December 01, 2011

SITES FOR SORE EYES: Technology to Turbocharge Your Life

Jim Calloway


Because this issue of GPSolo is devoted to turbocharging various aspects of your law practice, it seems only appropriate that this column discuss using technology tools to turbocharge the rest of your personal life. (Note: The author specifically disclaims any suggestion or implication that his life is, in fact, turbocharged.) This discussion will include websites but will not be limited to web-based tools. Hopefully, some of these ideas will be applicable to either your personal life or work.

Online document and file repositories. Forget, for a moment, that you have ever heard the phrase “cloud computing.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have an online document repository where you could store large amounts of records that you may not need again (but hate to destroy), along with records that you might want to refer to in the future?

Services such as Dropbox, Box, and SpiderOak provide an excellent ability to do this at a very reasonable rate. For beginners, this reasonable rate is generally free. The business model of these vendors is to hope you use the free service so much that you exceed the free allotment for file storage and need to become a paid subscriber. Some commentators have questioned whether these online file storage sites should be used for confidential client material. Their concerns generally revolve around certain boilerplate provisions of the terms of service agreement or whether it is generally inappropriate to leave such information in an online repository either unencrypted or automatically encrypted by the service (such as Dropbox). Perhaps the vendor that encrypts your data for you might also unencrypt it without your knowledge or permission. Although these arguments have never been completely persuasive to me, you should seek ethics advice from authorities in your jurisdiction before signing on with one of these providers.

Regardless of the ethics rules surrounding our clients’ data, we are clearly entitled to place our own information in whatever repository we wish. Personally, I love Dropbox because I can always access the stored files from my smartphone.

If you are concerned about the privacy or confidentiality of documents uploaded to any of these services, I suggest that you keep a felt-tip marker near the scanner so you can effectively redact any personally identifying data, such as Social Security numbers, account numbers, or birth dates prior to scanning.

More and more of us have scanning capability at home, often via a multifunction home printer or an old scanner retired from our law office. A home scanner can do wonders as a decluttering tool if routine documents—utility bills, school records, etc.—are simply scanned. Paperless records storage at home can be harder than it sounds, however. It is challenging enough to keep client files up to date at the office, and there is much greater motivation there than at home. For a home digital filing system to work, it has to be quick and easy. It also should give you the confidence to shred or destroy the paper. Otherwise you have added additional work for no real gain. (Note: If the idea of shredding these documents right after scanning them gives you cold chills, set up chronological files instead. One folder for everything you scan in November/December 2011 will still be pretty simple and take up relatively little space.)

Filing digital documents can be a pain, too. I bet if you put your mind to it, you could easily come up with ten or 15 categories for personal and home filing. If you are hyper-organized or have a librarian for a spouse or partner, you may have 20 or 30 categories. My advice is to limit yourself to three or four categories and rely on searching tools and long, descriptive file names to locate what you are looking for. If I keep everything as PDF files, I can search my own computer with Adobe Acrobat. This works great with Dropbox because there is a folder on my computer synchronized with Dropbox online. Windows 7 has great search capability, and products such as X1 and Copernic provide desktop search. In addition, many online document repositories have a search function.

For my home filing categories, I suggest Bills, Stuff, and People. I have Bills separately because it is a high percentage of household paperwork, and, honestly, how often will you really go looking for a nine-months-old utility bill? Then everything else is either associated with a person or not. If a family is scanning a lot of school items, five categories might be in order: Household, Mom, Dad, Son, and Daughter. The point is to have fewer categories so the scanning/filing does not become a miserable, time-consuming, easy-to-procrastinate task.

What about manuals? Most products come with a manual. They are sometimes helpful in learning to use a product, but months or weeks later, if you need them, they may be hard to locate. Because they are often small booklets or folded paper, they can be hard to scan. When you get a new product, you should check the company’s website to see if the manual is online there. Locating the manual and saving it to your document repository is easier than scanning it. If you cannot easily locate the manual on the website, there is an article on Lifehacker titled “Find PDF Manuals for Electronics Using Google and Amazon” that you might find helpful.

The mobile phone as filing tool. Next let’s discuss that device nearby in your hand, jacket, or purse as you are reading this: your mobile phone.

Your smartphone can serve as the filing tool that you always have with you. The camera can grab a photo of most anything you want to record. I chuckled a bit in the past as I heard of others using the phone to photograph a hotel room number or the location of a parking space so they could find it again. But now I think they were on to something.

