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December 2001 Computer counselor
Gaining Productivity by Installing a Small Firm LAN

Gains in firm productivity can be expected to recoup the cost of installation

By Benjamin Sotelo and James A. Flanagan
Benjamin Sotelo is president of Legal Friendly Technologies in Los Angeles and can be reached at 
James A. Flanagan is a civil litigator.

The choice that a law firm makes in network technology has become a business decision of great importance. Until fairly recently, the cost to install and maintain a stable local area network (LAN) was prohibitive for smaller law firms that lacked a full-time technical support engineer. Today, the hardware that can wire a network of five computers costs about $300, and a network engineer can wire five computers together in one day at a labor cost of $125 per hour. Alternatively, a computer-savvy employee can wire a network. After a proper installation is complete, maintenance is minimal. In most cases, one day per month by a certified network consultant suffices.

Even if a small firm’s aging computers must be replaced in order to use the LAN, it may be worth the investment. One benefit is facilitated Internet access, which can allow users to search the Internet for free case law, statutes, forms, and other information pertinent to cases. Another is that members of the firm, clients, and potential clients can send and receive e-mail messages. A third benefit is the capability of video conferencing, which can lower the firm’s air travel expenses.
Perhaps the greatest incentive for a firm to jump on the LAN bandwagon is having a database. With a centralized database, the firm can perform automated time and billing, centralize the knowledge of each member of the firm (allowing firm members to reuse previous legal research, forms, and documents), and automate the backup of the firm’s critical data. Additionally, with a LAN the firm can consider a telecommuting policy. Employees can access the LAN from outside the firm’s walls—from client sites, courts, or anywhere on the road where a telephone connection is available.

Installation and configuration of a small office network will involve not only hardware and software but also management considerations, including the network’s structure and security. Lawyers who are knowledgeable about computers may attempt to create a simple LAN (such as a small peer-to-peer setup) themselves once the firm has decided what type of network it needs. Before installation, an inventory of the firm’s hardware and software is in order.
Beginning with hardware, each computer must have an ethernet card. This card provides the connection for the computer to the LAN. When the card is installed, a small jack (similar to a phone jack) in the back of the computer is visible. This jack is where the network cable will lead. Fortunately, most new computers come with the card installed, but if someone in the firm does not have a new computer, an ethernet card is inexpensive (approximately $20) and relatively simple to install.
Once the computers have cards, they are wired together with CAT5 ethernet cabling. This cable costs roughly $50 for a few hundred feet and can be purchased from computer supply retailers. At each end of each cable, the installer will need to attach an RJ45 connector. A tool to cut and strip the cable will be needed. The numerical terminology need not be intimidating; a knowledgeable sales clerk or guidebook can help the novice.

One end of each cable, with its connectors, plugs into each computer; a hub or a switch is what the cables plug into at the other end. A hub allows communication between each computer and the Internet. A switch performs the same task but also organizes the data streams to improve the flow of the signals. A hub costs about $50; a switch costs about $100 and is preferred.

From the switch the office computers will access the Internet through a broadband connection. Broadband for an office typically costs about $100 per month.

There are two basic types of broadband: DSL and cable. These two different technologies are indistinguishable from the user’s perspective. A firm may simply choose the broadband setup that offers the best bandwidth for the office address. The high demand for DSL, however, often results in a delay of four weeks or more for installation. Cable, on the other hand, can usually be installed in four days.

One computer on the network will receive the broadband line and share its signal with the switch. When the signal is routed through the switch, all the computers on the network will have access. This is why a switch is preferred; five computers sharing data with one another and the Internet make for a considerable flow of data through the LAN, and a switch’s greater capability to manage the flow can make quite a difference in the speed with which the network can move data.

