New Solo Technology Shopping List: the Basics

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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.

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

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

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

        • 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.

            • 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.

            • 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.

                • 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.

  • You have to add an iPad to this list.

    • 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.

    • 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?

        • 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?

            • 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.

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

            • Solo in Denver

              I’m also not fond of accounting and am not familiar with any of these. I use Time59 for timekeeping and billing and have an accountant. My accountant costs about the same as one of these software packages and takes all the brain damage out of doing accounting, taxes, etc. I spend about 2 hours PER YEAR on accounting.

              • Time59 is great if you just need simple timekeeping and billing, but it’s hard to imagine how you could be keeping up with your trust accounting obligations if you only spend 2 hours/year on accounting and $20/month on an accountant.

    • Solo in Denver

      Whether you need practice management software really depends upon your practice. For example, I don’t litigate or handle any matters which require that kind of calendaring. Perhaps those products have good systems to manage a transactional practice, I don’t know. But I do know that my clients require me to use their contract management systems to track activity so having another system to update would just add more administration.

      One more thought on Mac v. Windows. For solos who act as virtual legal staff to large clients, most (certainly not all) are on Windows systems. Your Mac may not work as well, or at all, for those clients.

  • 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!

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  • 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?

    • 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.

        • Solo in Denver

          It is TOO easy. Dropbox is not a secure place to store confidential docs. Notoriously insecure.

  • 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?

    • 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?

    • 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

  • HNB

    Sam,

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

  • 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.

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

    • Alex

      Google Apps isn’t “enough” it’s the best options you can get–way better than Outlook or iMail IMHO.

  • 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.

  • Paul Spitz

    One thing to keep in mind is that if you are working in a cowork or other shared office space, you probably don’t need a printer or scanner. Those are typically already available, although you may have to pay a per-page fee for copies and printouts.

    • Alex

      Unless your co-working space has a subpar printer like mine! I’ve found the Brother HL-6180 DW to be worth every penny. Occasionally, I need to print out a BAD (big-ass-document) and it’s nice to have my own printer for that.

      • Paul Spitz

        Well, that’s important. Luckily, the printer/copier/scanner at my current cowork space is pretty nice — it’s fast and does color. However, I’m moving in 3 weeks to a new space, and I’ll have to see how the printer and scanner are. I may end up buying my own, but I’ve been able to go the entire first year of my solo practice without having to spend any money on that.

  • If we are talking about a new solo (i.e., someone who maybe does not have alot of money) plopping down $1,500 for a new laptop is a head-scratcher. Especially if it’s primarily used for document editing and internet browsing. You can get a capable and reliable laptop for a third of that price that will have more than enough juice for office tasks, and some Netflix when you’re done working.

    I would second the recommendation for Lenovo’s if you’re looking for a Windows brand laptop. If you’re willing to go refurbished, also check out the Lenovo Outlet (an official Lenovo site) for refurbished Lenovos. You can find some great deals there.

  • Eva Hibnick

    Sam, what about software to keep track of all their to-dos? Trello or Todoist? I think this is valuable for attorneys to keep track of all the moving parts that come with running your own business.

    • Paul Spitz

      Couldn’t you just write out a list of to-do’s, tape it to the wall over your desk, and update it as you go? Very low cost.

      • Eva Hibnick

        Trello is free :) Paper notes get lost and cant be organized in efficient manner. Plus, if you have a secretary or contract attorneys working with you, it is much easier to share that list if it is digital.

    • You don’t need software for that, although I’ve recommended two options above, Clio and MyCase. I’m partial to a paper work plan, in fact. A copy of Getting Things Done would be a good idea, though.

      • zkent

        +1 for GTD if you can make it work