Love the wine you tried for the first time at a restaurant? Take a picture of the label for future reference. Wondering if that flat-screen TV will fit on the wall? Instead of fumbling for a notepad and pen, take a picture of the price card that lists features and dimensions. Anytime you have to carry a receipt or scrap of paper with notes, you should ask yourself whether you can appropriately “file” this with your smartphone. You can e-mail the picture to someone (or yourself) or store it in Dropbox or another cloud-based file storage site. If you are prone to lose those ATM withdrawal receipts or credit card receipts, consider “filing” them with the phone right then as you step away from the ATM or receive your credit card back in the restaurant.

Lawyers tend to deal with PDF files more than image files. And if you do take a picture of a receipt with your smartphone, converting the image to PDF is a good plan. JotNot Pro is a 99 cent iPhone app that lets you convert smartphone images to PDFs. There are scan-to-PDF apps for all phone platforms, including CamScammer (Android, BlackBerry, iPhone, and Windows Mobile), MobiPDFScanner (Windows Mobile), and PDF Scanner (BlackBerry).

Note that bar code scanning or QR code scanning is different. An excellent article on Gizmodo discusses these apps.

Phone as voice recorder. I love the Dragon Dictation iPhone app that lets me speak a few sentences into the phone and then converts my spoken words to text. Often it is perfect, but not always. But many smartphones have a voice recorder app built in. You might not want to try this trick with clients or strangers, but you can dictate a voice message and then e-mail that file to your assistant, spouse, or partner. They will get the e-mail with the sound file attached, and when they play the attachment, they will hear your words with no transcription errors.

Fitness sites and apps. These are quite popular. Lifehacker recently polled its members to come up with “Five Best Fitness Tracking Web Sites and Services.”

Old-fashioned shopping trips. Sometimes something as simple as a better way to do your shopping can improve your life and your attitude. Sheila M. Blackford, a practice management advisor for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund who blogs about law practice management issues at her Just Oregon Lawyers blog, gives us this tip:

I have found that it is the most mundane applications that stir feelings of appreciation for technology. At the end of a busy day or busy week, it is frustrating to get midway into dinner prep to find a key ingredient is not on the shelf or almost empty. On my iPhone, I now have a nifty life sanity saver called Shopping List (Grocery List) by hensoft from Philipp Christian Hensel. I upgraded to the paid version for $2.99—because I can then sync my shopping lists with other iOS devices such as iPads, iPhones, or iPods. You simply create an account with a password. Then install the paid program onto your spouse or partner’s iPhone. . . . [W]hen you remember you need milk from the grocery or dog food from the pet store, you can be sure the information will be on both phones with the new items flagged with a red circle. Before this app, it was harder to be synced shoppers or able to put my hands on AA batteries when I needed them. Hmm—I see my husband just put two items on the list, so happy to report he’s using it, too!

Keyboard shortcuts. When I get up from working at my desk to take a short break, either at home or work, I hold down the Windows key (with the Windows icon) and hit the L key. This locks the computer so that no one else can use it until I return and enter the password for access. It protects any confidential information and also keeps someone from sitting down and moving off to other websites, closing open documents, or otherwise interrupting where I left the PC. This simple keyboard shortcut is literally one of hundreds that are very quick to use and useful. It takes less time to hit a keystroke combination than to grab the mouse and fish around for the right pull-down menu.

Use this link for keyboard shortcuts for Microsoft products. You can likely find a list of keyboard shortcuts for any other software product you use by typing the product’s name and “keyboard shortcuts” into your favorite search engine. Here’s my suggestion for learning keyboard shortcuts: First you should either save the list to your computer as a file or bookmark in your browser. Trying to learn (and use) dozens of these at once will lead to frustration. You should pick two, just two, of these that seem like they might be time savers. Try to use them frequently so they become second nature and a part of your practice. Then set a time six or eight weeks in the future to start using two more new keyboard shortcuts.

Avoiding paper. David J. Bilinsky, who blogs at, has a different take on the scanning of household bills for filing. He says not getting the paper bills at all is the key. Bilinsky advises:

Put as many vendors in your life on automatic payments via your credit card as you can. You get an e-mail stating . . . the current balance of your account and the bill gets paid each and every time . . . all I have to worry about is paying the credit card bill AND I get travel points since all that “stuff” is going thru the credit card and storing up travel rewards. Life is too busy to have to worry about making all payments by writing cheques etc.

Closing thoughts. There are many more ideas for using technology on the home front to save time rather than waste time. More iPads are making their way into the kitchen for recipes or cooking tips apps. Facebook can be a time sink, but it is certainly quicker to post family photos there than to e-mail them to dozens of friends and relatives. So maybe thinking about using technology to be efficient at home will give you more free time away from the technology. Or maybe you will just have more time to play Angry Birds.


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