Starting a law practice is a challenge for any lawyer, even one with unlimited funds. But most lawyers have limited budgets. Startup costs rapidly accumulate and being frugal is not a choice, it’s a necessity. Just a few years ago, it was a significant challenge to obtain the necessary technology to open a practice for $5,000. However, while many costs relating to the practice of law have increased over the last 10 years, the cost of much of the basic computer technology and software has decreased. So the challenge faced by lawyers opening new solo offices, whether they are new graduates or are leaving other positions, is if they can obtain the technology they need on their budget. What if they only have $1,000? What if they have a bit more, say, $2,500 or even $5,000?
In this article, Illinois attorney Bryan Sims, who left a firm and went solo (and became a blogger at theconnectedlawyer.com), provides his thoughts on equipping a new solo office. Bryan addresses the tough options of how to equip a new office for $1,000 and $2,500. Nerino Petro covers the easier option: if you have a more expansive budget of $5,000.
Approximately four years ago, Bryan left the firm he had been with for several years and opened a solo practice. He recalls how challenging those first months were, getting everything up and running and making sure he had the technology he needed to run his new practice. According to Bryan, it seemed as though every technology decision he had to make involved tradeoffs. Budgetary constraints often required compromises that were less than ideal.
Bryan says the solutions outlined below will not be perfect for everyone. However, the principles should get you well on the way to properly equipping your office. The prices given were those available when he wrote his recommendations in July 2014. As with all technology, prices change regularly, sometimes daily.
Bryan: Equipping a Law Office for $1,000
Computer. The first thing that any new office needs is a computer. Obviously, there are many choices available. It’s easy to go to a big-box store and pick up whatever is on sale. I am typically not a fan of this approach for machines for work. Instead, I prefer buying a computer made for the business world. This usually means ordering one.
The real advantage of purchasing a business-level machine rather than a machine available at a retail store is the support. Typically, with a business machine, you receive technical support that is based in the United States and is provided by people who have some technical training and are not simply following a script. Further, many of these machines come with on-site, next-business-day support. This means that if something on your computer breaks, a technician will be at your office the next business day to fix it. It is unlikely a big-box store will provide this type of service.
Nerino J. Petro Jr., Northern Illinois 1988, is chief information officer for Holmstrom & Kennedy P.C., with offices in Rockford and Byron, Ill. He previously was the Law Office Management Assistance Program advisor at the State Bar of Wisconsin..
Bryan M. Sims, Loyola-Chicago 1996, is with Sims Law Firm Ltd., Naperville, Ill., concentrating in commercial litigation and civil appeals.
I am also a big proponent of using a laptop as a main computer. This provides the flexibility to work from a variety of locations. As I write this, Lenovo (lenovo.com) has several good deals on a variety of different laptops. I want a decent computer but would like to keep the cost at no more than 50 percent of my budget. The best deal that I found for this is a Lenovo E440, 14” laptop, with an Intel i3, 2.4 GHz processor, Windows 8.1 64, a 500 GB hard drive, and 4 GB of RAM for $579. You can find other, similar models ranging from that price to approximately $700, from both Lenovo and Dell (dell.com).
Printer and Scanner. I am a big fan of the paperless office. Of course, a law office will never be completely paperless. Consequently, you will need a printer. Similarly, you will need a scanner to get your documents into your computer. Normally, I am not a fan of multifunction machines because scanning speeds generally are much slower with such a unit than with a dedicated desktop scanner. However, a combination unit is really the only way to stick within our limited budget here.
I found a Brother DCP-7065DN on Amazon for $130. It prints and copies at 27 pages per minute (ppm). It also includes automatic duplexing, as well as the ability to scan to file, scan to e-mail, and other features. The copying and scanning features include an automatic document feeder with a 35-page capacity. This will likely do everything that you need and at a reasonable price.
Productivity Software. The first thing you need is some type of word-processing software. If you are on a really tight budget, you might want to use Open Office (openoffice.org), which is free, or Google Apps for Business ($50 per year; google.com). However, the choice I would make, and the one that is most common, is Microsoft Office (microsoft.com).
