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Essential Technology to Launch a Solo or Small Law Firm, Part 2: Productivity Software

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 productive software for a solo or small law firm is an office suite.
  • An office suite is a collection of office productivity software that includes a word processor, spreadsheet program, presentation software, and email manager.
  • While Microsoft Office provides industry standards, additional office suite options include Google Workspace, Corel WordPerfect Office, and LibreOffice.
  • Attorneys should also consider email clients, videoconferencing software, PDF editors, cloud storage, and security software.
Essential Technology to Launch a Solo or Small Law Firm, Part 2: Productivity Software
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As more jurisdictions adopt Comment 8 to ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 (Competence), the ability to successfully navigate information technology (IT) has become not only a vital part of a solo or small firm’s success but each lawyer’s ethical duty.

This three-part series explores the importance of IT for practitioners looking to launch a solo or small law firm. Part 1 of this series covered the essential hardware for launching a solo or small firm, primarily focusing on laptops but also examining docking stations, printers or all-in-ones, WiFi, and cell phones. This article, Part 2, focuses on essential productivity software, which is software that is essential to practicing law (that is, doing legal work). Part 3 of this series will focus on essential law firm management software, which is software that is essential to running the business of a solo or small law firm.

Finally, as a reminder, 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, this series explores essential technology for launching a firm. Thus, while litigating a complex civil case may be extraordinarily difficult without an e-discovery platform, such software is not essential outside of that context.

Office Suites

As the laptop is to hardware, an office suite is to productivity software—that is, each is the single most important item on its respective list and the item you will spend the most time with. An office suite is a collection of office productivity software that typically includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, presentation software, and an email manager. Office suites may also include a panoply of other software or apps, including note-taking platforms, databases, videoconferencing platforms, and the like. For our purposes, the big two are a word processor and a spreadsheet program.

For most solo or small firm practitioners launching a new shop, a word processor (e.g., Microsoft Word, WordPerfect, Google Docs, Apple Pages) will likely be the most important piece of software in the office suite. One thing that unifies nearly all solo and small firm practice areas—from civil litigation, to wills and estates, to criminal law, to transactions, to family law—is that they require practitioners to manipulate text. And many solo or small firm practitioners may do many of these things in a single day, drafting a will before lunch and writing a brief that afternoon. A robust word-processing program is essential to accomplish these tasks.

While less important for most practitioners, spreadsheet software (e.g., Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, Apple Numbers) can also be essential, especially for practitioners who deal frequently with numbers (e.g., analyzing a transaction, assembling a litigation damages model, etc.) or who utilize tables as part of their work process (e.g., tracking research, assembling organizational charts, etc.). From a quantitative standpoint, spreadsheets are nearly irreplaceable, and, for generating and manipulating tables, they offer additional features and functionality that most imbedded table tools in word processors do not have.

Microsoft Office is by far the most ubiquitous office suite used by attorneys, and for good reason. Microsoft Word sets the standard for powerful but easy-to-use word processors, and Microsoft Excel is the undisputed leader in spreadsheet software. Further, drafts of documents passed between firms and government organizations are typically in either Microsoft Word format (.doc or .docx) or PDF format (.pdf). Using Office allows a solo or small firm to access and manipulate those documents in their native format, which can prevent conversion and formatting headaches.

For solo and small firm practitioners, acquiring Microsoft Office through the subscription service Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) is an easy way to obtain these industry standards while gaining a host of other advantages. First, Microsoft 365 includes the ability to use Office products both in software form (i.e., an application on a computer) and in web-application form (i.e., accessed inside a browser window), allowing work from nearly any smart device. Second, Microsoft 365 includes email hosting functionality with Microsoft Outlook, which means that the price of creating and using email addresses (and hosting email) is included in the monthly subscription. Third, Microsoft 365 includes access to other pieces of software—including the presentation program PowerPoint—that may not be “essential” but can certainly find everyday use in many solo or small firm offices.

