There are a few reasons for this. First, most of you won’t be printing thousands of documents a day, so the speed of a small printer is just fine. Second, you ordinarily don’t need color—on those occasions when you do, save the file to a thumb drive, take it to a FedEx Office (previously Kinko’s), and print it in color there. A color printer is more expensive to purchase and maintain. Color ink and toner cartridges are expensive and don’t last as long as black and white. Go with the basic black and white, and it will give you years of hassle-free use. I had the earlier Brother model (the 9020) for five years, and when the head needed to be replaced (a message on the screen tells you to replace it), I found it cheaper just to buy a new printer. Can’t beat that. The great thing about the software that comes with this printer is I can print all my e-mails as PDFs, so I don’t have to print and save e-mails to and from clients. I can just print to the client’s file electronically and it saves it as a PDF. I not only save on paper but on storage space and cost—and I can find old client documents in seconds, as opposed to going to the storage room and looking through boxes of paper files.

What of faxes? Even though my Brother 9040 has fax capabilities, I utilize the service of eFax. The prices vary depending on service plan, but it is very inexpensive. You get a fax number you use both to send and receive faxes. The incoming faxes show up as an e-mail with a PDF attachment. The service is great because I can send and receive faxes from anywhere, anytime. It is great for traveling, and it makes sharing faxes with my clients as easy as forwarding an e-mail. The service fits well in my larger strategy for running a green (i.e., paperless) law office. PDFs are so easy to store and share, there is no reason to use the traditional fax machine anymore. I am currently writing this article from a rooftop pool in downtown Chicago and just received two faxes that I immediately e-mailed to my client for her review. Try doing that when the fax comes into your traditional office.

Shredder. If you do decide to keep paper around, you need a good shredder. As soon as mail comes in, I scan it, save it to the appropriate file, and shred it. Of course, sometimes originals need to be saved, but generally all you receive in the mail are copies that can be saved electronically and the paper version destroyed. In my client retainer agreement, I have a clause stating that the client acknowledges my process of shredding documents after they have been scanned and saved.

I suggest you purchase a decent shredder ($99–$149 on sale). Again, they are always on sale. Get one that has an easily removable basket and that can handle more than five or six sheets at a time. (Who wants to stand there and feed one piece of paper at a time?) I don’t think brand is that important. Use it until the motor burns out, then buy another.

Backup. No matter what computer you go with, you need to back up your files. Let me repeat that: Back up your files. There is no excuse if your electronic data gets wiped out and you lack the ability to retrieve it. I suggest having two backups: one on-site and one off-site through an online service such as Mozy. ABA members get a special discount with Mozy, and the service is great. I automatically back up through Mozy twice a day; that means while I am working on my computer, my new files are getting backed up off-site. It slows the computer down a tad, but, come on, you’re not crunching numbers on some physics equation. You are probably just typing a letter or surfing the Internet. By backing up with a service such as Mozy, you can rest assured that if your house burns down, you still have all your client files and the entire contents of your hard drive. Also, if you happen to be traveling and need something and don’t have your computer, you can go someplace with a secure connection and retrieve your files through Mozy.

Also keep an on-site copy of the backup handy. With the on-site backup, if you have a computer problem, just grab another computer, load the backup, and you are up and running. The on-site backup is also good insurance that you can keep working even if the Internet goes down in your area and you have a computer problem.

Miscellaneous. If you do private investigation cases or something similar, you may wish to purchase a digital camera—$150 should do the trick. For the money you can get great quality pictures and a camera so small that you can carry it with you anytime. Again, determine your needs and purchase accordingly.

Beyond the scope of this article but very important to the home office is your practice’s website and blog. If you are working from home, you are probably a solo and need both (for more, check out the articles in the June 2009 issue of GPSolo magazine, “Communication and Collaboration”).

No place like home. The home office is the wave of the future for legal services. As a solo or small firm working out of a home office, you can now offer your clients great service and the same legal advice they once could only get at a big firm—but without all the extra expense.





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