GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide - June 2006

How to Be Mobile on the Cheap

When my wife decided to open a solo law practice, she was excited about being her own boss. She looked forward to focusing her attention on getting work done, rather than worrying about “face time” in the office. Then reality hit. Yes, she was the only person she had to impress, but she was also the only person to do the work. Some weeks, that meant multiple after-hours trips back to the office, leaving a newborn daughter at home and missing precious sleep. Adding an assistant helped get the phones answered, but collaboration added confusion to scheduling and workflow. I, the family tech geek, set out to find a technological solution.

What Is Mobile Lawyering?

Mobile lawyering involves the ability to get substantive legal work done while away from the lawyer’s primary computer. It is an integrated approach to keeping a lawyer productive as long as there is access to a computer and a network connection. The basic components are:

Reliable and fast connection to the Internet

Software enabling access to information on a server

A server computer to act as the home base for information

Client computer(s) to access the information on the server

What can you do with a mobile lawyering solution? A mobile lawyering solution includes the ability to perform essential lawyering tasks while you are away from your primary workstation:

Receiving and sending e-mail

Using your calendar and task lists

Accessing, creating, and editing documents

Internet Connection

Annie Attorney Says:

Even on a tight budget, you can still benefit from mobile lawyering technology.

The most critical component of any mobile lawyering solution is a reliable and fast Internet connection. All high-speed Internet connections are not created equal. The Internet connection is the most fragile piece of the mobile lawyering puzzle, so it is worth paying more for reliability. Most cable Internet providers specifically prohibit using the connection to run a server unless you pay for a much more expensive tier of service. Many DSL providers impose the same limitations. You will need to read the providers’ terms of service carefully to determine what is permitted. We have received excellent service and support from Speakeasy DSL ( www.speakeasy.net), which has a national presence. Speakeasy offers unusually generous policies with regard to servers.

A static IP address is worth the additional cost, especially with DSL service. An IP address is your computer’s location on the Internet. A static IP address means that your computer is always at the same location in cyberspace. The alternative, a dynamic IP address, means that your service provider will change your cyberspace location at random intervals. The specific cyberspace location is irrelevant, but having the same location versus a changing location impacts the way your service provider recognizes that you are entitled to be connected to their network. With a static address, your provider simply recognizes that that particular address is entitled to access the network. Without a static IP, most DSL services use some form of PPPoE (Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet) to determine whether your computer has permission to access the network. PPPoE is a notoriously inconsistent technology that can result in connection dropouts (and always, it seems, at the most inconvenient times). Having a static IP is less critical if you have a cable connection because most cable Internet connections determine whether you’re entitled to access the network by reading the unique MAC (media access control) address of your network card, which is somewhat more reliable than PPPoE. Finally, although there are tools that will allow you to connect to a server without a static IP, having a static IP allows any tool to connect to your server more easily.

Expect to spend between $100 and $200 per month for a reliable and fast Internet connection that will allow you to operate a server. In our experience, a cable Internet connection is twice as expensive as a DSL connection with comparable flexibility and speed. Considerable variation on this point is likely across the country, however. Broadband Reports (www.broadbandreports.com) is a useful research tool to explore the best choice for your locale. (Our choice: Speakeasy DSL—3.0 MB download/768 KB upload for $89.95 per month).

Server Software and Hardware

The next decision is what server software to use. The best-known server software package for enabling mobile lawyering is Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 (SBS 2003), which includes Exchange Server. SBS 2003 provides a central file server where all documents can be stored and later accessed across the Internet using Windows SharePoint Services. It provides mobile access to calendar and contact information via Exchange Server and Outlook Web Access. SBS 2003 also introduced new tools to enhance mobile connectivity, but only for PocketPC devices. Basic server hardware from major online retailers with a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor and 1 GB of RAM, with SBS 2003 and licenses for up to five “clients” (i.e., remote computers) to access the server, costs approximately $1,200. You may be able to save money on the hardware by purchasing a refurbished computer, but refurbished machines that come with SBS 2003 pre-installed and valid client licenses are much more difficult to find than refurbished workstations.

Setup for SBS 2003 has been simplified by the inclusion of a plethora of wizards that walk the user through various setup processes, but SBS 2003 administration is still relatively complex; it’s probably worth the cost of hiring a consultant. Setting up an SBS 2003 system requires customized work on both the server machine and the workstations that will be connecting to the server. Darren McClung, an IT consultant based in Kansas City, Missouri, estimates that the technician costs for setting up an SBS 2003 server and two client machines would be at least $500 (4.5 to 5 hours of technician time). Total estimated cost for an SBS 2003 solution: $1,700.

Linux provides an interesting alternative to Microsoft’s SBS 2003. On the Linux platform, the actual mobility software is a separate package from the operating system. My favorite Linux software for mobile lawyering is DeskNow ( www.desknow.com). DeskNow provides a web-based interface through which client computers running almost any operating system can access e-mail, calendars, contacts, message boards, and files—it even includes a secure instant messaging component. A computer configured as a Linux/DeskNow server costs approximately $650 from major online retailers, with much of the savings attributable to not needing a server operating system license. You may be able to save some money by purchasing a refurbished machine from a reliable online vendor such as Dell ( www.dell.com) or HP ( www.hpshopping.com). The operating system that ships with the machine you buy is irrelevant, as it will be replaced with a Linux installation.

A five-user DeskNow license costs only $150. McClung notes that the labor costs to set up a Linux server would be significantly less than for setting up an SBS 2003 server. The Linux installation is more streamlined because the configuration is more centralized. In addition, DeskNow requires significantly less client-side configuration. He gave a rough estimate of $250 or approximately 2.5 hours of time. Total estimated cost for a Linux/DeskNow solution: $1,050 (a 62 percent savings over SBS 2003).

