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Essential Technology to Launch a Solo or Small Law Firm, Part 1: Hardware

John Matthew Murrell


  • Comment 8 to the American Bar Association's (ABA) Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 requires attorneys to maintain knowledge of the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.
  • The most essential hardware for a solo or small law firm is a laptop.
  • The four essential characteristics to consider when purchasing a laptop are the operating system, hardware, screen size, and budget.
  • Attorneys should also consider docking stations, printers, videoconferencing equipment, internet hardware, and phones.
  • A ring light and external camera, microphone, and headset can improve videoconferencing capabilities.
Essential Technology to Launch a Solo or Small Law Firm, Part 1: Hardware
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Launching a solo or small law firm can be a daunting task. In addition to the concerns of a normal attorney in private practice (e.g., maintaining a book of business, billing enough hours, meeting all your deadlines), starting a law firm adds a host of nonlawyer business tasks to your plate, including accounting, office management, and human resources. At large firms and organizations, these tasks may be farmed out to entire departments or third-party vendors; in a solo or small firm, you may wear some or all those hats.

Information technology (IT) sits prominently as one of the most critical tasks that a solo or small firm practitioner must take on. Importantly, utilizing technology to practice law is no longer a mere convenience; it is likely your ethical duty. In 2012 the American Bar Association adopted Comment 8 to Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1, requiring attorneys to maintain their knowledge of “the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.” Since then, nearly 40 states have followed suit, adopting their own duty of technological competence.

In addition to this ethical obligation, practitioners—especially those launching a solo or small law firm—should prioritize technological proficiency not only because technology facilitates the practice of law but also because courts, clients, and colleagues expect practitioners to be technologically competent. Further, a single cybersecurity incident can be fatal to a solo or small firm.

This article is the first of a three-part series that will explore the technology that is essential for launching a solo or small law firm. This part will tackle essential hardware, focusing on the most important piece of hardware for a solo or small firm: the laptop computer. Part 2 of this series will focus on the productivity software that is essential to practicing law. Part 3 of this series will focus on the firm management software that is essential to running the business that is a solo or small law firm.

The choices in this series are made with two guiding principles in mind: Each piece of technology should either perform an essential function for the firm’s productivity or help keep the firm and its information secure (and even better if it can do both). In addition, frugality informs a number of the choices below. Finally, in the interest of space, this series will explore essential technology for launching a firm; thus, while many attorneys may use a tablet such as an iPad to supplement their work, those discretionary choices are not discussed here.


Bar none, the essential piece of technology for a solo or small firm is a laptop. When purchasing a laptop, you should consider four essential characteristics: (1) the operating system, (2) the hardware, (3) the screen size, and (4) your budget.

Operating system. The first step in your laptop decision is determining what operating system (OS) you prefer. Modern laptops have a number of choices for an OS, but only two should be considered here: Windows and macOS. Windows is the OS on nearly every name-brand laptop that is not an Apple, including HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer, and ASUS. Apple laptops, including the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, run macOS. (Chromebooks operate on Chrome OS, which is superb at its task of running a computer designed for web surfing and simple apps but is insufficient to perform the heavy lifting required of a practitioner’s laptop.)

Both Windows and macOS have their champions and detractors, but either is sufficient for legal work (and running a solo or small law firm). In terms of market share, Windows rules the roost; it is the most widely used OS among law firms and also what most governments and courts use. In addition, external IT resources that solo or small firms rely on may be more readily able to address issues on Windows computers than Macs.

At the same time, the use of Macs in the practice of law has exploded in the last five years, and there are a growing number of resources for attorneys who prefer a MacBook over a Windows PC. Ultimately, if you’re agnostic, a Windows PC is the better choice because (1) it’s the standard-bearer, and (2) Microsoft Office—an essential piece of productivity software that will be discussed next issue in Part 2 of this series—runs seamlessly on Windows because both are manufactured by Microsoft.

