GPSolo Technology & Practice Guide - June 2006

Managing Chaos from Long Distance
Annie Attorney Goes on Vacation

Below are the musings of a typical lawyer on the go. Let’s call her Annie Attorney. Like all of you, she tries to juggle practice, family, and community endeavors through skill, luck, and a little help from the latest technology. She’d long been planning a vacation to Mexico, but, typically, a client’s crisis threatened to stop her. Confident in her mobile lawyering abilities, she went ahead with the trip anyway. Can Annie Attorney use technology to keep numerous law practice crises from boiling over—while still finding time to relax and enjoy herself south of the border? Annie will be featured throughout the issue to guide readers on the latest advances (and headaches) in mobile lawyering.

 

Tuesday Night: Mexico

I am currently on a much-earned, greatly anticipated vacation with waves crashing, children splashing, family wanting to know what’s for breakfast/lunch/snack/dinner, and without the ability to “cook” by dialing for Chinese delivery.

Our trip to the beach is possible now that Mexico offers connections to office and clients via Internet, cell phone, BlackBerry, and Outlook. Here I can use my wireless laptop with VPN connection to my office desktop and fax. Add a mini-printer, and I have everything I need to enjoy my “vacation.” Of course, getting to this point proved a bit more challenging than I’d hoped last Thursday night.

Flashback: Thursday Night at the Office

As I prepare to head out of town, it’s time for the pre-vacation ritual of cleaning my desk (there really is wood under those papers), delegating to associates matters they can deal with while I am out of sight, testing the softphone (i.e., Internet/laptop telephone) connection, and, of course, completing correspondence. I’ll have to stay at the office until two o’clock a.m. tonight (tomorrow?) to set up the online bank account transfers for emergency funds and to draft invoices for final review on Friday (those left behind in the winter cold still need to eat).

With eyes nearly closed, I mark for copying those documents I’ll need on the beach in the event my computer dies or fails to connect. I’ve learned the hard way: Never assume technology will work on arrival. It’s not simply a matter of packing extra batteries; it’s having the know-how to actually fix the systems that go haywire. So along with extra batteries, chargers, earphones, and my softphone headset, I also carry my computer manufacturer’s technical support number and my private computer consultant support number. The private support number costs $180 for an annual subscription, but it’s well worth the patient voice at the other end that walks me through my computer problem and back to sanity.

Sleepless but optimistic, I think how smoothly vacation preparation is going. I record the out-of-office messages on e-mail and voice mail and struggle to find the perfect mix between providing clients with reassurance that I am reachable while discouraging them from actually trying to reach me.

A word about our practice. We are a general practice firm of nine lawyers with emphasis on state, federal, and NASD commercial litigation. My niche practice is executive compensation. I negotiate separation agreements, employment contracts, change in control, non-competition, employee incentives, and other benefit plans, and I litigate related disputes. My clients are always in the middle of an emergency. They’re either concerned about immediate termination, worried the employment offer we are negotiating will be withdrawn, considering the terms on which to accept a promotion, responding to theft of a customer list or an employee threat to work for a competitor, or embroiled in an acquisition where the corporation and its executives realize that neither buyer nor seller intend to honor change in control agreements.

Friday Morning: Disaster Strikes

The countdown to Saturday takeoff proceeds until I learn that I must attend an emergency hearing on Monday in Orlando. When the client calls, the words, “Of course, I’ll be there!” slip out, followed by an e-mail to my assistant to rearrange vacation flight plans for a flight from Orlando to Mexico, with a cc to an associate to get hold of the file and stand ready for sleep deprivation.

No choice: My family leaves for sun, rest, and margaritas, while I take the vacation weekend to prepare for an evidentiary hearing, making good use of my home VPN connection to the office computer. I pack while outlining the testimony.

Sunday Morning: Off to Orlando

Thankfully, my account with American Airlines is programmed to alert me to the snowstorm in Chicago that delays the flight to Orlando; update me on the change in flight number and gate; and notify me by e-mail and cell phone that my upgrade is confirmed (a small reward for living on an airplane). The flight delay provides the chance to check my BlackBerry for other clients in distress, potential new business, or associates calling at the last minute to tell me they have chosen my vacation week to take time off.

I get an extra quiet hour with my laptop to review opening remarks for the hearing, adjust witness examination, and add reminders to my BlackBerry Task List. I get a few more minutes to worry whether the overhead compartment will actually have room for my travel bag bursting with computer, electric chords, and documents that I don’t dare check through to Orlando.

On arrival I check my BlackBerry while walking to baggage claim, hoping that no further Sunday crisis will interfere with preparation time for tomorrow’s hearing or further delay my vacation.

