General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionMagazine

The Portable Law Office

or The New Meaning of Small

By Richard Rodgers

Abe Lincoln would have felt at home in my first law office, a two-room walk-up in a small western North Carolina town.

The electric lights would have been new to him ("Now we can work at night!"). Also the typewriter and its evolutionary add-on, carbon paper. At first glance, Abe wouldn’t have recognized the telephone either, but on closer inspection it was very similar to the telegraph that he and his generals used for their daily communications.

When you looked at the core stuff of my 1971 law practice, the books, forms and methods of delivering legal services were virtually unchanged from the small-town law practice Lincoln left in 1860.

Yet one part of lawyering had already changed a lot. Five score and eleven years earlier, Abe’s practice had been an itinerant one; he and his colleagues of the bar (including the judges) were "circuit riders." Like today’s professional wrestlers, Abe & Co. traveled town to town, dispensing their services to a needy public.

By 1971, we simply didn’t do that anymore. Why? By then, the tools of the trade needed to deliver legal services had grown far too much to truck around casually. Consequently, the typical lawyer’s practice became restricted to (perhaps) a few nearby counties. The physical ponderousness of The Law kept us from ranging too far from our base of support. Our "stuff" made us practice law like satellites locked into a perpetual orbit around an inert but essential mass. Thus endeth the days of Abe’s circuit riding.

Ahead to the Past

Comes now the notebook PC, a five-pound marvel of miniaturization and opportunity. It makes possible the truly portable office and simultaneously revives circuit riding as a viable way of life for today’s practitioners. While we’ve been practicing law, the world has again changed.

Today, perched on the edge of a new millennium, my law office works just like yours. The big difference is that my office weighs less than 20 pounds (including support staff!), fits comfortably under the singularly uncomfortable seat of today’s air traveler, and doesn’t require homage to a $100-per-square-foot-per-year landlord. My office is wherever I am. And it isn’t a home-office&endash;it’s an everywhere office.

This yields two immediate benefits:

Clients don’t have to come to you to use your services . Instead, you can go to them. Your clients might really like that. Before you ask, "Are you sure?" please consider how many of your clients just live for the day they make that trip to your office.

Let’s see. There’s the drive to your place, finding (and perhaps paying for) parking, jostling with all sorts of folk while traversing by foot the last few (hundred?) yards to your door. While these same client-people gladly pay extra for the "G" rides at Disney World, I’ll bet some (most?) would actually pay a premium to forgo that equally thrilling round-trip to your doorstep.

Let’s be blunt: neither your present office&endash;nor any of mine from the past&endash;would ever qualify as a destination resort. Still unsure? Just ask your clients. I’ll wager my next month’s rent that they’ll tell you a trip to your place is as invigorating as a trip to the dentist’s&endash;but without the smell.

Your gross equals your net . Okay, that’s a bit of overstatement. But my portable law office is as close to a zero-overhead operation as you can get.

A portable lawyer’s overhead costs are limited to such incidentals as a license, ABA dues, malpractice insurance, stationery, library (less than $1,000) and communications costs. Unlike my offices of the past, the portable law practice doesn’t suffer the monthly hemorrhage of rent or support staff.

A fellow lawyer friend of mine, one with a real (read "traditional") law practice, told me once, "You get to eat what you kill!" I detected envy in his voice.

How It’s Done

The secret to "small" is right there on the shelves of any office supply superstore. You’ll want a slightly above-average notebook computer, portable printer/scanner combination, voice/fax/data/network card, some law books (on a CD/ROM, of course) and some good-quality blank paper stationery.

Budget for $5,000. You won’t spend that much at first, but you’ll probably (and soon) add more software and some incidental hardware ( e.g., a real keyboard and a real monitor for wherever you find yourself doing the bulk of your secluded work).

Trial lawyers, particularly the personal injury type, might budget another $5,000-plus for a rock ‘em-sock ‘em video projector to make all those eye-candy presentations that today’s juries seem to love.

