By Jason Bland, guest technology writer – January 13, 2011
Over 10 years ago, I was working in my first company, which did a lot of commercial software development, online programming and computer hardware manufacturing. We even developed a way to stream live images to common color screen cell phones – with the proper module. I, of course, can not claim brilliance for any of those accomplishments, as it was not until much later that I could produce a functional line of code.
What I could do was write hundreds of pages of program features, map out the logic of how the program was going to work, then pass on unnecessarily detailed project plans to the talented programmers who would then turn my ramblings into functional software.
It was at that time that I started running into boundaries within Windows. It was also during that period that the company experienced a lot of growth, making it necessary to purchase new computer systems, Windows software, and ship it across the globe to the developers that were turning my ramblings into applications. It was expensive, and as someone who closely monitored the bottom line of the company, it was wildly irritating.
Like most tech companies of the day, we owned a hosting company to take care of our clients. Thus, I was familiar with the Linux server environment, a market that is still dominated by Linux systems. If your law firm has a website, there is a good chance it has Linux of some form in its lineage.
The growing open source community in 2001 was an exciting concept. To sum up a long history, programmers continually ran into problems with retail software, which they of course wanted to modify. Software developers like Microsoft kept their code closely held (as it was their breadwinner) thus preventing any modifications. Thus, the open source movement was born. For those of you not familiar with open source, this analogy may help.
You work with the law on a daily basis. There is a good chance you did not write the law, but by the labors and efforts of others in the past, you now have the law to work with. What if you had the ability to change the law depending on the case you were working on? Does your client need additional rights? Give it to them. Does your client need a second chance? Write a process doing just that. Then contribute those changes to the legal community and other lawyers can then build upon those laws and do the same.
It would probably be chaotic if laws were open source, but when it comes to software, open source contributions allow technology to rapidly evolve. Tired of your web browser? Change it. Then other programmers build upon that and it keeps getting little upgrades here and there. More users, more contributions, faster evolution and ultimately, a better application.
With these applications floating around the Internet, driven by volunteer contributions, there are generally no license fees. This means you can download, use, and modify the application as much as you would like without paying a penny. Of course, if you are like most users and do not possess that programming knowledge to contribute, you can always send feedback when you find a missing feature or have an idea. Then someone in the programming community may pick it up and put it in a future release. Also, you can contribute money to open source projects to help them maintain server space, bring on paid programmers for further development, and still spend less money than buying paid software.
Open source software is also more secure than paid programs. If there is a security vulnerability, the developer community will find it. When you have thousands of people looking at software code instead of a small quality control department of a development company, you are more likely to find and fix errors before the general user discovers them. Also, many companies give away open source software and charge for support to their enterprise level users.
Now that you have received your crash course in open source technology, let’s move forward.
While I may have spent those years with geeks and gadgets, my own computer usage was always pretty basic. I never possessed the knowledge to change computer software and my hardware knowledge was also ominous at best.
But I could bring in new clients, raise capital for projects, and run a good company, and that is what I spent most of my computer usage focusing on. Marketing, communication, writing, email, and so on.
To fully understand how an operating system works, you need to look at it as two layers. You have the main operating system, which on Windows used to be MS Dos and later, the NT framework, which is what XP is based on. Then you have the desktop. The desktop is the pretty user interface that you are used to. The start menu, the desktop icons, etc.
With Linux, you have the Linux kernel then you can run Gnome, Kde, or other desktops to give you that easy to use graphical experience that you are used to.
In my experiments, I have tested Red Hat versions, then later Red Hat’s Fedora project, Open SuSe, FreeBSD, CentOS (a fantastic web server environment), Debian, and then the one that always gave me hope for an easily deployable desktop solution, Ubuntu. 
Named after the Bantu word, Ubuntu, the word is best summed up by Archbishop Desmond Tutu meaning “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole…” 
In other words, “A single straw of a broom can be broken easily, but the straws together are not easily broken.”
Since the operating system is open source with a worldwide team of contributors, the name seams fitting.
The first released of Ubuntu was in 2004. The project is sponsored and managed by Canonical Ltd but most funding comes from the Ubuntu Foundation. Canonical offers support plans for business users making the switch. You can learn more about the project, company, and development team on their website. 
