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Will law firms open up to Open Source?

How lawyers are using it

The Firefox web browser is probably the Open Source program most commonly used by lawyers. Firefox is a secure, powerful browser that outperforms Internet Explorer in many ways.

"I live in Firefox," said Denise Howell, a Los Angeles sole practitioner.

She notes that many plug-ins are available for Firefox which are also Open Source. The plug-ins add many new features and functionality.

But Howell's experience with other Open Source programs do not compare to that of Firefox.

"I have used other Open Source programs sporadically, but nothing has stood the test of time like Firefox," she said.

John Sakers of Younts Consulting, a legal technology consulting company in Maryland, has been assembling a full set of Open Source applications and has chosen Foxfire as the anchor for this project.

"In my practice I still frequently hear 'Open Source isn't for serious work,' but mainstream apps like Firefox are changing that tune," he said.

For lawyers looking for Microsoft alternatives, Thunderbird, a companion program to Firefox, provides a viable alternative to Outlook for e-mail. It's robust, full-featured and free.

There are a variety of other useful open source programs for lawyers, including password keeps, encryption programs, PDF creators, case management programs and even full-featured audio editing programs like Audacity, a favorite of lawyers experimenting with podcasting and audio programs.

Other options for firms include Linux (an alternative to the Windows operating system most commonly used on network servers) or Apache (Web server software popular for hosting websites and other Internet applications). Interestingly, both large law firms and techie solos have switched to Linux for cost, reliability and security reasons.

OpenOffice is the Open Source alternative to Microsoft Office. It's free and it produces documents in Word formats. Firms looking at the costs of moving to Office 2007 will be giving Open Office a look.

Enrico Schaefer, who has a small firm in Traverse City, Mich., suggests a creative way to use OpenOffice. His firm, like many others, has extra computers attached to scanners or available to anyone, including clients at the office.

"While computers are cheap, Microsoft Office is not," he said. "OpenOffice is a fully featured office suite, fully compatible with Microsoft Word and Excel. Most important of all, it is free."

Open Source programs are also attractive when a firm has limited needs for a type of software or wants to experiment with a new area of technology to see if it works for them before making a large cash outlay. For example:

# Photo editing.

Buying a copy of Photoshop to edit a few digital pictures is an expensive proposition. However, the free Open Source GIMP program might do all you want and more.

# Audio.

Using the free Audacity program to edit audio might work well for you until you decide that you are committed to doing audio programs or outgrow the program.

# PDF formatting.

PDFCreator gives you the ability to create PDF files without the need to invest in Adobe Acrobat Professional on every computer.

# Extranets.

Enrico Schaefer, the Michigan solo, has tried activeCollab as a no-cost alternative to create extranets for clients.



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