About 10 years ago, lawyers were told to invest heavily in technology or face imminent professional collapse. Failing to embrace the latest tools, it was argued, would perpetuate inefficiency, reduce revenue and profits, and push clients toward more tech-savvy attorneys. And, indeed, many tools that were just starting to become economically viable at that time did have the potential to dramatically change how certain legal tasks were performed. In particular, better and cheaper databases provided the foundation for affordable document management, case management, and knowledge management systems that helped lawyers leverage work product like never before. Since then, an entire new wave of portable computing devices, including smartphones and tablets, have freed lawyers to remain connected to their offices and their clients, regardless of physical location. And, cloud-based applications and data storage have fundamentally challenged established ways of purchasing and managing technology.
And yet, fast-forwarding from 2000 to 2012, the practice of law still helps support the same type of business deals and resolves the same types of disputes in the same courtrooms that have existed for decades. Dusty piles of gadgetry and computers, representing hundreds of thousands of dollars in wasted investments, litter the storage rooms of large and small law firms alike. In the end, given all the options available, what technology is really needed by lawyers?
This article suggests that a surprisingly small amount of technology is sufficient to build the core tool set required for lawyers to be functional practitioners. This is not to say that other technology, especially software designed to help support specific practice areas (e.g., document assembly, litigation support databases, and e-discovery management tools), will not further help support a law practice. In addition, managing client funds and effectively screening new work for potential conflicts of interest are only two essential administrative tasks that can be significantly streamlined through the use of good technology, and this article should in no way be seen to minimize the value of such tools. However, all these tools require, at a minimum, basic foundational tools before they can be of any use to any lawyer, whether "big law" or solo practitioner.
1. Laptop Computer
It goes without saying that lawyers need a personal computer to perform their work today. Whether it's drafting documents, conducting research, or communicating with clients, a good computer is the most frequent tool that a lawyer uses in day-to-day work. For decades, the question has not been whether a lawyer needs a computer, but rather, the type of computer that a lawyer needs.
For their own hands-on work, today's lawyers are probably best served by using a reasonably powerful laptop computer rather than a traditional desktop computer and monitor. A computer, with its e-mail, word processing, and spreadsheet software, is the gateway to a lawyer's work product and intellectual property. In many ways, a computer is more the lawyer's office than the physical surroundings in which the computer sits. As a consequence, it makes little sense to anchor this office to one physical location. A laptop computer permits a lawyer to set up office at home, on the road, and even (with appropriate security, of course) in coffee shops and at the beach. In a time when clients increasingly demand support from their legal counsel outside regular business hours, it makes no sense to limit the ability to service these clients as necessary.
Many arguments can be made as to the best screen size and traveling weight for a lawyer's laptop computer. It is fair to say that the type of work that lawyers perform and their physical needs must drive this decision. Road warriors will naturally gravitate towards smaller, lighter computers, while lawyers with lower travel requirements may opt for heavier computers with more comfortable keyboards and larger built-in displays. Battery life is also an important consideration; less expensive laptop computers tend to use less energy-efficient components and may also be coupled with smaller batteries. This combination can exhaust an entry-level laptop computer's internal battery charge in as little as 2.5 hours, compared with 9 or more hours for a higher-end, more efficiently configured model.
Regardless of size and weight, though, one important consideration for all lawyers is the maximum screen resolution provided by a given laptop. A higher screen resolution offers the ability to display more information, whether through the built-in screen or an attached external monitor. Conversely, a lower resolution screen may have a frustratingly small window in which to perform work, significantly reducing productivity. The intentionally limited resolution of ultra-light, inexpensive netbook computers is one reason that these devices have become relatively unattractive compared to higher-resolution ultrabook and tablet devices. Though a more powerful graphics card offers potentially valuable ancillary features, most technology consultants believe that a 1366-by-768-pixel resolution provides the minimum effective resolution for working with current office productivity software and websites. Netbooks, by comparison, offer a maximum 1024-by-600 resolution—only 59 percent of the display visible on 1366-by-768 screens.
2. Laser Printer
Every legal practice, no matter how virtual or "paperless," still generates some printed materials. In addition, it's a matter of plain common sense that client-facing documents, such as letters, memoranda, and invoices, should look as professional as possible. A laser printer, even a very basic model, is a tested and proven way to consistently achieve this goal.
Ink-jet printers, the major alternative to laser printers, offer some apparent advantages. Most are less expensive than a comparable laser printer while simultaneously offering the ability to print color documents on demand. Advances in printing technology have also decreased the speed difference between laser (generally faster) and ink-jet (generally slower) printers. And, many ink-jet printers are smaller and lighter than their laser printer counterparts.
