GPSOLO December 2009
Hardware That Automates Routine Office Tasks
Supercharge Your Law Office for Power and Portability
Sitting on the western shore of Frye Island in Sebago Lake, Maine, I am writing this article with my counterpart, Jared Correia, who is using virtually (although not really virtually) the same equipment from his office in Boston. Personally, I don’t feel the need to rush back to my office and its related distractions anytime soon. There’s a time and a place for everything, but one must always be cognizant of work-life balance in order to keep working at peak efficiency.
Using four mobile, and relatively inexpensive, pieces of technology, I have brought my office with me to Maine. I have the power to work when I want, how I want, and where I want, free from the stressors that might otherwise bog me down. These power-packed necessities are my laptop, desktop scanner, portable printer, and smart phone. Even while on a remote island, situated in the middle of a lake in rural Maine, I don’t miss a call to the office, an e-mail from a client, or a snail mail letter (which gets scanned in by my staff and immediately shows up in my phone’s in-box). From my “office away from my office,” any hard-copy document I receive gets immediately scanned into my laptop with one push of a button. Using Adobe Acrobat, my files are saved using a simple, yet effective naming convention. Once stored, Acrobat allows me to do an array of legal wonders, including assembling multiple files in different formats, marking up documents to highlight certain items or safely redact others, and even e-mailing the new combined file to multiple recipients.
On a small island with no paved roads, economy is the key, and a little knowledge of some very important legal tech tools goes a long way. It’s as if I’ve been working from my office in Wellesley, Massachusetts, all along. Back in Boston, using the same four units, Jared is working the same exact way. If Jared needs to work from the road, these four devices go along with him.
Although this article could easily become a discourse on how we can all cut overhead by practicing on our porches, it is more prudent to discuss instead a few specific items of technology that will pack a punch in your practice, specifically: your computer, smart phone, and scanning, printing, and faxing options. These are the tools in which you should consider investing wisely, as they are vital pieces of hardware that will make you more powerful, efficient, and thus more profitable.
The most essential office hardware for the modern law firm is the one that is frequently overlooked. Just as the sun rises every day, your computer appears on your desk day after day. Much like the sun, you’d notice if your computer wasn’t there one day; and, much like the sun, everything in your office revolves around the functioning of your computer. It is the central hub of your work’s solar system: where you access your e-mail and calendar; where you print from; where you scan to; how you access documents and the web; where your software lives; and where your smart phone is ultimately tethered, whether wired or wirelessly. Fortunately, we don’t have to think of the sun’s rising and setting. Unfortunately, many of us don’t think enough of our office computers.
Whether you are purchasing a new computer or replacing an old, outdated model, you must keep two considerations at the forefront when imagining your “next best thing”: (1) What is it? and (2) What’s in it? Of course, you are buying a computer, but what kind—a desktop or a laptop? The essence of the desktop-versus-laptop debate comes down to the question of portability. If you are frequently out of the office or in court and still need access to your computer while you are away, a laptop is likely your answer. If you are the jockey for your desk, if your practice is not meeting intensive, and if you don’t make many court appearances, a desktop is likely your answer. If you review your finances with a fine-toothed comb and are willing to sacrifice a certain level of convenience for the bottom line, you’ll save some money in the purchase of a desktop. Portability does not come cheap, whether you’re talking laptop computers or the price of petroleum.
Netbooks have been touted as cheaper alternatives to traditional computers. A netbook is merely a type of laptop for you to consider. It is a smaller, cheaper, less powerful version of a traditional laptop that may or may not run Windows and that has a small keyboard. Netbooks are not powerful enough for robust business use. If you really want portability without sacrificing power, stick with a traditional laptop and get what you pay for. Of course, this is not to say that you can’t mix and match. If you want to purchase a desktop and want a netbook for running around, too—well, that is certainly within your prerogative.
Although the advocacy here is squarely in the corner of the purchase of a traditional desktop or laptop, don’t be afraid to think outside the box when choosing what’s in it. Don’t buy a machine out of the box and let “the man” tell you what sort of computer you need. Order, instead, a custom-built machine, designed to suit your needs.
If you have no idea where to start, consider the recommended specifications in the sidebar above. And if you really want to gussy up your new purchase, consider a couple of apparent luxury items that are becoming more and more necessary by the day: Use a second monitor hookup and watch your productivity skyrocket; get a wireless air card for Internet access wherever you are, regardless of the physical network availability on-site.
