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.

Comments on "I’ve Got A Penguin in My Briefs"

pcweber

Excellent article, it makes me feel as if finally other professional groups that have been traditionally chained to the proprietary software can leap into the Open Source world. Articles such as these could undermine the organizational movements by Microsoft to keep a handle on the world computing market. However, I have to say that in the financial crisis that is looming over everyone worldwide Open Source may save jobs, rather than pay the high costs of licensing Non Open Source paying an IT person to keep it safe.
How many law firms have been riddled with worms, ad-ware, trojans and a large etcetera, whereas you have shown in this article that you are virtually free from such attacks. I laud your boldness in finding the alternative that has worked for you.

Phil

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fiscalconsultant

This is very encouraging to me. I am just getting familiar with the world of FOSS, but I think it is love at first site. I have dedicated one computer at home for just gnu. It has edubuntu as an OS and openoffice. I am setting up GnuCash for my step daughers new hair salon, and over the last year have learned and written an application using python that most LEA’s in Tenessee will use.

Ever since getting that, “I have been cheated again feeling”, after installing MS Vista I have been looking into opensource. I am trying to figure a way I can payback to the opensource community, but I am not rich enough nor expert enough in anything at this point. I am really grateful for people such as Mr. Reisler who dedicate their time to the FOSS community.

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houndhen

Very good article. Steven sounds like a lawyer I might want to hire but alas he is too far away.

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druid

I wish this article were appearing in a lawyer’s mag instead of a Linux enthusiasts’ mag, because it’s lawyers who need to be thinking in these terms. My employer, a law-related public institution, has just announced that we will “upgrading” to Word 2007 (and I assume Vista) in the next few months. I am horrified at the prospect of adopting a universally reviled program just because Microcephed has blackmailed us by announcing a cutoff of support for the existing version.

Unfortunately, Mr. Reisler’s experience with Open Source word processors is consistent with my own. For all its many maddening faults, WinWord is a mature and powerful product — by far the best thing MS has ever created, IMO. It’s hard to see how any other word processor can make inroads into its huge base of existing user without being a lot more attractive — and easy to migrate to — than Open Office, et al. Even at home I’ve been forced to install XP just to run Word, because none of the alternatives is satisfactory. This is a nut that the OSS community really has to crack before it will start to supplant MS in the legal world, at least at the application level.

On the other hand, if MS keeps generating “upgrades” like Vista and Word 2007, it may eventually drive its userbase away. I think that would be happening now if, as I say, the word processing problem could be solved.

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jcusick

Mr. Reisler has written an excellent article and I hope it’s read by as many lawyers and OpenOffice developers.

As for that “cheated again” feeling, I know it well and experienced it back when Windows 95 was released. One brand new expensive computer and 5 installs of Win95 due to corruptions later (within a couple of months and no help from MS without a credit card), I switched to Slackware and never looked back.

I only wish that more professionals would realize the value of a linux desktop/server combination for SMBs and problems like those Mr. Reisler are facing would quickly fall by the wayside. Maybe I’ll take up template writing for OpenOffice as a hobby :)

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wweng_linux

An excellent article!

I wonder what makes thunderbird unqualified for your email?

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bubnoff

Count libraries among other natural FOSS environments.
An example is Georgia state libraries’ ILS, which is entirely Open Source:

http://www.georgialibraries.org/

We believe in freedom of information and FOSS is a natural fit.

I salute you sir!

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johnekerr

I am a law librarian in a library that serves lawyers in the county where I live. I wrote a short piece about OpenOffice in our newsletter recently. One lawyer replied to my article to tell me that he has three computers in his office and all of them have OpenOffice. He has been using OpenOffice for some time now and has not had any problems using it for his practice.

Depending on the locale and practice, I am sure that OpenOffice can replace Word. Many if not most of the lawyers I know prefer and use WordPerfect to this day.

It would be great if there was a push made for ODF in the legal system.

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mirandasoft

It’s about time that a lawyer has moved away from proprietary software. As I’m originally from USA, now in Philippines, I only wish many businesses, including law firms, would use free/open source software. Though I’m from Seattle, near Mr. Reisler’s law firm, I don’t think I’ve met him. It was in April 2006 that I eliminated my dependency from Microsoft software, and I was living in North Seattle, too.