Hardware. After determining what OS you prefer, the next choice is hardware. An article could eat through thousands of words on each hardware component in a laptop, but there are two decisions that control the rest: the processor and the hard drive. To put the conclusions first: (1) If you’re choosing a PC running Windows, you should be looking at computers that contain an Intel Core i5, i7, or i9, or AMD Ryzen 5, 7, or 9 processor, with at least 8 GB of RAM and at least a 512 GB hard drive; (2) if you’re choosing a MacBook, avoid any options that restrict you to a 256 GB hard drive.

Let’s start with the basics: The hardware in any laptop you are considering needs to be sufficient to satisfy the “use case” of a typical solo or small firm practitioner. On any given day, your computer may be running an email program, half a dozen Word documents, a PDF reader, a dozen browser windows, a few directory folders, PowerPoint, and communication software such as Zoom, Slack, Google Chat, or Microsoft Teams.

Running that number of programs is taxing on a computer and requires a sufficient processor (the microchip running the computer) and RAM (the memory being accessed by that microchip) to run those programs, sufficient storage (in the form of a hard drive) to store those programs and their data, and a good enough graphics processor to jump between all of those things.

Fortunately, you don’t have to make all those decisions or educate yourself on the hundreds of options within those categories. Instead, your hardware decision hinges on two things: the processor and the size of the hard drive. The hardware decisions can be reduced to those two items because a name-brand computer with a good processor is going to check all the other hardware boxes and will be able to perform the functions needed of a solo or small firm practitioner.

For that reason, it’s better to understand what not to buy when it comes to hardware. You want to avoid “netbooks”—that is, laptops that are designed solely for surfing the Internet (and operating simple apps such as Candy Crush). Those laptops serve a great role at a great price point, but their hardware is insufficient to perform the myriad tasks required of a practicing attorney.

A good rule of thumb for processors is to avoid the budget or bottom options for that processor. For a Windows PC, you should be looking for computers that contain an Intel Core i5, i7, or i9 processor (avoiding Intel Pentium, Celeron, and Core i3 processors) or for computers that contain an AMD Ryzen 5, 7, or 9 (avoiding AMD Athlon and Ryzen 3 processors). MacBook users already have this decision made for them: Even the lowest-tier MacBook Air runs on a sufficient processor.

If you choose a name-brand laptop (e.g., HP, Dell, Lenovo, Apple, Acer, or ASUS) that contains one of those advanced processors, then it is highly likely that the RAM will be sufficient to run the myriad programs, but note that there may be some bottom options on the lower processors (such as the Intel Core i5) with only 4 GB of RAM. RAM often correlates to the speed and “feel” of a computer, and computers that feel sluggish—especially when a number of programs are open—typically have insufficient RAM to run everything that’s open. For a laptop, you should shoot for at least 8 GB of RAM (and 16 GB is even better).

The other major hardware decision is the hard drive storage on the computer itself. This decision comes with a caveat. Over the last decade, computer applications have migrated from stand-alone programs stored on a computer’s local storage to browser-based programs that merely require the user to access a browser window such as Chrome or Safari (and store nothing on the local computer).

Because of this trend, business-tier and other high-end laptops may feature small hard drives, especially the ubiquitous 256 GB hard drive featured on dozens of popular PCs and MacBook models. The problem with the cloud-based software trend is that the practice of law still requires (1) local storage of files (even if you’re using a cloud-based storage system) and (2) the use of software, such as Microsoft Office, that resides on a laptop’s hard drive. In addition, launching a firm means that you’ll need extra storage for the business side of the firm. Accordingly, you should avoid laptops with 256 GB hard drives, opting for at least 512 GB (and, more favorably, 1 TB or larger hard drives).

The other hard drive option to note is the type of hard drive included in the laptop. Hard drives are generally of two types: a hard disk drive that spins (HDD) or a solid-state drive with no moving components (SSD). HDDs are older and cheaper technology, so budget or lower-tier options may have HDDs instead of SSDs. However, most business-tier laptops (and especially those with nicer processors) will feature a modern, faster SSD.

