Technology directors know that cost-cutting has always been something of a bad joke. Sure, there are the falling prices, on everything from laptops to data storage to BlackBerrys. But capital costs are just part of the equation. A PC that cost $1,500 when a firm did its last hardware refresh might cost $800 now, yet it still takes between $3,500 and $5,000 per year to support that computer, according to the market research firm Gartner, Inc. Factor in, too, that as law firms grow (and merge), they’re buying more gear and sophisticated systems to integrate these tools. So while a product’s price tag may plummet, the tech budget — and the CIO’s blood pressure — rarely does. In today’s economy, that’s a problem.

So what’s a savvy technology chief to do? One answer is to rethink the way the firm deploys its applications — everything from document management systems to patent prosecution tools. The idea goes like this: Instead of running an application on each user’s PC, run it on a centralized server all users can access. This eases the burden on tech support, since IT only needs to make sure that the copy of the software on the server — and not hundreds of copies on desktop PCs across the globe — has all the right patches and updates. Meanwhile, the machine on the user’s desk doesn’t have to be sophisticated, since all it does is provide a connection to the server and an interface for working with the application. That means it can be cheaper than the high-end PCs that firms tend to use and can be replaced less frequently. A handful of firms, including Bryan Cave and Kilpatrick Stockton, are convinced that this concept — known as the thin client desktop — is the wave of the future.