General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

GADGETS & GIZMOS

A Field Tester’s Report

It is difficult to imagine practicing law today without using some form of law office technology. Photocopiers, dictation and facsimile machines, desktop computers and computer networks—step by step, like the proverbial camel permitted to stick its nose in the tent, technology has worked its way into virtually all areas of our profession.

For some attorneys, there has been at most a grudging acceptance of this process—after all, few if any of us went to law school to learn about technology! On the other hand, some attorneys have actually (even eagerly) sought out new gadgets and gizmos, testing them to see which, if any, could assist in the practice of law. These brave souls have been on the forefront of the adoption of what the rest of us have now come to accept as part of the standard, well-appointed, law office.

Consequently, it may be instructive to see what the "techno-lawyers" amongst us are currently using and evaluating, in order to better gauge what the next few years may add to the list of standard "must haves" for the practice of law. Aided by online suggestions from my colleagues and drawing on my own experience, I offer for your consideration my personal (and somewhat eclectic) top 10 techno-toys list:

The Incredible Shrinking Computer

The first group of gizmos and gadgets are all essentially just computers—but what a bunch of computers! From the desktop heavy metal of the IBM PC, introduced about 15 years ago, computer manufacturers have expanded the computer’s features and versatility to fit an ever larger number of roles. One of the main development directions has been smaller, which the computer manufacturers have pursued with a vengeance. No longer must computer users be chained to the office and desk, but now have options that follow them out the door.

Notebook Computers.

Of course, portable computers are hardly cutting-edge technology—laptop computers and their earlier luggable predecessors have been around almost as long as their desktop analogs. What is new is the power and performance available in an easily portable notebook-sized package. Virtually any desktop capability can now be found in or built into the state-of-the-art notebook, at a surprisingly small premium over a comparable desktop.

In a sense, the notebook computer has become the recreational vehicle of the legal technology field, allowing savvy techno-lawyers to take it with them on the road and into the wired courtroom of the next millennium. Vast quantities of documents can be scanned, indexed and stored on CD-ROM or hard drive, then searched, retrieved and displayed directly from the notebook computer, complete with audiovisual presentations and components. Using built-in or PC-card modem and network adaptors, the peripatetic attorney can connect to and call on the resources of the office network and the Internet, from virtually any location.

Subnotebook Computers.

If a four-to-eight pound notebook computer is still too much to lug around, how does two pounds grab you? Introduced only a couple of years ago and weighing in at two pounds or less, subnotebook or mininotebook computers are somewhat underpowered by PC standards, but can run standard Wintel desktop applications. Physically, they are smaller than a notebook computer, with the largest being about an inch and a half tall, by eight inches wide and five inches deep—and weigh in at about twice the cost of comparable-featured notebooks.

One of the first subnotebooks was the Toshiba Libretto. In its current top-of-the-line form, the Libretto boasts a 166 MHz Pentium MMX processor, 32 MB RAM (expandable to 64 MB), a 1.7 GB hard drive, and a 7.1 inch active matrix screen. List price is near $2,500, though less-powerful models start at about $1,500.

Such devices will competently run most desktop legal applications and can be tossed into a briefcase with room left over for actual briefs, but their relatively high cost and limited features make subnotebook computers a better buy for those more interested in pleasing their chiropractor than their accountant!

Pocket-Sized PDAs.

If the smaller is better mantra has any meaning in the computer world, the pocket-sized personal digital assistant, or PDA, is definitely better. Packing much of the power of a desktop computer yet able to be slid into a shirt or coat pocket, PDAs allow attorneys to keep their schedules, contact information and to-do lists always at hand and instantly available at the push of a button. Cut-down versions of many desktop applications are now available for PDAs, allowing mobile attorneys to jot down short memos, record billable time, or read and send e-mail over the Internet, among other functions. With their small size and instant startup, the current generation of PDAs offer a strong challenge to their paper counterparts, such as the pocket Day-Timer.

PDAs come in two distinct form factors: handheld models (which run either MS Windows CE, a cut-down version of Microsoft’s desktop Windows operating system, or some other proprietary operating system), which resemble embryo notebook computers, hinged along the long dimension, with a screen inside the top half and a small keyboard on the bottom half; and palm models (such as 3Com’s Palm III and competitors such as the palm-sized PCs running a palm version of Windows CE), which sport a one-piece design utilizing a touch screen on one side for data entry.

