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GPSolo Magazine

GPSolo March/April 2024: Niche Areas of Law Practice

Tips for Using a Mac When Everyone Else Uses Windows

Brett Burney


  • These tips, tricks, hacks, and guides will ensure everything you do on your Mac can be shared seamlessly with your Windows-focused colleagues.
  • Once upon a time, one of the biggest challenges Mac-using lawyers had to wrestle with was file compatibility. Thankfully, most of the file-conversion craziness is unnecessary today.
  • Being a Mac user in a profession full of Windows users is a niche unto itself, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t doable or even beneficial.
Tips for Using a Mac When Everyone Else Uses Windows
Art Wolfe via Getty Images

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Being a Mac user in a profession full of Windows users is a niche unto itself, but that certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t doable or even beneficial. We’ll set aside the question of which is better—and all the arguments that go with it—because it really comes down to what is best for your needs and your practice so you can minimize any unnecessary tech stress and frustration.

Today’s goal is to share a host of tips, tricks, hacks, and guides to ensure everything you do on your Mac can be shared seamlessly with your Windows-focused colleagues. If you do it right, no one will know the difference, but you just need to know about a few potential hiccups when you choose to be a Mac user in a world full of Windows.

Keyboard Perplexity

Let’s start with the obvious hardware differences. Most Mac keyboards have a “Delete” key nestled where the “Backspace” key is located on Windows keyboards. The “Backspace” key in Windows does exactly what it says: You delete the character to the immediate left of your cursor, as in backing up a space. The “Delete” key on Windows keyboards means “delete forward” so that it deletes the character to the immediate right of the cursor. That makes perfect sense until you sit down at a Mac keyboard where the “Delete” key is backspace (deletes to the left). If you want to delete forward, you have to hold down the Function (Fn) key and then hit Delete (deletes to the right). Anyone confused yet? We don’t even have time to get into the “Return” versus “Enter” key debate!

Pro tip: Hold down the Option key while hitting the Delete key, and it will delete the entire last word to the left rather than delete one character at a time.

If you’re familiar with keyboard shortcuts on the Windows side, you probably know the Control key is an essential ingredient. For example, Control + C is copy, Control + V is paste, Control + Z is undo, and so on. Mac keyboards have a Control key as well, but it’s not extensively used and is mostly reserved for specific actions. The Windows Control equivalent on the Mac is the “Command” key, complete with its cute little clover icon. To copy and paste on the Mac, you’ll use Command + C and Command + V. Virtually anytime you use the Control key on a Windows keyboard, the Command key on the Mac is its best-guess replacement.

Both Windows machines and Macs have a handy way to quickly swap between running applications. On Windows, that’s Alt + Tab. You can hold down the Alt key and keep tapping on the Tab key until you land on the application you want to bring front and center. Hold down the Shift key along with the Alt key, and tapping Tab will go in the opposite direction, highlighting each of your applications. On Macs, you can accomplish the same hot swap with Command + Tab (and you can add the Shift key to cycle to the left in your list of applications).

Right-Clicking on a Trackpad

In general, the Mac hardware has always been superior in the way it interacts and supports the operating system (macOS), but there’s a good reason for that: The hardware and operating system come from the same company, so they can ensure everything works seamlessly. On the other side of the fence, Microsoft offers the Windows operating system, but there are a number of computer manufacturers that make the hardware, and every one of them is a little different or puts its own twist or function on how the hardware operates.

This is fully evident when it comes to trackpads on laptops. Trackpads on Mac laptops all work the same way, but depending on which Windows laptop manufacturer you choose, the trackpad could be an odd size and offer a quirky click experience.

Windows has always offered a “right-click,” allowing you to use the button on the right side of a mouse or trackpad to access a helpful secondary menu and options. Apple famously rejected the need for right-click many years ago but quickly came around to the outcries from users insisting they needed access to those menus. If you hold down the Control key on your Mac’s keyboard while clicking the trackpad, it will work as a right-click. But many of us don’t like the right-click being a two-hand job, so if you go into your Mac’s System Settings (accessed from the Apple menu), you can enable the “Secondary Click” (as Apple calls it) and select “Click or Tap with Two Fingers.” This is much easier to use if you are a right-click fan.

