GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide - June 2006

Software and Utilities for Mobile Lawyering

When you think about it, lawyers deal in information. Clients bring us information, which we combine with more of the same from other sources. Whether correspondence, contracts, pleadings, or trial, lawyers deliver information. With a laptop computer and the right software and utilities, mobile lawyering means you can have practically all your practice-related information at your fingertips when you’re away from your office.

Lawyers have been mobile, taking practice-related information with them, for as long as there have been lawyers. In times past, taking your information with you meant physically taking files (sometimes boxes and boxes of documents), grabbing your calendar and address book, and perhaps tossing in a couple of pertinent books. Mobile lawyering could mean a trip down the hall to the conference room, across town to another law firm, the courthouse, or a client’s office, or a trip across the country. Today, technology allows you to take your practice-related information wherever you go. Practice-related information, whether transactional or litigation, consists of client files, case management system data, time and billing records, library or reference materials, and—if you’re a litigator—tools for litigation.

Personal computers have changed the way we think of “mobile lawyering.” In the pre-PC era, mobile attorneys loaded up all the books and paper files they could carry and went off lawyering. Today, personal computers serve as the portal to vast amounts of information that lawyers use in their practices. Time and billing records, calendars, address books, legal research, and client documents are regularly accessed by way of personal computer. When you cast-off from the dock of the personal computer, you set sail on the voyage of mobile lawyering.

Annie Attorney Says:

Before heading out on the road, make sure your mobile systems are up to the challenge.

Mobile lawyering means different things to different people. First, consider the solo attorney with no staff or associates, who operates with a single computer. If that computer happens to be a desktop model, about the most this lawyer can hope for will be to access the office computer from another computer at a different location. Now, consider the solo attorney with no staff or associates, who operates with a laptop computer. This lawyer has the same gateway to information whether in the office or on the road (assuming he or she has access to the Internet). Finally, consider the solo attorney with staff, or the small firm practitioner, who uses a laptop computer and shares information and Internet access in the office through a local area network. This last group provides the perspective for what follows about mobile lawyering.

The single most important tool of the mobile lawyer, the laptop computer allows you to take with you what others must leave at the office. Computers, laptops included, are wonderful devices for storing information. Client files, law libraries, discovery documents, and the like are but various forms of information. Information that can be taken almost anywhere on a laptop computer. For the mobile lawyer, the laptop computer should replace the desktop computer. First, familiarity improves efficiency and effectiveness. Using the same computer in and out of the office, day in and day out, keeps you familiar with the keyboard layout, customization (toolbars, macros, etc.), and individual quirks (yes, most computers have peculiarities and quirks). Second, using just one computer reduces the cost of software and hardware ownership. Third, synchronizing network files to the laptop builds redundancy into your backup routine.

Understanding what counts for mobile lawyering and that the laptop computer stands as the main if not necessary tool, it’s time to look at the role of software and utilities for communications, Internet access, data synchronization, sending and receiving documents, maintenance/support/service, and remote access.

Communications

Electronic mail has become the medium for written communication by mobile lawyers. If you still rely on the fax machine for electronically transmitted written communication, please leave the twentieth century behind and join your colleagues in the new millennium.

The type of electronic mail application you use will have some bearing on your mobile lawyering. On the one hand, if you use a POP (post office protocol) or MAPI (messaging application programming interface) electronic mail application, such as Eudora or Outlook or those built into practice management applications (Time Matters, Amicus Attorney, PracticeMaster, Abacus Law, etc.), then generally you must have your computer to access your mail. On the other hand, if you use web-based electronic mail (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, etc.), then you can send and receive messages from any Internet-connected computer with a web browser.

Practice management integrated electronic mail (POP or MAPI) provides the best solution for mobile lawyers. This type of electronic mail application allows you to associate messages with contacts or matters to better manage your practice. Practice management applications include a feature that allows you to send and receive messages while out of the office and then synchronize the remote (mobile) to the host (office) so that all changes are combined.

