The Number of the Least: Establishing Small Firm Technological Infrastructure on a Shoe String Budget
The book of Revelation refers to the “number of the beast” – a “code” or form of identification without which man can neither buy nor sell. Many commentators have argued that this is an analogy for man’s growing technological dependence in the Information Age. Individual commentaries on biblical text notwithstanding, the analogy certainly applies to the practice of law in this new millennium. Although law schools still teach the tradition methods of “paper research”, they are also offering an ever increasing number of courses instructing law students on the use of information technology and computer-based research. The federal courts have moved fully into electronic filing for the processing of nearly every species of legal filing and the state courts which have not yet done so, will do so in the very near future.
In short, the legal profession, like nearly every other aspect of economic and social endeavor in contemporary American society, has become so dependent upon information technology that the legal practitioner who eschews that technology will be hard-pressed to efficiently and/or effectively ply his/her trade. While large firms generally have more capital to invest in both the necessary technology and the personnel adept in its deployment, use and maintenance, the sole practioner and the small firm may be more financially constrained This article proposes to suggest various options, methods, and tools to establish a technological infrastructure sufficient to allow the sole practioner and the small firm to effectively, efficiently and economically engage in the art of lawyering in the Information Age. For the purposes of this article, a small firm will be defined as one requiring a network of no more than nine computers, or workstations. This article also presupposes that your firm’s office space has network wiring pre-installed, and that the operating system (OS) installed on each computer on the network is Microsoft Windows XP Professional tm (XP Pro).
First and foremost, your firm will need a method of connecting to the internet. An internet connection is necessary for email, online legal research and electronic court filing. No matter what your firm’s method of connecting, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) will be required. There are various ISP vendors in the market, the largest and best known probably being Verizon tm, Earthlink tm and Yahoo tm . Each provider will offer various packages for small businesses, so shop around for one that best meets your firm’s needs and budget. While three methods of internet connection are offered by various ISP providers, (DSL, Cable Modem, Telephone Modem), DSL is recommended as it possesses a combination of data transfer speed, cost effectiveness and ease of use far superior to the other two methods.
Routers are devices that allow a given number of computers to connect to the internet, and, at the same time, to each other. Routers also have security features built into them to frustrate outside attempts to hack networks, effectively standing between your network and the internet, providing a security buffer, while at the same time “routing” data from the internet to a given network and, in turn, among the computers that comprise that network. A good 4 port “wired” router costs about $50, and can support a nine workstation network through the use of switches. Switches, like routers, allow several computers to connect to a single data line, but are less secure and efficient than routers, while being much less expensive, running $10-$20 per unit. Switches are most useful when used in conjunction with a router to allow 2-4 computers to share a single router port.
Computers on wireless networks connect through a card inside each unit that sends signals to, and receives signals from, a central wireless router which is, in turn, connected to the internet through your firm’s chosen ISP provider. The cards cost $50-$70 and a competent wireless router will run from $70 to $200. For a nine-station network, total cost would average about $700. Wireless routers, however, are generally not recommended as they are less secure, less reliable, and more expensive than the hard-wired alternatives.
Two options exist for connecting the firm’s small office network: Peer-to-Peer (P2P), or client server (CS). A P2P network connects work station computers to each other and, through a router, to the internet. Software applications (word processing, web browsers, etc) are installed and operate on each computer individually. A CS network requires that the router and all workstations (clients) connect through a central computer (server). Software applications are installed on the server only and the workstations access that software by way of access accounts, purchased from the software provider on the basis of the number of anticipated users. Of the two options, P2P is preferable for networks of nine (9) computers or less. XP Pro supports such a network natively and it is very easy to set up, whereas CS networks usually require some level of specialized knowledge and software to configure. The general rule of thumb is, if the firm does not plan to expand its network beyond nine (9) workstations within a three (3) year period, use P2P.
