By Sharon Nelson and John Simek
Only a very few lawyers are truly adept at technology—although many of the rest wish they were. Really, it is not always difficult or costly to implement. Here is a potpourri of favorite items that even technophobes can learn to enjoy.
Do you have a cell phone with 500 functions, about five of which you know how to use? Do remote controls befuddle you so much that you have to ask your 10-year-old for assistance just to watch a DVD? If so, you are a member of a very large club that is filled with your lawyer brethren.
Most lawyers, if not quite technophobes, have a limited knowledge of technology. But at the same time, they know full well that technology can facilitate efficiency in their law offices in numerous ways. Maybe putting some cool tech toys to use will shed light on the fact that technology as applied in law practice doesn't have to be a hair-pulling drag. In fact, there are actually some gadgets that can make you feel, well, kind of fun. You might even impress that 10-year-old. And the not-so-fringe benefit will be making everyday tasks easier and more secure.
Let's look at several different items that will help bring your practice into the 21st century. Best of all, there are additional revenue streams to be found from effectively employing these—and what lawyer isn't thirsty to drink from those cool waters?
A good digital camera can be a valuable piece of equipment for almost any law office. You can, for example, use the camera to take pictures of your plaintiff's accident scene, your defendant's crime scene, and your plaintiff's construction site in a breach of contract dispute, or just your good-looking staff so you can post a photo of them on your firm Web site.
What should you look for in the camera and how much should you spend? As a minimum, you should purchase at least a 5-megapixel model. A megapixel is a unit of image-sensing capability. In general, the more megapixels, the better the resolution of an image printed at a certain size. Put differently, as the size of the image increases, an image from a 5-megapixel camera will start to appear grainy before one from a 7-megapixel camera does. Expect to pay around $250 for a good 5-megapixel model. You almost can't go wrong with any of the name-brand cameras, such as those from Nikon, Canon, Sony or Kodak. If you can afford it, get a 7-megapixel camera, which should last you for several years and is capable of producing good-sized clear exhibits.
In terms of zoom capability, the most important characteristic is the optical zoom setting. Some manufacturers tout 15x or 20x zoom capability, but that's the digital zoom setting and, as it turns out, quality is less than optimal as the digital zoom gets higher and higher. In contrast, the optical zoom is the capability of the lens optics. Normally, values in the 3x or 4x range are more than sufficient and will produce crisp, clear images.
Many digital cameras also allow you to take motion pictures and store them in MPG, AVI or MOV formats. Check with the manufacturer to determine the storage format for video clips. (There is no single standard that all manufacturers use.) Be aware, though, that the video clips capability is a "quick and dirty" way to store motion pictures. If you are going to be doing a lot of motion picture recording, get a digital video camera—meaning a device specifically designed for video recording.
Memory for a digital camera is less of an issue because you can typically increase the storage capability by purchasing additional cards. If you have several digital cameras, try to get models that use the same form factor for their memory cards so you can have the flexibility of swapping the cards among different cameras. It is probably pretty obvious, but you can store more high-resolution images on the larger memory cards. This may be particularly important if you plan on storing a lot of video clips, which take up more storage space.
You should have some type of tool for organizing your image files. As an example, you want to keep your digital photos of the intersection where that accident occurred separate from the photos of your grandchildren at Thanksgiving dinner. Lest you think this kind of sorting is a small point, we hasten to note that we saw one of our colleagues give a CLE presentation and accidentally pull up a photo of an unclothed young lady. This is a very big "whoops."
If you are using case management software, you should reference digital photos for a matter to the particular case. A very simple method is to create a folder structure on your computer and just copy the images into it. It also helps to actually name the files with some description of the pictures. Digital cameras have an automatic naming scheme, which, alas, doesn't help at all in identifying the picture contents. It is much easier (and faster) to access a picture named "Main Street Looking South.jpg" then to try and figure out what a picture named "DCS00129.jpg" is all about.
Picasa, from Google ( http://picasa.google.com), is an excellent and free photo organization software. (Lawyers love free!) In addition to providing an easy interface for sorting and describing your image collections, Picasa lets you touch up your photos and even burn them to CD-ROM.
USB thumb drives, flash drives, jump drives and pen drives are all names for a small portable item that is nothing more than a solid-state storage device. To collectively refer to these wonderful devices, we'll use the term "thumb drives"—a term that came to be because these little hummers are about the size of your thumb. (Duh.)
Thumb drives fit into the USB port of your desktop or laptop. Windows 2000 and above have native support for thumb drives, and many manufacturers also supply drivers for a Windows 98 system. The thumb drive appears as another disk drive to your computer. Think of it as a large size electronic floppy disk. They come in sizes from 16MB all the way up to a whopping 16GB.
What are the practical uses? Because they are portable, thumb drives are great for copying data from your work computer to take home or on the road. We regularly copy our PowerPoint presentations to a thumb drive as a backup when we lecture. That way, if our laptop happens to die, we still have the presentation on a thumb drive and can borrow another presenter's equipment. Reference materials and special utility software are also excellent candidates for the thumb drive.
