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The start of a new year brings many changes to the psyche. A time for resolutions, new beginnings — and for some lawyers, a time to start out fresh on their own, with a new solo practice. While myriad issues exist for the lawyer venturing out alone, computer needs rank up there among the highest. So with that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of the basic hardware and system needs that should be in place before hanging that new shingle. The heart of your technical needs is your primary computer, and one of the biggest choices is whether to get a laptop or stand-alone machine. My suggestion would be to have both. Use the higher-end workstation if you are a solo practitioner, and then use the laptop — which doesn’t need to be as powerful — to take with you to court, on trips or commuting from home. By having both machines, you avoid the possibility of losing your laptop — and your entire practice files — should it get dropped, lost, stolen or X-rayed. With synchronization software, your contacts, e-mail and common documents can get transferred back and forth each morning. Your second big choice is the operating system. Windows, of course, dominates the business market, but the Macintosh OS X operating system has become highly stable. And then there is the option of Linux, which is an open-source system and theoretically “free,” although certain versions of Linux, such as Red Hat, dominate the market. Cost-wise, the hardware for Windows-based systems is less expensive than for the Macs, while the software prices are generally the same. A number of small practices are completely Mac-based, and Mac lawyer user groups exist for support. But my preference is still with the Microsoft world, since that is what so many others are using as well. Linux systems are better left for “technology enthusiasts,” not the general lawyer population. Assuming you are going with the Windows-based system, look for a business-class machine, as opposed to a consumer-oriented one. Leading manufacturers such as Dell and HP have specific PCs in the business-class category, which are more rugged than consumer models in both the workstation and laptop variety. The best deals can often be had through the manufacturer’s Web site, as opposed to going to a discount electronic chain. Try to get as much memory and hard drive space as possible. It’s not necessary to get the most expensive model, as you are paying for cutting-edge technology that is not really needed, but avoid the least expensive option as well. The middle range is often where the sweet spot is for price and performance. Since you will be staring at your monitor for a good portion of your workday, be sure to get a monitor that is large enough. A 17-inch model is standard these days, but consider a 19-inch or 21-inch version if you are dealing with large spreadsheets or databases. When selecting a laptop, you will need to balance computer efficiency, weight and screen size, along with cost factors. If you are working with highly demanding applications, including video and other digital media, the machine will weigh more and need a larger screen. Most lawyers, however, won’t have that type of need, so a lightweight machine (under 5 pounds) with a smaller screen (14 inch) will be perfect. The next piece of hardware on your list is your printer. Despite all of the electronic filing initiatives and document scanning options, the legal world is still a paper world. When purchasing a printer, don’t skimp on price. Get one that prints quickly, preferably over 29 pages per minute, and is designed to print large amounts of copies. Also make sure you have an extended service contract, as printer repair is not cheap. If you need to print in color, it is best to have two separate printers, one for black and white and one for color, as color printers are more expensive and you want to save wear and tear on the machine. No sense beating up a color printer when you primarily need black and white prints. Another vital component of your system is your backup devices. One of the best tactics for a solo practitioner is a stand-alone hard drive, which can back up your data each night. I find that disk-to-disk backups are more reliable than tape backups. Nonetheless, a tape backup system should probably be employed as well since tapes can be tucked away in your pocket each night and brought to an off-site location. Never have the only copy of your backup stored on the same site as your primary system. A scanner with a document feeder is also important if you need to convert a large number of paper documents into electronic files. Make sure the scanner can handle legal-size documents, and can scan at least 15 to 20 pages per minute. Besides the hardware, you will need a high-speed Internet connection, either through a cable system or phone company DSL line. In addition, you will need to get a domain name with your law firm in it that you can use for your e-mail address and Web site. It doesn’t look professional to use a commercial e-mail account, such as AOL, Hotmail or Yahoo, or a shared Web site without a direct link to your domain name. And the final piece of your technical system is a combination cell phone/PDA with a data connection to make phone calls, check e-mail and Web sites from wherever you are, and schedule meetings and lookup contacts. Be sure to synchronize your PDA with your portable and office computers as well. With a nice, stable, technical setup, lawyers venturing out on their own can greet the new year, and their new practice, with the focus and intensity their clients demand. Brian R. Harris is the database administrator for the American Lawyer Media-Pennsylvania division and the former editor-in-chief of The Legal Intelligencer.

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