July 17, 2008

Proprietary software? Counsel objects

Author: Susan Linton

Nathan Zale Dowlen objects to proprietary software, so when he opened his new law office, he outfitted it with Ubuntu Linux and open source software. Cost was the main factor in his decision at first, but he has since come to appreciate the security found in FOSS and the ease of use found with Ubuntu.

Dowlen has used Linux and open source software since 2006, when he attended the Nashville School of Law, and had no trouble with compatibility, since "OpenOffice.org will open almost anything thrown at it." He recorded lectures with Audacity and even found that his "Linux based laptop did a better job of automatically finding printers on the school's wireless network than when it ran Windows."

When Dowlen passed the Tennessee Bar Examination earlier this year and opened his own law office in White House, Tenn., he had no qualms about deploying Linux and open source software. He figures, "If a law practice starts with Linux, it's easier than trying to convert one to Linux, because much of the software that runs the legal profession is Windows-based and that's what the attorneys get used to. Today, most law offices that run on Linux started that way. So the challenge is finding the best way to bring Linux and the legal applications together."

However, "cost was my first concern," Dowlen admits. "The hardest hurdle for small businesses to clear is startup costs, so I began exploring Linux due to the savings. When I started looking at the potential of expanding a law office, running a server or servers and deploying multiple desktops, and the cost of Windows licenses and Windows server products, the price just got obscene. I figured out that if I could adapt Linux to my needs I could eliminate many of those costs.

"Beyond cost, I have learned that Linux is much more secure than Windows or Mac. It is clearly a better choice for the law office from that perspective. There's a lot of frustration in the legal community about the security weaknesses and costs of Windows, so there are more and more offices venturing away from Windows."

There is another advantage that many might not consider. Dowlen says, "Using Linux keeps some vendors off your back. When the Lexis and West reps come calling and peddling the latest 'must have' software, if you tell them you only use Linux, they usually don't have a response, so there is additional cost savings as well."

The distribution of choice for the Dowlen Law Firm is Ubuntu Linux because it "has both 32-bit and 64-bit versions" and "probably the largest community of support." Dowlen also appreciates being able to "load programs from their large repositories, the CNR repository, [and] manually without even trying to use a terminal window." But the main reason he prefers Ubuntu is the distribution's "business mindset. They have a goal of market penetration and they want to be pre-loaded on manufactured machines. Many other distros just want to configure the operating system as they want, when they want. This is not helpful for the small business or the advancement of Linux."

Some of the software he uses daily includes:

  • Evolution -- to manage calendar and contacts.
  • Gnome Pilot -- keeps a Treo 650 and Evolution in sync.
  • Firefox 3 -- for most browsing.
  • SeaMonkey -- for Legal Research, separate from browsing.
  • Gscan2pdf -- to run two scanners.
  • OpenOffice.org -- for word processing and spreadsheets.
  • Adobe Reader 8 -- for PDF handling.
  • Cryptkeeper -- for file encryption.
  • Simple Backup -- to keep files backed up.

I wondered if there might be any concern over the skillset when hiring secretaries and administrative aides, but Dowlen says he isn't worried. "Minimal retraining will be required. The Linux desktop and programs are just as intuitive as Windows or Mac. In some instances they are better, so that is not a problem, and I won't have to deal with generating buy-in. They'll simply start with Linux, and that is it. The nice thing about running Linux is that I won't have to deal with them downloading virus-ridden 'cutesy' programs and trying to run them on my machines. I also won't have too much concern with viruses that they may introduce through their email."

Dowlen is interested in open source issues, but doesn't think he'll see too many cases involving them in his neck of the woods. He office currently handles "your average day-to-day case, such as injury cases, criminal cases, and that sort of thing."

Dowlen says, "I may be a bit of a pioneer when it comes to Linux in the law office, but I'm not the only one. Linux may actually make it into law offices through the courts, because more and more courthouses are starting to migrate to Linux and open source software based solely on the cost."


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