When buying Microsoft Office, it’s a good idea to shop around. For example, both Lenovo and Dell give you the option to purchase the software when you buy a computer. At Dell, I could get Office Home and Business 2013 for $190. At Lenovo, it was $179.99. On the other hand, you can get a one-year subscription to the cloud-based Office 365 Small Business Premium for $150. However, I found the best deal on mychoicesoftware.com. It is Office Home and Business 2013 for $138.99. It’s a download version so there is no DVD from which to reinstall, but at this price it is less expensive than the Office 365 subscription, and there is no yearly fee.
In addition to Microsoft Office, you also need software to handle PDFs. (Remember, we want to reduce paper; that means a greater reliance on PDFs.) Given that we have only $152 left in the budget, Adobe Acrobat is not even a consideration. Fortunately, there are other options. A possible choice is Nitro PDF Pro 9 (nitropdf.com). It has almost all the features of Acrobat Professional for significantly less money. Its price tag of $139.99 leaves us with a little money in our budget. Another option is Power PDF Advanced from Nuance (nuance.com). Power PDF is the successor to PDF Converter Enterprise 8.0. This version, which is comparable to Acrobat XI Pro, has all the features of Acrobat but, like Nitro, costs a lot less than Acrobat. Power PDF Advanced costs $149. I will go with Nitro PDF Pro, because doing so leaves us $12.
Good backups are key to any computer setup. I recommend, at a minimum, at least one local backup and one remote backup.
Although it is possible to do all accounting and billing on paper or within Excel, both are far from ideal solutions. Fortunately, accounting software is not too pricey. QuickBooks Online (quickbooks.intuit.com) is available for $13 per month. This gives you invoicing and accounting capabilities in one place – and puts us a mere $1 over our budget on the day we open.
Backups. You should regularly back up data. Having data only on your computer simply ensures that one day you will lose it. But right now, we’re already $1 over budget. Given that, I would start with using data storage available from companies such as Dropbox (dropbox.com), Spider Oak (spideroak.com), and Box (box.com), which is free as long as the amount of data you have falls within the particular plan’s limits. Once you have more data and a little more money, you can expand your backup options.
Just a Few More Dollars. If I had just a few dollars more than $1,000, I would likely first invest them in increasing the power of the computer. As equipped, the laptop identified above is adequate for the word processing, email, and Internet functions that most attorneys require. However, it never hurts to spruce things up a little. For example, for only an additional $80, you can increase the RAM from 4 GB to 8 GB.
Similarly, although an i3 processor is fine, you can upgrade to an i5 for $100 or to an i7 for $205. Either upgrade will improve the performance and speed of your computer, both now and in the future.
Finally, if I had a few more dollars, I would likely put it toward timekeeping, billing, and case-management software. Obviously full-featured traditional software would cost you more than just a few more dollars. However, it is possible to add cloud-based services that meet this need. For example, one month of Clio ($49; State Bar of Wisconsin members page), Rocket Matter ($65; rocketmatter.com), or MyCase ($39; mycase.com) falls within most people’s budgets, and it allows you to properly organize and track your files and clients.
Is this setup the best available? Of course not, we had only $1,000. However, with these items, you can run a law office quite well and without any problems.
Bryan: Equipping a Law Office for $2,500
If you have a slightly larger budget, your options expand a little. My basic principles do not change. However, I can make some improvements in some of the devices that I buy.
Computer. Given a slightly larger budget, I would definitely go for a little more power. I would likely purchase a Lenovo E540 with an Intel i5 3.1 GHz processer, Windows 8 Pro, 8 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB hard drive for $909. As noted earlier, however, similarly priced and equipped computers are available from other providers such as Dell.
Printer and Scanner. If having different devices for different functions is not important to you, you can get the multifunction Brother DCP-7065DN that I discussed above.
However, as noted above, I’m not a fan of multifunction devices, mainly because if one part breaks, I’ve lost both my printer and my scanner. Thus, on a $2,500 budget, I recommend separate devices. For a printer, I will get the Brother HL-5470DW (brother-usa.com). This is a monochrome laser printer, which prints at 40 ppm, includes wireless and Ethernet connections and automatic duplexing, and holds 300 sheets of paper. It was available at Staples for $179.99 at the time this article was written. The HL-5470DWT comes with a second paper tray, but at $349.99, the price is too steep for me right now.
