Mobile Technology Evolves
Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSolo’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport. He also teaches business law in the graduate and undergraduate divisions of the Business School of the University of Phoenix and is a member of the Law Society of England and Wales and a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He may be reached at email@example.com.
The last few years have seen continuing and rapid evolution of the kind of technology that lawyer road warriors dream about—the stuff that makes it easier for them to practice law in and out of their office, on the road, and in the courtroom. Over the course of the next few years, it looks like that trend will continue. As a result, we will see more and more attorneys utilizing road warrior technology successfully. We are now close to the point where a lawyer can practice law out of the office as efficiently as in the office.
The technological keys to success as a road warrior today include (in no particular order):
• A good laptop computer with WiFi capabilities and a built-in or external air card (wireless cell phone for your computer) providing broadband capabilities on the road.
• Appropriate software for the computer.
• A small, portable, powerful scanner.
• A digital dictation device.
• A typing/secretarial service that works with digital files.
• A portable projector.
• A telephone. This could be one or more of the following: a landline; VOIP; or a good cell phone that may be a converged device that includes a digital camera, GPS capability, Internet browsing, and e-mail. (Note: If the telephone does not include all of these devices, the road warrior attorney will want them in other forms as discussed below.)
As technology advances, the cost of its elements generally decreases while the power of its devices increases. Owing to this phenomenon, the cost of getting into the game now amounts to only a few thousand dollars. In time, that will likely decrease further.
Broadband access. The evolution of online legal research tools has made the traditional law library (i.e., a room full of books) obsolete. Most of us do not use the books anymore, even in the office. We keep them around for show but do the actual research online—the online services update more frequently, and their search engines work much faster than we could ever hope to search manually. Having moved to the use of online research, a lawyer can access the library with broadband speed whether in the office or out, creating absolute equality respecting this tool of practice. In the office, lawyers can use a traditional high-speed DSL or cable Internet connection, and now laptops offer high-speed connections on the road via an Ethernet/wireless network connection at major hotels and wireless hotspots, or independently through an air card that accesses wireless service from one of the major mobile phone providers (Cingular/AT&T, www.cingular.com; Sprint,www.sprint.com; or Verizon, www.verizon.com).
Laptops. Over the last year, computer manufacturers have gone through three generations of chips. On the Windows OS side, the Pentium class chips that dominated a year ago will always have a place in the museum of computer processors. The Core Duo replaced the Pentium and its work-alikes as the processor of choice during the first half of 2006. During the last half of 2006 and going into 2007, the Core 2 Duo replaced the Core Duo and its work-alikes. During 2006, even Apple moved its hardware from the G4 and G5 to the Core Duo and then the Core 2 Duo. The Core 2 Duo works faster and better than the Core Duo, and the Core Duo works faster and better than the Pentium class processors. I do not recall another time when processor evolution moved so quickly. The rapid sequencing of changes in the main processor resulted in substantial price drops in the Pentium class and the Core Duo computers. Interestingly, you can find the Core 2 Duo computers at bargain prices, too. The laptops available now cost less and do more than their predecessors a year ago.
Basic guidelines when getting a new computer: Get the biggest hard drive you can, get more RAM than you think you need (minimums: 1 GB for a computer that will run XP Professional, 2 GB for a computer that will run Vista; 3 GB for a Mac Book Pro, and 2 GB for a MacBook (maximums). The laptop should have WiFi capability and a DVD-reader CD-writer (a DVD-writer is better). You will want an SXGA or WXGA screen. Laptops with larger screens are bigger and weigh more than those with smaller screens, but you can generally see your work better with larger screens. A 15-inch-wide-aspect screen represents a good compromise. Fully configured you should expect to spend at least $1,000 and as much as $3,000, depending on your choice of extra features and manufacturer.
I prefer that the computer not come with an air card connection built-in. The built-in connection locks you in to one vendor for connection, no matter how much better the others may get. Additionally, if you use more than one laptop, you will need an account for each of them. By using a separate air card, you can move from one supplier to another and use the same card in more than one computer. Right now, I believe that Verizon offers the best combination of speed and coverage for its air card customers. Sprint also offers speedy connections. Cingular trails the other two in terms of speed but has been talking about launching a new technology (4G) that will prove faster than the connections currently used by Sprint and Verizon. If your laptop comes with a PCMCIA card slot or an Express 34 card slot, you have several choices of air cards available to you, depending on your choice of carrier. Novatel has just released adapters that let you use a USB connection for your air card, rather than a PCMCIA slot or Express 34 slot, in case your computer has neither. They have also released an adapter that allows you to use an Express 34 card in a PCMCIA slot.
In time, expect that computers will become even more portable. Special viewing glasses will replace screens. Fold-up or virtual keyboards will replace standard ones, and the guts of the computer, inclusive of memory, will take up the space of an oversized PDA. The parts will connect wirelessly, making us even more mobile. Note that all of this technology currently exists; it will not take long for someone to put it all together.
Paperless files. Many of us already have adopted the practice of producing documents or having documents produced in electronic file format. Having a scanner facilitates adding to the electronic files any additional information that you have received in paper form. Boxes and file drawers full of documents become weightless as electronic files. They do carry the overhead of requiring a computer to view them, but even that weight is not substantial in most cases. Our clients continue to increase their use of electronic files. As attorneys we, too, continue to use electronic files in lieu of paper more and more. Historically, one of the biggest drawbacks to working on the road has been the lack of access to files. As we move more and more to conversion of files into electronic documents, we approach equality for working in the office or on the road. Simply put, we can carry our files with us electronically. Moreover, if it turns out you need a document that you do not have, you can easily have someone scan that document and e-mail it to you. Once you have documents in your computer, you can review them anywhere.