As to the computers themselves, a low-end workstation is more than adequate to handle the computing needs of a small firm. The minimal specifications for such a workstation are: Processor – Pentium Celeron tm; Memory – 256 MB; Hard Drive – 40 GB; CD ROM read/write (R/RW) drive. Such units can be purchased from various computer vendors (i.e. Dell tm, Gateway tm , etc.) for about $500, including a monitor and XP Pro pre-installed. While not absolutely necessary, it is highly recommended that one computer on a P2P network be detailed to central storage of all the firm’s files (file server). Not to be confused with the server on a CS network, a file server does not store software used by the computers on the network, but does contain all data files (word processing documents, etc.) generated and maintained by the firm. These files can be accessed by any computer on the network by way of an easy to use network function in XP Pro called “file sharing.” Also, in order to minimize the risk of virus infection and/or accidental data corruption/erasure, this computer should not be used as a workstation, nor should it be used to navigate the internet except to locate and download drivers and other software needed for smooth operation. In order to preserve the firm’s data in the event of a crash or other critical system failure, the file server should be equipped with a DVD R/RW drive for backing up the firm’s files on a daily or weekly basis. A single standard double-layer DVD, costing about $.50 per disk, will record up to 6 GB of data, which is more than enough storage for the amount of data files generated and maintained in most small firms.
The internet offers a legion of free and useful software applications (“Freeware”), which can save a small firm hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Other types of software allow free use for a limited time or with restricted functionality until a fee is paid (“Shareware”), allowing the user to “try before you buy.” Be sure to read the End User License Agreements (EULAs) for each piece of software the firm is considering as it may contain restrictions on use for business purposes. If such restrictions exist, use at your own risk.
For virus protection, it is difficult to match AVG Free tm. For firewall protection, ZoneAlarm tm is highly recommended. Although prone to certain compatibility issues when translating documents generated by other word processing programs (i.e. Microsoft Word tm ), Open Office tm is a free and complete office suite offering features comparable to Microsoft Office tm , including word processor, spreadsheet, multimedia presentation suite, and a native Portable Document Format (pdf) converter, which is essential for converting word processing files to pdf format for electronic filing. For web browsing, the best free browser is Mozilla Firefox tm. It has no restrictions on business use, and is cleaner, leaner and much more secure than other free browsers, including the one that comes bundled with XP Pro. Equally attractive is Mozilla’s free email client, Thunderbird tm. For reliably calculating filing deadlines, Acute Software tm offers a handy, free date calculator. For instant messaging (IM) between the personnel in the firm, Gaim tm is a free IM client that will handle most preexisting IM accounts without advertisements or pop-up windows. For detecting software applications surreptitiously installed by advertisers (Adware and Spyware), Lavasoft’s tm AdAware tm is difficult to beat. Also, it should be noted that there are several excellent commercial software titles on the market, so shop around and decide whether your firm needs commercial software, or can suffice with freeware.
As to the fax, laser printer and copier machines common to all offices, these can be replaced by an all-in-one unit, which incorporates each function into a single unit. While each of these roles has been traditionally fulfilled by separate machines, the all-in-one units offer the best bang for the buck and can be made available to the entire network from a single workstation through the use of an easy to use function in XP Pro called “printer sharing.” Aside from the obvious necessity of the printer, copier and fax functions, most of these all-in-one units also offer a scanner function. A scanner is absolutely indispensable for rendering hardcopy exhibits into pdf format for electronic filing. Considering that the legal profession often entails the processing of large amounts of paperwork, be sure to check the specifications of any machine the firm is considering in order to ensure that it will be capable of handling the load, and that the unit in question has some form of bulk feed function equivalent to a copier. Single page scanners are not up to the task and, if chosen, will form a production bottleneck. The most well known manufacturers for such machines are Hewlett-Packard tm, Panasonic tm, and Canon tm .
In conclusion, this article has attempted to offer an overview of methods by which a small firm with constrained finances may establish the technological infrastructure necessary to compete effectively in the field of legal practice in the Information Age. Given the length constraints inherent in an article such as this one, the subjects addressed herein have only been touched upon, and can be further developed with diligent research. For more Freeware and/or Shareware, check out sourceforge.net and www.tucows.com. For further education on hardware, software and nearly everything tech, www.tomshardware.com is highly recommended. For reviews of software and hardware, consult www.cnet.com. For low-cost hardware and software with fast delivery, try www.newegg.com and www.tigerdirect.com.
By Ken Ruh, J.D. and published in The Legal Intelligencer on January 30, 2006.