For a scanner, I would go with the Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 (fujitsu.com). This is available on PCNation for $418. It scans at 25 ppm and scans both sides of a page at the same time. This means that you do not have to worry about missing something on the back side of a sheet of paper.
Additionally, the ScanSnap includes a copy of Adobe Acrobat X Standard. I think most attorneys would benefit by making use of the additional features that are found in Acrobat Pro. But Acrobat is expensive, and getting the Standard version for free is not something to ignore. The best thing about the ScanSnap, and why I recommend it to anyone I talk to about computers, is that it is so easy to use. You simply put your document in the automatic document feeder and press the blue button. Shortly thereafter, the document appears on your computer screen.
Productivity Software. Heading to the software portion of the budget, we have $993 left. As I noted earlier, Microsoft Office is available for different prices. I see no reason not to go with Office Home and Business 2013 for $139.99 from mychoicesoftware.com.
If you prefer to not use Microsoft products, you can go with WordPerfect. The X7 Legal Edition is available for $349.99 and WordPerfect Office X7 Standard is available for $249.99, both from WordPerfect’s website (corel.com).
Just as before, you need something to handle your PDFs. Although the ScanSnap comes with Adobe Acrobat Standard, Acrobat Pro has a few features that attorneys need and that justify the additional upgrade cost. These features include redaction, PDF document comparison, and form creation in Adobe FormsCentral. The cost of upgrading from standard to pro is $200.
Despite this discount, however, I will grab the Nuance Power PDF Advanced for $149. It has the features I need, works well, and saves me a few dollars.
The other key piece of software is something for accounting. I would likely go with QuickBooks Pro 2014. From Amazon, it is $180. The real benefit to this software is its popularity. Any accountant that you hire probably will know how to work with QuickBooks.
Although QuickBooks can do time and billing, I prefer law-practice-specific software for these functions, especially because of the large number of efficiencies to be gained. In this situation, I would likely purchase cloud-based software, from Clio ($49), Rocket Matter ($65), or MyCase ($39). Each works slightly differently, and one may work better for you than another. For purposes of this article, I will use the midrange price point ($49) as our cost for this service.
Backups and Security. Good backups are key to any computer setup. I recommend, at a minimum, at least one local backup and one remote backup. For a local backup, an external hard drive will work fine. A 1TB Western Digital My Passport is available from Best Buy for $57.99. When you have more money to spend, you might consider buying another hard drive, so you can have one to keep at home and one for the office.
Also, you need a remote location to back up your data. MozyPro is available for $19.99 per month for 50 GB (mozy.com), Carbonite is available for $59.99 per year for unlimited storage (carbonite.com), and CrashPlan+ Unlimited is also available for $59.99 per year (code42.com). Given these choices, I would go with one of the $59.99 yearly plans.
You should also have antivirus software, which is available from several different companies (Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky, BitDefender, Trend Micro, AVG, and so on). I typically choose the one that has the best balance between price and reviews. Most are priced between $15 and $40, and so I will figure this cost at $30.
In addition to having antivirus software, you should protect your computer with encryption. I was a fan of TrueCrypt (truecrypt.org). It was secure, effective, and free. Unfortunately, TrueCrypt’s founders announced that they were stopping development and abandoned the project. With Windows 8, I can use Microsoft’s BitLocker encryption (included with Windows 8 Pro) or another encryption product, such as Symantec’s Drive Encryption, which retails for $110 (symantec.com). I’ll go with BitLocker and save the $110.
Tablet. We have $327 of the $2,500 left. I want to spend it on a tablet. I have used a tablet in my practice for more than a year now, and I love it. I use mine all the time and do not hesitate to recommend tablets to anyone. It is especially useful if you have a paperless office. With a tablet, you can easily retrieve your documents when you are anyplace where an Internet connection is available.
Given the money left in the budget, I would likely exceed my budget slightly and get the 16 GB Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 for $295.99 from overstock.com and add a 32 GB microSD card for approximately $11. This puts me $20 under budget. If I wanted to save some more dollars, I would go with a Google Nexus 7 32 GB tablet, available at Best Buy for $269.99, or even consider the 16 GB original iPad mini for $279 at Walmart.com. Any of these choices give you a great device at a reasonable price.
