Tech Audit

The Cost of Free


For solo lawyers in particular this can be a savings boon, but one that comes with some risk.

“Obviously if you’re using free or cheap software the rule is you get what you pay for,” says Tom Mighell, senior counsel with Cowles and Thompson in Dallas. “Very often these tools are created without a lot of quality control.”

Attorneys should take advantage of all the software utilities they can in their practice. Mighell uses Skype, an Internet phone application that provides free calling to other Skype users anywhere and low-cost long distance to others; Firefox, the free web browser; and utilities like Speedfiler, used to file e-mails more efficiently in Outlook. However, he warns that lawyers should only rely on fully supported software to actually run their practice.

For example, mission-critical functions like time and billing and case management are probably too important to trust to unsupported software. “I use utilities that help me be more effective on the computer. But if they went away, I might be unhappy, but I could still continue to practice,” Mighell says.

HIGH RISKS

Lots of lawyers love free utilities like Google Desktop Search, but others have privacy concerns, depending on the configuration. And free software often forces users to pay fees once they become successful, or the firms disappear if they can’t figure out how to make money. Some software even comes with adware or spyware built in.

The software industry at large is notoriously bad about offering easy access to customer service, but free products are often worse, lacking the updates, maintenance and support a large corporation can offer.

Search giant Google and software upstart Zoho offer free office software that competes directly with Microsoft and Corel’s word processing and office software suites. For now, these products lack a lot of the functionality of the expensive desktop suites, though certain pieces might be of use. But the big drawback is that these products lack online encryption to ensure data is not intercepted, a threat for private or sensitive data. And while Zoho has deals with backup services, but there is no guarantee data won’t be lost.

The availability of free or cheap digital services is growing. A precipitous drop in the cost of storage and backup has led to the introduction of low-cost online backup services, companies that will save all your computer files at a remote location.

But attorneys should be wary of trusting client data to an untested company.

Michael Eisenberg, a federal appeals attorney in Washington, D.C., says the risk of having data lost or compromised is not worth the cost savings. “It’s easier to reproduce documents than to recover from losing your law license,” says Eisenberg.

He says online backup may be a viable solution, but only as part of a larger backup strategy. Eisenberg uses tape backup that he stores in a fire-proof safe. Online backup can be another layer of defense, provided the company won’t disappear.

But even storage giant Iron Mountain had to admit it lost customers’ backup tapes. And Google has admitted it lost the e-mail accounts of 50 to 60 Gmail users.

That’s not to say lawyers should stay away from cheap or free software and services. For example, Mighell recommends Speedfiler, a $25 utility that lets users file e-mails in different folders and find them quickly, which is useful for small-firm attorneys who have to keep track of lots of mail. And there are a number of inexpensive security programs that can help keep computers virus free.

“I wouldn’t bet the future of my practice on something I got for free,” says Mighell. “But there are lots of cool little tools that can help me work better.”

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