What turned me on to Ubuntu as a viable, easily deployable operating system is its “sudo” root user. In Linux-based operating systems, the root user is allowed to install software, configure settings, etc. As a basic user, that means you have to keep logging out then logging in as root to install software. Terminal users who are fluent in commands do not find this a problem, but the average user who uses the graphical user interface of a desktop will find the process somewhat irritating. I certainly did.
However, Ubuntu solved that problem, so now you can install software without having to log in as a root user. Some advanced configurations still require a root login, but most attorneys will not encounter such settings.
Why is it now possible to leave Windows?
Most lawyers are managing most processes online or in standard office applications. In fact, when you get on a different operating system like Mac OS X or Ubuntu, you will find FireFox and suddenly experience a feeling of familiarity. With most of your daily work online, transitioning from Internet Explorer to FireFox or Chrome will take no time at all to adjust to and you can immediately proceed with business as usual.
As for office applications, Oracle’s freely downloadable OpenOffice 3.2 (comes installed on Ubuntu) is compatible with Microsoft Office files and comes with a word processor, spreadsheet application, presentation creator (compatible with MS PowerPoint), and OpenOffice Draw, a more functional desktop publishing tool than Microsoft Publisher (not compatible with MS Publisher formats). OpenOffice is available on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems, so you could download it on your Windows computer before committing to it on a Linux installation. We actually switched to OpenOffice four years ago and have not looked back, with only a few of our computers still running Microsoft Office. 
If you are one of the many law firms attached to Corel WordPerfect, WordPerfect 8 runs on Linux. 
You may also download a program in Ubuntu (and other Linux versions) called Wine, which is a Windows emulator. Through Wine, you can run some Windows applications on your new Linux operating system. Personal successes include Microsoft Office 2000 (just to say I could) and iTunes (with a couple bugs). Many forum participants have noted that Adobe Creative Suite products run with striking performance on Ubuntu using Wine.
Important software that does not offer a Linux alternative or is not able to run on Wine is Quickbooks 2005 and newer and the Dymo Postage Printer. Dymo’s label printer works great with “gLabels Label Designer” but it cannot print postage.
In my experience, I always hit one road block of a program that I could not live without that could not run on Linux. With many services running on the web, this is becoming less of a problem. For law firms, complete case management suites are available online and will thus run independent of your operating system.
We researched two online case management systems. You will of course need to contact them with questions related to your law firm’s specific needs.
Houdini ESQ – SaaS
The online legal management system offers online solutions for document management, e-mailing, client access, billing and much more for $65/month per seat (user). They offer an online demo that is worth testing. 
Clio Practice Management
Clio is an online practice management suite that offers document management, scheduling, billing, and other commonly needed features. Clio also advertises interfaces for iPhone, Android, and Palm Pre, which is extremely helpful for the mobile lawyer.
Clio is $49/month per attorney and $25/month per non-attorney staff member, making it less expensive than Houdini. You will of course have to compare the two, as each law firm’s needs are different. It may also be a good idea to check with your state laws regarding storage of confidential information. 
With many law firms using an autoschediastical collection of applications to manage their practice, billing is often taken care of by Quickbooks. Quickbooks, as mentioned above, does not run on Ubuntu. However, they do offer an online equivalent to Quickbooks Pro called Quickbooks Online Essentials for $25 per month. However, it does not support exporting to Intuit’s popular corporate tax software, TurboTax. The sales representative assured us that this feature would soon be available. 
Google Apps is the professional version of Gmail. For $50 per year per user, your law firm can use Google Docs, Google Email (customized to your law firm’s domain name), and a suite of business applications to mobilize your firm and move everything to the web. The paid version has “forced SSL” meaning that all activity within the Google Account is done through a secured connection. 
No Need to Commit
Changing operating systems is a pretty big deal. Its much like moving into a new office and having to learn where everything is. Much of our daily computer tasks are second nature and done without any conscious thought. However, the logical placement of menu items in the Gnome Desktop on Ubuntu makes the learning process pretty simple.
