GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide - June 2006
Do You Sleep with Your BlackBerry?
The revolution in mobility has produced a new type of lawyer. These lawyers are on the move yet always connected to their practices. Phone calls and e-mails arrive instantaneously on the same device. Clients are served and deals are made at any hour, day or night. As if the practice of law was not already demanding enough, it is now happening 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Is this a good thing? Clearly, mobility provides lawyers with great flexibility and the ability to do more work without being tied to the office. For many, however, the mobility revolution has simply provided them with the ability to work more whether or not they are in the office. New phrases such as “CrackBerry addict” describe users who cannot be apart from one popular mobility device. Most users go mobile to become more productive. Unfortunately, many become so tied down to their mobile devices that they become practically immobile, producing the opposite effect.
I must admit that I find a certain amount of irony in this trend. As a lawyer turned technology consultant, I have been helping other lawyers become mobile for years. However, I consider it my job to make lawyers more efficient and more productive, not less so. I subscribe to the philosophy of “work to live” rather than “live to work,” and I approach technology consulting with this in mind. All technology should allow you to do more in less time—but what you do with the time saved determines whether a technology is truly worth it.
Mobility Soul Searching
Annie Attorney Says:
Don’t become a slave to your mobile technology.
The first question mobile users should consider is why they wanted to go mobile in the first place. Mobility can lead to greater productivity, greater flexibility, and more time to spend with family—or it can lead to exactly the opposite.
The great benefit of devices such as the BlackBerry or Treo is that they allow multi-tasking. This is also their greatest drawback. Multitasking is wonderful if you are truly accomplishing several things at once. On the other hand, it does little good if none of the tasks are completed. The unfortunate truth is that many users of mobile technology are more aptly described as multi-slackers. They are distracted from important tasks by nearly continuous rings and vibrations related to everything except the task at hand. That’s no way to run a business, let alone a law practice. Although availability is a component of maintaining good client relationships, proper handling of cases is far more important.
Another key element in your decision making should be whether you are recapturing lost time or merely extending your workday into time that would otherwise be devoted to personal endeavors. An excellent place for a laptop, PDA, or wireless Internet connection is a train, airplane, bus, or vehicle (as a passenger, of course). In this case, travel time is converted into work time, especially with the right equipment, technique, and planning.
On the flip side (and we’ve all been there), consider whether those tools are appropriate for that dinner date, family function, or sports outing. Sentimental as it sounds, your clients expect responsiveness and availability because of your devotion to them. What sort of devotion do you signal to your family and friends when your attention to them is secondary to your clients? Except in cases of real urgency, it’s possible that a well-maintained calendar and able assistant are just as good, if not better, than the ability to be reached directly.
Mobility should be a way to make sure that the most important tasks can be accomplished anywhere. It does not make mundane tasks more important. How many e-mails do you receive every day? I receive upward of 100, not including listserve postings. Of those 100 e-mails, it is unlikely that more than three require an immediate response. I am sure that some of the other 97 senders would like to hear back from me right away, but their e-mails are simply not as critical as those first three. If you cannot prioritize the important messages and temporarily ignore the others, receiving all 100 makes you far less productive.
Know Your Equipment
Another critical factor in whether you become a slave to your mobility is how well you understand and learn the capabilities of your hardware and software. Let’s say you have all of the right equipment—a laptop, PDA/cell phone combination, anytime-anywhere Internet connection. Do you know how to use them? Having only limited knowledge of your equipment will cost you time and money.
We have all seen technologically challenged lawyers. There is one in almost every office. Typing is a chore for them, and they carry around their trusty old paper calendars wherever they go. Plenty of good attorneys still operate in this fashion. In my opinion this is not very efficient, but it works for them. Will always-connected mobility devices really make them more productive? They will lose much more time trying to figure out their new devices than they recapture through their use. Mobility can be a very frustrating thing to learn while doing. Phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages fill an inbox and quickly overwhelm the neophyte user.
Taking advantage of the features and avoiding the pitfalls inherent in your equipment make a big difference when it comes to achieving mobile bliss. Consider the following:
• Take it with you. Are you using the mobility features built into many of the programs you use every day? Windows XP includes a very useful Offline Folder Sync that allows you to sync entire folders of documents to your laptop every time you log in to your network. Case management systems such as Time Matters ( www.timematters.com) will synchronize a copy of the database to your laptop on demand. Features such as these let you take work with you and allow you to get things done without an Internet connection and the accompanying distractions.
• Internet security—what you don’t know can hurt you. You’ve just finished the appellate brief that’s landing you the dismissal of a lifetime. It’s formatted to the hilt, cite-checked, and argued well. You’re one step away from Fed. Supp. bliss. Just hit the send button and . . . what? No Internet connection? Whoops! It’s marooned with you (or should be) until you hit a secure connection to your office or Internet Service Provider. Hop on to the free wireless network at the neighborhood Java Junction and you risk having your data snooped out of the air—just ask Paris Hilton. Save the heavy hitting for a home office, hotel, or VPN connection.
• The “everything” device. So your cell phone reads MS Word documents, displays PDFs, and has a keyboard, snazzy color screen, and a camera. (Oh, yeah—it makes calls, too.) So tell me, when was the last time you did your best work on something the size of a Pop Tart? PDAs and smart phones can be great tools for managing a calendar, sending quick e-mails, entering time, or quickly reading a draft document. By their nature, they are not a substitute for a real word processor, and many people spend more time playing with or trying to figure out the features than doing actual work. No pleadings by Pocket Word, please. Your paralegal thanks you in advance.