Monday Morning: Showtime

Monday morning I download hearing-related documents from my office computer in case the court wireless connection to my office does not function, check the BlackBerry for office problems and other urgent messages, and remember that all mobiles must be shut off upon entry into a court that confiscates anything that buzzes or sings. The hearing goes well. At the break, opposing counsel suggests a favorable compromise. We outline the order on my laptop and go on the record. I e-mail my assistant to get me on an earlier flight to Mexico, and I head to the airport. Taxi time converts to productive use as I check my BlackBerry with my other cell phone attached to my ear to contact clients who are looking for me on matters I can handle before I arrive at the airport.

Do I dare to say the word “vacation” out loud as I undress to enter the security line? I focus on a mental switch to vacation mode as I check the BlackBerry one last time to e-mail clients and return calls to reassure other clients that they will not be abandoned. Of course, access to Black-Berry and cell phones is permitted until instructed otherwise, and every minute while still parked at the gate counts. Earplug in my ear, I surreptitiously handle as much work as possible, until the flight attendant gives me the evil “not one more second” look. Time to shut down and complete the time slips that I keep with me. Our techie associates enter their time directly into the Timeslips program, but I take hard-copy time slips to use during my many airport and taxi moments, as well as the first and last ten-minute periods of each flight.

We arrive in Dallas 30 minutes before the connecting flight to Mexico boards. This would be cause for celebration to the uninitiated. But 30 minutes hardly leaves time to check the gate and get on the inter-terminal train. Finally in my seat, and with only a few minutes until takeoff, I steal one more glance at the BlackBerry. No emergencies. A new client needs personal contact before being delegated to another attorney. I sign off under the evil eye of another flight attendant. “YES,” I say out loud to my surprised seat mate, “I am finally on VACATION.”

Monday Afternoon: South of the Border at Last

We land in Mexico. All customs and immigration forms complete and luggage in tow, I collapse in the taxi and hesitantly experiment with the BlackBerry. It works! Why not use the taxi ride to check in one more time—just to be sure the office still exists and the invoices have been mailed. Is this micro-management? Obsession? I prefer to call it the legitimate and impressive exercise of caution on behalf of client and err-and-omission carrier.

Having missed margarita hour, I join my family in the midst of the “where are we going to dinner?” debate. How do they resolve this issue when I am on the road? I exit to dig through my several-times repacked suitcase for something that doesn’t look slept-in to wear to dinner, begin to think about margaritas, and shout the word “VACATION” to my surprised but understanding family. I did not check the BlackBerry once while in the shower.

Monday Night: Dinner and Dialing

I break away from our meal in the face of stony glares from my family for a brief cell phone conversation with a client whose future is on the line relating to the employment agreement I am negotiating. My client is concerned that he’s asking too much in the way of exit protection. Maybe the employment offer will be withdrawn, and his family will starve. I remind the executive that, should he sign the non-compete and be fired without cause, he will not be able to work in his area of expertise for 12 months without compensation.

Fear travels by phone, and I need to be available at every moment. That’s what my client expects and that’s the service that will assure that he refers me to other executives when he finds himself with a golden parachute that pays out just as we negotiated. My BlackBerry confirms that the newest redlined draft of the employment contract has arrived, and I can only hope that I will be able to access a wireless connection so I can work surrounded by family. On the other hand, the Internet café has great Mexican espresso, which it looks like I will need tonight. I have a way to go before absorbing the mañana attitude that my family has acquired three days ahead of me. I e-mail the client to request his choice of contact times, remembering to bcc my assistant so she can follow through in setting up the conference call. Back to the dinner table to focus on family and plans for the week.

Still my mind wanders. When can I respond in the middle of dinner to the other message that inquires about my interest in representing the board of directors of a public corporation in a dispute with its parent over governance issues relating to the sale of the company, requiring my immediate attention as deal papers are expected this week? Did I say “vacation” too loudly?

Home from dinner to begin reviewing documents. It may be nighttime for me and my family, but in India the day is in full swing. Bedtime is postponed while I contact clients to negotiate their separation from a corporation closing its private equity ventures in India and to conference-in local counsel. I constantly consider the time difference when working with expatriate executives for whom I negotiate employment contracts and separation agreements with multinational corporations. The good thing about global work is that I can bill all night from anywhere in the world. The bad thing about global work is the whole new meaning it gives to 24/7.

Are you wondering why I’m not checking my cell phone messages? I turned it off and recorded a message to e-mail me, rather than call. Access to cell phone messages is unreliable in Mexico. Besides, how do I access my voice mail remotely using an international prefix subject to international rates, when I only know how to press 1 for the shortcut to voice mail?

Tuesday Morning: BlackBerry for Breakfast

The first vacation morning consists of sunshine, coffee, laptop, and my wonderful young adult daughter who gets up early to share tales from the night before. My BlackBerry reports two new clients. These are major matters requiring my personal emergency attention that will pay for our vacation. I still can’t help but wonder if I can make myself dispensable and still retain clients. Thanks to international connectivity, I arrange retention agreements and conference calls with the prospective clients by e-mail, along with a bcc to my assistant confirming the time and number at which I will contact the client with home-based associates on the line to handle the matter locally. A post-call e-mail to associates will take care of dividing out preliminary assignments. I schedule the follow-up meeting and add it to my Outlook calendar via my BlackBerry.

