New Solo Technology Shopping List: the Basics

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New solos spend a lot of time thinking about technology, probably because picking out a laptop and setting up a website aren’t taught in law school. To make it easier, we’ve put together a “shopping list” for new solos so you can focus on getting and serving clients, not poring through document scanner reviews.

This probably won’t be everything you need, but it definitely contains the basics: everything you need to get a new law firm up and running.

Since this list is a bit out of date, you might want to check out our Law Technology Buyer’s Guide, which has up-to-date recommendations.

Basic hardware

13″ Macbook Air

So you aren’t tied to your basement office as you get up and running, you’ll want a laptop. And for most lawyers, there’s no reason to go with a big, heavy laptop, when the Macbook Air will slip into a small bag and still has more than enough speed and power.

Why a Mac? Because they are better, in general, than their Windows PC counterparts. You can spend less on a PC, but you will end up with a less-powerful computer that you will have to replace sooner, and that may very well fall apart before you are ready to replace it. Just get a Mac, and don’t look back. You’ll be glad you did.

If you must get a PC, get a Lenovo ThinkPad T420. ThinkPads are rock-solid laptops with high-end specs. They last forever, and there is a certain charm to their steadfast rejection of style.

Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M

You do not want a multifunction printer/copier/scanner/toaster. Instead, just get a good document scanner and printer. We’ve been recommending the Fujitsu ScanSnaps for years because they are a huge value (especially since they come with Adobe Acrobat) and dead simple to operate. The ScanSnap 1500M (or ScanSnap S1500 for PC) is the desk-sized unit, but if you want something more portable, the S1300 and S1100 are also options.

HP LaserJet P2055dn printer

On the printer side of things, you need a good, fast laser printer. I’m partial to the HP LaserJet P2055dn, because it’s what I use, and it is a workhorse that I expect to be using for another 10 years. But really, any good quality laser printer will do. Just make sure you get one that meets your needs. You don’t want to be waiting around for things to print the night before a trial or real estate closing.

Time Capsule 2TB (or WD Elements 2TB)

You’ll want two backup methods: one local, one remote. For the local backup, an external hard drive is just the thing, and Apple’s Time Capsule 2TB is a strong argument for going with Mac, and one of the best backup options you’ll find. The Time Capsule works with Time Machine on your Mac to automatically—and wirelessly—back up your files.

If you’re particularly cost-conscious, however, get the WD Elements 2TB. This basic drive will work fine with Time Machine, although it will have to be plugged into your computer. Just keep in mind that you’ll also need a separate router (wired or wireless), which will make up much of the difference in cost.

Basic software

Microsoft Office

You already know you need Microsoft Office, so just get it. The up-to-date version, that is. If you’re following our advice so far, you’ll need the Mac version. If not, get the PC version. Sure, there are alternatives. You could use things like LibreOffice, iWork, or even Google Docs. But in the end, Office is the industry standard in the U.S., and we recommend it for that reason.

Google Apps Premium

The best email, calendar, and contact management is from Google. You can use it one of two ways. I prefer the web interface for all Google’s products, because then I have the same experience no matter where I am. But if you upgrade to Google Apps Premium for $50 per year, you can use the Google Apps Sync for Outlook, and you’ll never know you are using Google. Except when you need to get to your email from your phone. Or from an internet cafe in Istanbul. It’s way better than the basic email provided by your ISP.

Clio or Rocket Matter

I won’t try to take sides between what I think are the two best practice management software options currently on the market; just pick one. As I’ve said before, probably the best way to pick is to choose the user interface you like best. Otherwise, the features are comparable.

Both will take care of your timekeeping, billing, contact management, firm calendar (both will also sync contacts and calendar with your Google Apps account), and do basic trust accounting. And more. If you just start out using one or the other, you’ll be happier for it.

Quickbooks

Like Microsoft Office, Quickbooks is basically the industry standard small-business accounting software. Your accountant probably uses it, but definitely knows how to work with it. You can’t go wrong with Quickbooks, which is why you might as well get it. I resisted paying for Quickbooks for a while (even though it’s not that expensive), but gave in after the free software I was using cost me more money than I would have spent if I simply got Quickbooks in the first place.

Dropbox or Mozy

For your remote backup, you’ll want something automatic and unobtrusive. Dropbox and Mozy fit the bill nicely, each with a slightly different feature set. Dropbox is still our preference, despite some noisy complainants. Dropbox syncs your files effortlessly across all your computers and devices, and also gives you access to your files through a browser. It’s hard to beat the convenience, and we’re satisfied with the security.

If you want a service that is arguably more secure, try Mozy. Mozy is just backup, and it allows you to hold onto your encryption key, which means you will be the only one who can access your encrypted files. This is about as secure as you can ask for, although it means you lose access to your backed-up files if you lose your encryption key. But if all you need is backup, we think it’s hard to beat Mozy.