Now, here in Philippines, proprietary software is widely pirated. GNU/Linux, though it is free and open source, is not well known to the average Filipino. I’ve met senators and lawyers here. They’re using proprietary software, but denied it being pirated. I’ve exchanged data with law firms and Philippine government agencies… They commonly ask me, “Are you using Windows?” Many would ask me, “Are you using Word?”

Regarding OpenOffice… I gave a Philippine Senator a CD copy of OpenOffice, when he asked me where I can get a licensed version of Office 2007 at a low price. I told him, “Try it and let me know what you think.” A few days later, he asked me, “Is OpenOffice really free?” I told him, “Yes it is, and there’s no worry about Optical Media Board (OMB) taking it from you.” OMB is the Anti-Piracy government agency here in the Philippines.

As of my data in 2006, the Philippine Supreme Court depends heavily on commercial software from Microsoft. Many people have told me that they need a side-by-side comparison of the free/open source versus proprietary software.

Mr. Reisler’s phrase, “Although Free Software does not cost anything, there truly is no such thing as a free lunch” is a true one. There are many way to contribute back. Their idea of contributing money back is a good one, especially to those that didn’t come from the geek world.

Overall, Mr. Reisler wrote a great article. And I’m glad it’s on Linux Magazine… Only wish Linux Magazine was still printing a magazine… I miss those magazines.

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peterkuykendall

I completely understand the “cheated again” feeling. Mine came when Quicken updated their software over and over and over again, breaking formats along the way to force everybody to upgrade. Finally they upped the ante and broke the format that the banks use to download your statements to your PC. That’s when I said “ENOUGH!” and switched to GnuCash. It’s been great. It reminds me of Quicken 98, before they started adding useless bloat to justify selling you a new copy every year.

That avoidance of maintaining annual sales cash flow to the users’ detriment is one of the huge benefits of FOSS. Corporations’ constant need for cash is fundamentally at odds with the users’ need for a stable product and need to eliminate cash outlays for needless products.

That was a great article. I ran an engineering consulting business for about 20 years and was constantly frustrated by proprietary software problems. Nowadays having the FOSS alternative would be very sweet.

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d0rflal1

Apparently Linux has it’s own proponents of dirty PR-style BS!

This article is a shining example:

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.

No lawyer talks like this! It’s obvious a techie wrote this article!

I’m a big fan of Linux, but no big fan of BS!

No law office could use all-Linux even if they wanted to! For example – how would they scan their documents? There are exactly 0 document scanners in production that support ADF (Auto Document Feed) and work for Linux. What? Does this guy scan his legal documents 1 sheet at a time? In a law office? HA!! HA HA HA HA HA!!!!!!

Reply
ehatherley

If there are programs or drivers that are missing or incomplete (document templates, word processor features, scanner ADF drivers, etc.) why not hire someone to write a FOSS version and give back to the community in that way? For a more complex project you might have to pool your (financial) resources with others that need the same features.

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hardwyrd

Im using an HP multi-purpose printer/scanner/copier on my Ubuntu 8.04 and scans multiple pages automatically without any problem.

Don’t lawyers have any right to become techies too? Im not affiliated with Mr. Reisler nor do I know him personally but I do believe his article (and way of writing) deserves positive credit.

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tlong

Bravo, Counselor! Your move was not only gutsy, but
brilliant!

I’m working on a pro bono project with a community health center that’s moving from an antiquated Turbo C-based Practice Management System to a FOSS solution
running on a CENTOS cluster, and all the staff is lovin’ life nowadays.

After the Vista debacle, I think most folks are sick of having Microlimp foisting beta code off on thier customers as final releases.

And pcweber is dead-on…the recession is a golden opportunity for system integrators, codesmiths, and VAR’s to promote the cause of Open Source, do some Good Things for the clients, and make some sweet bucks in the bargain.

Koredump

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markcappel

I wish Mr. Reisler would have discussed the software his firm uses (if any) to track billable hours, and how this software interacts with GnuCash or other open source accounting software.

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darkmoon

I use open source linux – Debian and Ubuntu for my consulting business.
software is
firefox for web browsing
thunderbird for email with lightning for calender
openoffice as the office suite
rhythymbox for my music and linking to an ipod
VLC for videos and movies
gnucash for money management

It works. There are some hassles around compatibility of websites with firefox and some around the openoffice spreadsheet formulae and ms exel… but nothing too dramatic.

so it works. I am legal and it is free and opensource

Reply

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