Just a Few More Dollars. If I had a few more dollars to spend, I would likely consider the following options. First, I am a big fan of FileCenter for file management. It is not document-management software, but it has several features that make it a great solution for managing files. It is available at lucion.com, and the pro version costs $199.95.
Second, I would consider adding one or two external monitors to my setup. I use two external monitors at my office, but adding one is a good place to start for most people. The monitors that I purchased are 21.5” and at the time cost $188 each. You will likely spend $120 to $250 per monitor.
Additionally, I recommend a wireless keyboard and mouse. These are available for approximately $50 to $150. I recently purchased a Logitech MK710 keyboard/mouse combo for $70 (amazon.com) and have been happy with it.
Finally, if I had a just a few more dollars, I would likely forego the smaller tablets and instead get a 16 GB iPad with Retina display (www.walmart.com) for $349. For another $50, I could get a new iPad mini with Retina display, with prices starting at $399. Whether you buy an Apple or an Android tablet, I recommend that you buy as much memory as you can afford. My primary reason for preferring an iPad to an Android tablet is that several law-practice-specific iPad apps, such as TrialPad, TranscriptPad, and iJuror, are not available for Android tablets. I use several of these apps in my practice, and all things being equal, I prefer a device that will handle the law-specific apps.
As I noted above, my choices for this budget might not be right for everyone. However, I hope that I have given you something to consider when equipping your office for $2,500.
Below are Nerino’s suggestions for what you can do on a budget of $5,000.
Nerino: Equipping a Law Office for $5,000
Computer. I agree with Bryan that going with a laptop can make a lot of sense for a new solo practitioner. In addition to Bryan’s reasons for buying a business-class machine, I will add that you can purchase Windows 7 Professional or Windows 8 Professional, the operating systems of choice, when buying a business machine.
I’m going to take a different approach than Bryan, however, and start with a dedicated desktop machine in the office: the Dell XPS 8700 desktop with Windows 8.1 Pro 64-bit, a fourth-generation Intel core i7 CPU, 8 GB of memory, a 1 TB hard drive, and 802.11 and Bluetooth wireless capabilities. It includes one year of next-business-day service and McAfee LiveSafe Internet protection. The cost at the time of writing was $799.99. A desktop allows you to upgrade the computer to extend its useful life and provides more room for expansion than a laptop.
There are times when you need a laptop and times when you want something you can hold in one hand.
The Logitech MK710 wireless keyboard/mouse combination for $70 that Bryan likes is a good choice, so I’ll go with that as well. Then I’ll add two Acer S231HLBbid monitors from newegg.com for $129.99 each. I’ll add a Planar 997-5253-00 dual-monitor stand for $89.99 to hold both and make it easier to rotate them between portrait and landscape mode.
The total for the dual-monitor computer desktop system is $1,218.97.
Printer and Scanner. If you can afford it, having a desktop scanner along with a printer is more productive and more efficient than having just a desktop multifunction machine such as the Brother DCP-7065DN or even a larger version from companies such as Kyocera or Konica. The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX500 works well and for $418 is a good deal.
I’m going to go with an inkjet for my printer, as many models now cost no more than laser printers to operate. Plus, I like the ability to print in color. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8600 Premium is a multifunction printer that can attach to a network or wireless device. It scans, prints, and faxes, has built-in duplex printing, and comes with two 250-sheet paper trays and both a starter set and a full replacement set of ink cartridges. The price from Amazon is $180, giving a total of $598 for the scanner and the printer. I use this printer in my home office and it has performed very well. Its dual paper trays and included duplex printing make it very flexible for printing on plain paper and letterhead without having to use a manual bypass.
Productivity Software. Here I will make a different choice than Bryan: Office 365 Small Business Premium for $150 per year. Not only do you get desktop versions of MS Office but also web-streaming versions along with 50 GB of Outlook e-mail storage.