• Dictaphone is not a dirty word. If this sentence looks strange comma you probably haven’t dictated in a while dash dash a long while period. The promise of speech recognition has never quite matched up to what it delivers—99 percent accuracy on a 10,000-word document equals 100 errors that need to be found and corrected. A mangled or lost mini-cassette, coupled with a cranky recorder made by a company better known for shavers, is a state to which few of us care to return. How-ever, there are a number of fee-for-service companies that allow you to call in, dictate, and receive back an e-mailed document in a few hours. Talk about productive use of your cell phone!
• E-mail overload. If 100 e-mails every day sounds like a lot to keep track of, consider how many of them are simply junk. Spam is bad enough. Next, toss in the jokes from your well-meaning college buddy who clearly has too much time on his hands. A good spam-filtering product that prevents the spam from ever reaching your Inbox is critical, as is a system of e-mail rules that filters other low-priority e-mails into “read later” folders. These simple tools significantly reduce the amount of e-mail that requires immediate attention.
Make sure that the equipment you use is right for the situation and that you understand what it can and cannot do. Knowing your equipment allows you to process information more efficiently, and even technologically savvy users can often learn a few new tricks with regard to mobility. Learn the most useful features first and worry about that cool camera “thingee” later.
Set Limits for Your Clients
Perhaps the most important element in whether mobility becomes a hindrance is the expectations of your clients. The digital age has made us all less patient, and your clients are no exceptions. People who once were willing to leave a message with your legal assistant and were happy to receive a call back the next day now expect you to be continuously available and willing to return e-mails within minutes. This is rather silly. If you are unavailable to take a call, you are no more available to type an e-mail.
You set expectations for your clients every day. When they ask for your legal advice, you advise them as to the best course of action and the probability of success. Just as important, you advise them with regard to such things as your office hours, your schedule, and how long it will take you to accomplish something. In this age of instant communications, there are additional expectations and ground rules that must be set. The simple truth is that if clients believe that you answer your cell phone at all hours, they will call. If clients believe that an e-mail sent in the middle of the night will receive an immediate response, they will expect one. After all, you have all of this wonderful technology, the e-mail is important, and it’s coming from your most important client.
Ask yourself which, if any, of your clients really need your cell phone number. If you give it to them, expect them to call, even if you have instructed them to use it only in an emergency. You will soon learn, as I did, that everything is an emergency. At one time, I gave my cell phone to almost every new client. My cell phone was the easiest and surest way for clients to get my attention, but it became an enormous distraction. Few, if any, of these calls were emergencies. Most could have been processed much more efficiently by an assistant in my office who could create and schedule appointments or tasks for me.
Just as you did before instant communication became the norm, give your clients reasonable guidelines for when and how you can be reached and how soon they can expect a response. Your clients need to understand that, although you work for them, you also work from many other clients and have other obligations such as family and your own sanity. This is not to say that they should not expect the best service possible or that you should not be available in a true emergency. It simply means that you have acquired the best in mobile technology in order to serve all of your clients, not to spend all of your time serving the needs of a few demanding ones.
Set Your Own Limits
The next time you feel overwhelmed by the wireless wrath you’ve wrought, consider some of the following techniques:
• Turn it off during meetings. Nothing signals your inattention and disrespect to an individual or group more than pecking away at a BlackBerry. Even worse is being caught trying to conceal your usage. It’s worth a snicker at best, deal-breaking at worst.
• Enter a bleep-free zone. It might be a meal, a workout, or even a bath. Find a consistent time and place where you make a commitment to yourself and to others to be unavailable. Need an excuse? Join a gym with a no-cell-phone policy. They’re cropping up everywhere in response to members’ chatter. One of my colleagues suggests that “I’m in the bathtub,” paired with the sound of running water, is a particularly effective conversation stopper.
• Remember when a vacation was a vacation? You’ve earned your vacation because of the demands your job places on you, right? Take it! The peace of mind that you and your clients need can be achieved through an assistant or a colleague to handle matters in your absence. Even without a cell phone, laptop, or Black-Berry, you’ll still be contacted in a true emergency, and the difficulty of doing so will usually give pause to the party with an “urgent” need to be in touch. An unintended plus: Your mobile device is likely to be utterly useless outside of the United States. That sand belongs in your toes, not your Treo.
• Employ a gatekeeper. Twenty years ago, the idea of an attorney typing much of anything was simply unthinkable. Even today, some lawyers still have their e-mails printed and dictate responses. While being that much of a Luddite is pretty inefficient, a trusted assistant is just as good a filter today as in the days before our digital “dreams” came true.
Knowledge and expectations are the keys to mobile sanity. Master the useful functions of your equipment while ignoring the time-wasting bells and whistles. Knowing how to use your equipment will allow you to use it efficiently, so that it becomes a tool rather than a distraction. Most important, set reasonable expectations for your clients and for yourself. Establish clear guidelines with your clients and staff so that they know how to reach you in a true emergency and how best to contact you in other situations. As for yourself, turn off your BlackBerry and enjoy some well-earned downtime. Then schedule some more after you turn your BlackBerry back on.
Jeffrey S. Krause is an attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is a technology consultant with Information Technology Professionals, LLC, in Milwaukee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the Information Technology Professionals website, www.itprosusa.com.