But no matter how you slice it, you can build an entire law office off the credit line of an entry-level Gold Card.

What About People?

In the ‘70s and ‘80s (when I was a much younger lawyer), law firm efficiency experts extolled the virtues of delegation.

"Amplify your productivity by getting others to do the non-legal tasks that must be done to deliver completed legal services to your clients," they said, ponderously.

So we hired people to help us. At one time in my practice career, my firm had a lawyer-to-support staff ratio of one to three. And, as the experts had promised, we did make money with this economic model.

In those days, our overhead devoured 60 percent of each dollar we earned; most of the money went to maintain the nine souls who looked after our three lawyers. As managing partner, I always worried how we’d support all these folks if the firm’s receipt fountain went suddenly dry for a few weeks.

Somehow, that never happened&endash;so, mercifully, we never lived the "how will we feed the mob" nightmare. But the fear nevertheless persisted as long as I had people working for me (or was that really the other way around?).

When used for delegation purposes, resource-absorbing employees have four functions:

Producers: They type the documents our clients need;

Directors: They line up witnesses (already subpoenaed, but often in need of a night-before reminder…), corral brokers, negotiate schedules with court functionaries, orchestrate closings, hound lenders for payoff figures, and generally make routine (but necessary) things happen.

Assemblers: They assemble facts ("Have this year’s taxes been paid yet?") and they assemble documents ( e.g., loan-closing packages).

gatekeepers: They direct the traffic and information flow into and often out of offices. Clients "pass through" these filtration systems, and clients often resent this.

So, at least during the ‘70s and ‘80s, delegation involved humans at both ends of the spectrum; there was a human delegator and a human delegatee. And just to make the point clearer, I’ll call these latter folk "carbon-based delegatees."

Now (on the brink of that millennium), there are two tools in the delegator’s arsenal&endash;two ways to get many routine jobs done: the old carbon-based method and the newer silicon-based one. But some things never change: Selecting the proper tool for the job is still the responsibility of management.

Replacing People With Computers

You might be surprised at how many of these formerly human functions a properly equipped silicon-based delegatee can do. Here’s a start for your consideration:

Producers: I’ve never learned to type. But I don’t need a typist to do my typing anymore. For openers, I’ve already "keyboarded" (or copied from existing electronic sources) most of the law document "content" I might need in the future (we used to call these things "forms" or more descriptively "go-bys"). Call it what you like; I’ve got all that right here on my PC&endash;and it’s ready to use. I’ve literally got several file cabinets, worth of work product sitting on my notebook’s hard drive; amazingly, an almost-full hard drive weighs the same as an empty one, so it’s no burden to carry all this accumulated knowledge with me. The point? You don’t need a carbon-based typist when 90 percent (or more) of the work is already in the silicon can.

Formbooks help writer’s-cramped lawyers produce acceptable client documents. Electronic formbooks do the same&endash;but they cut keyboarding activity to boot. So my form library includes 1,000 ready-to-edit forms from Capsoft’s General Practitioner’s Resource Disk. I consider this $100 collection more of a security blanket than a daily practice tool. To this I have added my very own collection of practice-specific forms. The combination is sublime.

For the record, here’s another trick to replace typists: speech recognition. I’ve tried it and I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. But for those of us who really must do some truly original and l-o-n-g text entry ( e.g., metes and bounds legal descriptions), perhaps speech recognition software will fill the bill. While today’s software might not be quite as good as the human it replaces, it definitely won’t fuss about working nights/weekends/ holidays&endash;and it never demands time off.

Directors: No, no PC can make the ground tremble like a call from Betty Currie or Perry Mason’s only slightly-more fictionalized Della Street. So if your practice demands a lot of such human-to-human whip-cracking, you might still need a human delegatee, or perhaps you might want to do this work yourself.