I’m a long-time Acrobat user and continue to use it on a daily basis. However, if I had to buy it new, I would forego the Acrobat XI Professional upgrade and save $30, opting for Nitro Pro 9 for $139.99. Version 9 includes features such as Outlook integration, and it has one of the best user interfaces of any of the major PDF-creation packages.
For practice management, timekeeping, billing, and accounting, I’ll opt for online products such as Clio for practice management and Xero for accounting (xero.com) or use ActionStep (actionstep.com), which includes accounting. This puts the price at approximately $70 per month or $840 for the year.
I also like FileCenter from Lucion software, because it works with both desktop and cloud-based storage, including DropBox and Google Drive. FileCenter adds $199 to the total.
Backups and Security. I like having redundancy when it comes to protecting my data and also like being able to access data when I am out of the office. I’d love to add an ioSafe 214 network-attached storage device (iosafe.com), but it is too expensive for my remaining budget. Instead, I’ll opt for two of the new Transporter Sync devices for $89.99 each (amazon.com) and pair them with two STBV2000100 Seagate Expansion 2 TB USB 3.0 external desktop hard drives for $79.99 each (newegg.com). One will be at the office, and the other will be at home. I can synchronize files between Transporters as well as between computers and mobile devices. I get backup and a private cloud with no ongoing monthly charges.
I’m still going to want to back up my critical data online, and the options that Bryan gave are fine. So I will include $60 per year for a single computer using a personal backup plan. For the purposes of this article, I will select CrashPlan, which I already use. One of the features that I like about CrashPlan is its ability to back up to external drives as well as continually do online backups of selected files.
We already took care of the anti-virus and malware protection with the McAfee LiveSafe subscription for the first year with the computer purchase. After the first year, you can renew your McAfee subscription or use another product, such as Avast Internet Security (avast.com) or Norton Internet Security (norton.com). Because I opted for Windows 8.1 Pro, I can use Windows built-in BitLocker encryption to protect my system.
Laptop and Tablet. I still have $2,294 to spend. If I am going to work with Windows 8, then ideally my tablet and a laptop should also run Windows 8. There are times when you need a laptop and times when you want something you can hold in one hand. With my remaining money, I’m going to get both in one device. Microsoft has released the Surface Pro 3, which I think is a great product. On its own it is a 12” tablet; add a keyboard cover and it becomes an Ultrabook computer. A Surface Pro 3 with Windows 8.1 Pro, an Intel I7 CPU, 256GB SSD, and 8 GB of memory is $1,549.99 (bestbuy.com). The Surface Pro 3 Typecover is $129.99. Add a second power supply for $79.99, an Inateck HB4005 USB 3 hub and Ethernet adapter for $29.99 (amazon.com), and a mini display port to VGA (or DVI adapter) for $16 (amazon.com).
Because this is a Windows 8 computer, I will need Office for it. Since I opted for Office 365 Small Business Premium, I can install Office 2012 on up to 5 PCs or Macs, so I have no additional cost for a full-featured word-processing suite including Outlook. If I want a full PDF solution, I will add a second copy of Nitro Pro PDF for $139.99. Anti-virus software for $30 is required. Finally, while most software now comes via download, I nevertheless will add a Samsung USB Ultra Portable External DVD Writer for $25.99 (amazon.com). The tablet and accessories add up to $1,871.95
So with everything I’ve detailed, the total is $4,577.87 – almost $500 under our budget. Your costs may vary, depending on when you buy, the discounts that are offered, and tax rates. You can make different decisions and opt for a laser printer rather than an inkjet, an iPad rather than the Surface, or an iPad and a laptop for greater flexibility. You can also add the Surface Pro 3 docking station, which includes its own power supply as well as two USB 3 ports, three USB 2 ports, mini display port for external video, network plug, audio jack, and locking slot, for $199. You can also put additional money into a different printer or into desktop practice-management, timekeeping, billing, and accounting software. The reality of having $5,000 to spend on technology is that you can do quite a bit with the amount today – more than what you could have done just a few years ago.
We leave you with these final thoughts:
$1,000 will get you the basic technology needed for a new solo office.
$2,500 gets you a better technology base and is probably a more realistic amount to budget.
$5,000 greatly expands your options and allows you to build a strong technology base that will serve you well not only today but into the future.