>2.20 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo or Quad or Athlon X-2 Series Dual-Core
>2.50 GHz Pentium Core 2 Duo or Quad or Athlon X-2 processors
At least 2 GB, preferably 4
At least 2 GB, preferably 4
At least 120 GB and 7,200 rpm
At least 160 GB SATA and 7,200 rpm
Vista Business with Windows 7 Upgrade
Vista Business with Windows 7 Upgrade
10/100/1,000 wired Ethernet LAN and 802.11 a/b/g/n standards wireless
10/100/1,000 wired Ethernet LAN and 802.11 a/b/g/n standards wireless
Stick with the brands with good reputations, such as Toshiba, Lenovo, Dell, etc. Read the reviews.
Get your own speakers. Make sure that you have enough USB slots for your intended uses.
Think of your smart phone as your “office in your pocket.” Evolving from the original combination cellular phone and PDA configuration, the prevailing generation of the smart phone is one that has visited upon the earth the beginning of the epoch of the all-in-one device-of-all-trades. The more sophisticated these devices have become, the more they become like a small-form computer that you can carry around with you. A smart phone allows you access to just about everything you have on your computer, in the palm of your hand. Wherever you are, it will let you find whatever you need. Smart phones grant access to your e-mails, your tasks (lists and alarmed reminders), and your calendar. You’ll also be able to view and edit documents on the fly. And phone applications allow you to carry along with you some of your favorite desktop applications and programs, in baby form. As the line between personal computer and smart phone becomes increasingly blurred, leading to the point where the only difference may be size, we’ll have to think of a new name, one not so limiting as to include the term phone.
The smart phone is fast becoming an essential device for lawyers. A variety of smart phone choices continues to exist. Speaking only of the most recent, most sought-after editions, the iPhone 3GS ( www.apple.com), the BlackBerry Storm (no more rolling and scrolling; www.blackberry.com/blackberrystorm), the Google my-Touch ( www.t-mobilemytouch.com), and the Palm Pre ( www.palm.com) are the foremost flagship devices. The constraints of the topic of this article do not allow for the space necessary for a full-length debate over the relative merits of the various “smartest phones.” But this is an area where you should do your best to “road test” a unit before purchasing. A good place to start is Mobile-Tech-Review ( www.mobiletechreview.com), a site that provides the most up-to-date reviews of all smart phones, even those not yet released.
As a final admonition, keep in mind that a smart phone is only as good as the degree to which it is synced. Aim for a one-entry system, a true sync. If you are deleting a message from your BlackBerry and then are forced to delete the same messages from the in-box on your work computer when you return to the office, you are only accessing your e-mail remotely, not processing your e-mail remotely. Redundancy is an enemy of efficiency; the use of your smart phone will remain inefficient unless your actions in one place take effect in every place.
Scanners, Printers, and Faxes
This trio of products, taken together, might sound like the name of a law firm; in any event, the correct use of these products can help you run your law firm better, faster, and smarter. These power-packed essentials form the basis of the efficient and prompt storage and transmission of documents. But before you can know which particular products to use, and how best to use them, you need to ask yourself three important questions: (1) How portable do I want my practice to be? (2) What is it that I am actually trying to accomplish with these three products? and (3) How much can I afford?
Scanners should combine with other essential technologies to form the bedrock of your office. Although there are a wide range of possibilities for purchasing sheet-fed scanners or for adding scanning options to those big, clunky printers/copiers/scanners that office product salespersons are always trying to sell, law offices are quickly converting to desktop scanning. Desktop scanning allows attorneys to perform most of the duties they used to perform on larger printers/copiers/scanners right from their desks, thereby saving significant downtime once spent getting up, running to the unit, waiting for the copies and/or scans, and returning, only then performing whatever tasks need to be performed with the hard copy.
We are partial to the Fujitsu ( www.fujitsu.com) and Kodak ( www.kodak.com) series of scanners because some of the more powerful Fujitsus come bundled with Adobe Acrobat 9 and some of the larger Kodaks come bundled with Nuance products, such as PaperPort and OmniPage. These rockets scan a number of documents at a time, even if the paper sizes are different. When a document has been scanned, a pop-up appears on your screen, asking what function you would like to perform. From this screen, you can: (1) save the document; (2) convert it to Word, Excel, or Power-Point; (3) print the document; or (4) e-mail the document. Flagship scanners the Fujitsu Scan-Snap S1500 and Kodak i1120 will fit in a medium-sized camera bag and will each cost around $450. The Fujitsu S300 is cheaper and smaller, able to be tucked away in a laptop bag. For those using a laptop but wishing to use a true keyboard, Key-Scan has introduced the KS810-P ( http://keyscan.com), a color scanner embedded into a keyboard. Although not as fast as the flagship Fujitsu and Kodak scanners, it performs the same menu functions as the former.
