Upgrading Technology as a Solo Attorney: When, How, and What to Buy

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One of toughest challenges of being a solo attorney is that you are also running a business—including maintaining and upgrading your technology.

If you are thinking about upgrading your technology, here are some tips to make the process easier.

When is the right time?

Ideally, when your finances are in order and you have a surplus, rather than a deficit. If your cash flow is already tight, you might not want to plunk down $500-$3,000 on new technology.

Here’s a unscientific method: when you know you need new technology. For example, your laptop has been slower than a grandma during a rush hour, but you just keep plugging away and dealing with it. I hate to use the cliched “time is money” but your time is valuable. If you find yourself distracted/frustrated/wasting time on clunky technology, then it’s time for an upgrade.

You have lots of responsibilities as a solo attorney. Saving 15-20 minutes a day (or more) is time you can spend on marketing, client intake, bookkeeping, etc. The more efficient you can be with your time, the better.

It can be hard to get over the mental hurdle of “should I really spend $1,200 on a new laptop so that I can save 10 minutes every day?” Trust me, I fought it for weeks, if not months. But taking the plunge is well worth it.

On the other hand, when a super snazzy new ______ comes out with one extra bell compared to your current technology, that is not a good time to upgrade. In that scenario, your shiny new toy is simply a want instead of a need. Which is fine, but when your business checking account is running dry, that is not the right time to go after your wants.

It’s also worth taking a look at your firm’s books towards the end of the tax year. If you need new technology and you need some additional expenses to offset lots of income (good for you!)—then the timing might be perfect.

How to fund it

If you find yourself in a financial pickle, consider using your firm’s line of credit or credit card to finance your new technology. Again, ideally you can wait until the firm’s finances are rosy to take the plunge. But if you find yourself in a bind, credit can be your friend.

Purchasing with your firm’s credit card provides more than one advantage. One, you won’t have to actually pay your credit card bill for at least a few weeks. If you time it right, there could be nearly 6-8 weeks between purchase and payment. Two, most credit cards provide extra buyer protection in terms of extended warranties and such. Check out the fine print that came with your credit card.

You could also take advantage of financing offers from opening a new credit card. I have to be careful here, because my practice involves consumers who find themselves in less-than-ideal financial circumstances. That said, you may be able to take advantage of financing offers from various technology outlets.

Apple, for example, offers low interest/interest free financing depending on the amount and length of the financing. Best Buy also offers a comparable credit card for new cardholders.

Again, I think these should be used only if necessary. The last thing you want to do is to spread out payments or “plan on” paying it off in the future, but end up paying hundreds of dollars in interest.

What to buy and avoiding the blue light specials

I’m a Mac guy and Macs are expensive. They are also very reliable, which I believe makes Macs ideal for solo attorneys who are responsible for their own IT issues. That said, the price can be a barrier (along with “I don’t like Macs because they are too trendy” or whatever people say).

The bottom line is that you are doing yourself a disservice if you replace an aging computer with the cheapest computer you could find at Staples/OfficeMax/Best Buy. I admit that most lawyers do not need the most expensive laptop that Apple offers (unless your firm also does high-end photography and/or video editing). At the same time, buying a $250 netbook to use as your main computer is a waste of money. You will need something bigger than an 10″ screen, a 100 gig hard drive, and you want a computer than can support peripherals.

Exactly where you fall on the spectrum is something you need to decide. My advice would be to check out some of the reviews here on Lawyerist, along with other reliable tech sites before you go shopping. With all due respect, I am consistently underwhelmed by the tech “knowledge” of many salespeople at big box retailers. I highly suggest you figure out what you want before you go shopping. Otherwise, you might find yourself with an expensive and bloated hunk of junk.

In terms of price, be sure to shop around as well. Amazon usually offers very competitive prices, but they are not always the cheapest. Some companies, like Apple, sell refurbished products that knock 10-20% off the normal retail price (and they are still under warranty). With Thanksgiving and Black Friday coming up, you should also keep your eyes peeled for specials.

As noted above, however, don’t forget why you are buying new technology: because your current tech is giving you headaches. It’s tempting, easy, and temporarily gratifying to save money by getting a “steal.” In the long run, however, you may regret that decision.

You don’t need the Ferrari of technology, but you don’t want a Pinto either.

(photo:http://www.flickr.com/photos/tarynmarie/218965633)

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