For many lawyers, mobile technology is increasingly becoming “mission critical”—and, fortunately, technology is continuing to rise to the challenge. Here’s a toolset that will keep your office at your fingertips anywhere there’s broadband access.
Whether you have to hit the road to meet with clients, or choose to work from home, the cottage or some other location away from the firm’s main office, remaining fully productive is critical to achieving billing targets and realizing superior client service. Until just a few years ago, the notion of creating a high-productivity remote-work environment seemed difficult to imagine. Mobility-enabling technologies simply weren’t capable or ubiquitous enough to match in-office facilities and resources.
But fast-forward to 2010, and the landscape has shifted significantly. Here are some tips from a virtual practitioner’s experience to help you leverage the latest technologies for maximizing mobile productivity.
1. Immerse yourself in the cloud. My virtual law firm relies on an IT infrastructure that enables any lawyer or staff member to work at full productivity from practically any remote location—with nothing more than a broadband Internet connection, a netbook-grade PC, a scanner and access to a printer.
This flexibility is a game changer in terms of the staff we hire or contract and how we collaborate day in and day out. What makes this a reality is the ability to serve up personalized desktops in a private cloud from our own server. Our cloud is 100 percent firm owned and operated and is connected to the Internet over a high-speed dedicated line. So the firm’s lawyers can easily but securely access the information on our server from their netbooks via broadband wherever they are.
Traveling lawyers in more traditional firms can take advantage of this concept as well, simply by connecting directly across the Web to the desktop of their office computers. Products like PCNow from Cisco and the popular GoToMyPC from Citrix allow full bandwidth-efficient access to your desktop from your laptop or another computer anywhere that 3G cellular or wireless broadband is available.
2. Buy the right equipment. The remote desktop-access IT model might not seem too revolutionary at first blush, but it’s actually quite powerful. The number of things you need to stuff into your suitcase to maximize productivity as a traveling lawyer shrinks dramatically when compared to the traditional multiple PC deployment scenario. Say good-bye to maintaining one PC back in the office and a separate laptop for out-of-office work. The requirements for nomadic access from the road or a home office can reduce nicely to the following:
▪ A netbook PC running a basic installation of Windows—these remarkably cost-effective machines are now available for under $400 from vendors such as Acer, Asus, Dell or HP. Depending on preference and budget, this “access” laptop could sport a larger screen, or even be an Apple Macbook running a Mac version of the remote access client. But it absolutely does not need to be expensive.
▪ A smartphone with 3G broadband wireless data connectivity, such as an iPhone, BlackBerry or Google Nexus One, and an unlimited data plan. These phones tether to the netbook to enable broadband data access from practically anywhere. Plus, in my firm, all calls from a VoIP telephone system back in the office are set to simultaneously ring the lawyer’s smartphone to ensure a single number dialing, and it’s the primary telephony device for outbound calls as well.
▪ When paper document scanning is required, a portable scanner like the Pentax DS Mobile 600 or Xerox Travel Scanner 100 will suffice to generate PDF files from relatively small multi-page paper documents collected in the field.
▪ Printing from the road is another matter, and it can be painful, and even impractical if volumes are high. Depending on the facilities at hand, the best option is often to bulk together multiple print jobs and leverage the use of a nearby business center or a shared guest office printer. When you’re in a must-print situation in the middle of nowhere, however, portable battery-powered inkjet printers from vendors like Cannon and others are usually just enough to get the job done.
3. Embrace the smartphone’s features . There are many occasions when the task or situation at hand simply doesn’t warrant powering up the laptop and tethering the smartphone to it to establish a broadband connection. When time is short and convenience paramount, the smartphone is the ultimate tool. At my firm, we have no strict smartphone requirements, so some lawyers use the RIM BlackBerry and others the Apple iPhone. Generally, though, ideal basic requirements include:
▪ Full bidirectional “push” contact, calendar and e-mail synchronization
▪ A rich e-mail experience with full universal keyword search and the ability to open and view all standard Microsoft Office attachments and Adobe Acrobat PDF documents
The iPhone works well for us because we’ve standardized on Microsoft Exchange, and the device includes full Exchange ActiveSync for live push calendar, contact and e-mail synchronization without the need for the separate BES infrastructure required to accomplish the same thing with BlackBerry devices. With the voice-activation features on the new 3GS model, dialing client numbers from the road is as straightforward as pressing the headset button and speaking the client name. The iPhone also includes native support for all of the standard Microsoft Office file formats as well as Adobe Acrobat PDF.
Another time-saver is the TomTom application, which turns the iPhone into a GPS navigation system that’s equally as capable as a dedicated GPS navigation unit. The navigation app will guide you to client meetings in even the most remote corners of town with just a few touches of the screen and is fully integrated with the phone’s contact database, which remains constantly synchronized with Exchange.
4. Don’t forget about security. Security rightfully gets a lot of play in the context of working remotely, particularly in the legal IT community. In this regard, the remote desktop model comes out ahead on a number of fronts. Because no firm or client data is stored locally on a roaming laptop or netbook but is accessed from the firm’s server over the cloud instead, security requirements reduce to ensuring that the connection back to the firm’s server benefits from strong encryption and other security measures that are regularly maintained in one place.
Consider also that without full hard disk encryption on them, laptops in the traditional IT deployment model are stuffed with firm data that’s available to any thief indefinitely. Moreover, no work is possible the moment the laptop is lost, stolen or simply breaks. Compare those limitations to the remote desktop model, where, again, no data is stored on the traveling laptop and a new one can be purchased on the road or shipped overnight from the head office without requiring any unique configuration.
5. Adopt an in-office mind-set. Once all the groundwork is in place to be fully productive from anywhere, the key is to shift your mind-set to take maximum advantage of those “time slices” that invariably pop up while traveling from place to place. Opportunities might last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. The venue could equally be a coffee shop, a hotel room, a commuter train in a well-served 3G broadband corridor, an airport or even a doctor’s office waiting room. The goal is to realize that the office is right there at your fingertips, ready to enable full productivity at practically any time.
See You in the Cloud
Wherever you choose to work from, the hosted desktop model gives you what you need from any inexpensive laptop connected over broadband. The proliferation of 3G-grade cellular data access makes access possible from almost anywhere. Together with a smartphone for e-mail, calendaring, contact management, document review and phone calls, the combination is difficult to match. Plus, security, IT management burden and consistency of experience all come out ahead in the remote model. This could be a great time to consider whether working in the cloud can give your law practice a productivity boost.
Nicole Garton-Jones , Managing Partner of Heritage Law in Vancouver, is a lawyer and mediator focusing on wills, estates, and elder and family law matters. She is a frequent ABA TECHSHOW speaker