That’s it for the basics on our shopping list. If you have questions, ask in the comments or take them to the Lawyerist LAB. If you visit the LAB, I’ll be happy to defend my choices or suggest alternatives, if you have specific needs.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ex-smith/3797903995/)

  • http://consumerlawyer.mn/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Randall Ryder

    Please put this on a t-shirt “Why a Mac? Because they are better, in general, than their Windows PC counterparts.”

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      You’d love to see that, wouldn’t you?

      • http://ethicsmaven.com/ Eric Cooperstein

        Someone has obviously hacked into Lawyerist. Sam recommending a MacBook Air and Microsoft Office? I need a drink.

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          I wrote those words and I stand by them. But if you want to hear all about why Linux is superior (especially when running on a Mac) and free software is the way of the future, just let me know.

          • Clay

            I tried the Linux on a Mac experiment the other day. I probably needed to spend more time with it or get a better distro, but I now believe this saying: putting Linux on a Mac is like putting a Chevy 4 banger in a Lamborghini.

            • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

              That’s not right. Putting Linux on anything is like modifying a car. It will drive differently and have different problems, but it will also probably go faster at the expense of things like comfort or real-world driveability. Every OS involves compromises; you’re just used to the compromises of OS X, so you probably don’t think about them any more.

              Also, you cannot evaluate any OS in one day. It takes time to get used to a completely different environment. Spend a week with it, and see how you feel.

              All that said, I don’t see a lot of reasons to go from OS X to Linux. They are both ‘nix-based, but OS X has a decent amount of great software available for it, while Linux has a ton of software of wildly varying quality depending on the whims of thousands of developers.

              Linux does some things extremely well. There’s a reason most of the Internet runs on Linux, for example. It does others poorly. Install it on any five laptops, and three won’t even connect to the internet.

            • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

              Also, if you want to try Linux, start with Ubuntu. It’s by far the most polished.

              • Clay

                Thanks for the quick reply. The only complaint I really had was that my internet connection was significantly slower for some reason. Do you recommend the newest release or an older one? I installed Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, but might try Mint XFCE next.

                • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

                  I doubt the connection speed had anything to do with Ubuntu, but you should enable any restricted drivers, just in case. If Linux doesn’t feel faster than OS X or Windows in general, something is probably not working correctly.

  • http://timbelcher.wordpress.com Tim Belcher

    You have to add an iPad to this list.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      No I don’t. The iPad is a totally awesome luxury. I use mine all the time, but I got by just fine without it—until like six months ago. A laptop? Not so much.

      • Mongo

        Actually, if you are going to be doing any title searching, a tablet computer or a smart phone with a good camera is extremely useful when coupled with doc scanning software. One can easily capture digital copies of documents in pdf form while avoiding paying per copy fees. The quality is excellent and one can organize, name, and send the files to Evernote or Dropbox on the fly. Working in an area with an ongoing oil and gas boom, the amount of time saved by not waiting in line for a copier in the recorders office pays for my ipad in short order.

  • Bob Striker

    While I generally agree with your list, I don’t think that the practice management software that you’re recommending falls into the “must have” category given the price. At $600 – 720 per year, I think they fall into the “totally awesome luxury” category for most new solos. Other than billing, there’s not a lot that either Clio or Rocket Matter do that can’t easily be done in Quickbooks and Google Apps. (After all – let’s face it – the new solo’s firm calendar is the solo’s personal calendar.) And there are many less expensive billing options out there than either Clio or Rocket Matter.

    Don’t get me wrong – I thing both Clio and Rocket Matter are great products. But if a new solo had an extra $600 burning a hole in her pocket for technology, I’d probably steer her differently.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I don’t disagree with anything in your comment, actually. I would point out, however, that most malpractice insurance carriers give a discount for using practice management software. I’m not sure that makes it a “must have,” but it does offset the cost somewhat.

      • Tom Seeley

        Just started using your site. Close to embarking on solo career and evaluating options. Have read in other parts of this site that recommends Freshbooks but here you recommend Clio/RocketMatter. I know the latter is more than timekeeping, but can you comment on that?

        • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

          I still think Freshbooks is hands-down the best timekeeping and billing software on the planet. However, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to pay for both Freshbooks and a case management solution that has a perfectly acceptable timekeeping and billing function. You’ll duplicate effort as well as expenses.

          • Tom Seeley

            Thanks for the prompt comment

          • Amy Butler

            Hi Sam –

            I am the densest about all things accounting related. Is there a reason I would need Freshbooks, Quickbooks and Clio? Can I just do all my timekeeping/billing/accounting in Clio and skip the Freshbooks and or Quickbooks?

            • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

              Clio has timekeeping and billing (which duplicates most of Freshbooks’s functionality) and basic bookkeeping (which duplicates some of Quickbooks’s functionality). So yes. Kinda.

              • http://sfbookkeeping.com Cecily

                Clio does not have a general ledger, and you will not be able to run your financial statements from Clio or Freshbooks. QuickBooks, yes.

  • Michelle R.

    I’m just starting out as a solo, and looking for ways to save on costs, so here’s what I’m doing. I purchased a WD elements hard drive 2TB from staples for $55 (currently on sale for $79, I used $25 off $75 coupon, free shipping). And to make the WD hard drive into a wireless backup (like time capsule), I’m looking into purchasing a Pogoplug from Best Buy for $49. Hope this helps others looking into making their own affordable version of a time capsule!

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Just FYI, as far as I know, you cannot actually use Time Machine with a Pogoplug.

      If you want to use it as a backup drive you can access remotely, that’s fine, but it won’t be equivalent to Time Machine + a Time Capsule. Honestly, I think I’d recommend going with Dropbox or Mozy, instead, since they’re easier to use and you can probably use them for free, for now, since you won’t have a ton of files to back up.

      I liked the Pogoplug a lot when I reviewed it, but with Dropbox, I never figured out what I needed it for. It’s sitting in its box.

  • Michelle R.

    I found info on various forums on how to make time machine compatible with pogoplug. It takes a few steps, so I will try it out, and leave feedback on how I did it.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Hey, if it works for you, go for it!

      • Michelle R.

        I definitely agree that dropbox is the way to go for cloud back up. But with the external hard drive, I know I can be lazy to plug it into my laptop (it’s much easier when there’s a stationary desktop). Plus I recently had an old external just take a nose dive, so I’m a little paranoid about my files at the moment. I made a partition on the new WD, one for personal and business, and it’ll be a relief knowing that it’s wirelessly backing up with the pogo. I’d use dropbox, but I have a lot of personal files, and I don’t want to pay the extra cost of adding space to my current account. And my idea is to add a couple old externals lying around to the pogo, so that I have more than one backup and lots of space. I’ll let you know how the pogo-time machine hack works out!

  • Michelle R.

    Following up on your comment, I did some more research and it looks like a lot of people have found that the work around hasn’t been great with the pogo, as it often leads to corrupted files. Thank you for the heads up!

  • Joe Ddang

    Oh man I needed a good laugh. Get the Mac, it’s just better.

    Here is my reply. “No it’s not.”

    I win.

    ot anti-mac by the way, have one in the house, but don’t particularly care for it.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I think we’ve just had a Mac vs. PC argument that’s 1,000 times better than any other Mac vs. PC argument on the internet!

      • Joe Ddang

        Don’t know what happened to my comment it got cut off. I meant to say “I am not anti-mac.” My wife loves the Mac. And I like it too. It’s pretty. I just prefer PC. While I use my ipad and iphone.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      In the end, I don’t think it really matters if you go with Windows (or Linux) instead of a Mac. But I think for the vast majority of not-very-tech-savvy lawyers, the Mac ecosystem is a better choice.

  • http://jamesburtonlaw.com/cgi-sys/suspendedpage.cgi Jim Burton

    For those who use a PC:

    I highly recommend shopping at the Lenovo Outlet. Good machines at big savings.

    If you are confused by the different versions of Windows, the one you want is Windows 7 Professional 64-bit.

    For those of you who use a Mac:

    Mac OS 10.7 “Lion” is installed on new Macs, but if your Mac has Snow Leopard, do NOT upgrade — yet. You will want at least 8GB for Lion.

    You may also need to run Windows. You can run it through BootCamp or you can install Parallels and run it in your Mac. Look for deals on Parallels, it’s frequently on sale. The version of Windows is less important because you will be spending most of your time in the Mac.

    Not a fan of the MB Air. I recommend a 13″ MacBook Pro.

    What Apple giveth, Microsoft taketh away. Office:Mac is about as awful as iTunes for Windows. Still, it’s the standard.

    Whether or not you get Office, you WILL need LibreOffice. LibreOffice is about the only way to reliably open WordPerfect documents on the Mac, and there are plenty of .wpd files floating around in the legal world.

    What about Linux:

    If you have older hardware (that laptop that got you through law school and is on its last legs), you aren’t too worried about compatibility, are comfortable with using the terminal (think DOS), and you are willing to take the time to learn how to run the OS and troubleshoot your machine, Linux may be for you. Go with Ubuntu (or Xubuntu for a lighter version.)

    FWIW, I have been running Linux since Red Hat 6.1 (1999) and Linux was not for me, at least not for my main machine.