As far as scanners go, flatbed scanners from HP have impressed me favorably for a long time, and I continue to use a flatbed HP scanner with a document feeder in my office. If you want a small, portable, but powerful scanner, you will have a hard time finding anything that works as well as the $500 Fujitsu ScanSnap. The ScanSnap comes with a document feeder and can handle a heavy workload. In fact, I put one on my secretary’s desk a year or so ago, and she handles most of the document conversion for us on that scanner. The ScanSnap closes to about the size of a football, and you can easily get a case to carry it with you on the road. If you really want to lighten your load, you can pick up a DocuPen RC800 for the road ( http://planon.com). It is a bit pricey by comparison, but it weighs next to nothing and takes up very little space. The trade-off is that it is a manual scanner that does one page at a time.
For many years clients used delivery services, mail, and fax machines to get documents to their attorneys as, in turn, their lawyers did to get documents back to clients or to opposing counsel. More and more we find those exchanges occurring via e-mail. As we can send and receive e-mail wherever we have Internet access, we can exchange documents with clients, co-counsel, or opposing counsel as easily and efficiently out of the office as in it. The fax machine has become far less important a tool for attorneys in or out of the office, which explains why it did not make my list of key technological components for efficient practice on the road. In the near future, fax machines may have a place near typewriters and mag-card machines in the Museum of Archaic Office Machines (MAOM).
Dictation. Speaking of candidates for the MAOM, remember the old reel-to-reel dictating machines? Standard cassette machines replaced those on our desks, and then mini- or micro-disk recorders replaced those. Portable versions of the cassette recorders have existed for some time, but, particularly with the standard cassettes, they were somewhat bulky. The micro-cassette dictating machines easily fit in a pocket, briefcase, or handbag. Although many attorneys continue to use the magnetic tape machines, particularly in the micro-cassette format, more and more have moved away from magnetic tape to digital dictation equipment, which offers increased mobility and flexibility in handling dictated files. Using a hard-wired connection, over the Internet, or via a network, you can transfer digital dictation files to your secretary’s computer, where software turns it into a virtual transcription machine.
You can find decent digital dictation equipment for less than $200. If you want a primo device set up for recording, in my opinion, your best bets are the Olympus D4000 or the Grundig Digta 415. They will cost you between $400 and $500, depending on where you buy them. Both operate wirelessly; both connect to computers via USB. I have spent a fair amount of time working with both of them. I found them to be reliable and dependable. I have recently started working with the newly released Philips LFH-9600 dictating unit, and it has impressed me as well. It appears quite comparable to the Olympus and the Grundig units. It will cost about the same price.
Because the use of digital dictation equipment allows the transfer of files over the Internet, you can dictate virtually anywhere, e-mail the file to your office, and have your secretary type up your dictation. What, you say you don’t have a secretary or an office to e-mail it to anymore? No problem. A whole new service industry has grown up to take care of you. You can find transcription services online at reasonable prices. Many of them have transcribers at work 24/7, so no matter when you do the dictation, you can get it transcribed in short order. Services often match one or two transcribers to a client, so that they become familiar with the work produced.
With these services, your dictation comes back to you as an electronic word processing file, usually a Microsoft Word document. You can proofread the document, make your corrections, and either print it and mail it or e-mail it to the intended recipient. Some attorneys I know have found this service so satisfactory that they now use a transcription service for all of their dictation. Once again, technology provides support that enables you to work at least as efficiently from outside the office as in.
The transcription service can even format these files to mimic your letterhead—many attorneys have stopped using engraved letterhead entirely and simply create letterhead in their computer. Similarly, they use a pleading template for pleading paper. If you have done that, you can transmit those templates to the transcription service, and they can give you your documents back formatted for your templates. If you still print onto letterhead rather than creating it in the computer as a template, you can provide your transcription service the document setup information to ensure proper formatting when you print out the file.
Projectors. The use of a projector to facilitate presentations in court, depositions, mediations, and other situations has grown as the cost and weight of projectors have diminished. Over the last few years, the weight and the cost of projectors have dropped dramatically. Five years ago $5,000 bought you a 1,000-lumen projector that weighed about five pounds. Now you can get 2,000-lumen projectors weighing about four pounds for $1,500. The price drop has made the projector an affordable piece of technology for most offices. The increased power makes them suitable for most uses. Consider 1,500 to 1,800 lumens to be your minimum requirements for illuminating power. Many projectors offering up to 2,000 lumens have become available for $2,000 or less, and many manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon, producing quite satisfactory machines. I am very partial to the units marketed by HP, Toshiba, and Casio because of their combination of size, power, features, and price.
Cell phones. The quality of cellular technology continues to improve. Although coverage holes and other interference still create dropped calls and other problems more frequently than with a landline, the quality of the connections more and more closely approximates a landline. Many people have made their cell phone their primary telephone in their personal lives. Although I do not know many lawyers who have done that, I know even fewer who do not use cell phones. As the technology improves, cell phones will assume a role of even greater significance.
More recently, VOIP (voice over Internet protocol) telephony has stepped to the fore. Many of us have adopted VOIP telephony at home or at work. Generally, VOIP provides good connections and reasonable rates. VOIP can use existing wired or wireless phone equipment. Some VOIP services move easily from one location to another; you can set up VOIP anywhere you have a broadband Internet connection. Some VOIP providers work directly through a connection to your computer, so wherever you have broadband Internet service, you have VOIP available to you.
Hit the road! The bottom line is that technological advances have made it easier than ever to practice outside of the office. Undoubtedly, future advances will induce even more attorneys to do so.