If you find yourself shaking your head at all the fuss about apps, chances are good you are stubbornly holding onto an old flip phone.
Consider this: Today’s Apple, Android and Windows phones and tablets are as powerful as some laptops. If your computer is as old as your flip phone, today’s SmartPhones are probably more powerful. That means we can now do things with our gadgets that we used to need a computer to do. For example, I typed this entire article on my iPad. That’s why people are so excited about apps; most of us are walking around with potentially serious productivity machines in our pockets and bags.
The best apps complement the software and services you already use, instead of trying to replace them. After all, nobody really wants a case management system that only works on a phone. That’s why none of these apps will trap your data on your gadget, although you may need to use something like Dropbox to get the most out of them.
SmartPhones, tablets and apps will not make you a better lawyer. In fact, they probably won’t even make you a more productive lawyer if you aren’t one already. But they can enhance your practice and productivity when used effectively. I’ve gathered some of the best apps here to help you get a quick start on mobile productivity.
Everything I recommend here is something I use regularly, or in the case of the alternatives, something I’ve tried and think is pretty good.
Accessing Your Files
GoodReader (compatible with iOS) is an app I don’t necessarily use every day, but definitely cannot live without. It is one of the first apps you should get for a new iPhone or iPad.
GoodReader is good for viewing documents, but it does much more than its name suggests. It is basically a Swiss Army knife for viewing and managing documents. My favorite feature is its ability to sync documents from a wide variety of servers, such as Dropbox, Google Docs, FTP and email. I sync up client files from Dropbox before going to court, for example, and pull up the relevant documents in GoodReader’s tabbed document browser for easy access during hearings.
I’m not aware of any real alternative to GoodReader, but you can use Dropbox, which is compatible with Android, iOS, Windows, OS X, Linux and the cloud, if you are always connected or don’t want to sync files to your device.
One of the best uses of a SmartPhone is helping you keep track of your to-do lists. I am kind of addicted to task managers, but even though I try nearly everything I can get my hands on, I keep coming back to Remember the Milk, or RTM (compatible with Android, iOS, cloud). The reason is that RTM is simple to use, but it also allows you to easily create much more complex tasks, lists and relationships. And RTM lets you enter tasks in plain language, so you can just type “Summary judgment memorandum due on 2/15,” for example, and it knows you want a task with a due date of February 15.
Check out Wunderlist (compatible with Android, iOS, Windows, OS X, cloud) for an alternative that isn’t quite as smart as RTM, but will still do what most people want it to do.
If you don’t use a text editor when writing, you should. Word is great and all, but you shouldn’t be worrying about margins and formatting headings when you are working on a brief. I begin nearly all my documents, including this one, in a simple text editor, then copy and paste the text to wherever it is going when I am ready to add formatting. My favorite text editor on my iPad is Daedalus, which uses a clever—and comfortable—“piles of paper” interface metaphor and syncs with Dropbox.
Check out Writing Kit or Nebulous Notes (both compatible with iOS) for alternatives. I haven’t found a good text editor for Android, but let me know if you find one.
Note: Because these are text editors, you can edit the files using anything; there’s no formatting to mess up when you move between devices.
I don’t use a word processor very often on my Android phone or my iPad. Pages (compatible with iOS) from Apple is probably the best, but, in general, working with formatted documents on a mobile platform remains a frustrating experience, and is likely to remain that way until Microsoft releases its second or third version of Office for each platform.
Check out QuickOffice (compatible with Android, iOS) for an alternative, but I highly recommend doing your writing with a text editor instead. Or use remote access, addressed below, to use Word on your computer.
Note Taking (Handwriting)
If you get a tablet, get a stylus. I prefer the one BoxWave makes. While some people find it easy to type on a touch screen keyboard, it’s easier for many to take notes just as you would on a notepad. There are a lot of good options for handwriting apps, but I like Upad (compatible with iPad), which has a great handwriting engine and makes it easy to export handwritten notes to PDF or mark up existing photos and PDFs. I use Upad in client meetings, depositions, court and just about everywhere else. The only thing it doesn’t do is sync to Dropbox, but it’s easy to email a PDF file to yourself and drop that where you want it.
Check out Penultimate (compatible with iPad) for an alternative with a more simple interface but fewer options.
Note Taking (Typing)
While many people find it difficult to type on a touch screen, I actually enjoy it. Plus, you can always take along a Bluetooth keyboard when you know you are going to do a lot of typing. I keep a regular Apple wireless keyboard at home to use with my iPad, and it’s where I do most of my writing.
For note taking—and a lot more—you really can’t beat Evernote (compatible with Android, iOS, Windows, OS X, cloud). That’s because, in addition to taking notes directly, you can snap a photo of notes on paper, whiteboards and anything else with writing on it, and Evernote will recognize the text with often-astonishing accuracy so you can search it. I use it for all of the above, plus Scotch, wine and cheese labels, business cards, home improvement ideas, shopping lists, restaurants we want to visit and much more. Evernote syncs to your gadgets, the cloud and your desktop (compatible with Windows and Mac).
Check out Microsoft OneNote (compatible with iOS, Windows, cloud) for an alternative.
You can’t do everything on a tablet (though I’ve tried), so it’s nice to be able to get to your computer once in a while. There are some great remote access options for tablets. I’m partial to Splashtop (compatible with iOS, Windows, Android, OS X). It works surprisingly well when I need to edit a document in Word or enter a transaction in QuickBooks, but I’m nowhere near my computer or I just don’t want to get up from the couch to find my laptop.
Check out Screens (compatible with iOS, OS X) and GoToMyPC (compatible with iPad, Windows, OS X) for alternatives.
There are two very good password managers that let you access your passwords from your device, computer and any browser while still keeping them secure. I use LastPass (compatible with iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, Linux, cloud), and I don’t know how I ever did without it.
Check out 1password (compatible with iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, cloud) for an equally good alternative.
Other Useful Tools
Your iPad doesn’t come with a calculator, so I highly recommend Soulver (compatible with iOS), which is kind of like a cross between a calculator and Excel, but better than both. It’s awesome for calculating complex settlements and contingent fees on the fly. You might want to get it for your iPhone, too.
The Skype (compatible with iOS, Android, Windows, OS X, Linux) app can be a serious productivity tool, if you like to stay in touch even when you are out of the office. I use it for video conferencing, as well as for making and receiving phone calls.
Instapaper (compatible with iOS, the cloud) is a fantastic tool for saving things to read later. I use it constantly to save longer articles for when I have time—and my iPad—to actually sit down and read.
These are the apps I use all the time, but there are tons more and many different ways to be productive with your gadgets. If you want to incorporate your SmartPhone or tablet into your law practice, you can. Start with these apps, and try more until you find the combination that works best for you.