RelatedLaw Technology Buyer’s Guide

If I were starting a brand-new solo practice right now — i.e., no legacy systems to support, and no well-established procedures, and limited funds — here is what I would put in my technology budget.

Hardware

13″ Retina MacBook Pro or Lenovo ThinkPad T440s

I’m not going to try to persuade you to use Apple products if you really don’t want to. But if you are starting out fresh, I think you should get a Mac. Despite the higher up-front cost, Macs tend to have lower total cost of ownership, and there is at least some data to suggest that you can be more efficient with a Mac. Many people (me, included) also find Macs to be easier to use, and more reliable. Those are big plusses when you are your own IT department.

I would not get an ultralight laptop like the MacBook Air or Lenovo X1 Carbon. Those are great laptops, and they do a perfectly good job as a primary computer. But they make sacrifices for their small size, namely processor speed and battery life. The Retina MacBook Pro and ThinkPad T440s are definitely bigger and heavier than the ultralights, but they cost less, are faster, and last longer unplugged. I think those features are worth a bit of extra heft. The extra power also means you will be able to wait longer before upgrading (I usually upgrade laptops every 4–5 years).

You could get a desktop, instead. They cost even less and last even longer. But if you have a desktop, you will want something to take with you to meetings, to court, or for working at home. Depending on how you work and what you do, you might be able to get by with an iPad, or a Chromebook, or you might want an ultralight laptop. In the end, a laptop is usually less expensive than a desktop and another device.

iPhone or Google Nexus 5

Again, the choice between iOS and Android is up to you. Just recognize that a fairly large majority of lawyers use iPhones and iPads, which means that most apps for lawyers get released on iOS, first. Android versions generally seem to lag behind by about a year.

However, I don’t think the choice of phone platform is all that important. What is more important is which phone you choose. The up-front cost of the handset is a fraction of the cost of the monthly fees, which are basically the same no matter what phone you choose. So get a good phone, not a cheap one. If I were buying an Android handset, I would get the Nexus 5. If you want an iPhone, just get the current one (that’s the iPhone 5S, at the moment).

Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500

When it comes to scanners, the ScanSnap iX500 is indisputably the number one choice. It is fast, easy to use, and comes with Acrobat (for Windows users).

I’ve already written a fairly detailed review on this one, so I won’t go into more detail here. The bottom line: this is the scanner to have, whether you are just starting out or not. And yes, you should budget for it right away.

A Laser Printer

Your printer must be a laser printer, and it needs to be fast with a fairly high duty cycle. Other than that, it does not really matter what laser printer you get. What you are really buying a printer for is printing reams of documents the night before a trial or deposition or deal, when a slow printer means you will be up all night, swearing at your printer.

Pretty much any black-and-white laser printer in the $3–500 range should do the trick. I tend to get HP printers, which are rock-solid and durable. Brother printers are also popular. Get a good one as soon as you can, and you will probably have it for 10 years or more.

Next: Software and Services.

Software and Services

Virtual Assistant

I am not the right person to answer my phone. I don’t like to be interrupted, so I am usually impatient when I do, which does not generally make a good impression on potential clients. That is why I would hire either Ruby Receptionists or a virtual assistant who could answer my phone and manage intake.

While a receptionist is one of the more expensive things on this list, I wouldn’t go without one. Ruby handles the phones now, so that I don’t miss anything. Before that, I had a wonderful virtual assistant, Erica, who not only answered the phones but tracked all our potential clients throughout the intake process, managed paid consultations, and ensured that everyone got timely follow-up from my office.

Whether you just hire Ruby to answer your phones or find a virtual assistant to do more, I’ve learned that some tasks are better left to specialists.

Google Apps Premium

Gmail and Google Calendar are just the best way to manage your email and calendar. But get a premium account. You get more favorable terms, and you can customize your email address so it is on your domain (i.e., joe@joeslawfirm.com instead of joeslawfirm@gmail.com), which makes you look like a professional.

RelatedA New Google Docs Pleading for California Lawyers
The Droid Lawyer

You can also use Google Docs for most of your documents. I have, and I still do. In fact, Google Docs is closer to my ideal office suite than Microsoft Office. But if you handle appeals or you work in a jurisdiction with complicated formatting requirements, you should still have a copy of Office.

