General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology & Practice Guide

Personal Information Managers

BY J. PRESTON TURNER

Lawyers’ personalities and practice areas come in all shapes and sizes. While Jane the litigator may want to keep every phone number, appointment and shred of information she gathers about a case, Paul the estates and trusts lawyer is just happy to know the street address for a meeting next week. No matter what personality type, lawyers in all practice areas can benefit from several software programs on the market that organize the daily grist of a lawyer’s practice—appointments, telephone numbers and notes.

Using a personal information manager (PIM) to organize information is one of the easiest way to computerize your practice. Combined with your trusty laptop, a PIM will allow you to take information with you outside of the office. These types of programs are designed around personality types: Some programs give you the basics, while others let you keep as much detail as you could possibly imagine. With numerous programs to chose from, there is a PIM available to suit your personal work style.

Rather than offering short descriptions of the many available programs, this article will focus primarily on two leading PIMs, Lotus’s Organizer and Netmanage’s Ecco Pro. Organizer offers an easy-to-navigate and highly intuitive interface and the basic features you need to manage information. Ecco Pro builds on Organizer’s feature set and allows users to manage more information, and to manage it in more detail. Both programs are stable and fully networkable. The program you chose depends on the type of person you are, and how much control you want or need to have over your information.

PIM Software

In its most basic form, PIM software typically includes a calendar, a phone book, and a note pad. The benefit to using a PIM is the ability to take the random bits of information that cross your desk each day and keep them all in one place. In addition, a PIM enables you to keep the information used the most—your calendar, phone book and attorney notes—only a mouse click away.

A PIM is a great organizational tool in the office, and it really shines when you load your file on a laptop and take your information with you on the road. One phone call when out of the office often triggers the need to make several additional calls to other lawyers or clients about a case. With a PIM loaded onto a laptop, all the numbers you need are at your fingertips, and the calls are made in minutes rather than waiting for a secretary to forage through the file or Rolodex for the information.

The basic functions to look for in a PIM are:

Calendar:

• Schedule and reschedule appointments. View your calendar by month, week, or day.

• Enter "to dos" and ticklers.

• Attach electronic alarms to any appointment, "to do," or tickler. This function allows you to set electronic alarms to prompt you for action at a specific time before an event, i.e., a flashing message across your screen notifying you of a closing or deposition in three days.

Phone book:

• Enter multiple addresses and phone numbers for work and home.

• Use multiple fields for fax numbers and e-mail addresses.

• User-defined information fields can be used for anything you choose, such as spouse or children’s names.

Note pad:

• Keep attorney notes and other random notes organized by case or client. Place date and time stamps in a notes field, for example, to record when a telephone call occurred.

There are dozens of programs available with this basic feature set. You can use the descriptions of the features available with Organizer and Ecco Pro to benchmark the capabilities of PIM software you may be considering. Once you find a PIM that fits your personality, make the transition to the electronic age less painful by dedicating time to learning the program and entering your information (see "Getting Started").

Lotus Organizer: The Minimalist Approach

If your personal credo could be summed up as "less is more," then you will enjoy working with Lotus Organizer. Organizer’s user interface uses the metaphor of a small, three-ring binder where your calendar, "to do" list, Rolodex, and notes are all separated by tabs between each section of the binder. Many PIM programs have adopted this look, but none implement it better. Organizer’s user interface is uncluttered, and has a comfortable feel to it even if you have only worked with the program a short time.

Organizer’s calendaring capabilities are simple and easy to use. Your calendar can be displayed in month-, week-, or day-at-a-glance formats. You simply click on the date you need to enter an appointment, designate the time, and you now have an appointment. Once the appointment is entered, you can change the appointment to another day in the same month simply by clicking on the appointment and dragging it to a new day. Changing the month of the appointment requires a double click on the appointment, which brings up an easy-to-understand dialog box in which you make your changes. Organizer also has a planner section, which allows you to enter multiday events that are displayed on your calendar. For example, you can enter a three-day conference in the planner section, and it appears as a banner at the top of those three days on your calendar. This feature makes it easier to tell if your schedule already has you engaged in a multiday event when you check your calendar for free time. An electronic alarm can be added to any calendar or item on your "to do" list. The alarm appears as dialog that appears at a user-defined time, which can be a few hours, a few days, or even a few months.

Organizer also lets you enter a free-form "to do" list in a separate "to do" view. A "show through" features lets your "to do" list show up on your calendar on the date you designate for the item. The "to do" list function is especially well implemented because it allows you to view your "to dos" as overdue, current, future, and completed.

Organizer also lets you enter home and business address and telephone information into an electronic Rolodex. Although this function has numerous predefined fields to keep information on your Rolodex entries, there are only two fields for you to customize for our own information. One of the program’s nicest features is a well-implemented linking feature that allows you to link Rolodex entries, "to dos" and calendar events together. That is, you can link a Rolodex entry for your opposing counsel in a case to a deposition in the same case, or a "to do" entry associated with the deposition. This feature is implemented in a very easy and intuitive fashion: you simply click on an icon depicting a chain link, then click on the two items you wish to link together.

If you are the type of person who will be happy knowing where you need to be, when you need to be there, and where your telephone numbers are, then Lotus Organizer is perfect for you. Calendaring and Rolodex information retrieval are this product’s strong suit, and it performs these functions extremely well, without a lot of fuss or the need for technical prowess. Organizer calendars may be shared over a network, so your office co-workers can view your calendar with ease.

The program is not without some shortcomings, though. The program’s ability to organize your notes, through the program’s notepad section is not particularly strong. You can time and date stamp your notes, but the process is cumbersome and involves more mouse gymnastics than it should. Nonetheless, for the person who wants to bring order to the basics, Lotus Organizer is just the ticket.