For the do-it-yourselfers, I’d suggest loading a lawyer’s personal information manager (a PIM in the trade) such as Amicus Attorney III on that notebook. PIMs dial the phone, time the call, hold your notes and even automatically schedule the next to-do event in your calendar.

Once connected, you’ll do the human-to-human directing; this will consume some of your time, but you’ll probably learn more about your client’s case from these calls than your secretary would ever glean and pass along (accurately) to you.

And here’s another benefit for the do-it-yourselfers: for those interested in "activity audit trails" (read CYA), I’ll bet a lawyer-driven PIM will do a better job of capturing everything you’ve done for a client than many (most?) of today’s legal assistants.

Assemblers: Here’s another do-it-yourself area. PIMs will help here, too. Also helpful will be the telephone connection powers of your notebook. But, when compared to its carbon-based competition, here’s where a competently set up and managed notebook PC is simply no match for an equally competent human assistant. Conclusion: If your practice area requires a lot of assembly ( e.g., building residential real estate closing packages), you’ll either have to do this assembly yourself or farm this task out to other humans (an Internet-based document-assembly service).

Gatekeeping: You might be surprised at how many gatekeeping chores your notebook&endash;when coupled with other aspects of modern communications technology&endash;can handle. A voice/fax/data modem can detect the type of caller ringing your line and, if it’s a human caller, launch into a voice-mail greeting:

"Welcome to the Law Offices of Rick Rodgers. If you’re in jail, press 1 …."

You and your notebook (or, better yet, a conventional PC running full time at your home) can record the time and (with local service caller ID) the calling number of everyone who rings you. You can program your telephone software to forward all voice mail messages automatically to you&endash;or to jingle your pager or cell phone as soon as a caller completes the message. For regular clients, you can establish private voice mailboxes. For prospective new clients, you could also have a fax-back service that could immediately send (by return fax) your firm brochure. I’ve even heard of systems that automatically gather your e-mail&endash;and, using text-to-speech software, actually read it to you when you call in to check for voice mail!

For lawyers engaged in a truly public (read "retail") practice, there will probably never be an electronic substitute for a physical office in a high-traffic location staffed full-time by competent receptionists. But the rest of us (who practice in a world where 80 percent of the work comes from fewer than 10 sources) might find that electronic gatekeeping makes our clients even happier than they are today. Why? Because these systems make us more accessible to them than ever before.

Conclusion

With two possible exceptions (the paper shredder and the postage meter) my 25-pound portable law office probably has all the lawyer stuff your conventional office is using right now. It’s also packing a lot of the functionality your support staff lends to your practice. Sure, there are some compromises (both ways&endash;I don’t have as much to worry about as you do!). But, at the end of the day, I’m satisfied that clients of portable lawyers will get as good a level and quality of professional service as I’ve ever been able to deliver the old way.

And there’s one other thing. Portable offices really do make your gross income and your net income very close to the same number. So how would you like to take home next year what you grossed in the office last year? Or perhaps a better question: How would you like to earn the same living next year that you did last year, but do it with half the client workload? That, my friends, is the really big news behind small computing n

Richard Rogers is a professor of law in Buies Creek, North Carolina. He can be reached at rodgers@webster.campbell.edu.

Shopping List for the Portable Law Office

Here's a do-it-yourself shopping list you may want to consider as a beginning. But please remember: This might not create the "perfect" portable law office for you; I offer it to you only to give you just an idea of the parts and prices.

Hardware

Notebook PC: Brand names, model numbers, configurations and (of course) prices change more frequently than pork-belly futures.

To get you started (and with an eye to potential post-sale support needs), try something either from the brand-name biggies (IBM, Toshiba, Gateway and Dell) or from the somewhat lower-priced, direct-mail-order wannabebiggies (Winbook).

If money is no object, try the fully-loaded IBM ThinkPad 770X at $5,000 w/DVD drive, 8mb hard drive and exquisite design.