Because they are so small, though, these devices present security considerations. Have you ever misplaced your cell phone? 'Fess up now. Well, if you think a cell phone is easy to lose, think about a thumb drive, which is often carelessly tossed into a pants pocket. You'll be lucky if you just end up with it in the laundry. It is remarkably easy to pull out your car keys and leave your thumb drive (with all its confidential data) in a parking lot. Losing a thumb drive with your confidential client data is not a good thing.
Several manufacturers provide software that allows you to encrypt the data or provide a portion of the drive to store encrypted data. Some of the really cool thumb drives even have biometric security access. If you choose the biometrics route, just make sure that you scan in at least two fingers in case you try to emulate Emeril Lagasse one night and end up with a sliced finger.
A scanner is a requisite piece of equipment for every law office in the 21st century, and that's about all we need to say on that score.
Consider the Fujitsu ScanSnap S500 scanner ( http://scansnap.fujitsu.com). It can scan double-sided color pages at a rate of 18 sheets per minute. But the best part is that this scanner costs around $400 and includes a copy of Adobe Acrobat 7.0 Standard. Acrobat alone costs more than $250 if purchased separately. We use the previous model (FI-5110EOX2), which is a knockout, but it is no longer available. However, the S500 seems to be an even better replacement unit.
The Palm Treo 700w smart phone ( www.palm.com) is a Windows Mobile 5 device. Any Windows Mobile 5 device with the Microsoft Messaging and Security Feature Pack (MSFP) can connect with an Exchange 2003 Server with Service Pack 2 and support the Direct Push Technology. This complete implementation is at no additional cost and requires no additional server. More and more, corporations and law firms are moving away from the BlackBerry because of cost and complexity issues, not to mention RIM's continuing legal battles. As an added bonus, you can remotely wipe the data from the Treo 700w if it is lost or stolen.
We have first-hand experience with the Treo 700w and Direct Push Technology, and we absolutely love it—with the minor caution that every once in a while you do have to "reset" your phone. After all … it is a Windows-based phone, so why shouldn't it require a periodic reboot just like your computer?
The iPod ( www.apple.com/ipod) isn't just for music anymore. The latest versions can also store video clips, podcasts, digital photos and audiobooks. Podcasts (Web feeds of audio or video files placed on the Internet for subscribers to download to their iPods) are one of the many implementations of these ingenious little devices from Apple. Podcasts, which are downloaded to the iPod for playback, include such things as the latest news headlines, updated sports scores, radio talk shows and even CLE programs. This is the leading edge of legal tech these days. Many lawyers now consider the iPod a must-have, especially if they have long commute times or a lot of plane and airport time.
You can use an iPod to store any type of file and can even make it the destination for your backup files. The device's portability allows you to back up your computer to your iPod and move the data off site. The video feature is pretty cool, too. You can download classic Disney or Pixar animated shorts, as well as more than 3,000 music videos and hundreds of television shows from Apple's iTunes store. If you have any trouble with it, your 10-year-old can be summoned to answer your questions.
One caveat concerning iPods (and any other portable device, for that matter): You must make sure that it is charged prior to use. The authors flew to Honolulu for the ABA Annual Meeting and both own the 60GB version of the iPod Video. Guess which author's iPod didn't work for the entire flight because the batteries were dead? (Note from the guilty party: So where was my tech support, John?)
Desktop Search Engines
Ever have a need to find something on your computer when you have no idea what the file name is? Enter the desktop search engine. Yes, you can always use the Windows "Find" function, but there are many other alternatives that are much, much faster and potentially more accurate.
Probably one of the best-known of the desktop search engines is Google Desktop ( http://desktop.google.com).
It is free (as we said before, lawyers love free) for personal and internal business use. You install Google Desktop on your computer and configure it to "point" to certain folders and file types. It indexes the files to aid in the search speed. Google Desktop does have its limitations, though, so take it for a test-drive and see if you need something more robust.
X1 ( www.x1.com) and dtSearch ( www.dtsearch.com) are two excellent commercial versions of desktop search software. Both are widely used and very efficient. You really can't go wrong with either of these recommendations for a very robust search solution. A number of our law firm clients have implemented these tools and regard them as invaluable.
Mobile Hot Spots: Two for the Road
Lastly, one of our favorite technology gadgets is our portable wireless AP. Effectively, we create our own "hot spot" in our hotel room while traveling. No more Ethernet cables stretching across the bed and both of us can share the single broadband connection at the same time. This is a great stride in our marital amity.
So what makes this magic happen? We use the AirPlus G DWL-G730AP Wireless Pocket Router/AP from D-Link ( www.dlink.com). The product can be used as a router, access point or wireless network adapter. It costs around $60 and is really small for easy transport. Actually, it is amazingly small at only 3.15 x 2.36 x 0.67 inches. The DWL-G730AP comes with its own travel case, power adapter and cables. It is an extremely powerful little device and we never leave home without it.
Of course, whatever device you use, make sure that you do not transmit any sensitive information over a wireless or unsecured wired connection. If you access firm e-mail via a Web browser, make sure you at least use SSL (Secure Socket Layer) by having the https:// in the URL. If you connect to the firm's network, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which provides a secure, encrypted connection for the data flow. Mobile hot spots are seductive, especially when free, but they require a duty of care.
So there you have it, it's pretty simple. To wit, a little time and a little money can put you on legal tech's forefront. And you might even be able to impress that 10-year-old who programs your DVD player for you.