Choosing a laptop and selecting a document scanner aren’t covered in law school. To make it easier, here is my “shopping list” for new solos. Just get what you need and get back to focusing on your clients instead of poring over practice management software reviews.

Obviously, this does not cover everything you need, but it definitely contains the basics — everything you need to get a new law firm up and running.

Basic Hardware

13″ Macbook Air or Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon

If you are only going to have one computer, it should be a laptop. And there is no reason to go with a big, heavy laptop when an ultralight has plenty of speed and power and will slip easily into a regular bag.

Related“Switching to Mac isn’t That Hard, Even for a Lifelong Windows User”

Mac or PC? It doesn’t really matter, but I’ve always advised solos to get a Mac. You’ll spend less time doing your own tech support, and you will spend less money in the long run. (Yes, 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.)

The 13″ MacBook Air is probably the best laptop ever built, although there is a strong argument to be made for the 13″ Retina MacBook Pro. You won’t be sorry if you get one.

If you prefer Windows, you can’t do better than the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. ThinkPads are rock-solid and last forever. The 14″ screen is pretty much perfect, and the keyboard is fantastic.

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500

You do not want a multifunction printer/copier/scanner/toaster. Instead, just get a good document scanner and laser printer.

We’ve been recommending Fujitsu ScanSnaps for years because they are great scanners with unsurpassed ease of use. The ScanSnap iX500 is a desktop document scanner that will also scan wirelessly to your computer and mobile device. You should have one. If that doesn’t persuade you, read our review of the iX500.

HP LaserJet Pro 400 M401dw

A printer is not the most exciting thing on your shopping list, but you do need a fast, reliable one. It needs to be fast so you don’t have to wait around when you need to print out a stack of documents the night before a trial or right before a real estate closing. And it needs to be reliable because you don’t want to replace it very often. And get a laser printer because inkjets just aren’t worth it.

Our current top pick is the HP LaserJet Pro 400 M401dw, which is a solid laser printer and a great value. It even prints wirelessly, which is one less wire you need to plug in every time you set down your laptop. For the details, read Randall’s review.

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 the way to go. If you use a Mac, get the 2TB Time Capsule, which works with Time Machine to back up your files wirelessly. It also functions as a wireless router.

If you use Windows or are more cost-conscious, get a 2TB WD Elements. This basic drive will work fine with Time Machine or any other backup software, although it will have to be plugged into your computer.

Basic Software

Microsoft Office

You can get by without Microsoft Office, but that doesn’t mean it is a good idea. Just get it. The home and business versions let you install Office on up to two computers. Now that you can use Office for iOS and Android for free, there is really no reason to subscribe to Office 365, particularly since the business plans aren’t a great value by comparison. (The versions of Word, etc., are the same.)

If you use Windows, the newest version is Office 2013 If you use a Mac, you’re stuck with Office 2011 until Microsoft finally gets around to updating it.

Google Apps for Work

The best email, calendar, and contact management is from Google, and it is now called Google Apps for Work (f/k/a Google Apps for Business). You can use it in 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 you can also use the Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook and you will never know you are using Google Apps.

It’s way better than the email provided by your ISP.

Clio or MyCase

I won’t try to take sides between what I think are the two best practice management software options currently on the market. Instead, read our user guides to Clio and MyCase and give them a try. In fact, probably the best way to decide for yourself is to use both of them in tandem on at least one case, and pick the one with the user experience you like best.

There are many other options out there, and some of them are very good. If you have the time and patience, go ahead and investigate them. But if you just flip a coin and pick Clio or MyCase, you will probably be perfectly happy.

Xero or Quickbooks Online

I have used QuickBooks for Windows, QuickBooks for Mac, QuickBooks Online, and Xero for my law firm accounting and for Lawyerist. If I were starting a new practice, despite some complaints, I would use Xero. I much prefer it to any incarnation of QuickBooks.

That said, 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 really go wrong with Quickbooks Online, except that it really isn’t very good. Xero, on the other hand, is very close to good, and within spitting distance of great.

CrashPlan

For remote backup, you’ll want something automatic and unobtrusive. CrashPlan is rock-solid, very secure, and offers unlimited storage for your backups. You can even set up your own backup server (I use an old Windows PC) to keep an extra copy under your own control.


That’s it for the basics. If you have questions, ask in the comments or take them to the Lawyerist Lab. If the comments or in the Lab, I will be happy to defend my choices (or omissions) or suggest alternatives.

Updates

  • 2011-10-06. Originally published.
  • 2014-11-09. Updated.

Featured image: “note and pencil” from Shutterstock.