My BlackBerry downloads only Word documents, not the PDFs sent by my client. So, I’ll have to hit the road to the Internet café, stopping at my secret wireless hotspot (no Internet connection in the apartment). Should we have opted for a hotel with an Internet connection so I could work comfortably 24/7 while on “vacation”? This morning’s goal is to engage a wireless connection long enough to download all the attachments from my client and any other e-mail attachments sent between the time I left the office and this moment. I’ll download the documents onto the C drive of my laptop so I can work on them offline in the middle of the night, when my family is enjoying much-needed sleep from too much fun in the sun.

During breakfast, my daughter asks politely if, rather than walking to the Internet café, she can use the BlackBerry to confirm to her friends that she has survived her first few days at the beach with family. I didn’t realize that her listserve includes 50 of her best friends around the world, all of whom reply to her temporary e-mail address on my BlackBerry with messages of empathy and supportive jokes with attachments. Did I remember to mention international BlackBerry charges for downloading attachments? In general, the international charges for cell phones, calling cards, and BlackBerrys aren’t cheap, but I rarely pass these fees on to clients—they probably wouldn’t understand why I’m on vacation during their emergencies and might balk at paying the costs of staying in touch.

Pool time is postponed. An opportunity arises to represent a group of senior executives. The corporate acquirer is unwilling to complete a merger with an expensive change in control agreement in place. Seller does not want to suffer the hit, but should the merger not take place, my client executives won’t have anything “golden” in their parachute, so they are pressed to accept terms. Maybe I should redefine vacation as working near the sun, in the jasmine-scented breeze, surrounded by colorful bougainvillea with the laughter of family in the background.

Finally, I settle in beside the pool thinking “naptime,” until my beach towel buzzes to alert me to a prospective client calling regarding her eligibility to collect benefits from a corporate long-term incentive plan where the statute of limitations may run out in two weeks. This call is followed by a response from our expert on the valuation of stock options my client was forced to exercise earlier than anticipated owing to 409A regulations. As I turn the dial to Cuban music on my iPod, my BlackBerry reveals that a client retainer agreement and check have not arrived, but the client wants and needs immediate attention. Should the associate keep working?

Tuesday Afternoon: Getting a Little Too Hot?

Heading toward lunchtime, the only difference in my vacation work life so far is that this day is playing out at the pool, overlooking the bay, and opposing counsel has just stopped short in the middle of his diatribe to ask hesitantly, “Are those waves crashing in the background?”

Back to the sound of Cuban drums, I remember that I plugged my laptop into the wrong outlet and it’s not charging. It will have to wait. Maybe I am absorbing vacation attitude after all. But since my eyes are open anyway, I glance at my BlackBerry and find good news: A matter that an associate has been struggling with has been favorably settled. Kudos go out to her and a cc to my employee listserve so everyone knows what a great job she did. The BlackBerry tells me that another associate received an order granting his motion to dismiss in an NASD matter. A hotly contested deposition resulted in several certified questions, meaning more work on a seemingly simple matter. If I am on vacation, perhaps I should turn off the office news. These are not “need to know” items, but turning off the BlackBerry means that news of some crises will not reach me.

Family lunch. Time out for a walk down the beach sans BlackBerry. And a personal challenge to myself: Turn the BlackBerry off until four o’clock p.m. But at four I note some not-so-great news. I struck a deal before I left the office and nearly celebrated that I was heading to vacation with one less worry. Unfortunately, settlement by some attorneys is merely an invitation to negotiate, so as we head toward margarita time, I am hammering out the settlement agreement line-by-line long-distance, thanks to tracking and draft attachments. I am on the balcony with my laptop uncharged and my head throbbing. Or is that the sun and did I forget to put on SPF 30? Suddenly, I recognize that I have a choice. I choose to slow the process down, remind folks that I am on margarita time and that no one’s life literally hangs in the balance. Except mine. My family is now pointing knives that previously had been reserved for the garlic shrimp and carne asada. Client, opposing counsel, and his client are remarkably understanding, and all agree to stand down until tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t I try that at home when I am not on “vacation”?

Tuesday Night: Unplugged

Sunset with my family, out for dinner without my BlackBerry, and I am even searching my suitcase for the detective novels I remembered to bring for beach reading. We return home for an evening of poker played on our balcony with Mexican coffee beans at an increasing level of intensity and laughter under the stars.

Family plans for tomorrow? I need to check my BlackBerry calendar, which reminds me that I have two morning conference calls. But I promise myself I will e-mail my office to tell them that I am dispensable, and not to contact me because I am on VACATION.

My first full vacation day draws to a close to the sound of waves. Lights out. Thoughts of mañana.

Did I remember to charge my BlackBerry?

 

Laurel G. Bellows practices with Bellows & Bellows, P.C., in Chicago, Illinois. She can be reached at lbellows@bellowspc.com.

 

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