Perhaps most importantly, the features that solo and small firm practitioners would use in Microsoft 365, such as document storage and email hosting, are incredibly secure, reducing the likelihood that the firm’s files or communications would be compromised. Finally, like most subscription-based software models, Microsoft 365 is based on users, meaning that a solo or small firm will only need to pay for the number of accounts it needs (and can add a new account at any time).

Despite Microsoft Office’s status as the paragon of office suites, there are several solid alternatives. The first is Google Workspace, which includes a word processor (Google Docs), a spreadsheet program (Google Sheets), a presentation program (Google Slides), and an email platform (Gmail). Google Workspace has two primary advantages: the base package is free (users can pay for additional storage), and its services are browser-based (meaning that they can be accessed from nearly any Internet browser). However, those apps do not afford the same level of control that a more robust suite such as Microsoft Office would offer, and the user is bound to a web browser to edit documents. For attorneys who may not need to do heavy document editing (or who may delegate those tasks to others), the Google suite can be a frugal and effective alternative.

For WordPerfect users, the Microsoft Office alternative is Corel WordPerfect Office. It features a word processor (WordPerfect), a spreadsheet program (Quattro Pro), and presentation software (Presentations), among other programs. The programs are all compatible with Microsoft formats, so users who opt for the Corel suite will be able to share with and edit documents from Microsoft users. Value-wise, Corel WordPerfect Office’s price point is similar to Microsoft Office while offering fewer side benefits (e.g., email hosting and Microsoft Outlook), so users who opt for the Corel suite should do so because they prefer WordPerfect over Word.

For Apple users, Microsoft 365 has iOS-compatible and macOS-compatible versions, and Google Workspace works just as easily on MacBooks as it does on PCs because it is browser-based. Alternatively, Mac users can utilize Apple’s free productivity suite, iWork. iWork features a word processor (Pages), a spreadsheet (Numbers), and presentation software (Keynote), as well as compatibility with Microsoft file formats. Besides its price point, iWork’s primary advantage is its synergy across the Apple hardware universe, making it easy to view and tweak a document on an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. However, those with heavy document formatting obligations (e.g., an appellate brief) might find the robust features and amount of control available in Word and WordPerfect to be more suitable for full-time word processing.

The budget-conscious might consider a handful of other suites (in addition to Google Workspace or iWork). LibreOffice is a free, open-source productivity suite with millions of worldwide users. It offers a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet program (Calc), presentation software (Impress), and other programs that all work with Microsoft file formats. SoftMaker Office 2021 offers a word processor (TextMaker), a spreadsheet program (PlanMaker), and presentation software (Presentations) that are likewise compatible with Microsoft file formats and run on nearly all operating systems. Although SoftMaker Office is not free, its price is modest compared to the other suites on this list.

Finally, solo and small firm practitioners should consider the ability to mix and match these options. For example, while every attorney and full-time staff member at a firm may have a Microsoft 365 account, the firm can save money by utilizing one of the low-cost alternatives above on a computer that will be used by a summer intern or other temporary or short-term worker whose primary responsibilities may focus on office duties instead of document editing.

Email Clients and Other Text-Based Communications

Solo or small firm attorneys send anywhere from a few emails a day to more than a hundred emails a day, making email management a critical function of a new office. However, email management can be tricky because it involves multiple functions and components. To understand what a new firm needs, it’s important to understand the basics of how email works.

Everyone has interacted with an email client such as Microsoft Outlook, Gmail, Apple Mail, etc. An email client is software that allows the user to manage an email account by receiving and reading messages, creating and sending messages, and organizing those messages. An email host (or server) may be more opaque but isn’t complicated: it is simply a virtual post office where a particular email account’s messages are routed and may be stored. Finally, most new firms will want a custom domain name so that email addresses appear as [email protected] instead of a generic address (e.g., [email protected]).

The good news is that email clients and email hosts are often bundled together as one service, and it is not difficult to purchase a domain name that can then be used with a particular email host and client to send and receive email. While the details of that process are beyond the scope of this article series, there are excellent tutorials online.

