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I’ve Got A Penguin in My Briefs

Steven A. Reisler explains his experience with GNU/Linux, and how he has completely freed his computing environment from proprietary software.

The practice of law is a knowledge, information, and document-intensive profession. In many respects, lawyers ply their trade in the same way independent programmers do: we sell our expertise, experience and technical skill in using what is, essentially, the aboriginal “open” source code — the code of laws and courtroom procedure.

In 2004, after practicing law for 23 years in a mid-sized downtown Seattle law firm, I opened my own boutique law practice and I decided to make GNU/Linux the centerpiece of a completely free/open software law firm environment.

Almost everything about the practice of law is open and public. You do not “lease” the law from any corporation and you do not acquire a license to use any federal or state statute, municipal code or administrative regulation. What the client pays for is the lawyer’s knowledge about how to use a highly complicated set of frequently asynchronous laws and procedures, much like what a client pays for when hiring a programmer.

In the Anglo-American legal system, the attorney deals with “legacy” code (otherwise known as “Common Law”) built up through the accretion of judicial case decisions over time (as in centuries, on occasion) and utility “programs” for special applications like federal taxation, bankruptcy, land use, criminal prosecutions, and divorce proceedings.

The expertise in law is knowing what sources to look in, how to read the code (law), what it means, and, most importantly, how to creatively and productively apply it in the context of a particular problem. In short, lawyers are not “law processors,” but “code programmers” working like free and open source computer consultants. Lawyers are naturals for GNU/Linux.

Cultural Inertia

Before making the cold-penguin conversion, I first had to overcome professional cultural inertia in creating a purely free and open law firm. I had spent 23 years working in a Windows world. All of my practicing colleagues used Microsoft products. All of my clients used Microsoft products. All of the courts used Microsoft products.

The first three questions I had to answer were:

  1. Could I actually run my practice using free/open source software?
  2. How would my GNU/Linux system interact with everyone else’s systems.
  3. And finally, why bother?

Addressing the last question first, the answer was simple: why not? The 20th Century gee-whiz world of office technology has long since morphed into the world of office technology break-downs, power failures and mean-spirited invasions of viruses, worms, phishers, and spammers.

Simply put, I wanted, no, I urgently needed, a computer software and information management system that was both robust and fixable quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively. Although speed, efficiency and cost were virtues mostly forgotten in the big law firm environment, I knew that they would be critical in a small boutique practice. So it was a natural choice for me to choose a core technology — GNU/Linux — that fit all basic criteria.

Let me point out that I am, strictly speaking, a mere user of computers and computer software. I am not a techie in any sense except as a marginally sophisticated consumer of technology. Most lawyers do not know the difference between source code, machine code and the DaVinci Code.

Fortunately, I am married to a woman who speaks geek and who can program as readily as Gandalf blows smoke rings. She agreed to be the resident IT manager, my in-house information technology expert who would assemble the hardware and software systems, integrate them, tweak and refine them and, when necessary, rip them apart to fix whatever had gone wrong.

Purists might argue that a true user of GNU/Linux software should be able to do it all by oneself. I say that is a load of penguin poop. Although Renaissance Man might have been able to do it all, not since the 13th Century and Roger Bacon has it truly been possible for one person to know everything about everything. In fact, if there is any advantage to civilization, it is that I do not have to know everything about everything.

For ordinary humanoids, it simply is not possible for one person in one day to learn to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, try a lawsuit, write a Java script program, fix the chain on your bicycle, weed your vegetable garden, run a marathon, earn a black belt in karate, frame your own house, write the great American novel, eat pizza, drink beer and occasionally socialize with a member of the opposite sex. In short, let me practice law, you program code, and we’ll both make a symbiotic living doing our own thing. That’s civilization.

The Building Blocks

My system is built around Debian, primarily because it is clean, reliable and because its proponents are dedicated to the principles of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). Although my wife runs her machines on testing, or the bleeding edge versions of the operating system, I strictly run stable configurations. In part, I am chicken and in part I am prudent. I cannot afford to have the whole system melt down on me while responding to a 48 hour “motion to shorten time.”

In 2004, I purchased an IBM Thinkpad that came loaded with Windows and, after partitioning the hard drive, we loaded Debian Sarge. Now, in 2007, we are running Etch, the current stable release of Debian. My office runs a basic Pogolinux server.

Email has become an essential component of the practice of law. In fact, email now has supplanted the telephone, mail, and the facsimile machine as the workhorse of the law office. Literally everything is conducted by email, including correspondence with the judges’ clerks, communications with clients, and flamemail launched at opposing counsel. My email utility is Evolution and, although it periodically crashes or hangs, it is no less reliable than what I used to use.

My Web browser is Mozilla Firefox: although, on occasion, I will use one of the several other browsers that come loaded with my version of Debian. I use NoScript 1.3.1 (a FOSS program written by Giorgio Maone of InformAction, Palermo, Sicily) to preemptively block a lot of advertising and to protect myself from various Web security vulnerabilities.

Between my FOSS browser, Evolution, and GNU/Linux operating system, I like the fact that I am almost virus and worm free. My lawyer friends go through periodic emergency upgrades of their more prosaic software while I experience no such emergencies. Although my former partners are forced periodically to abandon their operating systems for something newer, shiner, and just as flaky, my operating system is always backwards and forwards compatible.

When Debian releases its next version of its stable system, I will simply download it without charge. Ubuntu wasn’t available when I set up my “free and open” law firm in 2003. Now it is and I might try it, too.

Although Free Software does not cost anything, there truly is no such thing as a free lunch. If you like and support something, you should help pay for it. My in house IT manager contributes her time and programs to the common cause. I contribute money to the Debian Foundation and donate some of my professional time proselytizing in articles like these or sharing law knowledge with local FOSS communities.

It is proper and sporting to give back and make those contributions. Businesses who think that the main attraction of FOSS is that it is, literally, free miss the point altogether. It is not about freeloading; it is about being part of, and contributing to what is literally an international software cooperative. In a way, that is how the legal codes, the common law develops, too: only much, much, much more slowly and without the intentionality of writing computer code.

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