Publications

Illinois Bar Journal

The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

December 2009Volume 97Number 12Page 608

December 2009 Illinois Bar Journal Cover Image

Law Office Management and Technology

Just Can’t Wait to Get on the Road Again

By
Helen W. Gunnarsson

With the right technology, you can be as productive when you're traveling as you are in the office.

Many lawyers who practice in large metropolitan law firms are accustomed to traveling frequently in the course of their practices. Their firms provide the support they need for working as effectively on the road as they do in their offices.

But clients and cases requiring travel across the state or across the country - or even out of the country - are no longer the sole province of BigLaw practitioners. Solo practitioners and those in small firms must increasingly be away from their offices, not only to go to area courthouses that may be an hour or more away but also for client meetings, depositions, trials, and professional conventions that can require extended periods of absence from their home offices. Without the staff and other resources of BigLaw, those lawyers must provide their own extra-office support so that their practices don't suffer in their physical absence.

The good news for those practitioners is that the same technology that facilitates their casting their nets further afield to find good clients and good cases also enables them to practice successfully away from their bricks-and-mortar offices - if, indeed, they still choose to maintain dedicated physical office space. Technology also makes it possible for the sole practitioner to take a vacation now and then while making sure that clients and cases don't languish.

The IBJ corralled several ISBA members, most of whom recently participated in ISBA's 5th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference in Springfield in late October, and asked for their views on how other "road Warrior" lawyers can work remotely and effectively. These lawyers, most of whom were interviewed while on the road or preparing to leave their home offices for extended periods themselves, have made it a point to find, use, and analyze the best and most cost- effective technology and good law office practices. Their opinions, which in some cases diverge, also illustrate that different lawyers with different practices and work habits can work equally effectively by finding and employing the technology that suits their individual needs.

Business-class laptops

"Anyone spending time on the road needs a good laptop and a cell phone," was the repeated advice of the lawyers interviewed. Naperville lawyer Bryan Sims and State Bar of Wisconsin Practice Management Advisor Nerino Petro, who presented separately and in tandem on legal technology at the Solo and Small Firm Conference, both advocate the purchase of a business class laptop for any lawyer who plans to tote a computer while traveling.

Explaining his position, Petro says, "When you buy a notebook computer that's designed for business use, you're getting higher quality components. It's designed for day in, day out use."

DesPlaines solo Peter Olson, who also presented at the Solo and Small Firm Conference, finds productivity essential when he's out of his office, whether on his way to court or on vacation. "I always have my laptop with me." Lamenting the absence of free internet access in the Daley Center, Olson says, "I have a wireless card and know where all the free Wi-Fi is in downtown Chicago."

Sims counsels against a lawyer relying on one of the new netbooks for doing much other than checking e-mail. Though acknowledging that netbooks, which are smaller and less expensive than full-featured laptops, can be "awesome," Sims opines "most people can't comfortably type on its keyboard. Plus, the netbook screen is really small."

Petro and Sims cite the warranty on business class laptops as another attribute in their favor. Providing a brief history of his own recent laptop usage, Sims illustrates the advantages of a good warranty: "The last laptop I had, I replaced two hard drives, the motherboard, and the keyboard," all of which, he says, were covered by the manufacturer's warranty. "I don't attribute those malfunctions to manufacturing issues - the laptop lived a hard life."

But neither Petro nor Sims advocate getting the snazziest, most up-to-date computer money can buy. Says Sims, "Spend a decent chunk of money for a good, middle of the road laptop- not the most expensive one, but not the cheapest one, either."

Petro provides his views on the minimum specifications that a lawyer should look for in a laptop: "The processor should be within three or four tiers of the top. I recommend getting a minimum of two gigabytes of memory [RAM], and ideally four. you want a hard drive of at least 250 GB, but ideally 500. If weight isn't an issue, get a built-in DVD drive."

Petro also says an extra battery is always a good idea. "Extended, nine-cell batteries, extend how long you can use your laptop while it's unplugged." And those batteries, he says, are available for business class laptops but not generally for consumer class machines, providing another reason to lay out the bucks for business class. "Make sure to spend enough so that you're not hindering your capability to work on the road," he says.

Be sure to buy a good support contract, too, adds Sims, instead of simply relying on the manufacturer's warranty that comes with the machine. Without a service contract, he warns, "If you call tech support it's outsourced to someone in another company, or you have to take it back to the store and you get it back in a week or so. If you buy from a manufacturer and buy the service plan that comes with it, it costs more, but if you have a problem they'll be at your door the next day to solve it."

But Sims also warns lawyers planning on taking their laptops to cabins in the wilderness, "The more remote you are, the higher the probability that you won't be able to get next day service." To minimize the possibility of computer injury, Petro admonishes, "A good carrying case is important. you want a product that will protect your computer and be comfortable to carry."

