Free Your Law Practice’s Computing Budget

Don’t let your software party like it’s 1999.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 9/9/2013; Attorney At Work; publisher: Astin Tarlton and Feldcomm

From 1997 to 2001, I worked for Verio, marketing and selling Internet access and web hosting to businesses. Early on, we had a small marketing budget and relied heavily on direct mail and cold (actually warm) calling. While I was reviewing my sales team’s monthly goals with Buddy, my boss, he asked me, “Do you think you can make this month’s target?” I replied, “Honestly, no, I don’t think we can.” Without missing a beat, he said, “Well, you’d better change your thinking. Because if you don’t believe it, then your team won’t believe it.”

That was great advice from a great mentor. And I’ve been changing my thinking ever since.

About That Law Firm IT Budget…

Here’s how I’ve changed my thinking about my IT budget over the years.

In the 1990s, I purchased three things: (1) sturdy hardware, (2) local storage (hard drives and the like) for my data, and (3) boxed software. Because computer hardware was relatively expensive, I would keep it as long as possible, upgrading it along the way, and replacing it only when it broke. I purchased the latest versions of boxed software (often at upgrade “discount” prices) and added storage space, as needed, for my data.

Today, I still pay for three things, but my budget percentages for each have changed considerably.

I still buy sturdy hardware, but I only keep each desktop and laptop computer for four years. Moore’s Law (which, loosely paraphrased, says computing power doubles every 18 months to two years) means that each new computer will be 4x better/faster/stronger than its predecessor. It also means that my hardware costs have decreased over time. For smaller devices (tablet computers and smartphones), I plan for a two-year lifecycle, which dovetails nicely with the typical two-year mobile phone contract. Apple comes out with a new iPhone model about every year, so I end up getting every other model, which is good enough for me.

I also still have some local storage (typically buying the largest hard drive possible for each computer), but I rely on (and pay for) off-site storage and backup for my data (including iCloud, Dropbox and CrashPlan).

But the biggest change has been in how (and whether) I purchase software. Now, the only programs I purchase annually for my law firm are operating systems (Mac OS X, Parallels), database (FileMaker), and billing (QuickBooks). My days of buying boxed software are over. Today, I rely on free software on the desktop, in the cloud, and on my mobile devices.

It never ceases to amaze me that lawyers (and law firms) continue to pay yesterday’s prices for yesterday’s technology, when much of today’s technology is available at today’s prices (often free). It’s 2013, and if you’re a lawyer starting a law firm, then you shouldn’t be partying like it’s 1999.

Free Desktop Software

I am unapologetically a Mac guy, although I started my law firm as a 100 percent PC shop. But I can also tell you, unequivocally, that your data doesn’t care whether it was created on a Mac, PC, or Linux computer; in the cloud; or on a smartphone.

No matter what system you purchase, chances are it comes with an operating system, web browser, mail client and more – all of which you didn’t have to pay extra for. But you don’t have to stop there.

Consider office productivity software. In January 2003 (over 10 years ago), my law firm switched from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice. We used to pay $500 per person per year for Microsoft Office. We now pay $0 per person per year for OpenOffice. Most people use only a handful of the features in MS Office anyhow. In the first few years of its lifetime, MS Office added features that made the upgrade cost worth it. In the past 20 years, not so much.

So, while it is true that OpenOffice does not have all the features of Microsoft Office, OpenOffice has proven more than good enough for my firm.

Free Cloud Software

There is also plenty of free cloud-based software that can be at least a starting point for lawyers. For email, you can use the free version of Gmail, or for $50 per person per year, you can get Google Apps Gmail for your own domain name. Either way, Gmail is a very good option for email, in part because the spam filtering is so good. On the downside, because Google is so big, they often change features or abandon products despite an active user community. Recent changes to the reply and compose functions in Gmail caused an uproar in the Gmail user community. And Google recently abandoned Google Reader, which many people (including me) relied on to aggregate RSS feeds from blogs and other websites.

Apple’s iCloud service allows you to sync your content across multiple devices. The free version includes 5GB of storage, and you can purchase additional storage in increments of 10GB for $20 per year.

For an OS-agnostic syncing service, you can try Dropbox, which gives you 2GB of free storage, or you can upgrade to 100GB for $10 per month.

And if you are in the business of providing customer support to multiple computer users (think co-workers, friends, family), you may want to consider the remote-control service LogMeIn, which has both a free and a paid version. The Pro service has more features and costs about $70 per computer per year. (If you’ve ever needed to help out-of-state relatives with computer problems, then LogMeIn is the life-saver you’ve been looking for!)

Then, of course, there are all of the free social networking services, including LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. Of these, only LinkedIn follows the free/paid model of other cloud services, but the others will likely add this feature in the future.

What all of the above have in common is that I started with the free version and migrated to the paid version.

And, of course, there is also plenty of free software included with any good smartphone, with mobile-specific functions such as maps, music, shopping, and much more.

Pay for What You Value

Next year marks my 30th anniversary of being on the Internet. My thinking about computer hardware and software has changed a lot. Through all the changes, though, one thing has remained constant: I have always paid for what I valued.

So while my spending on hardware has remained more or less constant, my spending on data (in particular, cloud-based backup and syncing services) has increased, and my spending on software has decreased.

I recently calculated the computer cost per person per year for my law firm, and it has gone steadily downward in the 12-plus years I’ve been running the firm. In short, I’ve changed my thinking about my computer budget. Buddy would be proud!


Erik J. Heels is a trademark and patent lawyer, Boston Red Sox fan, MIT engineer, and musician. He blogs about technology, law, baseball, and rock ‘n’ roll at ErikJHeels.com.