Open Source Your OS

[originally posted at Slaw.ca, March 15, 2010]

Lawyers are asking the wrong question when they wonder whether to upgrade their operating system (OS) to Microsoft Windows 7 or stay at Windows XP or Vista. If you’re upgrading, the question should be what are ALL my options? Now that Microsoft issues its operating system in so many versions that you need a score card to keep track of which does what – did you know that Windows 7 Starter for netbooks even locks down your wallpaper – you might as well compare them to other alternatives. The legal technology world has changed a lot since you installed that version of Windows 98!

Choices, Choices

You might think that there aren’t viable alternatives to the Windows operating system in the law practice. Apple Mac devotees would argue that point, although they have remained a very small segment of the legal world. The American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center thinks that Mac may gain ground in 2010 buoyed by adoption of Apple’s iPhone. The ABA’s 2009 Legal Technology Survey Report indicates 3.6% of all lawyers responding, and nearly 7% of solos, run Mac OS on their primary computer.

Linux adoption is slowly growing, probably thanks to the popularity of netbooks, although there are no numbers for Linux lawyers. Like the Mac, it is likely to pop up in a law practice that purchases consumer, rather than enterprise, technology. Linux comes in a variety of flavors with Ubuntu being one of the more common. In fact, Ubuntu is in many mid-size to large law firms as a specialized network server, according to the International Legal Technology Association’s 2009 Technology Survey. Ubuntu is an excellent choice for a lawyer moving trying out Linux.

We’re Not Compatible

Compatibility is one reason raised for staying on Windows. It’s not necessarily that lawyers love Windows but they do prefer Microsoft Word. If you are determined to stay in Microsoft Word, you’re committing to Windows or Mac OS for now. That may change with Microsoft Office 2010, which will have Office Web apps that you can access from your Web browser. Linux users with Mozilla’s Firefox Web browser will be able to use these limited functionality versions of Microsoft Office software, as will Microsoft Internet Explorer and Apple Safari users.

Let’s put Microsoft Office to one side, though. If your document sharing and collaboration consists of e-mailing documents or using online collaboration tools, portable document format (PDF) is probably a more important file format than Word’s .DOCX. PDF enables your recipient to access your document, without troublesome metadata, and without worrying about what word processor they have on their PC. If that’s how you share your work product, then open source office suites like Open Office (for Windows, Linux, or Mac) and Neo Office for Mac may be good alternatives. Undoubtedly, there are additional feature comparisons that can sway your decision toward a particular word processor, but most of us do not use the most advanced and arcane features of our word processors.

No Legal-Specific Software

Another frequent comment about the need to stay in a Microsoft Windows environment is the availability of legal-specific software. This is undoubtedly true. If you are using a typical practice management, litigation support, or time management software product, you will almost certainly need to download and install it in a Windows environment.

The reality is that most lawyers are not using legal-specific software and some may agree with the comment from Sam Glover of the Lawyerist, that “most [practice management software] is really bad”. For example, 55% of the respondents to the 2009 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report have case or practice management software (39.9% of solos). Almost half of those use Microsoft’s Outlook e-mail and productivity tool, not a dedicated legal application.

If you are in that slim majority of lawyers using practice management software, or you want to join them, you can now use a number of online Software-as-a-Service offerings designed for lawyers. They don’t care what operating system you use, just that you can reach them with one of a number of Web browsers. The trend in Web-enabled legal applications seems to be one of growth, not decline, and is likely to happen even in large firms where the Web browser becomes the interface for internal and external applications.

Try a Flavor Other than Vanilla. Mint Perhaps?

The drawback to the Macintosh OS is really cost. If cost is no option to your practice, then definitely consider using a Mac because the hardware is delightful to look at and the operating system is very user friendly. Linux can give you an inexpensive alternative, though, and has the added benefits of probably running on your current (even old) hardware and having a nice interface too.

If you have equated Linux with the old DOS command prompt, think again. When you install Ubuntu orLinux Mint, you will be looking at an interface similar to Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac. It’s not identical but the learning curve is not hard and, for those who point and click rather than reading any manuals, you can be up, running, and comfortable very quickly.

The typical lawyer can run well-known software that will parallel their current Microsoft Windows environment. Mozilla’s Thunderbird e-mail app and Firefox Web browser, Google’s Chrome Webbrowser, the Open Office suite (with word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software), andTrueCrypt encryption are all available on Linux. You can get some more ideas from Nashville, Tennessee, solo lawyer Zale Dowlen’s Linux for Lawyers’ site. You can even run some Windows applications (yes, including Microsoft Office) thanks to software like Codeweavers’ Crossover Linux.

You might be balking at the communal, group hug nature of open source. I won’t ask who supports your current operating system (Windows XP mainstream support expired in April 2009) but you can even buy support for your Linux OS, from companies like Canonical or any number of consultants.

You might still be reluctant to take the plunge. I was, and installed my copy of Ubuntu 9.1 (Karmic Koala) on the same machine as my primary Windows XP, so that I could boot the computer into whichever one I preferred to use at the time. Now I can get comfortable with features in Ubuntu, whose interface I prefer to Windows, and slowly transition off Windows XP. I can browse other Windows computers on my network from Linux using Samba, and much of the rest of my work requires only Internet applications like Mozilla Thunderbird and Google Chrome, regardless of my operating system. Microsoft Word 2007 and Open Office documents convert back and forth in no time.

Broaden Your Vistas Horizons

It may be that Windows 7 has something you can’t live without, like Apple’s iTunes! Linux is not for everyone but it is a great time for lawyers to look at their options and balance the cost and features of their operating system. As more and more services are accessible through a Web browser, and more applications are made to work across operating systems, solos and small firms can benefit from a closer look at Linux.

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