Ubuntu makes it easy to gradually migrate to the new system. You can install Ubuntu on your computer along with your Windows Operating System. The Ubuntu installer takes care of this for you and you do not lose any of your Windows data. When turning on your computer, you simply select the operating system you wish to log in into. This allows you to familiarize yourself with Ubuntu with the option of logging into the Windows half of your computer when time is crucial and you are hung up on a certain tasks in the new operating system. It is of course advised that you back up your files before attempting a dual operating system installation. 
You can also easily install a virtual box within Ubuntu, which runs a Windows operating system within the Ubuntu desktop that you can access when you need to run Windows only software. This is more convenient than having to boot into Windows.
I would recommend installing Ubuntu on your laptop first. Start getting used to the system with basic office functions (writing, spreadsheets, email, etc). Then, once you are comfortable, try it on your office desktop and install it on secondary computers in your office. No need to to go cold turkey on Windows.
Benefits of a Law Firm Switching to Ubuntu
After reading this article, you may be wondering why an attorney would want to switch from their Windows environment to Ubuntu or any other operating system. We have broken that answer up into a few categories.
A small law office that has five computers could save the following in software licenses.
Windows 7 – $199.00 per computer ($1,000.00)
Ubuntu Desktop – $0.00
Microsoft Office 2010 – $300.00 per computer ($1,500.00)
OpenOffice 3.2 – $0.00
Symantec Anti-Virus – $185.00 5 user license
KlamAV – $0.00 (since Linux systems are not prone to viruses, many users believe use of anti-virus software is not necessary as it predominately scans for Windows vulnerabilities. We believe it is better to be safe.)
Adobe Acrobat – $450.00 per computer ($2,250.00)
PDF Editor – $0.00 (open source PDF editor)
If a law office with five computers upgraded to Ubuntu rather than Windows 7 and additional software, they would realize a first year savings of $4,935.00.
Freely Available Stable Software
Most applications needed in Ubuntu can be found in the Ubuntu Software Center. Need to edit images? Download GIMP. Manage your music collection at the office? Download Amarok. Edit a video? Download OpenShot or Pitivi. All of these applications can be simply selected in Ubuntu Software Center. Then you click “install” and it automatically downloads and installs the software for you. Most of the 34,585 programs available in the Ubuntu Software Center are free, and many are exclusive to Linux operating systems.
Ubuntu also supports networking with other computers (requires Samba, which can be downloaded in the Ubuntu Software Center). In fact, in under an hour, we successfully networked a Ubuntu notebook, with an Apple MacBook Pro running OS X, and a Windows XP Professional desktop. The MacBook and Ubuntu notebook immediately connected, but we did have to change the firewall settings and reboot the Windows XP Professional computer. 
Once you have Ubuntu installed, you can create a free UbuntuOne account and have a cloud. This is basically a folder on your computer, laptop, cell phone, secondary computer, etc, that is synced with all devices you connect with UbuntuOne. The free version gives you 2GB of storage and the paid version gives your 20GB of storage for $30 per year. The Android and iPhone add-on is $40 per year.
For most users, the free version or $30 per year 20GB upgrade will suffice (my OpenOffice files and a few music tunes I like to keep with me have yet to extend the 2GB limit). I personally have become dependent on this feature as I can work on documents from home, the office, or take my work with me to a WiFi friendly pub (after hours, of course). The file is saved in the same folder so I do not have to upload to a server, e-mail the document to myself, or upload to a document management system. I open and edit it like any other file and it just works. 
Secure and Stable
Linux is a more secure environment as it is not prone to most viruses that traditionally attack Windows operating systems. This is one of many reasons why most web servers are Linux based.
With the large developer communities constantly upgrading features and developing new ones, your operating system is always evolving. Plus, when your operating system upgrades, it does not cost anything and the system you upgrade to generally works better than the one you upgrade from.
With so many daily tasks of the average lawyer taking place online, perhaps now is the time to change operating systems, get introduced to the cloud, and unlock yourself from your office. The transition will experience an issue here and there but the overall user experience is worth it.
The SEOLawFirm.com Newsroom extends editorial freedom to their staff and guest writers thus the views expressed in this column may not reflect the views of SEOLawFirm.com, Adviatech Corp., or any of its holdings, affiliates, or advertisers. This article was written as a topic of interest for attorneys and was not influenced or sponsored by any of the companies, programs, or projects mentioned in this article.