Not all lawyers interviewed agreed on the need for a business class laptop or on the specs Sims and Petro advise. Chicago solo Ava George Stewart, for one, relies on a netbook as her primary machine.

"Laptops are disposable items," George Stewart says. "They last for 24 to 36 months. Then either they die or you have to upgrade." Think of the damage potential, too, she says: "What if you spill coffee on a $3,000 laptop?"

Stewart's last laptop and external hard drive died unexpectedly a year ago, just as she was contemplating the purchase of a netbook as a secondary machine. Pushed into the netbook purchase as a temporary measure before deciding on a full laptop, she's never looked back.

"It's fast and," at about 8-1/2 by 11 inches, "fits into a woman's large purse. It has a 156 GB hard drive with everything I need. It holds not only all of my data but also my entire iPod collection. The keyboard is more than 90 percent the size of a standard machine. And it cost less than $400!"

Sims and Petro both preach that backing up data in more than one place should be as much a habit on the road as back at home. While on the road, Petro suggests bringing along an external drive as well as backing up through an online service, noting that portable flash drives with two gigabytes of storage currently go for under $10.

Sims provides some cautionary notes about relying too heavily on flash drives as backups. "First, they're very small, so they're very easy to lose. Second, although most are fairly durable, they're more fragile than most people treat them. It's easy to break one accidentally, if you drop on it and step on it, or if you leave it in your pocket and it goes through your laundry."

Even considering the extra weight, Sims prefers larger, more solid external hard drives for travel backup. Chicago lawyer Todd Flaming says, "My computer keeps a local copy of everything. But computers can get destroyed. [My firm has] a server keeping copies of everything, so if my computer died, I could get a new one and get all of my documents pretty quickly." Those who don't own their own servers can get the same backup service by paying for an online service such as GoToMyFiles.com, mydocsonline.com, netdocuments.com, or filesanywhere.com.

A smartphone

Along with Sims and Petro, Flaming opines, "Every lawyer needs a cell phone." And all three take that advice for lawyers even one step further, counseling lawyers to have not merely a cell phone, but a smartphone, that is, a mobile phone with internet capability, including not only voice features but also some degree of internet and e-mail access, often including a full keyboard.

Explains Sims, "A smartphone enables you to send e-mails to your secretary," assuming, of course, that you've got one, "to have something done by the time you get back to the office." Lawyers who don't have other staff members, or who field many tasks traditionally sent to support staff themselves, will find smartphones even more useful. Says Flaming, "Most stuff I get is a question or a thought in text. I can sit there, think about it, and respond [via text, e-mail, or voice] without having to go back to my hotel."

George Stewart swears by her smart-phone. "I text all the time, including full paragraphs." On the phone's tiny keyboard? "I can type almost as fast on my smartphone's keyboard as on a full sized one," she says. And, like any word-processing program for a full computer, she says, "my smartphone has a built-in spell checker." She and other lawyers also report that they've used their smartphones discreetly in courtrooms to check and respond to e-mail and text messages without offending judges or other courtroom personnel.

Petro provides another important reason for carrying a smartphone in addition to a laptop: where no free Wi-Fi is available, "you can use your smartphone as your cellular modem to get access to the Internet. you can tether it to your computer, either with a cable or through Bluetooth technology, so you can use your computer on the Internet" even without wireless Internet access.

Contrary to the advice of the other lawyers interviewed, Morton Grove solo Erik Swanson, who presented with Olson at the Solo and Small Firm Conference, says he gets along fine without either a cell phone or a smartphone. "For safety reasons, I don't like to talk on a phone whilst driving anyway, so I don't consider that time I could have returned or taken a call. As for standing in line, again, I wouldn't take or receive a call in a public line if any client information was going to be discussed - so even if I had a cell phone, I wouldn't talk in either of those situations. I just wait until I have the privacy and ability to return the call."

Swanson then reveals that his lack of a cell phone hardly tags him as a telecommunications Luddite: he employs Skype and uses his computer as his telephone when he's out of the office. "When you come down to it, since there are very few times a lawyer must (or even could) respond to something immediately, I have yet to find it to be a hindrance. Considering I almost always return client calls or emails within 24 hours, I'm probably doing a better job of communicating than those who are always on their cell phones."

Voicemail is a blessing, enabling many lawyers to do without secretaries. But checking it can be cumbersome and time-consuming when it requires the lawyer to find a reasonably quiet place, dial the voicemail number, punch in a code, and listen to each message - sometimes more than once, if the lawyer is interrupted or if the surroundings are noisy.

George Stewart, who spends much of her time in court, eliminates these problems and saves time by using phonetag. com, an automated service that immediately transcribes each voicemail and sends it to her by e-mail and text message. "Even if I forget my phone, I can still get my messages," she says.

