December 12, 2013 Articles

The Modern-Day Mobile Lawyer's Manifesto, Part Two

By Michael J.P. Schewe

This is the second part of a series dealing with the ever-changing way that we practice law. The first part of this series—published in the Winter 2013 issue of the Solo & Small Firm newsletter—covered the idea of a paperless law office. In this second article, the topic is the ever-increasing mobility of lawyers. These topics are interrelated in that, assuming you have already made the jump to a paperless law office (think: no more need to carry around those pesky, 50-pound Redwells), you may be tempted to practice law outside the office.

I practice what I preach. When I wrote this article, I was enjoying some lovely jazz at the Newark Museum's backyard garden. And why not? Work is work—whether you do it cooped up in a windowless office, fighting paper cuts and momentary lapses of sanity, or you type out a brief in a bathing suit in between cannonballs, it still has to get done. Personally, I work better when I am in good spirits.

I also do not buy into what I like to call the "distraction retraction." Essentially, this is the idea that work done in the office is "better" because you are more focused. Today, we must come to grips with the fact that we are constantly distracted. Jean Jacques Rousseau once wrote in his famous treatise, The Social Contract, that "man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains." In today's day and age, we have indeed become chained to our conveniences or, perhaps more accurately, our various devices. They enslave us in various ways but none more troublesome than their distractive tendencies. Try all you want with technological blocking tools and personal volition control mechanisms, constant distraction is a part of our newly connected lives. Therefore, I fail to see the difference between sitting in the office sneaking online news articles and stopping writing briefly to enjoy a particularly lucid jazz improvisation.

But, as I often do, I digress. I can argue with myself all day about the pros and cons of mobile lawyering. So, for the purposes of this article, I will assume you are reading this because (a) you, like me, found freedom and flexibility in your choice of employment or (b) this is just another way to feed your distractive habit at the office. Either way, thanks for stopping by.


Laptops. Most of us grew up putting floppy disks into desktop computers that were immovable objects. We crudely navigated MS-DOS on our massive, rear-projection monitors. Computers were new and fun, so we couldn't complain, but today the idea of a non-mobile computer seems as outdated as a non-mobile lawyer (ha). To fulfill the dream of lawyering from anywhere, we need workstations that function where we are (as opposed to where they are and will always be).

I won't go into the highly technical deliberations you will need to make when making your machine purchase, but let me share some of my general feelings. You are neither a graphic designer nor a cinematographer (maybe you are and, let me say, you are terribly lost!), so your virtual office laptop purchase, unlike your personal computer purchase, needs to focus on power, memory, and ease of use—both in the courtroom and on the move.

It should also be noted that software does exist that allows you to control your work desktop from your personal computer (depending on your employer, you may not be allowed to use a laptop as your main office computer). This is so-called remote desktop control, and (as long as it is OK'd by the firm's information technology department), it can help a desktop-chained attorney to work from home or from a laptop while on the move.

Tablets. I have talked with or read about a growing number of lawyers who love their tablets. They claim to have the relevant court rules and case law at their fingertips or on screen next to their case-specific pleadings and exhibits while in the courtroom. Although I cannot agree more with the utility of these ends, I am not sure why it necessitates a tablet. Although the tablet is lightweight and equipped with fancy apps, there are times in court I would prefer a full keyboard to type out some quick notes. Tablet enthusiasts will counter that they can attach or use a wireless keyboard, but if you anticipate the need for typing, why bother lugging around a separate keyboard?

I settled on a hybrid setup. It is a superlight (no DVD drive), full keyboard (built in), tablet-convertible, built-in-WiFi-capable, touch-screen beast. It gives me the best of both worlds. If I am on oral argument, I can flatten the screen and quickly scroll through my notes and the relevant case materials. However, if I am at a deposition or trial, I can quickly and easily take notes by typing into the keyboard. Everyone is different (heck, I could change my mind in four months), but that's where I am now.

Smartphones. "Smart" phone technology, whatever you take that to mean, has become indispensible. The things we can accomplish with our telephones in modern society are remarkable. While I may enjoy a traffic-avoiding reroute to the courthouse using my phone, you may not be as impressed. Indeed, we could go on all day about helpful, yet dispensable apps (e.g., supersonic mosquito repellant?).

So why the smartphone and not the pager?

The simplest answer is that if you live the paperless life, your phone (like all your other devices) carries your entire office with you on the go (this is assuming that your practice-management software is on the cloud—so-called Software as a Service, or SaaS). Thus, if you are ever without wireless (or a WiFi-enabled computer), your phone becomes your last line of defense. For example, say you are in the Newark Immigration Court and the immigration judge is beaming down at you about a document neither you nor the assistant chief counsel can locate, and you quickly access it on your phone, then email/e-fax it to the judge's law clerk. You just obtained instant hero status. Heck, I've Google Scholar-ed the case another attorney is basing his oral argument on while he is giving it in court, in order to form a well-reasoned response (the case that, of course, he magically just found on the ride to the courthouse and was going to email to me but forgot). The key is that, in an age where information is clearly power, the smartphone is just another tool to keep the playing field anything but level.

Wires (or, If I Have Anything to Say about It, the Lack Thereof)
As an introduction to this section, let me just say that I have developed a firm hatred of all wires. I don't know why or how, but I want to rid the world of wires. I firmly believe they are the flotsam and jetsam of the digital world.

Bluetooth headphones. My love affair with Bluetooth began when my mother gave me her extra headpiece, claiming "I never use it anyways." I initially used it just for the thrill but eventually began to see its many benefits. For one, it allows me to drive and talk (which I am not crazy about; cars are for loud music and awkward singing, but occasionally duty calls and no one wants a ticket). Another benefit of Bluetooth is avoiding neck-craning injuries and what I affectionately call "sweaty-phone-head" (for those sweltering summer months in suits).