  • Drew McGuinness

    Getting ready to tackle setting up Quickbooks (finally) for my solo practice. Bought Quickbooks Premiere. Big issue I’m having now is whether to set it up on my laptop or my desktop. I use laptop 90% of the time. Scanner and large screens and hard drives are attached to my desktop (home office).

    Anyone know of a link to detailed description of how to keep quickbook data files on a dropbox folder and auto-synch between desktop and laptop?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I just store the company file in my Dropbox. Just make sure you close QuickBooks on one computer before opening the file on the other.

      • Drew McGuinness

        That seems easy. Almost TOO easy . . . . Thanks.

  • Joan

    I am (among other things) a freelance contract lawyer who works for several lawyers. About half my lawyer-clients use word perfect (wpd) and want me to prepare docs in wpd. I have a desktop iMac (with Parallels to run the wpd because there is no wpd for macs), and I’m in the market for a new laptop. Does your recommendation of the Macbook assume the use of word (and not wpd)? Are other lawyers restricted by the continued use of wpd?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I know there are still some WordPerfect holdouts. I think you just have to keep using Parallels, or else gently notify your clients that the world has moved on, that Word is now the industry standard, that Windows 3.11 is no longer supported, and that AOL is no longer a good way to access the internet.

  • Joan

    Thanks Sam. But as I have happy clients who use happily use wpd, would you suggest the Lenovo instead of the Macbook Air?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I would suggest you get whichever computer you prefer to use, and if you go with a Mac, use Parallels or VMWare Fusion to run WordPerfect for those clients who require it.

      I think Macs are awesome computers for people who like Macs, and ThinkPads are awesome computers for people who like Windows. For people who want it all, get a Mac and run Windows software in Parallels, VMWare Fusion, or dual boot with Boot Camp.

  • uzo akpele

    I still use wordperfect. I just transitioned to mac and I run parallels. MAJORLY LOVING IT. I do not have to worry about word because wordperfect will convert word docs to wdp allow me work on them and then save as word and return to the sender.

    The interaction between parallels and mac cracks me up each time I work. Parallels thinks it is a computer but mac knows parallels is only a software.

    If you must buy a PC, get a Lenovo. Those are simply the best.

  • Michael Kushner

    The US Department of Justice sticks to using WPD on everything they send out. I use NeoOffice.org to move between Word and WPD.

  • Scott

    People are still using WordPerfect? Is there even still support for that? I was pretty sure that it went the way of the dinosaurs when I was 10. The fact that the USDOJ or any government is using WordPerfect should be enough of a clue that it is a terrible choice. Also, I keep reading about using DropBox or Mozy and then using this and that and the other thing for doing documents and such. I’ve used DropBox. It isn’t that great. There is only one way a solo or small firm should be going and that is MircoSoft Live. IT does email, has an online office suite for free, does storage and file sharing. AND, guess what, it is FREE!!! And even better, you can use any domain you want for the email. Also, there is a professional pay by the month version for when you start to grow that is really affordable.

  • Bruce

    Sam,
    I am thinking about opening up a solo office and was wondering if you were about to update the hardware and software shopping list. It is mostly current now, but if there are updates that would be terrific – great article and very helpful comments in any event.
    Bruce from San Diego

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      The only change I would make is that, if you know you don’t want a Mac, check out the Windows ultrabooks.

  • HNB

    Sam,

    I just discovered your site–I love it! I am now a lawyerist addict.

  • http://smallsteppingstones.com/ Paula

    I’m neither a lawyer nor do I play one on the Internet, but I found this list handy for solo providers working within the virtual world.

    And, as a user of both Mac OS & Windows, I agree that Macs are typically more robust than PCs, but if someone is just starting out, the PC laptop price is hard to beat.

    I’m also a bookkeeper (primarily QuickBooks), who wouldn’t suggest using DropBox to store the working QB file. It’s fine for backups, but if you use DropBox it may cause corruption in your data, whether you use QB for PC or QB for Mac.

    http://www.quickbooks-blog.com/2011/02/dropbox-free-quickbooks-file-sharing-free-quickbooks-hosting-free-web-backup.html

    Great site (even for the un-lawyerly)!

    Paula

  • Steve

    For a newly minted (and I mean new; just took the Bar last month) lawyer, is Quickbooks alone enough to keep time and bill clients? Along the same lines, is Google Apps enough for calendar, email, and client contact information when you’re just starting out?

    My father is a solo practitioner and I will be joining him. Getting him to deal with technology is like getting a child to eat his vegetables.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Google Apps, yes. But Quickbooks is for accounting; its timekeeping functions are quite limited, especially when it comes to multiple billers.

  • Drew McGuinness

    Check out Time59.com for timetracking/billing.

  • Riley Ross

    Sam,

    Any updates or change-in-opinion re your suggestions for the lawyer going solo in 2013? Great and helpful column.