Screen size. The next consideration for a laptop is the screen size, which boils down to your personal preference. When considering screen size, give some thought to your specific use case and whether the laptop will primarily live at your office/home office or whether you will be traveling frequently with the laptop (e.g., on business trips or carrying it to and from your office every day). If you’re going to be traveling frequently and don’t mind the smaller screen sizes, you should consider the smaller options (i.e., 13” to 15”) because those computers will be lighter and easier to carry. Consider also whether you will be using one or more external screens as part of a docking station when you work in your office (see below). Ultimately, the choice of screen size is up to you.

Your budget. The single largest technology purchase a practitioner launching a solo or small firm will make will likely be for a laptop. Generally, you should expect to pay $800 to $1,000 on the low end for a computer that meets the requirements above, while you can spend $2,000 or more on the high end. That extra money will certainly buy you “more” computer, but you should scrutinize the extra features of that computer to ensure that the increased purchase price is justified.

If you have the budget, you should feel comfortable spending extra money on a laptop with a recent-generation, fast processor (e.g., at the time of this publication, a 12th-generation Intel i7 or i9), a lot of RAM (16 GB or greater), or a large SSD (1 TB or greater). Doing so can help “future-proof” the laptop (to a degree), giving you an extra year or more at the back end of its life cycle and justifying that extra expense. Those features can also facilitate hardware-intensive tasks, such as processing thousands of pages of PDFs for discovery production.

On the other hand, you should be leery of spending extra money on an advanced laptop whose features are geared toward graphic-intensive pursuits. For example, different versions of a single model of a name-brand laptop may vary in price by hundreds of dollars solely based on the GPU, or graphics processing unit, in that computer. The global video game market is well over $100 billion, and many video games depend on advanced GPUs. Accordingly, examine and compare the features on various models to ensure that, if you’re going with a high-end option, it includes the features that matter for productivity.

Docking Station

Technologically proficient attorneys utilize the maximum potential of their laptops, and one of the best ways to do that is to set up a docking station. A docking station allows you to turn your laptop into a makeshift desktop computer, which allows you to utilize things such as additional screens and external input devices, increasing your productivity.

Generally, “docking stations” can be divided into two categories. The first, ironically, isn’t technically a docking station. Nearly any laptop that meets the parameters discussed in the previous section has the ability to support an external monitor. Accordingly, a simple “docking station” can be desk space with nothing more than an external monitor ready to plug into your laptop.

While that approach may be cost-effective, it still constrains you to (1) sitting directly in front of your laptop to perform work, which means staring down at your laptop screen (which can lead to eye and neck fatigue); (2) typing on a non-ideal laptop keyboard, which can be especially tedious on those long days when you draft documents or respond to emails the entire day; and (3) scrolling with a trackpad, which offers less control than a mouse.

Thus, the second type of docking station, which is more suited for a practicing attorney, contains a “hub” called a docking station, one or more external monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, and the necessary cables for those devices to communicate with your laptop. For PC users, every major manufacturer plus a number of third-party manufacturers make a docking station, and they may be cross-compatible with several brands and models of computers. However, often the smartest move is to limit your choices to a docking station made by the manufacturer of your laptop and, before purchase, ensure that your laptop model is on the list of compatible devices for that docking station.

For MacBook users, Apple does not manufacture a docking station, but there are a number of third-party docking stations with Thunderbolt connections that work well with MacBooks, including those made by reputable peripheral manufacturers such as Kensington, Corsair, Anker, Belkin, and iVANKY.

Docking stations range from $100 on the low end to $350 or more on the high end. Typically, the more expensive docking stations possess more connectivity options (e.g., the ability to connect two or three external monitors instead of one), modern connectivity options (e.g., USB-C or Thunderbolt), and a higher-voltage charger to keep up with the power demands of top-end models produced by a given manufacturer.

