The Mobile Mac

Swimming Upstream: Using Macs in the Law Office

- 2006.04.18 -Tip Jar

Software has been the single largest obstacle to running anall-Mac office. I have two bank accounts and use those to payclient fees (trust account) and everything else associated withrunning a business (general account). QuickBooks Pro 2006 for Machandles multiple accounts without breaking a sweat, keeps track ofmy many vendors (telephone, Internet, legal search, etc.), andallows me to track jobs by client.

The problem is, despite using the exact same file-format as theWindows version, the program is designed so differently thataccountants (an overwhelmingly Windows-using bunch) tell me thatit's easy to set up billing - but then cannot figure out how to doit.

Billing should not be this difficult. For example, lets say thata certain job will cost the client $2,500. Some clients prefer topay it off faster than others, and I need the flexibility to devisea payment plan that will work for the individual, rather than fittheir needs to my software. I'm certain that there's a way to allowone client to pay his $2,500 in 20 monthly installments of $125while allowing another client to pay hers in 5 payments of $500 inQuickBooks. This should be simple.

Another area of software frustration is the otherwise-excellentMicrosoft Office 2004.

Where is the pleading wizard or pleading template? The Windowsversion has had a wizard for the creation of legal pleadings since1997, while the Mac lost its template in 2001. That 2001 template,by the way, wasn't even created by Microsoft, but rather waswritten by an attorney in California and listed on Microsoft'swebsite.

Fortunately, while not as elegant as the Windows pleadingwizard, that old 2001 template is still listed by Microsoft,downloadable (as an Office 2001 add-on), and opens up in Word2004.

Legal Software

The other software requirements have been more easy to satisfy.The big fancy case-management applications like INSZoom andImmigration Tracker are either Windows-only (tracker) or platformagnostic, meaning web-based (INSZoom), but with some features thatare disabled when not running Windows.

For me, however, those packages, while slick and powerful, arealso very expensive and include many tools that I don't yet need.Immigration Pro (youguessed it, I practice immigration law) is an easy forms and casedatabase built on FileMakerthat comes in both Windows and OS X versions and doesn't skimpon the features for those who prefer Macintosh.

Using .mac

For the simpler requirements of scheduling andcontact-management, Apple's included iApps do the trick. iCal,combined with .mac, makes keeping all of our calendars in sync easyand readily accessible. This is something that not too many yearsago would have required a fancy client-server application and an ITdepartment, but today it's accomplished with a $100 annual serviceand bundled applications.

Finally, I use .mac backup to keep backups of my all-importantImmigration Pro and QuickBooks data files on my iDisk. In the eventof a catastrophe, my data will be safely offsite on Apple'sservers, as well as on my iMac at work and my 12" PowerBook,wherever it happens to be.

Office Computers

Hardware was a much easier matter. The iMac G5 is working wonderfully asboth the front-office computer and our file server. I partitionedthe drive into two equal halves, with OS X and our useraccounts on the first partition and all of the firm's documents andthe all-important Immigration Pro and QuickBooks database files onthe shared partition.

n the case of Immigration Pro, which costs $400 for the standardversion and $1,600 for the client-server version, this was a simpleway to save a lot of money. True, only one person at a time canwork with the program, but with the entire program on the sharedpartition of the iMac, anyone can access the program and its datafrom their own computer, with an error message blocking a secondperson from opening the file at the same time as the first.

In a two-lawyer office where only one of us (not me) is likelyto be working on forms at a given time, this is an economical andeasy solution. Starting up the program is a bit slow over theAirPort Extreme network, taking roughly 20 seconds, but once openit runs as quickly as it does on a local drive.

Before I opened my law office on March 15, I hired anotherlawyer. Where my experience is in dealing with clients andcourtroom work, she is experienced in visa applications and formpreparation. Since she does most of her work at the office andrarely, if ever, goes to court, another desktop Mac was in order.This Mac would have a much lighter workload than the first, as itnot be sharing anything on its local hard drive and would have onlya single user.

For this application, I bought one of the last PowerPC G4 Mac minis and hooked itup to a nice 19" Samsung monitor. I'll admit it, I splurged andspent a few dollars extra for the silver-colored model that matchesthe mini rather well, but I cheaped-out and connected it with theVGA cable instead of springing for a DVI cord. (Yes, digital is thefuture, but for the text that this monitor is displaying on a dailybasis, I doubt there is a significant difference.)

The Mac mini I bought was the old top-of-the-line model andincluded Apple's "stealth" upgrade. By stealth, I mean that whilethe box lists a 1.42 GHz G4 and a 32 MB video card, my miniactually has a 1.5 GHz processor and a 64 MB video card, along witha 5400 RPM hard drive, AirPort Extreme, and 512 MB of RAM, which Idid not upgrade.

The mini is fast, has beautiful output on the 19" display, andoften does double duty filling my associate's office with musicwhile she works. More RAM would undoubtedly be nice, but I'll notbe bothered with the putty-knife upgrade routine, and currentlyperformance is just fine.