Menu Bar from Afar

Another trifling difference is the way Windows and Mac operating systems handle menus and application access. At the bottom of every Windows computer is the “Taskbar” that (1) holds any applications you pin there for quick launching and (2) holds your active applications. On the Mac side, we have something very similar, but we call it the “Dock,” which also holds applications that you can launch as well, showing a little dot next to the apps that are currently running. You can customize the look and feel of your Taskbar or Dock, but the Mac offers a few more fun animations.

Pro tip: Give yourself some additional screen real estate and dock your Dock on the left or right of your screen and have it auto-hide. You can reveal it at any time by moving your mouse to the side of the screen.

Windows and macOS take different approaches to application menus. In Windows, the menu for an application appears at the top of each application—so in Microsoft Word, you have the File, Insert, View, etc., menus appearing at the top of the application. The macOS takes a different approach with a permanent “Menu Bar” at the top of the screen. At the far right of the Mac’s menu bar is the date and time along with other useful utilities (this section is analogous to the “System Tray” on the Windows taskbar). On the far left of the Mac’s menu bar is the little Apple logo providing quick access to System Settings and shutdown options. The rest of the Mac’s menu bar will change with the current application you have open. So, when you open Microsoft Word, you’ll find the File, View, etc., menus way up there at the top, even if you have multiple Word documents open at the same time.

Traffic Lights for Applications

Speaking of applications, let’s discuss how to close, maximize, and minimize them. In Windows, there has always been a red “X” in the upper right corner that will close the current application and quit it completely when clicked. There are also easy-to-understand buttons for minimize (hide to taskbar) and maximize (go full screen).

In macOS, we have what’s known as the traffic lights of application management: In the upper left corner of every application, you’ll see small red, yellow, and green dots. Clicking the red dot will close the current application’s window, but it will not “quit” the application. Close and quit are two different operations in macOS. Just think of it this way: If you have a Microsoft Word document open on your Mac, you can “close” the current document while Word is still running in the background (so you can quickly create a new document). But if you go into the Word menu (on your Mac’s menu bar), you can “quit” the application entirely, meaning you will have to relaunch Microsoft Word when you’re ready to work on another document.

Pro tip: If you see a tiny black dot in the red dot, it means your file has changes that haven’t yet been saved—when you hit “save,” the dot will disappear.

The yellow dot in macOS will minimize the window to the Dock, and you’ll have to go to the Dock and click on the application to see it again. The green dot will put your application into full-screen mode, and you can hit the Esc button to exit the full-screen mode.

Doing the File Conversion Dance (When Necessary)

Once upon a time, one of the biggest challenges Mac-using lawyers had to wrestle with was file compatibility. While Windows users would almost always use Microsoft Word to create documents, Mac users might have used Pages from Apple or some form of the OpenOffice standard. If a Mac user sent a Pages document to a Windows user, he or she couldn’t open it. Yes, there have been previous versions of Microsoft Office and Word for macOS, but they were built differently, and file compatibility with Windows could be wonky.

Apple smartly took the high road and allowed Mac users to create a document in Pages and then save it in Microsoft Word format so that it could be easily opened on the Windows side, but that meant you had to always remember to do a “save as” function before sending. The same solution worked for presentations: You could open a Microsoft PowerPoint file in Keynote, and Keynote would allow you to save it to a PowerPoint file. It’s just too bad that Microsoft didn’t work in the reverse.

Thankfully, most of this file-conversion craziness is unnecessary today due to the cloud and the steady growth in Mac users. There is one version of Microsoft 365 that runs (mostly) the same on Windows and Macs, which means a file created in one operating system opens perfectly in the other—it’s full file compatibility at its finest.

The Rest of the Niche

There are a few other whimsical and interesting differences between macOS and Windows, but we’ve covered the primary ones that most legal professionals will encounter. Windows has File Explorer, Mac has Finder. Windows has Control Panel, Mac has System Settings. Windows have EXEs, Macs have DMGs. Most of you have probably navigated these differences just fine, but it’s important to be aware of them so you can be a friendly and compatible Mac citizen in a Windows world.