Still pricey but a real fire-breather, the NEC Versa SX at $3,800 will take some time for you to outgrow.

For a really skinny but fully functional machine, look at the inch-thick Toshiba Portege 7000CT currently selling for $2,300 via a variety of mail-order stores. See if you can get the vendor to increase the RAM to 64mb. At that, its 233mz processor is just adequate for speech recognition&endash;but, at four pounds, it's a machine you won't consider visiting a court or client without.

For a fine machine with a brand name you can find only by mail order, a 300mz Winbook unit custom-configured for you at their Web site ( www.winbook.com) will be a serviceable investment. The real price will increase upward from the published "base" price of $999 (including built-in CD-ROM) as you flesh out the base machine with additional RAM, a modem, network card, etc.

Printer

We're finally getting some second-generation portable printers, but the market leaders are still the Hewlett-Packard and the Canon. The niftiest one I've seen so far is Canon's battery-operated, two-pound BJC-80 letter-quality, bubble-jet printer. It prints 5.5 black-and-white pages per minute for $350 (mail order). Another $100 will buy Canon's optional scanning cartridge&endash;and suddenly this little box becomes a scanner, too. Remember, some of us use our scanners with the printer to make a portable photocopier! (Just scan the document and then send the image to your printer. Presto, a copy! And the fingers never leave the hands.)

Imagine, for two pounds and $450, you get a printer, a copier and a scanner. Later, after recovering from your amazement, you'll probably want to upgrade the OCR software to a more fully featured (read "functional") version.

Scanner

For a separate scanning system, try Visioneer's three-pound Paperport Strobe at $170. You'll ultimately purchase an upgrade to the bundled (and functional, but very limited) OCR software. When you do, you'll have first-rate optical character recognition to go with a color scanner. The Visioneer product line has been a show-stopper every year for the past several ABA TechShow extravaganzas.

Modem, Fax, Network Card

The really top-of-the-line notebooks usually have these extras already built into them. But the rest of us must answer one question before opening our wallets for these accessories: Do we want to plug our notebooks into a LAN (ours or perhaps a client's)? If yes, consider getting a multi-functioned voice/fax/ modem/network card ( e.g., the $250 LAN+56K PC Card modem from 3-Com) instead of buying these functions in two such "cards."

A LAN-only card (such as the EtherFast 10/100 PCMCIA card) will cost as little as $85 by mail order. A fully-loaded 3-Com 56K Winmodem card sells at many mail-order sources for $160.

Software

Here's where the "P" in "PC" really shines. There's something very personal about software choices. But I promised you a fully functional law office, so I'll describe what works for me:

Applications Suite: I use Microsoft Office 97 Professional. Corel WordPerfect lovers, of course, wouldn't; this Yankees vs. Dodgers argument won't be solved here. No matter which one you select, neither should cost you anything like the $400 to $500 mail-order prices, since you're likely to get major parts of one suite or the other bundled into your new notebook when you buy it. The price to upgrade from the bundled suite to whatever else you may need is likely to be around $100.

Core Law Library:Every lawyer needs a core library that at minimum contains all the primary law from your state. In my state (North Carolina) that means all the published decisions from 1787 to present, the General Statutes, and the Administrative Code. All this comes on a two-CD-ROM set from several vendors. I'm currently using the LOIS product, and it costs $600 per year (not bad for the functional equivalent of about 600 printed law books&endash;or perhaps a ton of paper&endash;for less than $2 per day!). Similar products are available here in North Carolina from West and Michie. For those who need it, affordable federal law CD-ROM offerings are out there, too.

Core Forms and Document Assembly: I use the General Practitioner's Resource Disk (GPRD) and HotDocs Pro 5.0a. Depending on your practice, you may not need this much document assembly power. My configuration will cost another $600, or you can simply start with HotDocs 5.0a itself (not the "Pro" version) for only $150 via a download from CapSoft's Web site at www.capsoft.com.

&endash;Richard Rogers

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