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April 2000

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Small & Home Office

Resolving Your Upgrade Dilemmas: How to Balance Time and Money Constraints

When you aren't big enough to support a full-time MIS staff, you develop your own strategies.

By Frederick Hertz

Before Upgrade:

Computer: Mac Performa 6115CD

Printer: Laserwriter 4.600 PS

Operating System: MAC OS 7.0

Word Processing:Microsoft Word for MAC 5.1

After Upgrade:

Computer, printer: same.

Operating System: MAC OS 7.6: $79

Word processing: Upgrade: $85.

Zip drive and cartridge: $110.

Retrospect software for Zip drive: $50.

Consultants fees: $938.

Total cost: $1,262.

TACKLING THE problems of older equipment is an often- frustrating aspect of a solo lawyer's life, especially for those with limited financial resources. Many of us try to avoid this sort of mess altogether, by sharing space with other attorneys and relying upon a suite manager to make decisions about copiers and fax machines.

When it comes to computers, however, most of us are on our own. Our practices often aren't large enough to have an on-site technology master, and as techno-savvy as many of us may think we are, staying up-to-date and being able to make rational decisions about computers is not always our forte -- especially not when we are already overworked.

Consider my recent predicament. My five-year-old computer generally works just fine, happy to handle the four basic functions of my office operations: word processing, financial spreadsheets, timekeeping, and fax/modem capacity. So long as the work was getting done each day and the bills were getting mailed out each month, I saw no reason to upgrade.

Then, a series of mini-disasters struck. I installed some Palm Pilot software that caused my printer and e-mail to stop working (something about an incompatible extension). I couldn't install the new version of a word processing program that allows me to do document comparisons as "blue line" versions. Enough weird dialog boxes were popping up to make me worry that a major crisis was looming.

I was faced with three options -- and I suspect that my situation not unusual. I could either:

  1. Do nothing in the hope that major disaster wouldn't descend on me for a while, by which time I could simply buy a whole new system.

  2. Hire a consultant to undertake interim improvements, keeping my existing hardware but trying to minimize the problems by upgrading the current software.

  3. Bite the bullet and buy a new computer and install all new software now, to avoid the risk of any ill-timed meltdown.

In the end I chose option two, the upgrade alternative. I spent about $1,200 on a higher-level operating system, a new word processing program, and a few hours of a consultant's time cleaning up my system and troubleshooting the sporadic yet detectable problems.

I also bought a ZIP-drive to back up my entire hard disk -- something I should done years ago -- so that if a real crisis did occur, I wouldn't just have copies of my documents (these I had been saving, thank you), but all my programs ready to be instantly re-installed. My total financial outlay also included about two hours of my own time and three afternoons of computer shut-down while the new programs were installed.

Choosing option two saved me as much as $4,000 and relieved me of hours evaluating, choosing and purchasing new equipment. I also avoided losing two to four days in downtime, as any new system was installed and my information transferred from my existing equipment.

On the other hand, I know I've really just postponed the inevitable, as any older software programs will develop unresolvable glitches, new programs will be incompatible with my current system, and my memory capacity fills up -- and as my basic hardware begins to wear out.

I'd like to think that I made a rational decision. As I struggled to evaluate the options facing me, it occurred to me that having a basic all-purpose framework for making these sorts of decisions would be helpful. Suspecting that many of you will soon face similar dilemmas, allow me to share with you the rudimentary framework I've developed.

  1. Diagnose the seriousness of your problems. In most instances, computer problems fall into one of three categories:

    1. Inadequacies that leave you disappointed but not in any disabled.

    2. Real problems which can be worked around or overcome by a simple upgrade or repair.

    3. Disabling problems which aren't simple to fix and seriously interfere with your ability to keep your practice going.

    For example, a slow modem connection to the Internet falls in category "A." My extensions conflict arising out of my Palm Pilot software fell in category "C." A printer breakdown when your old computer won't accommodate the software for the new printer is clearly a category "C" problem.

    Once you've properly categorized your problems -- and mind you, some problems don't clearly fall into any one category on first glance -- your decision may already have been pretty much determined. Any significant category "C" problem means it's time to go shopping for new equipment. Category "A" problems should only be dealt with if you are feeling particularly flush financially, and category "B" problems require further analysis.

  2. Marshall your computer management "resources." Take stock of your hardware, your software, and your access to a smart and affordable consultant and repair facility, and see where you are deficient. It's most likely that your greatest shortage is in the consultant category, and I strongly encourage every solo to spend a few hours with a cost-sensitive consultant.

    Don't conclude that buying new equipment is essential simply because you yourself can't figure out how to remedy your problems. Determine the cost and limitations of an upgrade, and postpone your decision until you have that information.

    Finding someone who is cost-sensitive is critical here, as many consultants believe that buying all new equipment is the panacea to all computer problems. Building up these resources will enable you to make better decisions, whichever path you decide to take, and will most likely guide you much closer to the best decision.

  3. Conduct an honest assessment of your available time and money. One thing's for sure: Buying new equipment costs money and takes time. The costs aren't just for the hardware; you also will face the cost of software acquisition and expert time installing your programs and your existing data in your new equipment. Spending up to $5,000 isn't unusual for a small office, even in these days of lower cost PCs, especially because a new hardware purchase usually requires all new software.

    Just as important -- you will lose hours of billable time as you talk to experts, wait for the consultant to arrive, and try to find something else to keep you busy while your systems are non-functional for a few days. Each of us has particular good and bad seasons for such expenditures, and you need to be very careful in how you schedule any new acquisition.

    On the other hand, if total shutdown looms as an imminent hazard, not spending real money may put you out of business for as long as a week -- and if your equipment fails, you won't have the luxury of choosing which week to be out of commission.

  4. Use your equipment dilemma as a chance to evaluate your practice overall. One of the biggest mistakes solos make is to not undertake some kind of big-picture business planning every few years. Making equipment decisions is often the best time to do this sort of deeper inquiry, for two reasons: it's almost impossible to reach conclusions about the prior three issues unless you know where your practice is, financially and business-wise. In addition, having a sound business plan enables you to reduce the likelihood of making the wrong equipment decisions.

Some elements of this process should be obvious, but in the press of a technology crisis, it is difficult to focus on the longer term. If you are thinking of leaving your practice or expanding it any time in the next few years, this is not a time to spend a lot of money on equipment which will be obsolete when you are closing your firm. If you are thinking of changing the nature of what you do, in a way which will require linked systems or more Internet capability for research, then coordinate your equipment purchase with your practice changes.

In the end, chances are that many computer crises will sort themselves into the must-do or should-postpone categories. For those that lie in the middle, however, it's best to reflect on the non-technological issues of your financial condition and your short-term and long-term business plans. Following this approach will not only protect you from equipment shut-down, but of equal importance, it will insulate you from unnecessary spending and the distractions of an unnecessary acquisition.

Frederick Hertz is an Oakland, Calif., solo practitioner whose practice focuses on real estate transactions and litigation.

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