5 What Should I Buy?

Lawyers predominantly use Windows-based PCs with the Microsoft Office Suite on it. So the answer to what should I buy is pretty obvious: it depends. You really need to understand how you want to practice to make decisions about what to buy. The trend is towards more flexibility, rather than less, when it comes to using technology in a law practice.

The most important decision you can make is budgetary: how much can you spend and how much are you willing to spend going forward, each year, to maintain and improve your technology. Once you have your budget in hand, some of your other decisions are easier.

Your law firm can benefit from standardizing technology. Choosing a single hardware provider – Dell, Apple, your local PC shop – can make it easier to maintain that hardware by enabling the interchangeability of parts and the benefit of keeping some spare parts on hand. Similarly, standardizing on a single operating system – Windows, Macintosh, Linux – can increase your chance of getting technical support with expertise in your operating system.

The legal profession relishes its quasi-religious technology wars. Microsoft Word v. Corel WordPerfect. Windows v. Mac. iOS v. Android. Most of these distinctions are now irrelevant, if they haven’t always been. You should choose based on whether the technology works for how you practice and what you can afford.  Your clients matter in this calculation.

Here are some examples of use cases that you might want to evaluate.

Mobile Lawyering: Laptop v. Tablet

If you are planning to practice outside of a fixed location on a regular basis, your mobile technology will be important. Lightweight laptops can reduce the weight of your briefcase on the way to the courthouse or your client’s offices. A tablet is even more portable but can lack the ease of information input.

There are some general tendencies around mobile technology:

  • Laptops are only lighter without accessories. If the laptop is lighter, it has probably offloaded the accessories. If you need those accessories (optical or CD-ROM drive, for instance), you’ll still be carrying that weight around as separate items. If you do not need the accessories, you can realize the weight loss.
  • The lighter the laptop, the more expensive it will tend to be. You may need to sacrifice paper-thin computing to keep within your budget. The one caveat here is for Chromebooks, that are intended to be used almost entirely with the cloud. They can be light and cheap because they have less powerful hardware and storage and no accessories but you’re entirely reliant on Internet access, cloud-based, and especially Google’s, services.
  • Tablets are for consuming information and laptops are for creating it. Even when you add a keyboard to a tablet, you’re still only dimly approaching what a laptop can do with its full software applications . Know whether you’re primarily consuming or creating when you’re out of the office to help you decide whether to get a tablet or a laptop. You can create an expensive laptop equivalent in a tablet plus keyboard, and not realize any productivity benefits.

Microsoft or Apple

The apps you’ll need should drive your choice of operating system, whether you’re looking at phones, tablets, or PCs. The consideration of whether you are using the cloud will also impact what you select.

Litigators will want an Apple iPad, not an Android tablet. The legal-specific apps are often only available for Apple iOS devices, particularly those to do with jury selection/ voir dire and trial presentation. iOS devices may also be preferable for presentation and document editing.

Since many business apps are available on both Apple and Android devices, there is less of a distinction between devices running those operating systems. Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Phones have fewer choices but the apps available may still meet your needs. And the mobile app environment is constantly shifting. Microsoft has recently been making a push on Android and the advantages iOS had for Microsoft Office users may be disappearing.

This will be interesting to watch. Not only has there been a huge development push for Microsoft Android apps, but there is evidence from Microsoft’s tablets that Microsoft Windows 10 will run Android apps. Since this is also possible on Google’s Chrome Operating System, we may see a continued blurring between PC and portable operating systems.

There are, of course, the many ways you can run software from one operating system on another:

  • Windows:  run Oracle’s open source VirtualBox and put Linux or Macintosh in it.  You can also dual-boot into an alternate operating system;
  • Macintosh:  run Parallels or Bootcamp;
  • Linux:  run Codeweavers Crossover or give WINE a try.  I ran Microsoft Word 2007 under Ubuntu without any problems.

If you are using the cloud and most of your software relies on a Web browser and an Internet connection, you have even greater flexibility. Not only are both Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac laptops possible, the emerging Chromebooks running Google’s open source operating system may be an option. It requires a commitment to Google apps but those are a good choice for cloud lawyers any way. You might even look at Ubuntu or another flavor of Linux, the basis of Apple’s OS, as a lightweight free-to-acquire option that runs well on aging technology.

The one factor that is important in some operating systems, especially Microsoft Windows, is the difference between a home version and a business version. You should be sure you are purchasing a business or professional version of Windows, in particular because those are the only ones that have encryption built into the operating system. You can add encryption separately but the business versions of Windows are designed for business users and include functionality that is not available to home users.

Word Processing

You need Microsoft Word. You might prefer a different word processor and can certainly do fine with spreadsheet and presentation software from other developers, particularly with Apple’s Keynote as an alternative to Microsoft PowerPoint. Microsoft Word is the cornerstone of any law practice.

But even the selection of Word – preferred by courts and your business clients among many others – doesn’t decree what hardware or software you need. Your best bet is to stick with Microsoft Windows but Microsoft Office is available for Mac natively or in a Windows environment using Parallels. Similarly, Ubuntu users can use Wine or Crossover Linux to run Word. As Word permeates the mobile world with apps for iPad and Android, it will only solidify its place in law firm technology.

There are other word processors, including the free Open and Libre Office open source suites. You can use Google Apps for Work to create and edit Word-compatible documents in the cloud. Microsoft’s own Word Online free Web app is also an option. But cloud-based word processors, focused on the Pareto principle and delivering the most common features, cannot match Microsoft Word’s functionality for lawyers.

Things like Table of Authorities and tight management of footnotes and endnotes can make or break a document to be filed with the court. Moving between Word on your PC and some other editor on your other devices is likely to introduce incompatibilities that will diminish the productivity gains you might have hoped for.

Microsoft Word is probably the one program nearly every lawyer will have. But it no longer drives the choice of device hardware and operating system you can use.

This isn’t meant to be a promotional text for Microsoft but it’s hard to overemphasize the impact their software currently has on the legal profession. The company is known to blow hot and cold on the legal market. But in the early 2000s, when lawyers did not take their products as seriously, they created a legal advisory council and focused on lawyer needs. They even went so far as to create a dedicated guide for Word 97 and 2000 users to highlight their advanced features. For the next 5 or 6 years, there was a lot of effort expended by Microsoft on law firm use of their products. Then they disappeared for awhile and have re-emerged as SharePoint and Office 365 became viable options for law firms.

Related Reading and Resources