However, these advantages are eclipsed by some significant disadvantages. Even today's fast-drying inks will still run or smear if water is spilled on them. Equally important, these inks will fade over time, which can be a critical problem for contracts, wills, and other legal documents that are expected to have an extended life. The fused plastic toner used by laser printers has neither of these shortcomings; printed on acid-free paper, laser-printed documents have an estimated archival life measured in decades, if not centuries.
A final consideration for selecting a laser printer over an ink-jet alternative is operating costs. Ink-jet ink costs are much higher than comparable laser toner costs. In an office that has even modest printing needs, laser printers will rapidly prove cheaper to use. As an added benefit, toner cartridges do not dry out from lack of use, as seldom-used ink-jet cartridges are prone to do. Thus, the same toner cartridge in a lightly used laser printer may last several years, compared to the 90-day life of some modern ink-jet cartridges.
3. High Speed Internet Access
It's impossible to imagine a law practice today that doesn't rely on the Internet for e-mail, research, networking, and business development—to mention only some of a lawyer's professional tasks. Beyond basic connectivity and e-mail though, true high-speed Internet access is the basis for many essential services used by individual lawyers and law firms. Reliable broadband access is required to deploy online data backup solutions, cloud-based applications (aka, "software as a service"), and cloud-based data storage. In addition, the cost differential between business-class high-speed Internet access and older, more limited solutions such as DSL connectivity continues to decrease. Paying a little bit more for much better Internet access is usually a good idea, when such alternatives are available.
A more interesting—and less settled—related question is whether mobile high-speed Internet access, provided through a cellular modem or portable Wi-Fi device (e.g., a MiFi), is equally essential for lawyers, considering that so many locations and businesses offer complimentary or low-cost Internet connectivity for visitors and guests. On one hand, many lawyers use these guest networks without hesitation, finding them convenient and inexpensive. Other practitioners, however, prefer to use their own Internet connectivity to provide them with greater security over the data being received and transmitted. After all, most guest Wi-Fi hotspots feature prominent disclaimers about the public nature of the service, and not all of these wireless network providers support the use of virtual private network (VPN) or other security measures that can be deployed to encrypt and secure sensitive information even when it is transmitted through a public connection.
Many lawyers have found that a combination of these two solutions works best for them. Public Internet access may offer greater convenience and faster throughput that is more than adequate when working with normally sensitive information. Conversely, dedicated mobile Internet access will provide connectivity even when no public service is available, and it will also provide a greater degree of security for the transmission or receipt of highly sensitive information. In addition, the continually increasing availability of pay-as-you-go mobile Internet access has dropped the cost of maintaining dedicated mobile service to as little as $20/month—a fraction of what this service cost only a few years ago.
4. Portable E-mail Access
E-mail, more than text messaging, remains a staple in how lawyers communicate with colleagues and clients. In addition, critical documents are now more commonly sent electronically than via couriers and overnight delivery. Thus, even when out of the office, a lawyer may need to monitor e-mail to respond to questions or provide other guidance; clients and colleagues alike expect this level of availability. Fortunately, lawyers have multiple ways to remotely access e-mail, though a combination of more than one solution may provide the best balance of functionality and convenience.
Smartphones—cell phones that include added computer-like functions—are one obvious way to send and receive e-mail when away from the office. Most lawyers already carry a cell phone, so this solution requires no additional device to misplace or break. On the downside, though, even the largest smartphone screen may not display file attachments with any level of detail, and only a select few attorneys have developed any semblance of their usual typing speed when drafting text on a tiny cell phone keyboard. In a very real way, convenience trumps total functionality.
Many lawyers have started carrying tablet devices, such as the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab (to mention only two of dozens of competing models), as a more robust way than smartphones to keep in touch when away from the office. Some of these tablets can be fitted with dedicated cellular modems for full-time connectivity like a smartphone; other tablets require a connection to a wireless network. These devices offer a larger screen and a much larger virtual keyboard for entering text than smartphones. It's both easier to read incoming messages and to reply to them. In addition, thanks to their larger screen and greater processing speed and operating memory, many tablets offer higher quality Internet browsing than a lawyer might experience when using a smartphone for the same purpose. However, a tablet is an additional device for lawyers to carry and maintain. In addition, by the time an enterprising lawyer adds a tablet carrying case with built-in stand, a wireless physical keyboard for even faster text entry, and a supplemental battery pack in case the tablet's built-in battery runs out, the total weight of the tablet and its accessories may weigh as much as, or more than, a small laptop computer.