Office 365

Microsoft Office is bloated and often frustrating to use, but it is still the standard, and realistically it is still what most lawyers ought to be using. If you regularly exchange documents with other people, for example, using Microsoft Word will make your life easier than trying to track changes in Google Docs or Pages.

A Home Premium Office 365 subscription should get you what you need, plus a chunk of extra storage, plus full functionality in the iPad apps.

File Storage: Drive or OneDrive with Boxcryptor or Viivo

If you’ve been following along so far, you have two options for file storage and syncing, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. It’s probably easiest to go with whatever platform you have decided to use for creating documents. In other words, if you decide to use Google Docs, store your files in Drive. If you decide to use Microsoft Office, store your files in OneDrive.

There are valid reasons to be concerned (but not alarmed) about the security of your clients’ files in Drive or OneDrive (or Dropbox or Box or anywhere else). You can alleviate those concerns by using Boxcryptor or Viivo to allow you to encrypt files within your cloud storage.

The key difference is that Boxcryptor allows you to encrypt your files in place (i.e., you can have one encrypted file in your 12345 Jones Matter folder) while Viivo gives you an encrypted folder for anything you want to encrypt. Viivo is probably easier to understand, conceptually, but I think Boxcryptor offers a smoother workflow. Both have been clunky for me in testing, but they do offer an extra level of security that the cloud file storage vendors have yet to provide.

Accounting: Xero

Accounting software is essential, and you should not try to get by with consumer-grade software like Quicken. Xero will handle bookkeeping and billing, and it integrates with a bunch of other services, including a pretty good list of credit card processors. If you already use QuickBooks (online or not), I don’t think there is a compelling reason to switch to Xero. But if you are just starting out, I think it is definitely the better choice.

If you need something for timekeeping, Xero integrates with a number of time-tracking services.

Practice Management Software

I love practice management software, but I have not used it much in my own practice, and never as a solo. With two or more lawyers working on the same files, I think practice management software is essential. For a solo, it can be nice to have, but it is not essential.

What is essential (or close to it) is a secure client portal for communication and exchanging documents. Email has always been about as secure as sending a postcard, but we are much more aware of that, now. I think it is pretty important to keep confidential documents and communications out of email.

You don’t have to use legal-specific software for this, but you do need to make sure the portal is secure. In particular, it should not actually send the content of the message via email. When you send a message to your client through Clio or MyCase, for example, the message your client receives just says something along the lines of “you have a message/file; click to get it.” (Rocket Matter may do the same thing, but I don’t have reviewer access to it, so I can’t check.) So Basecamp, as much as I like it, does not work.

On balance, I would probably use practice management software. Which one? Here was my answer last year, which amounts to this: take the time to narrow down the field to a few, then test each one yourself. The choice will come down to your preferences and your specific needs.

Acrobat Professional

Related3 Alternatives to Adobe Acrobat

Depending on what type of law you practice, you can probably get by without Acrobat for a while. But as soon as you do need to add exhibit stamps or Bates numbering to a document, go ahead and get a copy of Acrobat Professional.

Next: Legal Research and Backup.

Legal Research: Fastcase

I used Fastcase (a benefit for bar association members in my state) for my law practice for something like eight years. While I recognize that both Westlaw and Lexis add plenty of valuable stuff to their legal-research packages, I never felt like I needed that stuff. Fastcase worked great for me, and if I were starting over, that is what I would use.

Depending on your area of practice, you might feel differently, but I think it is better off starting with Fastcase rather than getting yourself into a lengthy and expensive contract with Westlaw or Lexis right off the bat.

Backup: CrashPlan

Last but not least. You need to back up your files. We have published lots of posts about backup on Lawyerist, and there is a current discussion in the Lab. The easiest option, and one of the most secure, is still CrashPlan for local, network, and remote backup. (Always have at least two up-to-date backups of your files in at least two different locations.)

RelatedA Sensible Approach to Storing Client Files in the Cloud

If you use CrashPlan, you can consider your backup covered.

Other Stuff

I think I’ve covered the basics, but you will undoubtedly need or want some other tools. I can’t get by without Remember the Milk, for example. And while I like Evernote, I don’t have enough confidence in its security to use it for client information (this could be unfounded, but this post by Jason Kincaid resonated with me).

And, of course, I use lots of other tools that aren’t necessarily law practice–related. Here are just a few:

Did I miss anything you would put in your startup budget if you were starting a new solo practice?

Featured image: “wood mounting tools” from Shutterstock.

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