The two easiest email solutions for a solo or small firm would be those from Microsoft and Google. A Microsoft 365 subscription comes with both email hosting (via Microsoft Exchange) and an email client (Microsoft Outlook). Microsoft makes it easy to buy a domain (e.g., from and set up custom email accounts that can be accessed both online and via Outlook. In addition, that subscription comes with all of Microsoft’s security features (including encryption and two-factor authentication) and streamlines the number of accounts and subscriptions each attorney needs to purchase. Google Workspace is also an excellent choice for email hosting and an email client (Gmail), and Google Workspace offers a one-stop solution that allows a user to purchase a domain name and set up professional email accounts in a single transaction.

Finally, it is worth noting that other text-based-communication apps or software may be essential to a particular firm. For example, it may make sense for a small firm to organize message-board-style communications around specific cases or practice areas in a text-based platform such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. As a second example (and as we discussed in the hardware article), some practice areas or jurisdictions may still rely on faxes; online fax services such as eFax, Fax.Plus, HelloFax, and others allow a user to send and receive faxes from various platforms, including web browsers, email clients, or stand-alone software, completely eliminating the need for a fax machine and a dedicated landline at the firm’s office. If you are launching a new firm, consider your use case and whether those solutions might be essential to your practice.

Videoconferencing Software

Speaking of software that facilitates communication, the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed how law will be practiced. Part 1 of this series discussed the importance of dedicated videoconferencing hardware to speak with clients, attend hearings and board meetings, take or defend remote depositions, and interact with others in the legal world. The corollary to such videoconferencing hardware is, of course, videoconferencing software. Practicing attorneys will often have little choice here; participants in a videoconference are stuck with the conferencing platform that their host chooses. The choice comes when your firm needs to host a videoconference.

Zoom remains the most widely used videoconferencing software and is available for free to participate in meetings hosted by others. The free version also allows a user to host short meetings (less than 40 minutes) with a limited number of participants. For those who need to host longer meetings or need more robust features, Zoom offers paid tier levels with increased features and licenses. Microsoft Teams is widely used for client meetings and internal discussions because it comes bundled with Microsoft 365 and offers text-based message boards alongside its videoconferencing capabilities. Finally, Skype and Webex are used by a handful of courts and companies and offer solid alternatives to Zoom and Teams.

PDF Editors

As American Bar Association authors have frequently commented on, one of the scariest technological failures an attorney can have is the failure to properly redact confidential information (see, e.g., Andrea L. D’Ambra & Susana Medeiros, The Consequences of Documents That Are Incorrectly [Redacted], Litigation, Spring 2020, at 15; Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr., Embarrassing Redaction Failures, Judges’ Journal, Spring 2019, at 37). Time and again, those failures occur because attorneys either lack the proper PDF software or the knowledge of how to use redaction tools in that software. For most attorneys, PDF is an essential file format because it is the one that government entities—including courts—primarily (or exclusively) accept.

The ability to create, manipulate, edit, and (importantly) redact information in PDFs is an essential function for nearly any law firm. In addition, firms often receive PDFs that are not searchable, making the ability to convert the text in a PDF into searchable words (dubbed “optical character recognition”) a critical function of PDF software for attorneys. And litigators need the ability to electronically Bates stamp documents for production. While PDF readers such as Adobe Acrobat Reader allow a user to view PDFs, they do not contain the functionality that solo or small firms will need to manage PDFs. For that, a solo or small firm attorney will need PDF software with full functionality.

The flagship of those programs is Adobe Acrobat Pro. The PDF, short for portable document format, was actually invented by Adobe in 1992 to facilitate the exchange of documents in an immutable form. Thus, it makes some sense that Adobe would offer one of the best PDF platforms on the market. Acrobat Pro is the Cadillac solution for PDF manipulation—it can do it all, including creating or combining PDFs, editing PDFs, adding bookmarks and searchability, and creating signature fields that can be sent to a client and electronically signed (offering a viable alternative to DocuSign).

However, the price of Acrobat Pro (at the time of this publication, approximately $180 per year per user) may be prohibitive for a solo or small firm that only deals with a few PDFs a month. Fortunately, sufficient and affordable alternatives exist, including Nitro PDF Pro, Foxit PDF Editor, PDFelement, FlexiPDF Professional, and PDF Fusion. The key takeaway is that while a new solo or small firm may not need the flagship, it certainly needs the ability to do more than read PDFs, and good solutions exist to solve that problem.