Internet Access

It may not be in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct, but mobile lawyers should always use a high-speed Internet connection. Forget dial-up. If your interest in mobile lawyering goes only so far as working from home, and the telephone and cable television companies have not yet reached your neighborhood with high-speed Internet, consider one of the satellite providers (StarBand, Skycasters, WildBlue, or HughesNet). If you aspire to greater levels of mobility, then look to WiFi, Ethernet connections, or the cellular telephone networks for Internet access.

Data Synchronization

Before delving into data synchronization, we need to describe two broad categories of data (information) found in law offices. First, we have the information in our client files. If you have a paper-free practice, this will include all documents in all your client files. If you have a partially paper-free practice, then at least all the documents you generate for a client exist in electronic form on your system—you’re not still using a typewriter, are you? Think of these client file documents as being static. In other words, they are not regularly accessed by more than one person throughout the day. Contrast static client files with the dynamic files associated with time and billing, litigation databases, and practice management applications. These files are dynamic, typically changing throughout the day as various users in the office enter time, create or modify address records, or schedule events or deadlines. The means for synchronizing static files differs from the preferred method for synchronizing dynamic files.

Dynamic data synchronization. For those who use a practice management application, your calendar, address book, and other key collections of information are paper free. Virtually all practice management applications allow you to synchronize between remote and host applications. Likewise, litigation support applications such as CaseMap, Summation, and LiveNote also have features that allow you to “check out” a copy of the data associated with a particular case, work on it away from the office (even while someone back at the office makes changes to the same case data), then synchronize all changes when you return.

Given the dynamic nature of the files associated with litigation and practice management applications, the preferred method of synchronization employs features that are built into those programs. The built-in synchronization features create a replica or clone (a special copy of the data files) that merges back into the master or host copy (the main set of data on the office network). Where some applications use the host-clone or master-replica terminology, others may use different labels. The idea remains the same. Synchronization merges the changes made to the information in a replica or clone back into the master or host. With this type of synchronization, you can make additions and updates to the data files when away from the office while people back at the office can make changes to the master or host version. When the replica or clone returns to the office, it can be synchronized with the master or host version of the data files, thereby automatically melding changes made in the replica or clone with changes made in the master or host.

Static data synchronization. When you bring together a paper-free practice with data synchronization software, you hit the mobile lawyering jackpot. Even if you don’t have a paper-free office, many aspects of your practice are paper free. A paper-free practice allows you to take all client files wherever you go. Laptop computers put an end to hauling boxes of documents to depositions, hearings, and trials. By storing all documents for each matter in Portable Document Format (PDF), vast quantities of information can be weightlessly transported to where it will or may be needed. An inexpensive utility, Network/Unplugged by Mobiliti (www.mobiliti.com) handles static data synchronization flawlessly.

Network/Unplugged will create on the laptop computer an exact copy of any network drive or folder and then ask whether to synchronize that drive or folder each time the laptop logs onto or off of the network, creating a great backup of work files in the process. When out of the office (off the network), the laptop will continue to “see” the network drives or folders as though actually connected. In this way, for example, a file saved in the network folder X:\ClientFiles\Smith\Pleadings (where “X:\” represents a mapped network drive) will be available whether the computer happens to be in the office attached to the network or on the road unconnected to the office network. In Windows Explorer the network drives appear as though the computer was connected to the network and the files in the selected folders are available. Tell an application to open a file (typically Control+O or File > Open), and the File Open dialog box shows the virtual network drive or drives. Changes made to files while off the network can be synchronized at the next log-on. This utility also can be used on desktop PCs to provide a regular backup of selected files. Doing so provides an additional benefit: If the network goes down, the desktop PC has a relatively recent version of all the selected files. Those files can be worked with and synchronized when the network comes back to life.

File synchronization can also be accomplished using the Offline Files feature in Microsoft Windows (Windows 2000 and later). Other applications provide functions similar to Offline Files and Network/Unplugged; most do not replicate network connections, however.