Most pocket-sized PDAs offer some form of synchronization with desktop versions of the PDAs applications (or conduits for data to be transferred to other desktop applications), typically using a cradle or cable connected to the desktop’s serial port. Entry-level PDAs can be found for less than $200, and top of the line models list for up to $500 for the palm models, and up to $1,000 for the handheld versions with color screens and built-in modems.

Viewed as a standard computer, the PDA’s necessary compromises make its limitations painfully apparent; viewed instead as a portable extension of the primary desktop or notebook computer, the PDA’s value in making the power of computing available virtually anywhere and anytime becomes apparent. From this perspective, my personal favorite is 3Com’s Palm III and PalmPilot Professional. 3Com has not lost sight of the inherent limitations of these small devices, and in response has fine-tuned the core applications to work well within those limitations. At the same time, third-party developers have relentlessly pushed the envelope of those limitations, to the point that there are not many desktop functions that can’t be at least approximated on the Palm III.

PC Card PDA.

Even smaller than the pocket-sized PDAs, the Franklin Rolodex REX and REX PRO are about the size and shape of a credit card on steroids, with a small monochrome screen and several buttons along one side. They can be inserted in a notebook PC card slot for updating and data entry, or in a cradle that connects to a serial port. The REX PRO also allows limited direct data entry using an expanded array of buttons on the card.

While it clearly wins the size prize and has plenty of geek chic, in my humble opinion, the limited on-the-road data entry and anemic and fixed features make the REX a niche player, at best. Certainly it can act as the ultimate superlightweight extension of a notebook computer, but the REX does not even pretend to desktop functionality.

Input/Output Requested

The next group of devices have helped break down barriers between the cyberspace located behind the computer screen, and the real world in which we practice law. Beyond the standard keyboards, mouse/trackball/touchpad devices and laser printers, these devices are making it easier to get information into—and back out of—our computers than ever before.

Personal Scanners.

Whether integrated into the keyboard or, more typically, configured as a small stand alone unit, personal scanners such as Visioneer’s PaperPort Strobe allow the user to quickly and easily transfer paper-bound information and images into the computer. Insert a sheet of paper and the typical personal scanner automatically loads the desktop software and scans and holds the image, which then can be manipulated and saved as an image, converted to text using optical character recognition (OCR) software, or sent as a FAX or attached to an e-mail message. Image quality and bundled software features tend to be rather basic with sheetfed personal scanners, but for the occasional scanning task, the modest price (about $100 to $300) of these units makes them a valuable addition to the desktop arsenal.

Scanners also come in flatbed models (better for bound books or 3-D objects and offering higher-quality scans) or with built-in or add-on sheet feeders (better for multipage OCR jobs).

As this article was being written, Hewlett-Packard announced the introduction of the intriguing CapShare 910 information appliance. This 12.5 ounce, portable-CD-player-sized allows the user to capture, store and share paper documents easily while away from the office. With 4 MB memory and powered by two rechargeable, AA-sized batteries, the CapShare can capture up to 50 letter-size pages in black and white from virtually any flat document and a variety of media. CapShare then shows a thumbnail of the image on its built-in liquid crystal display, and the document can be sent directly to a printer or smart wireless handheld device via infrared port, or to a PC for e-mailing or e-faxing. The announced list price is $699.

Business Card Scanners.

Several small scanners specialize in reading business cards, using software that can send the information directly into an electronic personal information manager (PIM) on your desktop or PDA. Though just as expensive as many general-purpose scanners, the chief benefits of the card scanners are their small size and included OCR software, optimized to not only scan and convert the text, but make a good-faith effort to sort it out and insert the data into the appropriate fields of your PIM (information embedded in fancy graphic designs or displayed in a nontraditional manner tends to degrade accuracy). One such device is the Corex CardScan Plus 300, which has a street price of about $270.

If your practice results in collecting a drawer-full of business cards, you may want to consider getting one of these devices. While business card scanning software is available for and may be bundled with a standard scanner, the ease of use of a properly setup card scanner can’t be beat!

Label Printers.