My 12" PowerBook, the only "old" Mac in the bunch, whileextremely nice as my personal Mac, has been hit-and-miss in theoffice. It's powerful and fast for everything that I do with it,but I have found the 12" screen to be a bit on the small size whendoing research and writing. It's not bad, and Exposé makesup for it to some extent, but I want a bigger screen. The 12"PowerBook was meant as a traveling machine. It's at its best asone, and that is what it is once again, with a near-new 15" PowerBook G4 now serving as myoffice Mac.

I found a great deal on the January 2005 model (same vintage asmy 12"), which while lacking the higher resolution screen andlonger battery life of the October2005 model, is still a delightful machine for office use.

I saved some money and bought the 1.5 GHz Combo drive model, asthere are already two SuperDrives in the office (iMac and mini) andanother on my 12" PowerBook - and yet another on the PowerMac G4 athome.

The 15" PowerBook is simply gorgeous, and while I use it as adesktop most of the time, taking the 12" with me to court and onshort hops, for longer trips the larger PowerBook is an agiletraveling companion. On those longer trips, I'll make do withshorter battery life and enjoy DVD movies in widescreen glory on adisplay that, while not as bright as the new MacBook Pro, is worldsbeyond anything I've ever carried before and comes close to eventhe magnificent 20" iMac. This is a very exciting laptop forme.

The final office computer is a super-cheapo Compaq PC. I wasgoing to build a cheap PC myself or buy a used one, but when I sawa brand-new PC at Fry's with a 120 GB hard drive for only $300, Ibought it on the spot. Since it would need a monitor as well, Ibrought my 3-year-old 15" Dell (made by Samsung) LCD from home andhooked it up to the PC. This computer is also in my associate'soffice, as its sole functions are uploading documents to court (IE5.5 or better required) and for the odd time (none yet) when Iabsolutely need to run something that is Windows-only.

For the price and what it's used for, it does the job just fine,with the added bonus of giving me the Word for Windows PleadingWizard (I also have it through virtual PC on my PowerBook). Itshard drive is partitioned into 20 GB for work (more than enough)and 91 GB as a backup file server, which the iMac automaticallybacks up to on a nightly basis.

One other benefit of having a stand-alone PC (it connects to thenetwork just fine for files and printing, but it's not set up foremail) is that if I bring in temporary help, I can put them to workon the PC and know that any documents they create in Word 2003 forWindows will open perfectly on our Macs, no file format translationrequired.

My last work Mac isn't at work, but rather is the home computerthat, being a Mac, easily synchronizes and becomes another part ofthe office. This is a 7-year-old Power Macintosh G4 (AGP Graphics or"Sawtooth") that was originally 400 MHz, but has since beenupgraded to 1.0 GHz.

Like the others, it runs the very latest version of OS X 10.4"Tiger", has an updated video card that supports Quartz Extreme butnot Core Image (Nvidia GeForce 5200MX 32 MB, for those who care),and 768 MB of RAM. While the oldest computer by far, it has themost capable optical drive, a Pioneer DVD-RW dual layer that willwrite to just about anything fast.

I plan on adding more RAM soon, likely bringing it to 1.5 or 2.0GB. Finally, since the 15" LCD that had been attached to this beastcame to work, I plugged in a brand-new 19" Samsung LCD just likethe one on the mini, but black.

How It All Works

I'll admit, there are things that I'd like to do that would bemuch easier on Windows machines than on Macs. Most of this isbecause the legal software industry largely ignores the Mac. Yes,there are applications for case management on the Mac (I hear goodthings about LawStream), but the packages that areimmigration-specific are either Web-based with certain key featuresdisabled or Windows-only. Hopefully that will change, but somehow,I doubt it.

While there are difficulties, there are other aspects that arefar easier on the Macs, like keeping our calendars and contactssynchronized. Of course, the biggest plus is that I don't have anyneed whatsoever for an IT guy or gal. Everything is easy and fastenough that I just do it myself, saving time and money, and with nospyware or viruses to worry about, there is no such thing asdowntime.

In the end, I believe that I made the right choice. While I haveto employ a few workarounds for software holes, everything justworks, always. Perhaps even more important is that the Macs are ajoy to use. I'm always hearing my associate say "wow" when shediscovers some cool new feature on her Mac, like Exposé orthe Dashboard Translation widget. These are features that don'treally influence purchase decisions; they just make getting workdone on the computer a little bit more convenient, and, dare I say,more fun.

In the future, I see making the move to Intel-powered Macs, butonly when our normal upgrade cycle kicks in. The PowerPC equipmentwe have now does absolutely everything we want it to do and does itquickly.

Of course, had I bought an Intel-based mini, I'd be able to runBoot Camp on it and dispense with the Windows PC altogether, butthen I wouldn't have had an excuse to buy a nice new 19" LCD forthe old Power Mac at home. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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