The $650 upfront savings over the SBS 2003 solution is further magnified by the lower estimated costs of continuing support and the availability of necessary tools for free on Linux. For example, ClamAV for virus scanning is free for Linux. A comparable SBS 2003 anti-virus package will run at least $150 and will require licenses to be repurchased on a periodic basis to continue receiving virus signature updates. Linux plus DeskNow is a great way to save money without compromising functionality. You should be prepared to learn some basic Linux commands from your consultant or be content with paying the consultant to handle basic maintenance tasks.

Remote Access: The “No New Hardware” Solution

Remote access (sometimes also called remote control) software has been used in lawyers’ offices for almost as long as computers have had modems. Remote access involves directly connecting a client computer to a host computer in the office. The machine in the office does almost all of the actual computing work. The machine in front of you is merely acting as a “viewer” of that remote machine.

All remote access solutions work roughly the same way at their core. They are “screen scrapers.” The remote access software “scrapes” a picture of what your office computer’s desktop looks like at a particular snapshot in time and sends that picture across the network connection to the remote computer. When you interact with the view of your work desktop on the monitor of your remote computer, you’re actually interacting with that snapshot. Then the interaction is transmitted back to the computer in your office. All of that translation back and forth inevitably introduces lag, no matter how fast the connection is between the two machines. Also, some software programs, in particular those that operate in conjunction with databases, cannot be operated well via remote access (if they can be operated at all).

Remote access is, however, unequivocally the cheapest mobile lawyering tool available. Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is a built-in feature of Windows XP. Virtual Network Computing (VNC) is an open-source alternative to RDP that brings RDP-like functionality to Mac and Linux computers as well as Windows machines. Commercial software packages, which provide some additional tools that are not included in the remote access protocol programs, include Laplink (downloadable for $109.95 from www.laplink.com) and PCAnywhere (which should begin shipping its latest release as this goes to print for about $200, www.symantec.com/small_business/products). The commercial packages are most useful for keeping a laptop computer working in sync with a desktop machine, as opposed to pure remote access.

Finally, web-based services are available that provide remote access. LogMeIn ( www.logmein.com) provides remote access for $69.95 per year per PC being accessed. GoToMyPC ( www.gotomypc.com) sells a similar service for $179.40 per year per PC being accessed. Both services require the web-based service’s software to be installed on the computer you wish to access over the Internet. These services are particularly useful if you decide not to get a static IP Internet connection, as their software manages to keep up with the changes to your dynamic IP address so that you can connect via the service without knowing the current address yourself. Also, because any file editing is being done on the machine that’s being accessed, there is no need to have any particular software on the accessing machine in order to edit files. However, that can be as much a curse as a blessing. If the file being edited causes the computer to lock up, it is the server that will lock up—possibly necessitating the very trip back to the office that the remote access software was being used to avoid.

If you’re a true solo practitioner, with no office staff, remote access software may be sufficient to fulfill the promise of mobile lawyering. The biggest weakness of remote access is that it does not provide any way to share calendaring and files with another lawyer or an assistant. On the other hand, both DeskNow and SBS 2003 include the ability to remotely access your information and to share that information.

Desktops, Laptops, and PDAs: The Client End of the Equation

Any of the solutions discussed here—SBS 2003, DeskNow, and remote access—will work with almost any desktop or laptop at the client end. The only real differences are which computer is doing the heavy lifting. If you’re using SBS 2003 or DeskNow, most of the heavy lifting—at least when you’re working with files—is done by the client computer. The server merely provides access to a file that is then edited by the client computer—which means that the client computer must have installed the necessary software to edit the file. With remote access, as discussed above, the client computer is really only a viewer. Therefore, all of the editing is actually taking place at the server computer’s end. The computer that is serving as a remote client needs only to have the ability to access the Internet. Additionally, all functions of DeskNow and most functions of SBS 2003 can be utilized by Apple’s Macintosh computers. There is VNC software that can be installed on Macs, and the online remote access services have some support for Macs.

One way to extend the mobile lawyering paradigm is to add a personal digital assistant (PDA) to the mix. SBS 2003, DeskNow, and even LogMeIn have interfaces that allow you to access your system via a PDA running PocketPC software. Palm software is not as well supported, although a Palm device can by synchronized with either SBS 2003 or DeskNow (via SyncML add-on software). Convergence devices (PDAs with cellular telephone and, therefore, networking built in) have great potential as mobile lawyering devices, but they cannot be recommended at this time—at least not for litigators. Too many courts continue to ban cell phones from the courthouse, without exceptions for PDAs (even if the phone features can be turned off). The value of a PDA in the mobile lawyering paradigm is that it extends access to information—especially calendar and contact information—to locations where the lawyer does not have access to a full-featured computer.

Conclusion

Before deciding on a mobile lawyering solution, carefully assess who will make use of your system and how they will use it. If all you really need is occasional access by one user to calendar information or the odd file, then using a free remote access tool may provide what you need for no cost at all. But if you regularly will be doing substantive work while away from your main computer in the office, or if you need to share calendars, contacts, and files with another person, then a more robust system based on SBS 2003 or DeskNow would be worthwhile. Whichever method you use, the one place that you absolutely cannot scrimp on is a fast and reliable Internet connection.

There are ways to save money with a true mobile lawyering solution, especially one based on Linux/DeskNow. But remember that “cost” is more than just cash. Include in your cost/benefit analysis the fuel costs saved by not making additional trips to the office and the time spent with children instead of staying late at the office (you can always hop online and finish the work after they’re in bed). A reliable mobile lawyering system can enhance your productivity and improve your quality of life.

 

Aaron J. Rittmaster is an attorney and technology geek in Kansas City, Missouri. He can be reached at ajritz@gmail.com.

 

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