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, like computer consulting, entails both professional and entrepreneurial elements. Thus, I needed a billing and accounting program. GnuCash was one of two billings systems available in 2003 and, with minimal adjustments, it seemed to fit the bill. GnuCash is sufficiently powerful to record billing records, track time, generate invoices and plot data graphs.

Frankly, it does need more polish, such as a more practical editor in the time sheet entry component, and it also needs expandability if it will ever be used in a larger office with multiple time-keepers. Four years after I launched my law firm, there are now many FOSS accounting systems, a host of which are evaluated at http://www.aaxnet.com/design/linuxacct.html.

Because law firms generate so much “paper”, one of the most important office programs is the word processor. I use Open Office 2.2 which, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired. As an ordinary “word processor”, Open Office works fine. However, the practice of law uses a lot of templates, macros, special formatting for pleadings in different courts, different jurisdictions and different venues.

Typically, trial level pleadings (motions, briefs, memoranda to the court, and the like) are prepared on double-spaced line-numbered pages with carefully prescribed borders and margins. In the courts of appeal, the lines are un-numbered and the margins are completely different.

Legal pleadings usually include highly technical citation formats for referring to legal precedents. Pleadings may also contain many single-spaced indented quotations, quotations within quotations, frames within frames, Latin short-hand and terms of art (such as sub rosa, res judicata, respondeat superior, u sua mea et i sua youa…), and peculiar forms of identifying the legal authorities upon which one relies.

It may be that Open Office already has the power and flexibility to meet all these requirements, but that no one has yet to create the standardized macros which can be easily adopted by techno-challenged users like myself. Thanks to my in-house IT expert, we have been able to develop work-arounds and special applications that serve my purposes. However, the special word processing applications needed for a law firm – and, indeed, needed for any large scale information-processing business – requires something more sophisticated that what Open Office currently has to offer.

Real Life

Although I was apprehensive about whether my FOSS law firm could communicate and interact with an un-FOSS world, my apprehensions proved to be baseless. For the most part, clients and lawyers were completely unaware what programs I was running. My conversion and simulation programs permit me to read other word processor files and to convert my Open Office documents to other peoples’ formats. I routinely use Xsane, another useful FOSS program, to scan documents and I use GIMP for image management. For spreadsheets I use Gnumeric. I can view JPEG files and many, but not all, compressed video files. I have some minor, but no significant problems using Lexis or Westlaw for computerized searching.

I am not, at this time, able to use certain proprietary electronic deposition formats. Instead, I use both hard copies and electronic text versions which I can easily manipulate for citation in briefs or for sending to clients or expert witnesses.

Many courts now require electronic filing and in some, like Federal District Court, practically the entire case, from filing to discovery to trial transcription, is conducted without any paper whatsoever. In most cases that does not present a problem. However, I sometimes run into problems using certain interactive documents prescribed by some courts when the formatting information becomes lost or jumbled when applied in Open Office.

Likewise, in not a few jurisdictions, the judge requires that documents like draft orders and proposed jury instructions must be presented to the court on disk in a certain proprietary format so that the judge’s own non-FOSS computer can manipulate and amend the lawyers’ proposals as the judge sees fit. I might fume about the unfairness of the court prescribing a particular commercial brand of word processor, but that is not an argument I can advance while my client’s case hangs in the balance.

Bug Off

Weighing heavily in favor of the FOSS law office is the simple robustness of the operating system. While my colleagues routinely groan through the latest invasion of zombies and botworms, I hardly worry about such things.

When they do occur, I know that the collective smarts of thousands of programs will quickly come up with a cure for the problem in very short order.


It is a fact that the advent of technology really did not make work any more efficient. That is because most office workers spend a lot of their time surfing, shopping on line, gambling on line, or playing computer games. Regardless whether this is good, bad or indifferent, the neophytes often brag about their non-work related computer capabilities. FOSS software, for better or for worse, seems to be just as available and just as mind-numbing as the non-FOSS software offerings.

In one realm, however, GNU/Linux beats the pants off the competition: its screen saver. Xscreen is one of the most mesmerizing, most creative screen saver programs available today. And it’s definitely not available on a Windows platform. Many have been the jealous lawyers who have spied my Xsaver moving through its variegated palette who wished out loud that they could have such a screen saver, too. But they can’t, so too bad.


Four years into my GNU/Linux law firm experiment, I find myself very comfortable with the technology, very fluent with the programs, but still wishing for a more flexible word processor and an email utility that is steadier than Evolution. The time and money I have saved by using GNU/Linux has translated into lower overhead, greater profit, a better legal product and lower overhead. All of that, in turn, has translated into less time behind the desk, and more time for doing meaningful things in life.

There are thousands of lawyers practicing in the greater Seattle area. A few use Macs, most use Wintel machines, and, so far as I know, I am the only attorney in the area exclusively using FOSS software for everything. I know of one other attorney who practices in Bellingham (that wonderful small city on the Canadian border that was a resting place for conscientious objectors en route to British Columbia during the Vietnam War) who also runs a GNU/Linux law office.

For the most part, however, we are a tiny minority. Lawyers, like other professionals, however, are a natural constituency for free and open source expertise. Indeed, as I wrote in the beginning of this article, there are many similarities between the nature of the practice of law and the nature of the free-lance FOSS software consultant.

Here lies a natural symbiosis which lawyers should encourage by using more FOSS more often, and FOSS programmers should encourage by writing programs for a natural market that could use it.

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