Because standard printers do not handle envelopes very well, many law offices have added specialized label printers, such as the CoStar LabelWriter XL Turbo (about $250 street price), which do one and only one thing—print labels, which then can be attached to envelope or package. Properly configured on a network and set up as part of the firms’s document templates, a specialized label printer can save many trips back and forth to the printer to load envelopes.

There are also handheld battery- powered label printers available, such as the Brother P-touch Extra Electronic Labelers, that do not even require a computer, but offer quality printed labels wherever you happen to be, in a variety of sizes and styles.

Personal Multipurpose Devices.

To conserve desktop space and save money, some attorneys have turned to the multipurpose devices, which typically offer printing, scanning, copying and sometimes desktop FAXing and other capabilities, all using a single device. Designed for small office/home office (SOHO) use and not for high volume or quality performance, such devices may be satisfactory for the occasional use, at a price not much above that of a single-purpose device.

One group of such devices is the Brother Multi Function Center series. Some models offer color printing, color scanning, color copying, plain paper FAXing and even a voice messaging system, all for a street price of less than $900.

Used as a backup to your workhorse printer and FAX machine, such a device can prove invaluable, both for convenience and in case one or more of the primary fails in service. Using one as a primary device, however, exposes you to the possibility that a failure in that device could leave you dead in the water—no printer, copier or FAX machine!

Workgroup Multipurpose Printers.

There are also new workgroup devices, such as the Canon GP-series multifunction printers (MFPs), that offer network-integrated copying, scanning, printing and FAXing. MFPs offer the copy quality of a laser printer and the speed and paper-handling capacity of a copier, at a per-copy cost near that of a copier. MFPs also eliminate the need for trips from printer to copier in order to make multiple copies. Priced somewhat above the cost of a quality business copier (from about $3,000 to well over $10,000), such devices can add multiple functions to the office at a small additional price increment.

As above, though, you should be wary about putting too many office eggs in one basket. One of my goals when consulting on law office technology is to create, where possible, a planned office redundancy—if any particular device goes down, there should be at least one level of backup functionality. If the office depends solely on a MFP for all those functions, a single failure can bring the office to its knees—no printer, copier, FAX machine, etc. The good news is that an MFP can be used to back up almost all office functions in one device, but if the MFP is intended to be your main workhorse, you should plan to support each critical office function on separate devices.

Digitizer Tablets.

Primarily used by digital artists to convert pen strokes into sophisticated computer-generated graphics, digitizer tablets are beginning to find their way into the law office, as an alternative input device to mouse and trackball.

Of special interest to attorneys is the Cross Pen Computing Group’s CrossPad, a battery-operated device that can record 50 to 100 pages of entries made on a standard yellow pad in digital format. Weighing in at 2.2 pounds and with a list price of $399, the CrossPad’s Digital Pad holds a standard yellow pad, on which the Digital Pen can be used to record pen strokes, using a small RF (radio frequency) transmitter. The image data is then uploaded to the PC, using a serial port cable. The image can then be manipulated by the included IBM Ink Manager software, which can convert handwritten notes to digital format and preserve sketches in graphic format.

Early reviews indicate that handwriting recognition accuracy is about on par with earlier systems—you need to train it for best results, and those results are, at best, far from 100 percent. Even so, the CrossPad holds out the prospect of a natural bridge from our profession’s traditional work habits (after all, they are called legal pads for a reason!) to the digital revolution going on in our offices.

Conclusion

I hope this brief walk-through of gadgets and gizmos currently being field-tested by our profession’s innovators has been helpful to you. Although I have offered a few specific examples of such devices and even added the occasional personal recommendation, I have not attempted to be exhaustive in my listings, and my recommendations should not be viewed as an unqualified endorsement of any particular product over another.

Rather, my hope is that you will instead begin to consider whether adding one or more of these devices to your practice will work for you. Before taking the plunge, I’d strongly recommend doing your homework and consulting your colleagues and local technical consultants. In any event, I’d welcome any feedback you care to offer about these or any other gadgets and gizmos you use in your practice—my e-mail address is sgtyler@erols.com. Good luck! n

Steven G. Tyleris of counsel with the Annapolis, Maryland, law firm of Hyatt, Peters & Weber, P.A., and provides technology consulting to attorneys and law firms as The Computer Counselor.

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