After the hardware is in place, the next consideration is the software. The most stable Windows operating system is Windows 2000 Professional. Most users are still using Windows 98 SE, however, so the following instructions apply to it. Similar techniques apply to the configuration of other Windows systems.
For each computer on the network:
  • Locate and right click on the desktop icon Network Neighborhood and choose Properties. Click on File and Print Sharing and check both boxes that appear there. Click OK on each screen until the computer exits from this part of the setup. The computer will want to restart. Choose OK and allow the computer to restart.   
  • When the computer has restarted, a login screen will appear. Click OK.   
  • Locate and double-click My Computer on the desktop. Right click on any drive that will be shared with the network. Sharing the C: drive is a must, and usually all the drives are shared. The C: drive is the computer’s main drive, and through it all the computers on the network will join one group.
Sharing the C: drive will expose everything on the computer to everyone else on the network. Confidential data on a shared drive is no longer confidential and should be moved off shared drives. Various hardware and software techniques are available for maintaining security within the network; they may run the gamut from an unnetworked computer in a locked room to security software on a networked computer.

Once security protocols have been established, and assuming the firm is sharing all the data on the C: drives among its members, the network security parameters need to be set. After the drives to be shared with the network have been selected, choose Sharing. Note the security features: from password protection to full sharing. To keep things simple, check the Shared As box and the Full box. Hit OK until the computer exits this part of the software setup.

These steps must be performed on each computer. When all the computers on the network have been configured, each should be able to reach the data on any other computer on the network. Additionally, each computer should be able to print to any printer on the network. The procedure for enabling printers is similar to that of sharing the drives. To enable print sharing, go to Start, Setting, Printer and right click on the printer to be shared on the network. Choose Sharing and follow the instructions. Repeat these steps for each printer to be shared on the network. If there is time, the person creating the network may test and debug it.
Once the computers on the network have been configured, the next issue to address is the Internet Connection Sharing setup. Determine which computer on the network will be connected to the broadband line. The Internet service provider should help in getting this computer online. A second ethernet card will have to be installed on the computer that connects the firm’s local area network to the Internet. The first ethernet card communicates with the network, this second card communicates with the Internet. Once this computer is online, establish the network’s Internet sharing configuration.

Add Internet sharing by going to Control Panel and double-clicking Add/Remove Programs. Click on the Windows Setup Tab at the top. Scroll down this list to Internet Tools. Highlight this option and click on the Details button. Check the check-box next to Internet Connection Sharing and hit OK on the next two dialog boxes to install this Windows feature.

The Internet Connection Wizard will boot. Follow the wizard, choosing Next for the first one or two options. When the chance to choose LAN arises, choose it and hit Next again for the one or two options that follow. At the last prompt, Automatically Obtain IP Address, uncheck this option and hit Next. Choose No on the following screen and click Finish. The computer will want to restart; choose Yes to do so. Barring complications such as improperly installed ethernet card drivers, the network should now have data- and print-sharing capabilities, and all the computers on the network should be on the Internet.

LAN Security
Because the LAN is online, there are some important security considerations to address. Each computer on the network can now acquire and introduce viruses to the network, so each computer’s antivirus programs should be updated every two days. An online virus protection vendor can automate this critical protection.

Also, with a broadband connection, the network is always connected to the Internet. This means that any 13-year-old who has too much time on his or her hands can hack into the firm’s LAN. A firewall should therefore be part of the firm’s network budget. Firewalls come in two categories: hardware and software. Hardware firewalls are superior and the firm would be wise to use one. However, if money is an issue, software firewalls can be downloaded for free from the Internet and installed on each work station. A good software firewall can be found at
www.zonealarm.com. This program can be used for free and offers fairly good protection. Firewalls will block the LAN’s internal communication. Each firewall setup must therefore be configured to allow internal communication to continue.

The holiday season may afford a firm a slow period in which a small office network can be installed. Armed with the right hardware, software, and tools, a small law firm’s computer whiz may be able to create a LAN in a day or two. (And if that does not work, professionals are available.) The benefits of this investment will quickly become apparent. Many areas of the practice of law—including forms, case law, accounting, court filing, and firm marketing—can be addressed more efficiently with a LAN that has broadband Internet access. And, as the Internet continues to expand, it offers an increasing array of sources of information that can continue to increase productivity long after the LAN is installed.

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