Some lawyers will read about Organizer and immediately know they need more: more power, more flexibility, and more ways to manipulate and view their information. These lawyers want complete control over their information, and they need the ability to add information unbound by predefined fields.

Ecco Pro: For Lawyers Who Want to Have It All

For these users, Netmanage’s Ecco Pro is an excellent choice. Ecco Pro has a slightly steeper learning curve than Organizer, but it offers greater flexibility in how you manage, view, and manipulate your information. The basic features of Ecco Pro are generally no harder to learn than Organizer. In addition to Organizer’s basic functions, Ecco Pro allows you to keep all information about a specific case or transaction in a notepad file and view that information in other parts of the program, such as the calendar, through dynamic links.

At the program level, Ecco Pro treats each bit of information as an "object," and the program allows you to link each object to multiple information views. If this sounds complicated in theory, it is not in practice. The benefit to an object-oriented approach is that you enter your information once, and then display it in multiple locations as you see fit. This power has inspired many to call Ecco Pro the progeny of Lotus Agenda, a much revered but now discontinued DOS program sold in the late 1980s that is still in use today by many litigators. To keep all of this power from making the user interface too complex, Ecco Pro has adopted the same tabbed dividers used by Organizer to separate your information.

Behind the first divider tab you will find Ecco Pro’s calendar, which can be viewed by month, week, or day. Clicking once on any day brings up a dialog box that allows you to enter an appointment for that day, or a tickler that can be categorized as a "to do," a birthday, an anniversary, or a note specific to that day. Like Organizer, you can change an appointment to a different day by simply dragging and dropping it onto a new day. An added feature is that when you drag an appointment to a new day, Ecco prompts you to confirm the time of the appointment on that day. Navigating between the current month and the months ahead is aided by an easy-to-follow navigation tool. Ecco also allows you to create multiday appointments or recurring events (e.g., an 8:30 a.m. staff meeting on the first Monday of every month).

Like Organizer, Ecco Pro’s address feature comes with a phone book ready with a predefined list of fields for you to enter your information. Ecco does Organizer one better by giving you the ability to create your own phone book forms with unlimited user-defined fields. Creating your own form is fairly simple because you can save one of the preexisting forms as your own, and tweak it as you see fit. Ecco Pro gives you the ability to view your calendar and address book side-by-side. In this view, you can create appointments for a person in your address book by dragging the person’s name onto the desired appointment date. The appointment automatically lists the person’s telephone number, so there is no need to look for this information later.

Beyond the calendar and phone book views, Ecco Pro’s real strength lies in the ability to organize information in user-defined outlines. These outlines use the metaphor of a yellow legal pad upon which information is added in the form of notes, ticklers, appointments, and "to dos." For example, a lawyer could create a single view for all active matters he or she is handling. Ecco Pro allows you to further categorize your information by putting information into matter-specific folders. Consider a real estate lawyer representing Ms. Smith, a client who wants to purchase Blackacre, a small parcel of land. Blackacre needs environmental testing to occur no later than two weeks prior to closing, which is scheduled a month away.

The user would create a "Smith-Blackacre" folder, which would house the appointments for the environmental assessment company and the closing next month, and a tickler to call Ms. Smith the day before the closing. An electronic alarm could be added for each of these events to occur at or before the event. Ecco allows you to enter your appointments and ticklers once for the specific file, but view the information on your calendar along with your other appointments and "to dos." This allows you see everything you need to do for this transaction in a case-specific file, but also allows you to track the information in your calendar as well.

Ecco Pro also has sophisticated filter and search features. Ecco Pro lets users create custom views that filter information out of your calendar and case files so you see only what you need to see. For example, you could design a filter to view all birthdays this month, or all calendared events in the Smith-Blackacre case for the upcoming month. Ecco’s filters can be set up using basic Boolean search temrs such as "and" and "or" to further refine the view. Ecco Pro also offers full file searching across all calendar entries, phone listings, ticklers, and notes.

As with Organizer, Ecco Pro is networkable, so you can pull up your colleague’s schedule, along with your own, over a preexisting network. One added feature is the ability to exclude information on your calendar from the view of others by marking it private (your colleague sees an appointment blocked for the date and time, but not any description of the event or notes related to the event). Ecco also lets a network administrator set levels of access among users ranging from the ability to modify files to "read only" access.

Make Your PIM Work For You

Ecco Pro’s ability to take random information and organize it motivated PC Magazine to award the program its Editor’s Choice award, and rave that Ecco "is the tool that could change your life." Ecco Pro has the power to manage your information to a level of detail that far surpasses most lawyers’ needs. Then again, if you have the type of personality that wants to control all facets of your information, Ecco Pro delivers in spades. Even if you do not want this much control over your information, keep in mind that Ecco’s basic functions are generally no harder to use than Organizer, but leave you room to grow should you decide to branch out later.

You should not have to change the way you work to computerize your practice with a PIM. The key is to recognize what type of person you are and how much control you need over your information. If you are still not sure that you want to invest in a PIM, see if the software your office already has purchased contains an unused PIM program (see "Suite Deals on PIMs"). The programs reviewed here, Organizer and Ecco Pro, provide you with the opposite ends of the spectrum. Both programs are the best of their breed, and will serve you well. The program you pick depends on your own personal work style, and just how organized you want to be. n

J. Preston Turner is an associate with the Towson, Maryland, law firm of Treanor, Pope & Hughes. He may be reached for comments or questions about this article via e-mail at jpturner@erols.com.

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