When it comes to fax solutions, practicality and cost are the two main questions to consider. Small business servers, such as Microsoft Small Business Server 2008 ( www.microsoft.com), come with bundled fax software. Most lawyers, however, will still use the traditional method of sending and receiving faxes by maintaining a dedicated fax machine. There are certainly benefits to having a dedicated machine, but lawyers should be aware of the maintenance costs involved, as well as the cost of providing a dedicated phone line for the unit. Many lawyers are moving toward e-faxing solutions, which use an online fax service provider to convert fax transmissions to digital files that can be converted, sent via e-mail, and easily stored. Senders are still able to send files of any type, in just the same way that they have always done; however, replacing the scream and whine of the traditional fax machine on the recipient’s side is an e-mail—the faxed document processed via the online fax provider. Numerous other benefits attain, as well. First, there is no maintenance, repair, or downtime. Second, e-faxing is clearly more portable than traditional methods of faxing. While in court, on vacation, or working from home, you can send or receive a fax with a few clicks of the mouse. Third, e-faxing saves money and paper. You never have to make copies of a document to fax out. You never have to print a fax that you want to file away. You never have to receive that spam fax telling you that you just won a three-day vacation to Disney World. You never have to change your toner cartridge. Your phone bill will be reduced because you’re no longer paying for a dedicated fax line. FaxCompare.com provides an updated, “apples to apples” comparison of the top providers of online fax services.
Printers, the draft horses for so many lawyers and law firms, come in many shapes and sizes. Before buying, lawyers should consider their specific uses for printers in order to make purchases that will truly meet their needs, within budgetary constraints. If the lawyer, or firm, does a high volume of printing, then a bigger unit will be needed. If, having considered your carbon footprint and having learned to effectively use scanners for filing documents, you have reduced your printing and copying load, a smaller unit works just as well. A word to the wise, however—make every effort to go with a laser system, rather than an ink-jet system. The cost of ink is considerably greater than the cost of toner. Although my practice is portable, I do have a fixed printer in my office. It’s an HP LaserJet CP1215 color printer ( www.hp.com). For about $250, it does everything I need and want, printing 12 black-and-white sheets or ten color sheets per minute. It cannot be networked, however; you’d have to move up to the CP3505 to network it.
In my streamlined office, lurking somewhere in my laptop bag, is a 1.12-pound Pentax Pocket-Jet 3 portable printer ( www.pentaxtech.com). It’s a bit pricey, at $450; but it’s there whenever I need to print. And because it’s a thermal printer (meaning that you do have to use thermal paper), I never have to worry about a cartridge running out. For about $200 less, you can purchase an HP Office-Jet H470, which is about three times larger than the Pentax but which will print in both color and black and white. The HP comes standard with two USB connections, and both wireless and Bluetooth connectivity is optional.
If you want all of these goodies in one stand-alone unit (which clearly won’t make you very mobile), there is an array of all-in-one machines for your purchasing pleasure. One such product is the Brother MFC-7840W ( www.brother-usa.com), a fine multi-purpose unit which, for roughly $300, will provide you a monochrome scanner, fax, and copier, handling about 25 one-sided pages per minute. It also provides both wireless and USB interface but cannot be networked with other computers. When considering an all-in-one, think of the purchase the same way that you would the purchase of a combo TV/DVD/VCR unit—if one goes down and needs repairing, it all goes down. You lose the lot.
When it comes to setting up a supercharged automated law office, considering the end result should be the criteria for coming up with the means to get there. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish with your practice and how much capital you have to accomplish your goals. Once this is decided, consider how these pieces of hardware fit into your practice model.
You’ll find yourself working when you want, where you want, and, most important, how you want. Sebago Lake is a nice place. Perhaps, next summer, you can pull up a chair, too.
Alan J. Klevan, Esq., practices workers’ compensation law in the three-attorney firm Klevan & Klevan, LLP, in Wellesley, Massachusetts; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jared D. Correia, Esq., is a law practice management advisor for the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program; he may be reached at email@example.com.