Once you have selected a docking station, you can add a monitor (or two or three), a keyboard, and a mouse. Monitors are a personal preference and can run anywhere from under $100 for budget options to well over $1,000 for large-format, curved monitors. There are two things to note on monitors. First, most name-brand monitors are reliable and have multiple connectivity options, so it’s unnecessary to match the monitor to the brand of laptop and docking station you purchase. Watching sales at,, Best Buy, and other tech outlets, alongside scrutinizing reviews and customer ratings, can yield high-quality monitors at a good price point. Second, if you’re a three-monitor person, make sure that both the laptop and docking station you’re considering support more than two screens. Some very popular PC models support only two external monitors.

A hub-based docking station also needs an external keyboard and a mouse. A number of IT folks prefer corded options because a docking station will typically have connectivity for those devices, and wireless keyboards and mice require batteries (which seem to go out right before a big deadline). Having said that, plenty of folks are happy with (and swear by) non-Bluetooth wireless keyboards and mice, so choose what you feel comfortable with.

Finally, if you are launching a firm and anticipate that the firm will have more than just you as an employee—including non-attorney staff—you should consider adopting a standard laptop (and its corresponding docking station) for your firm. The benefits of this approach abound: (1) whoever manages IT can focus on one system; (2) any docking station in the office (or at an employee’s home) will work with any laptop in the office; (3) the onboarding process is easier because new employees are working with technology everyone else already uses and understands; and (4) reappropriating technology is easier if an employee leaves.


Over the last two decades, the practice of law has become increasingly less reliant on paper. However, most practices are not completely paperless, and almost every solo or small firm will need to print, copy, and scan documents. Like other pieces of hardware, there are a few options to consider depending on your use case.

The first major decision is whether you need a large-format, “traditional” copy machine that serves as your office’s central hub for printing, scanning, and copying or whether a smaller “all-in-one” printer that performs those tasks will suffice. You should consider several factors when considering this hardware. First, even large, international law firms outsource hefty print jobs, so if you have access to a quality, affordable print service where you practice, you don’t necessarily need the ability to print large volumes of documents in-house. Second, these options aren’t mutually exclusive. If you are launching a small firm with five or more attorneys and staff members, it may make sense to have both a centralized large-format copier for big jobs and smaller printers for specific attorneys or staff.

On the large-format side, Konica Minolta, Sharp, Canon, Ricoh, Toshiba, and Xerox make dozens of models with every feature imaginable. The purchase price of those models can vary widely, from the low four figures to the price of a luxury car. However, those purchase prices shouldn’t prohibit you from considering an office-grade, professional copier because many are sold via lease-to-own arrangements with affordable monthly payments (and built-in maintenance contracts). If you are launching a solo or small firm, it is definitely worth reaching out to a local dealer (or a few local dealers) to explore your options.

On the small-format side, there are numerous high-quality, affordable, brand-name all-in-ones that are capable of lasting years and printing tens or hundreds of thousands of pages, including printers manufactured by Brother, HP, Canon, and Epson. Those worth considering start at around $100 and can climb into the low four figures, with several high-quality options in the $200 to $300 bracket. Options to consider here include color printing (which is more expensive both to purchase and to maintain), duplex capability (the ability to print on both sides of a sheet of paper, which can save paper), wireless connectivity (so that everything can communicate through your office WiFi network), and fax capability (if you’re in a practice area that still requires faxing).

Videoconferencing Technology

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the practice of law in many ways, and even when the pandemic ends, some of those changes will remain. If you are a solo or small firm practitioner launching a firm, you should consider the reality that a number of court hearings, depositions, interviews, client calls, and team meetings will continue to occur in the virtual world even after the pandemic ends.

This reality warrants supplementing your laptop’s built-in features with external hardware that will enhance both your own virtual experience and, more importantly, the experience of those on the other end of your call. Nearly every laptop that meets the criteria in the section above will have the necessary hardware to participate in a videoconference on Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, Webex, or other platforms. However, a laptop’s built-in camera and microphone may impose limitations on your ability to look and sound as professional as possible.