Finally, as noted earlier, some lawyers find it most convenient to use their laptop computers as their remote e-mail access device. Although this may be the heaviest solution in terms of weight, it also offers the maximum flexibility for the lawyer. A laptop fitted with a dedicated cellular modem card can send and receive e-mail messages without sacrificing any functionality. In addition, the lawyer's laptop computer typically also stores extensive client and colleague contact information and software for opening and creating any number of files that may be required. The newest breeds of ultrabook laptop computers also offer professional-grade performance at a weight only a pound or so heavier than the most popular 10-inch display tablet devices.
5. A Cell Phone that Sounds like A Phone
Smartphones are a popular and powerful tool for lawyers, permitting them to send and receive e-mail and text messages, research urgent questions on the Internet, and carry a full set of client contact information wherever they go. Unfortunately, in the quest to pack the most functionality into the smallest possible package, some cell phones have compromised an important feature: phone call quality. Some otherwise well-regarded smartphones are notorious for their tendency to drop voice calls and make the caller or listener sound like they're calling from the bottom of a well.
At a time when the average American citizen spends less and less time talking on the telephone in favor of e-mail, text messaging, and Twitter, lawyers still hold a lot of business-related conversations. Moreover, clients expect to understand their lawyers—and be understood by them—when they do talk on the phone. When choosing a cell phone that will be used for business purposes, make sure that it has appropriate "call clarity." Many organizations regularly test cell phones, so finding reviews about specific models is usually quite simple. In addition to reading reviews, it's also important to test a given cell phone in the location where it will be used most often. Phones that work very well in the greater Los Angeles area, for example, may perform poorly in New York City, and vice versa. In addition, the same model phone may perform differently on different carriers.
6. Cloud-Based Storage
One recent but increasingly important technology that is having a very significant impact on the practice of law is cloud-based data storage. Many lawyers already use cloud-based data storage in their personal lives. Gmail, Yahoo, and other hosted e-mail environments store countless petabytes of e-mail conversations and attachments. Lawyers who purchase audio, video, and e-book files from Amazon or Apple iTunes Store automatically receive access to a cloud-based archive of their purchases. These solutions offer convenience and value.
In the business context, storing data in the cloud removes the requirement of storing it locally on devices that can break or be stolen, increasing data security. In addition, cloud-based data can be accessed from multiple authorized devices and easily shared with colleagues and clients. Data stored in the cloud also solves the critical problem of data backup and business continuity. Data stored locally, such as on an office network or individual personal computer, disappears if that storage repository becomes unavailable or breaks. This can have deep-reaching and significant consequences. Cloud-based data, moreover, includes outsourced data backup, greatly reducing the problem of data loss—at least, as long as an Internet connection is available.
Cloud-based storage is not without limitations though. If Internet connectivity is lost, cloud-based information becomes as inaccessible as if it were stored on a crashed hard drive. In addition, though the specifics very much depend on the service level agreement executed between customer and cloud provider, the provider may have the right to delete a customer's entire hosted repository if the provider is not timely paid. Thus, it is theoretically possible for an entire law firm's accumulated work product to vanish if something goes wrong with the logistics of the payment mechanism. A third concern is that it takes more time to upload and download large volumes of cloud-based data than it does to manage these materials locally. While that increased time may not be particularly noticeable when working with individual memos, briefs, and other lawyer work product, data transmission time can be a significant factor when working with volumes of discovery documents that need to be reviewed for relevance and then produced to a requesting party.
A somewhat different and potentially larger issue with respect to cloud-based storage is the issue of compliance with U.S. and European Union data privacy protection, as well as potential intellectual property and U.S. export control consequences of having certain information leave the United States. The cloud provider business model is based on the idea that a provider should have the ability to store client information wherever it is most efficient and cheapest. In practice, this may mean that cloud providers maintain data repositories outside the United States in countries like Mexico and Thailand. This can, theoretically, create problems for client or work product materials that must remain inside the United States.
Ensuring the location of cloud-based data is further complicated by the fact that cloud providers routinely shift data around their servers and data centers to load-balance and stage materials for faster or slower access. This load balancing is sufficiently automated that it is not always easy for a provider to know the specific physical location of where a client's data is being stored, and it can be similarly difficult to ensure that it remains in the same physical location. Some cloud providers are addressing this potential issue by classifying data as to whether it must be stored inside (or outside) specific countries, but this naturally limits the flexibility of the cloud provider and necessarily raises the cost of this service.
A robust law practice requires many different tools and administrative tasks to operate smoothly and efficiently, and these baseline tools are likely to provide only the starting point for many lawyers. Even without significant enhancement, though, these six tools alone should provide much of the critical infrastructure needed to grow a successful—and modern—practice.
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