How Small Firms Can Upgrade Hardware While Keeping Costs Down

[originally published March 7, 2007, in Law Technology News as Buying Blunders.]

Small firms may not have the buying power of larger practices, but they have a number of tools and resources available to improve this fundamental business activity. Here are six tips to help you maximize your purchase power and avoid buying blunders:

1. Buy business technology, not equipment intended for family use. The “small medium business” (SMB) market for technology vendors is growing, and they are designing products with configurations that focus on networking and productivity, not entertainment and games. For example, you can select and customize a Dell Inc. Dimension E521 desktop PC from its website (www.dell.com). Home users are prompted to add a TV controller and photo printer; small business customers see laser printers and shared network storage options.

SMB offerings are more closely tailored to your business needs and you will have access to features that are unavailable in consumer products.

2. Establish buying cycles. A rule of thumb for purchasing new hardware is to buy new every three to four years. This is due, in part, to hardware failure increasing by that time, which is also often beyond the computer’s warranty.

Lawyers tend to take a more sanguine approach, as shown by respondents to the American Bar Association’s 2006 Legal Technology Survey Report.

The majority of small firm respondents replace hardware only when it is outdated or needs an upgrade — or when it breaks.

A regular replacement schedule can take some of the mystery out of technology purchasing. It also reduces impulse purchases, such as buying a new PC to meet the needs of a just-released operating system that you covet.

By establishing a regular buying schedule, you can start to make time for planning and research (or have your staff or network consultant do it) well in advance of making any decisions. Of course, there may be occasional breakage, but you can use your warranty to cover those incidents.

3. Add Storage Devices. Your firm may already have computers that meet most of your needs, but a frequent complaint is that an aging computer no longer has enough storage memory.

This is now also one of the easiest hardware issues to remedy. Network- attached (NAS) and USB or Firewire storage are both good options if your firm needs more hard drive storage, or for an individual or solo who needs more space on a desktop.

They eliminate the need to invest in new hard drives for a PC or server that you may not be keeping in the future. Instead, you have storage devices that stand alone. For example, a 500 GB Maxtor Shared Storage II drive from Seagate Technology can plug into your network, instantly expanding storage space for backups and other data needs.

4. Open a case. There are good options for making minor upgrades to your hardware, whether it’s buying additional random access memory (RAM) for your PC or installing a faster network card to take advantage of your office’s new network wiring. Check out websites such as crucial.com, to help you identify the RAM that will work with your computer, and eliminate much of the mystery that surrounds memory upgrades.

Not sure what is in your PC? Crucial will scan your system and tell you what you have, and how much memory your PC can handle. Numerous websites from Pricegrabber.com to Froogle.com can help you identify competitive pricing on PC parts.

5. Simplify through complexity. Hardware purchases can be made with an eye towards simplifying your technology environment. Multifunction devices (MFDs) are becoming a fundamental technology in any law firm. They help your support staff fax without creating paper, and print from and scan to the appropriate PC.

Look for business-oriented MFDs that are more likely to meet your needs, both in cost, output, and usable life. It takes the scanner out of the individual’s office and enables anyone to scan. And everyone can see if faxes were sent without leaving their desks.

The MFD is more complex than a single device, but it gives everyone an opportunity to be more productive. The long life of an MFD – even five to 10 years – make them an ideal technology to lease.

6. Manage the Pain. We have probably all felt the sinking feeling when we realize we have a major hardware purchase to make — and have not budgeted the expenditure.

There are many pros and cons to leasing or using financing to purchase technology. They are an excellent tool, however, to ensure that your firm is making the necessary investment in its technology and can be matched to the refresh schedules for your printers, copiers, and PCs.

Small firms have tools and resources that enable them to make the same, informed, planned purchase decisions as large firms. Whether it is following a PC refresh schedule or adding network- attached storage, the more hardware purchasing becomes a business necessity, the better small firms will be at managing technology change.

Follow Up to Article

Re: “Buying Blunders,” by David Whelan, March LTN.

Editor: I enjoyed reading this article, and I am very interested in seeing if there are affordable options for small firms to reduce their use of paper. Do you have any recommendations to look at products or features when shopping for this?

— Marc Ossinsky
President
Ossinsky & Cathcart
Winter Park, Fla.

David Whelan responds:

I’m glad it was helpful! Reducing paper comes down to cobbling together scanning technologies (preferably with optical character recognition) and document management tools.

Unfortunately, there is no one single application that will do everything, but you can probably integrate (easily!) a couple of programs. With Google Desktop and Microsoft Corp.’s search tools, and your word processor, you can do some functional document management, once you’ve got the paper converted.

If you’re going to spend any money migrating to electronic documents, you’re better off spending it on a good, fast, duplex-capable scanner.

Canon USA (www.usa.canon.com) offers good scanner choices — for example, its departmental scanner DR-4010C (above) at $2,900 is a good example of what you should aim for. You’ll find that scanners often come bundled with software to get digitized documents into an accessible/searchable format.

I’m not aware of any “killer apps” on the scanning side. Visioneer Inc. (www.visioneer.com), has always been innovative, and Nuance Communications Inc. (www.nuance.com), is worth checking out. Both offer both Paperport and Omnipage software on their websites. (The scanning piece is the one you want to focus most on.)

You also should definitely talk to Adobe Systems Inc. (www.adobe.com) about Acrobat 8. Adobe offers a variety of lawyer/bar association discounts. It’s a great tool to help you mark up electronic documents without making paper copies.

Adobe 8, with your word processor, will help you to manage documents that never make it to paper, such as work product and electronically received documents, whether e-mail or e-filed, or on disk (deposition transcripts, etc.).

In my opinion, World Software Corp.’s Worldox is one of the best document management tools, but if you’re already using a case management system, you can use your existing system. Gavel & Gown Software’s (www.amicusattorney.com) Amicus Attorney and LexisNexis’ Time Matters (www.timematters.com) both provide great capabilities of tying your documents into your practice management system, once they’ve been scanned.

Good luck!

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