Choosing a laptop and document scanner isn’t covered in law school, but you can’t start a law firm without some basic hardware and software. To make it easier for you to get what you need without a lot of research, here is our standard list of recommendations.

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, and nothing extra.

Basic Hardware

ThinkPad X1 Carbon, 13″ MacBook Pro, or maybe the Surface Pro

If you are only going to have one computer, it should be a laptop small enough to slip easily into a regular bag, but powerful enough to handle everything you need to do on it.

PC or Mac? It doesn’t really matter.1 If you know you prefer one or the other, get what you like.

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 the perfect size, and the keyboard is fantastic. You could also get the slightly-heaver ThinkPad T400 series (specifically the T470 as of this writing), but I think the X1 Carbon is the better buy.

However, the Microsoft Surface Pro may just be the most compelling computer on the market right now. It’s small enough to work as a tablet, but runs Windows—the real deal. If you aren’t wedded to the laptop form factor, at least try out a Surface Pro before you make up your mind to get a laptop.

If you prefer Mac, the 13″ Apple MacBook Pro is the one to get. The MacBook Pros are thin, light, and powerful. Although to be honest there’s nothing great about Apple computers right now. With the MacBook Pro you get a pretty pointless Touch Bar and a keyboard that feels like banging on an aluminum slab. But it’ll do until Apple figures out its product lineup and update cycles. (If you are thinking about switching to Mac, I would wait another product cycle to see if things improve.)

ScanSnap iX500

First of all, you do not want a multifunction printer/copier/scanner/toaster. There are a lot of good reasons why not, but they are outside the scope of this list. The point is this: 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 that mow through stacks of documents like a hot knife through butter. The ScanSnap iX500 will also scan wirelessly to your computer, mobile device, or to the cloud. You should have one.

If that doesn’t persuade you, read our review of the iX500.

HP LaserJet Pro M402dw

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 M402dw. It’s not exciting, but it is a solid laser printer and a great value. It prints duplex (on both sides of the page), and works wirelessly, which means one less wire you need to plug in every time you set down your laptop.

WD Elements 2TB or Time Capsule 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 Windows or just want the most inexpensive option, get a WD Elements 2TB. This basic drive will work fine with Windows Backup, Time Machine, or any other backup software if you plug it into your computer. It may work plugged into a wireless router, but it depends on your setup.

If you use a Mac, get the Time Capsule 2TB, which works with Time Machine to back up your files wirelessly. It also functions as a wireless router, so it’s more cost effective than it may seem at first glance.

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. I will be happy to defend my choices (or omissions) or suggest alternatives.

Originally published 2011-10-06. Last updated 2017-04-25.

Featured image: “note and pencil” from Shutterstock.


  1. For the record, I’ve been a satisfied Mac user for the last four or five years. Before that I was a satisfied Windows user since high school, although I used Ubuntu Linux exclusively for two years after Vista came out and was garbage. 

The Small Firm Scorecard example graphic.

The Small Firm ScorecardTM

Is your law firm structured to succeed in the future?

The practice of law is changing. You need to understand whether your firm is positioned for success in the coming years. Our free Small Firm Scorecard will identify your firm’s strengths and weaknesses in just a few minutes.

Leave a Reply