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I.T. in Practice : Back to basics

Every Issue

Cite as: (2002) 76(11) LIJ, p.85

Ongoing basic maintenance will ensure a longer life for a practice’s computers.

Computer hardware plays a vital role in the smooth operation of a legal practice. It is only when something goes wrong, or breaks, that the practitioner is reminded of the value of computer resources. Most computer problems are avoidable, and even where they aren’t, the impact of those problems can be lessened through ongoing and regular maintenance.

CARE OF COMPUTERS

A question often asked is whether computers should be left on or off in an office overnight. Some insurance brokers are reminding their clients that computer screens should be turned off when not in use. This is because there have been a number of instances where computer screens that have been left on have caused fires. As for computer base units, this is a different situation. Obviously machines that act as network servers in some capacity should be left on. Computers that receive emails and faxes for the firm, do nightly backups, manage virus protection, or are used by staff to access the office from remote locations need to be left on all of the time. But what of the others? Repeatedly turning computers on and off again over an extended period actually shortens their life. However, leaving an office full of computers turned on not only increases electricity costs, it also has security implications if computers are left logged in to the network. A compromise option is to shut down computers to stand-by mode. This draws a fraction of the power required for a fully running computer, and retains a high level of security.

If possible, computers should be mounted above floor level. Now that cigarette smoke is rare in offices, the next most concerning environmental hazard for computers (apart from coffee and biscuit crumbs in the keyboard) is carpet dust. Computers are cooled by fans that suck air through their internal workings. Carpet dust and fibres that are also sucked in can build up on the internal components and cause damage over time.

DAILY AND WEEKLY TASKS

The only maintenance task that is essential on a daily basis is that of changing backup media (tapes or writable CDs).

On a weekly basis, at least, computers should have virus files updated, and should be scanned for viruses. At the same time, available disk space should be checked to ensure that it stays above 20 per cent. Any less than this and systems start to slow down, though this is generally not a problem with the large hard disks available today. Another weekly job is to purge old emails from systems, after making sure that they have been backed up appropriately. A task that has become more necessary on a weekly basis is the updating of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and web server software, if those packages are in use. Currently, these packages are being corrected frequently to remove security vulnerabilities.

MONTHLY AND YEARLY TASKS

On a monthly basis, it is a good idea to enlist the assistance of your system consultants to see whether there are any updates or “service packs” required for the main applications in use. This is also an opportunity to test one or two backup tapes to ensure that everything is being backed up correctly and in a form that could be restored should the need arise. Information Technology (IT) consultants often use periodic maintenance visits to review system logs for hardware problems, security breaches, communications anomalies and attempted hacking. It is possible to contract IT consultants to undertake “preventative maintenance” visits. The content and frequency of various tasks that are undertaken during these visits can be agreed in advance.

Although it should be done weekly, notebook data backup is rare. As a practical compromise, a mandatory monthly backup of each notebook in use in the practice is recommended.

On a yearly basis, insurance coverage over computer equipment should be reviewed, and a licence audit can be undertaken to confirm that all software in use is adequately licensed. Data backups kept offsite should be tested to ensure that they are still useable, as both tapes and CDs degrade over time. Version upgrades of software should be acquired and installed.

In larger legal practices, dedicated personnel can perform the regular tasks outlined above, and some of these tasks can be automated by specially designed software. Some examples of this are software licence management, software updating, and system log reviews. In smaller practices, these tasks should all still be undertaken, although responsibility may need to be split between nominated administrative staff members and external IT consultants.

NOTES

ADAM REYNOLDS is the principal of Proficio, an independent consulting firm. For more I.T. in practice information, see the contributions of the Law Institute Legal Practice Management Committee and IT special projects department at http://www.liv.asn.au/sections/lpms_it.

“To do” List

• Establish a practice guideline on “computers on” or “computers off”.
• Identify daily, weekly, monthly, yearly tasks.
• Assign responsibilities to key staff members.
• Obtain cost estimates from IT consultants on shared maintenance tasks.
• Review maintenance requirements regularly.
• Learn from computer problems by incorporating preventative solutions into regular maintenance task lists.

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