Cloud Storage

Storage is an essential piece of “software” that may, at first blush, seem like it should have been in the previous article on essential hardware. However, building redundancy into IT systems is an important principle that should guide a solo or small firm’s IT decisions, and one of the best ways to create redundancy is to ensure that no piece of critical data lives on a single device.

Another way to get at the idea of redundancy is to ask a simple question: If all the data on your laptop suddenly became forever inaccessible (e.g., it suffered a catastrophic hard drive failure or was stolen out of your car), would this loss be an unfortunate inconvenience or a firm-changing event with dire consequences? The ideal answer is, of course, the former. The failure of any single piece of hardware, including your laptop, should merely be an inconvenience.

One of the most critical ways to ensure that it is a mere inconvenience is to ensure that every single file that belongs to the firm is housed in a place that makes the file recoverable. For large institutions, this may mean hosting a local server with several redundancies that is backed up regularly. For a solo or small firm, the solution is even more simple: use a cloud storage service to house all the firm’s client and business files.

The two primary cloud storage systems that solo and small firm attorneys use are Box and Dropbox. Both function similarly on a local computer, where files are stored in the Box or Dropbox folder and then are uploaded to dedicated, secure space on the respective company’s server. Both offer browser-based access to files, integrate with the productivity software in this article, and allow files to be shared with other attorneys and clients. Importantly, both are incredibly secure, offering encryption in transit and at rest (meaning anything you store on their servers is encrypted during upload and also when it gets to the server) and robust security measures such as two-factor encryption. Other solid options for cloud storage include Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Apple iCloud.

While I practiced and managed my firm’s IT, one of my primary goals was to ensure that hardware failure would, at most, cost us a few hours. If anyone’s laptop failed, which certainly happened, my inconvenience was a trip to the computer store and part of an afternoon setting up and downloading that attorney’s email (in our Microsoft account) and files (in our Box account) to the new computer. None of those failures cost our firm a client or a case, and cloud storage of critical documents and communications was a primary reason why.

Security Software

Finally, software that keeps each attorney’s computer and files more secure is essential to a solo or small firm’s IT. Fortunately, most of the software discussed above features security protocols that, if used correctly alongside regular security training and other procedures, make it less likely that a solo or small firm’s files will be compromised.

Two pieces of security software should be considered essential for most firms: antivirus/malware protection and a VPN. Viruses and malware are (mostly) a PC problem, and Windows’ built-in antivirus software, Microsoft Defender, is a solid antivirus/malware program. For third-party platforms, Bitdefender Antivirus repeatedly receives top scores in independent testing, and mainstays Norton and McAfee offer robust, affordable options. Although attacks targeting macOS systems are not as common as those targeting Windows systems, macOS users should still consider antivirus/malware protection; well-reviewed options include offerings from Intego and Avast, along with more familiar names such as Norton and McAfee.

Attorneys who travel frequently or work in public places such as libraries or coffee shops should also consider a VPN (virtual private network) essential software. Free WiFi can be incredibly unsecure, which allows anyone on a given WiFi network to monitor any other traffic on that network. For example, an attorney who logs on to free WiFi at a coffee shop, airport, or hotel could compromise his or her email account and inadvertently disclose any confidential communications and files that the attorney accesses while on that network.

If you are forced to use free WiFi somewhere (and I don’t recommend doing so), a VPN, or “virtual private network,” creates a secure pipeline between your computer (or other smart device, such as a cell phone) and another computer on the VPN’s network. VPN software is simple: after a user logs on to a WiFi network, the user opens the VPN software and clicks a single button to activate it. Quality VPNs are ubiquitous and affordable. They include ExpressVPN, NordVPN, IPVanish, and Surfshark.

Coming in Part 3: Law Firm Management Software

The next issue of GPSolo magazine will present the third and final part of this series: the software that is essential to running the business of a solo or small law firm.