The Linux Based Law Office

by Kenneth Gray on October 8, 2010

in Legal Technology

The Microsoft-Apple desktop duopoly has stood in the business and home computer marketplace for over a quarter century. Every now and then, an upstart competitor arises to challenge the lock on the market shared between the two. Pundits and tech observers make bold predictions about how the new upstart system will topple the Windows or Mac dynasty. A few years later, the upstart sends out letters beginning with those so very tragic words, “we regret to inform you . . .”

If you are old enough, you know that the legal IT field is littered with bygone desktop operating systems, be it the more recent OS/2 or the more ancient Wang. So the mention of Linux as a viable replacement should bring a healthy dose of skepticism. However, there are many reasons why Linux might just make sense for the modern law practice, why Linux works and many reasons why Linux is different from the failed alternatives of the past:

  • Support

    Linux is the operating system that powers around half of the servers on the Internet. Chances are, you are reading this article on a server powered by Linux (or your business is using Linux to power its own servers). Just as Windows 7 has Server 2008 R2 as companion, virtually all varieties of Linux have a graphical desktop companion to their server systems.

    The backing for Linux is impressive as well. Unlike older operating systems which faded away due to being supported by only one company or equipment manufacturer, varieties of Linux are produced for the commercial market by Novell, Red Hat and Oracle. The most popular free open-source software (FOSS) version of Linux is Ubuntu, which is produced by Canonical, Ltd and shares the same backer as one of the earliest Internet digital security certificate companies. Another FOSS distribution, Debian, has literally thousands of volunteer developers and no matter what the business climate, there is little chance of Debian falling by the wayside.

    On the hardware side, major PC builders such as Dell, HP and Lenovo routinely support one of the major Linux distributions. Even if support from hardware builders were to evaporate, Linux runs on the same hardware as any Windows or Mac machine with little to no adjustment. Unlike the past, a broad base of software producers, a paid and free model and a hardware ecosystem encompassing nearly the entire PC industry ensures Linux is here to stay.

  • Cost

    Talking to a business about Linux in 2006-2007 would have been a difficult proposition. The overhead cost of a Windows or Mac license was a non-issue. But that was then. Two forces are coming together that will move Linux in to the mix of operating system choices for all law firms from solo practitioners all the way up to the Top 10.

    The first force is cost. Neither Windows nor the Mac is inexpensive. In 2010, overhead costs cannot be easily passed down to clients and in an era where even large firms have to make painful decisions including staff cuts, software licenses seem like an extravagance.

    The second force is the upgrade cycle. 2006 was a golden year for Windows XP. The iPhone and Windows Vista would only come along in 2007 and while Apple’s product was a hit that would spur further development of its own OS X and iPad tablet, Windows Vista was met with little success. Windows 7, the successor to Windows Vista, is much more popular among enthusiasts, but as a new system, it has yet to make it on to a critical mass of desktops which means that a large portion of legal computing users are still running Windows XP.

    While Windows XP is a venerable operating system, it is now 10 years old. Even Microsoft has announced that it will not support the newest Internet browsers (Explorer 9). It is time to upgrade, but at hundreds of dollars or more if new hardware is required, could Linux have an advantage? Most certainly yes as Linux is both cost competitive and at the point where it is unlikely to disappear. However, legal Linux users should have one concern with the operating system and that is compatibility.

  • Compatibility

    Moving to a new or different operating system does break compatibility with past applications. Legal Linux users should evaluate how much they are willing to change in order to get the benefits of Linux, however, they should keep in mind that legal computing has advanced so much in the past few years that many incompatibility issues should be minimal.

    First, the advent of virtualization and cloud computing has made specific types of desktop operating systems largely irrelevant. As long as an internet browser or remote desktop software is able to securely access a cloud-based law practice management server it does not matter if a lawyer desktop runs Windows, Mac, Linux, or a plate of spaghetti.

    Second, Windows emulation software and virtualization software on Linux are vastly improved from where they were in 2006-2007 when legal Linux was first talked about. For Windows emulation, the FOSS platform Wine is readily capable of running most familiar desktop applications in Linux, while commercially supported emulators are now available from Codeweavers, Oracle and Parallels. For users who require more powerful virtualization, software is available that can make Linux run a full Windows desktop on the PC without any of the overhead traditionally encountered in emulation software.

    Third, many software packages available on Windows and Mac are available as FOSS packages on Linux. For instance, every Linux distribution includes packages for Internet browsing, email, calendar, contacts, encryption, file management and PDF creation. The OpenOffice document creation package, now owned by Oracle, is similar to Microsoft’s Office suite of products and offers general compatibility with the Microsoft suite.

    Fourth, there is the learning curve. Many potential Linux users are scared off by the fear of needing to learn esoteric codes or having to master a new graphical interface. However, in many cases, the Linux graphical interface that most desktop users will see is just as easy to use as Windows.

Windows is Dead, Long Live Windows?

As a realist, I do not want to make spectacular predictions about how Linux will take over the world, it probably won’t. The cost argument for Linux is highly persuasive and coupled with wide support and compatibility, it seems like a sensible decision. However, I do have a few reservations about the Linux law firm:

First, Linux lacks the extensive network of IT professionals available for Windows and Mac. If a Linux user can troubleshoot on their own or has access to Linux-oriented IT resources, this is not an issue, but for the everyday user, a Linux machine cannot just be taken in to the local PC shop for diagnosis when one of the staff accidentally types in that command they saw on the Internet that erases half of the hard drive.

Second, Linux as a desktop operating system does not have a clear-cut security infrastructure (especially where FOSS versions are involved). Windows and Mac have vendor-supported security teams as well as a full ecosystem of IT security professionals to monitor and patch their systems. Linux servers are relatively well secured because they have been around for so long and are so dominant in the server industry. However, desktop Linux may only give an illusion of safety for now since much of its security comes by virtue of its being used by so few people, whereas Windows appears flawed only because it is used by so many.

Third, using Linux makes it difficult to hold oneself harmless in case of a bad IT decision or where a breach of confidentiality may occur due to a security hole. This may seem cynical, but in reality, faults with Windows and Mac can sometimes be blamed on Microsoft and Apple, a vendor or IT staff. With Linux, a lawyer might need to be prepared to have a defense as to why he or she chose to go with Linux. This is unfair, but it is reality.

The Future of Linux in the Law Firm

Cost considerations may force many law firms, solo, small and large, to at least revisit adopting Linux as a desktop operating system. The fact that Linux is so prevalent in the server market is a good sign as it its widespread degree of support and the evolution of compatibility. Aside from a few isolated deployments, I believe it will take the development of a specialized and fully-supported legal platform to make Linux palatable as a mainstream alternative to the current legal desktop. However, with its base in the open-source movement, such an initiative could come from just about anywhere, even cost conscious solo and small law firms. The need for innovation on the legal desktop makes Linux interesting to watch over the next year or two.

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