Although there is almost always some price to be paid for using free software, either in functionality or annoying advertising, I have found that the following programs provide sufficient benefits to get past the limitations that may exist. Each identified program provides critical functional help for the solo and small firm practitioner. Finally, always use a little caution about installing free programs. Try to ensure that they are from reputable sites and take time to see if you can find some positive feedback about the software and the site offering the software.
BUSINESS ACCOUNTING PROGRAMS
If you are not currently using an electronic accounting software package you may want to test two free products, one from Intuit, the other from Microsoft. First, Intuit has released QuickBooks Simple Start 2008. You can find it at http://quickbooks.intuit.com/product/accounting-software/free-accounting-software.jhtml?page=financial. This free software has no expiration date. It includes basic accounting features, allows you to create simple financial reports, invoice customers, manage payroll, and write and print checks. It also allows you to set up two separate companies (one for your operating account and one for your IOLTA account). If used properly, the financial reports provided are sufficient to keep you in compliance with BBO rules on IOLTA “three-way reconciliation.” This product is for the first time user because it cannot import data from existing accounting programs, including Quicken or QuickBooks.
Microsoft has released its free accounting program, Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2008, found at http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/accountingexpress/HA102462001033.aspx. This product integrates with Microsoft Outlook. When working in Microsoft Outlook you can mark your Tasks, Appointments, Meetings, etc. as billable, create time entries, and import the billable events into Accounting Express. You can then invoice your clients. Unfortunately, it does not allow you to import the Journal entries from Microsoft Outlook. This is an unfortunate failure since the Journal provides a stopwatch and tracks time. The program does allow you to import data from existing accounting programs such as Microsoft Money and Intuit QuickBooks. Like QuickBooks Simple Start 2008, it will allow you to invoice customers, write checks, manage payroll, track expenses and reconcile online bank accounts. Again, you can create a separate company to track the business account and the IOLTA account. The financial reports included also allow you to create reports that comply with BBO rules for three-way reconciliation. It is worth a look.
I owe my use of Xenu’s Link Sleuth to my friend Ken Rodriguez, an attorney in Boston. When I added content to my web-site, http://www.masslomap.org/, I had included links to several other web-sites which did not work. When I was informed of the problem, this web-based software allowed me to find the broken links in my web-site and quickly told me how to identify and correct the errors. If you are concerned about your web-site’s links go to http://home.snafu.de/tilman/xenulink.html. This neat tool allows anyone to check for broken links, identifies the cause of the error, and provides a nice report from its simple interface. You may then take the information and correct your web-site. This tool will make you sound knowledgeable when you talk to your web-site developer.
For Windows users, I like SyncToy, to keep my laptops and server/desktop synchronized. SyncToy can be found at: www.microsoft.com/windowsxp/using/digitalphotography/prophoto/synctoy.mspx. For me, the critical question is ease of use based on an intuitive interface. Again, this product gave me the simplicity I need. As someone who constantly picks up my laptop and runs to the next meeting, this tool allows me an easy way to maintain a synchronized copy of the documents on which I am working. I am now confident that I am using the most recent version and ready to go on the road.
I hesitate to add this free software because of the technical difficulty of installing the program and the need for Microsoft Exchange 2003, but if you use a BlackBerry, the free BlackBerry Professional Software Express for Microsoft Exchange (one license limit), with one free support call, makes using your Blackberry a true joy. You get full wireless synchronization for email, calendar, and address book. What this means for the user is almost instant synchronicity of your email, calendar and contacts. For example, if your staff enters a new contact and meeting while you are on the road, you will have that critical information within minutes. Also, if you delete an email on your desktop or your BlackBerry that action is reflected on both computers within minutes without duplicating your efforts. I find my BlackBerry to be a much more powerful tool since we implemented this free software. You can find this software and an explanation of the technical requirements at: http://na.blackberry.com/eng/services/server/offers/professional_express.jsp#tab_tab_overview.
If you are looking to create PDF files for filing in federal courts, to control the ability of others to make changes, or simply for electronic storage, you may wish to look beyond the major players (Adobe and Nuance) in the PDF file format industry. Although Adobe and Nuance both make excellent products, they can also be prohibitively expensive. There are a number of free and inexpensive alternatives that allow, at a minimum, the ability to create a PDF document. One such program is PDFCreator, http://www.pdfforge.org/products/pdfcreator, a free program that generates PDF files from almost any Windows application. You can encrypt, send files by email, and merge PDF files. (My thanks to Christopher Morse email@example.com for letting me know about this one.) A product with essentially the same features and one that I have used in the past is CutePDF: http://www.cutepdf.com/index.htm.
Although these products may not have all the advantages you get with purchased products, if you are willing to put in the up-front investment of your valuable time, these tools can provide an adequate substitute for more expensive alternatives.