My next Bluetooth revelation came while at the gym. I was fed up with the situation where your phone rings causing you to pause your music, remove and secure your headphones, find and secure your Bluetooth earpiece, and answer your phone only to realize you missed the call. So that day, amidst my "running-the-wires-through-the-shirt-so-as-not-to-interfere-with-the-lifting" procedure—all the while trying to answer firm calls being forwarded to my cell (see infra)—I shouted to the gods, "Why can't my Bluetooth just play music!!" Being that I am neither a genius nor ahead of any trends, a simple Google search when I got home revealed that, yes, such multitasking ear buddies had already been created with me in mind. They have become a staple of my life and practice. The Bluetooth headphones lightly cradle your head and quasi-hover, playing your music until your phone receives a call. When you receive a call, they pause the music and move to the call. When the call ends, your music restarts automatically where you left it. I cannot—nay, will not—live without them ever again.

Tethering. Internet access is a must no matter where you are, especially if your practice-management software is web-based. Although many places now offer free wireless, it is a fact of life that you cannot work from anywhere without Internet access and not all places offer it.

To combat this, you have three basic choices: (1) buy a laptop that has 3G or 4G capabilities built in, (2) purchase a mobile hotspot or hardware connection, or (3) "tether" your phone to your laptop (allowing your phone to act as a faux "wireless 3G modem" or "hotspot" for your other devices).

The phone companies are offer tethering as a potential option on your phone, but the prices to date are a little high. The more economical way to obtain Internet access on your laptop is to use a desktop program in conjunction with a tethering app on your phone. With these programs, you download their software onto your laptop; then, for a small fee, you download the mobile app onto your cell phone and, voila, you have access to the Internet anywhere your phone can tap into 3, 4, or (soon enough, I'm sure) 5 of those mysterious Gs.

One caveat: Although very handy to have in a pinch, tethering drains your batteries like your batteries are donating blood. Stay plugged in whenever possible and carry spare batteries to avoid technological letdown.

Call Forwarding. Working from anywhere is useless if your office falls apart while you are gone. Call forwarding allows me, using the web, to direct office calls to my cell phone (or, if I am unavailable, to someone else) so that clients always have a friendly voice greeting them when they call. The most-cited gripe of dissatisfied clients is inaccessibility, so I prefer to go overboard with being accessible. In my opinion, if a client gets used to hearing your voice when he or she calls, it will go a long way toward building a strong attorney-client relationship and, after the matter ends, having that satisfied client send referrals your way.

I would be remiss if I ended an article about mobile lawyering without discussing mobile security. Let me be perfectly clear: Mobile lawyering brings with it great freedom but, without proper precautions, great peril. If our hypothetical graphic designer has her laptop stolen, she loses her work product and creative goodies, but for us as lawyers, the stakes are higher: We get sued for malpractice. If you neglect your security protocols, you have opened yourself up to an ethics complaint, malpractice suit, or both. That said, let me run through some of my favorite mobile safety tips.

Basic. Your office laptop should be accessible to one and only one person: you. To achieve this goal, my laptop requires a fingerprint scan or, if that malfunctions, an absurdly hard password. Your workstation, in whatever form, should be the same. Unfortunately for your sanity, your phone should be the same way. I realize that cell phone passwords or "password swipes" are unbelievably tedious and annoying (especially when combined with a power-saving display time out), but just remember they are not half as annoying as responding to an ethics complaint or malpractice suit when someone steals your phone and accesses sensitive client data or information.

Backup. An easy way to avoid major pain and suffering is to (i) backup (ii) everything (iii) all the time (or as close to all the time as possible). Everything I scan into the computer is digitally filed, then uploaded to my practice-management software (the cloud), which is essentially a backup of my data off-site. Then, every Friday, I back up my entire hard drive to two external hard drives, at least one of which is not kept or carried with my laptop (it doesn't do you any good to back up if you lose your laptop and backup at the same time).

Therefore, if my laptop is stolen, I can reload my data from the external hard drive onto another computer, unless my office burns down, in which case I can use the external hard drive at my home. If my laptop is stolen, my office is destroyed, and my residence is burglarized in the same day, I can still restore my data through my practice-management software in the cloud. If my cloud (SaaS) provider is also destroyed as a result of a cyber-terror attack at the very moment that my laptop is stolen, my office burns down, and my residence is burglarized, I think the attorney ethics board will understand (and maybe the world is trying to tell me something). This is obviously extreme, but it emphasizes the need to back up your client data in at least three different and secure places.

Technology has made backing up your data extremely affordable. Web-based practice-management software or other online digital storage providers usually have a low monthly fee (or no fee). Dropbox offers 50 gigabytes for $19 a month or $199 a year. As for your third backup, you can get a one-terabyte external hard drive for about $60. I read recently—I cannot remember where—that a gigabyte of storage 20 or so years ago cost $50,000. Today, our $60 terabyte of storage means that a gigabyte of storage today costs about 6 cents. Craziness.

HTTPS. But wait, isn't it "http:"? Simple answer: It was. Again, I am no master of technology, but evidently using https for web browsing increases security. Why? Who cares. Facebook has a setting to achieve this: Look in Account Settings>Security Setting>Secure Browsing (why do they hide these things?!), and some browsers allow you to set the preference of https (when available) for your browsing experience. This is a "just do it" moment. Be aware of https, and utilize it wherever possible.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, mobility, paperless, hardware, cyber security, cloud computing

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