Let’s start with the camera. A good videoconference setup should place the camera at the presenter’s eye level. That’s not an issue if the sole task for your laptop during a meeting is to transmit your image and sound during the meeting; you can place your laptop on a stand, a stack of books, or a box at an appropriate level. However, if you need to use your laptop during the videoconference—for example, to follow your outline while taking a deposition or share documents during a client meeting or court hearing—the camera will be several inches below eye level and likely pointed up at your neck and chin (and office ceiling) instead of horizontally at your face and the backdrop behind you.

The built-in microphone, even on high-end laptops, fares no better and can make your voice nearly unintelligible if you have an echoey office. Even worse, you may not realize that your voice sounds faint or that other people on the call are having trouble understanding you during the call itself. Accordingly, it is worth looking at three pieces of external hardware to improve the videoconferencing capability of your laptop: an external camera, a ring light, and a headset.

External cameras typically attach to your laptop via a USB cord, and they can be placed anywhere the cord can reach, allowing you to position the camera in a convenient location that is eye level. High-quality external webcams range in price from $20 to well over $100. The best setup for such a camera, especially in a two-monitor environment, is to place the camera on top of the same external monitor where you will be watching the videoconference so that it appears that you’re “looking at” the other people on the video call when you’re actually looking at them on your monitor.

The second item to consider is called a ring light, which is exactly what it sounds like: it is a small, ring-shaped light. Small ring lights start at $15 and can substantially enhance your appearance on camera by directly lighting your face. Given their low acquisition cost, a ring light should be considered essential hardware, especially if you have poor lighting in your office or your backdrop is an external window that will make your head appear as a featureless silhouette on camera.

Finally, for video calls, consider utilizing a headset that has headphones and a microphone. Nearly any external microphone—even the microphone on a $10 pair of headphones—will substantially increase the quality of your voice on the call. There are thousands of choices for a headset. Many attorneys utilize Bluetooth-enabled devices such as AirPods or other devices that sync with their phones. Others use headsets with microphones that were originally designed for the gaming community but work superbly for videoconferencing.

Notwithstanding these advantages of external audio devices, be careful. As many folks learned early in the pandemic, video calls can be riddled with endless feedback caused by a participant not having his or her computer audio configured correctly. The problem rarely occurs if the microphone and the speakers share the same hardware: that is, the participant is using the laptop’s built-in microphone and built-in speakers, or the participant is using a single external device that contains both a microphone and headphones, such as AirPods or a gaming headset. The problem typically occurs when a participant uses an external microphone with the computer’s native speakers (or vice versa) because those devices aren’t synced with each other, causing a feedback loop. Thus, unless you’re confident in manipulating your computer’s audio settings, be sure that any videoconferencing audio components you add contain both a microphone and headphones.


The next piece of essential hardware is hardware to connect to the Internet. Fortunately, most Internet service providers (ISPs) will provide both a modem (which creates a connection between your office and the Internet) and a WiFi router (which allows multiple devices to connect wirelessly to that Internet connection) with your monthly Internet service, either as a built-in part of your subscription package or as add-ons that will cost extra (akin to having an extra cable box in your home). Because those options can be delegated to your ISP, this article does not recommend buying a modem or a router unless and until your ISP technician tells you to do so.


Finally, phones round out the analysis of essential hardware for launching a solo or small firm. The first (and most obvious) decision is whether your new firm will have a landline. If you’re sticking with your cell phone, then the problem is solved. If you’re adding a landline, then look for phones that are sufficient for the number of lines or extensions you will have in your office. For a small firm that desires to give each employee his or her own extension, it’s worth talking to the phone company and having an external phone contractor set up your office’s phone system. In addition, consider utilizing an answering service for a landline, especially if you are a solo practitioner or run a small office without administrative staff. Those services can be affordable and offer 24/7 remote staffing of your landline.

Coming in Part 2: Productivity Software

The next issue of GPSolo magazine will present Part 2 of this series: the essential productivity software you need to run a law practice.