Sending and Receiving Documents

You don’t need an FTP server or file transfer program to send and receive documents—use electronic mail. But don’t send your work product to opposing counsel or clients in the native application format (e.g., WordPerfect or Microsoft Word). Send files in PDF. By using PDF files, you retain control over document content and usage. Concerns about the manipulation of work product are controlled because you can set usage restrictions that limit what the recipient can do with the PDF file.

Many legal professionals view paper documents as inherently more trustworthy than digital documents. Correspondence, contracts, and pleadings often bear original signatures, but just as often they are only photocopies. Every day, however, lawyers distribute electronic versions of documents and ask others to accept and act upon them with the same confidence that they have in paper. Relying on electronic documents instead of paper can speed up processes, improve the distribution of information, and lower costs for lawyers, clients, and courts. Unfortunately, electronic documents—like their paper counterparts—can be vehicles for mischief, making some people distrustful of electronic documents. Just as methods and systems developed over time for justifying trust in paper documents, so, too, have processes evolved to give confidence in electronic documents. One method for improving the security, and thereby trustworthiness, of electronic documents comes from using PDF files.

Adobe Acrobat provides information security in the legal setting by restricting access to PDF files. Think of Acrobat security like home security. Just as you lock your doors to prevent someone from entering your house without permission, you can use Acrobat security features to lock a PDF file. For instance, you can use passwords to restrict others from opening, printing, or editing PDF files. You can use digital signatures to certify the authenticity of PDF files, and you can encrypt PDF files so that only an approved list of people can open them. If you want to save security settings so you can easily apply them again later, you can create a security policy that stores the settings. For example, you can establish a security policy that requires a password to open a PDF file and give these settings a name (save them as a security policy), so that this particular password-security can be applied to documents with the click of your mouse. Then share the password with the client or co-counsel by way of some form of secure communication.

A couple of short war stories illustrate the point. Some years ago a client asked for a lease and that it be sent in Word-Perfect format. Only one lease was ever sent because thereafter the client had the work product to do with as she pleased. Applying the lesson learned, a few years later a client was in a hurry to form a new corporation (the client promised that he would have lots of legal business). The documents were forwarded in PDF but password protected such that they could only be viewed on the computer screen (the documents could not be copied or printed). A printable fee agreement and engagement calling for a modest retainer were sent along with the documents, with instructions to print, sign, and return the fee agreement with the retainer. A month passed with no word from the client until he called complaining that the corporate documents could only be viewed on the computer. When told that he would receive printable versions when the fee agreement and retainer arrived at the law office, the client did the right thing.

Maintenance, Support, and Service

By now you should be thinking that when done right, mobile lawyering hardly differs from practicing in the office. That said, you need to keep your mobile computer in top shape through regular operating system and software application updates, as well as habitual hard disk drive defragmentation. Create and use Bookmarks or Favorites in web browsers to facilitate easy access to support knowledge bases for frequently used applications and hardware.

Remote Access

Some folks view remote access as the holy grail of mobile lawyering. Although it may be useful in certain situations, other lawyers find it less than compelling. Applications like GoToMyPC ( www.gotomypc.com) and Laplink ( www.laplink.com) allow access to remote computers but—by definition—require an Internet-connected computer at both ends. This mobile lawyering solution works to access the office PC from home or other Internet-connected computers. The home-office connection can be dependable, but accessing an office computer from other remote locations can be problematic. Virtual private networking (VPN) also provides remote access, but even with mid-range DSL connection speeds (around 500 bps), large file transfers are not practical. Better to take your files with you using one or more of the synchronization techniques mentioned above.

Information to Go

In the end, lawyering, to a large extent, involves dealing with information. A laptop computer combined with the right software and utilities means lawyers can take all their practice-related information with them wherever they go.

 

David L. Masters practices law in Montrose, Colorado, and can be reached at dlm@masterslawfirm.com.

 

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