And, though the robotized transcription service isn't perfect, "It does a pretty decent job," she says. In the rare circumstance when part of a message is unclear, George Stewart can always call the person back, since the service provides her with the caller's number.

Managing snail mail

Good work routines and habits are as important as the proper technology for the practitioner who needs to be able to work effectively on the road. Petro, Sims, and Flaming advocate creating a paperless office by scanning every document into the lawyer's computer system when it arrives in the office.

"Keep every document, everything on every case you have, stored in electronic format. If you want to keep the hard copy too, fine, but scan everything," says Sims.

Doesn't that take forever? "No," Sims responds, "because you do it as you go. It takes a couple of minutes whenever you open your mail. If you do it as you get it, you'll never notice it."

Olson agrees that doing away with paper will enhance a lawyer's productivity, though, he adds, in his experience it's impossible to be completely paperless. "you should expect that delays are going to happen, and you need to be ready to be productive if you're sitting around a courthouse waiting for a judge, or whatever. [I ask myself,] what do I need to have with me or be able to access regardless of where I find myself?"

Sims also points out that virtual fax services, including myfax.com, efax.com, ringcentral.com, and send2fax.com, are invaluable to the lawyer-cum-road warrior and can provide a workaround for a scanner while traveling. "you can go to a business center and fax a document to yourself. you then have an electronic copy without having to find a scanner."

Having every document for every case on your laptop, you're good to go - except for snail mail that arrives in your absence. Without staff at home and remote access to all documents on a server, Flaming, Sims, and Olson recommend not only arranging your schedule so that it's clear of hearings and appointments while you're away and clear of looming deadlines right after you get back, but also asking all clients, opposing counsel, and anyone else with whom you might need to communicate to send e-mail if a matter can't wait for your return.

Olson, who says he also has a good network of other lawyers who cover for him on emergencies, says he's never had a problem with opposing counsel. Says Flaming, "If you document that you notified counsel and told them you'd be out of town, any sneaky ones who don't cooperate and schedule something in your absence will get caught. Judges will not appreciate sneakiness and may then bend over backwards to accommodate you." And Flaming also says he's noticing a nascent industry in services that will receive, scan, and e-mail snail mail to their customers.

Data security

Sims, Petro, and Flaming all say that security is a vital concern for the traveling lawyer. All recommend that lawyers toting laptops have their data encrypted. "If you lose it, no one can access your confidential information," says Sims.

While Sims's favored method is whole-disk encryption, he cautions, "The downside is that if you forget your password, your data is gone, because neither you nor anyone else will be able to access your computer." Sims himself uses TrueCrypt, which he finds "rock solid, and it works great." The price is right, too: it's a free, open source application available for download by visiting http:// www.truecrypt.org. Petro adds, "Everyone should use a PIN to unlock their smartphones."

Following up on confidentiality concerns, Sims warns lawyers that his and the other lawyers' best travel advice may be inapt when they leave the country. "The U.S. has determined that it can seize your laptop and review anything on it upon your return. Theoretically, the same policy would hold for smart-phones."

He urges lawyers to consider carefully, therefore, whether they should take their laptops, cellphones, or even flash drives with them when they leave the country. If you do take a flash drive along, he says, "make sure you don't have confidential information on it if you cross borders."

One approach, he says, is to take a laptop without confidential information on it across international borders and use it to access and work on documents remotely, without ever saving them onto the computer itself. Programs such as LogMeIn and GoToMyPC, both of which offer free trials through their websites, enable users to do just that, he notes.

Lawyers should always maintain good habits to be sure that they are maintaining client confidentiality, Petro emphasizes. "If you're going to work on the road, be aware of what's around you. Are people looking over your shoulder? If you're at an airport, make sure you're connecting to the Internet via a legitimate connection" so that you're not allowing someone else to capture your data, he warns.

Petro tells a tale of connecting to the Internet at the Fort Lauderdale airport and noticing that more than one connection was available. The top connection icon on his screen, he says, went by the name "Fort Lauderdale Free Internet" and showed a computer icon. By that icon, Petro knew this was an individual computer owned by someone other than the airport. "Down the list, there was an icon for an infrastructure based network, which I knew was a legitimate hardware wireless access point."

Petro's lesson to lawyers: "you need to have a basic knowledge of wireless networking and security. Go to different events," such as ISBA's Solo and Small Firm Conferences, which feature seminars on legal technology, and "read some legal tech blogs and magazines such as PC World and PC Magazine."

Technology + business + pleasure

When technology and travel come together to allow lawyers to enjoy getting away as well as getting their work done, lawyers can end up with not only fabulous vacations and satisfied clients but also some great stories. Ava George Stewart and St. Louis area attorney Evan Schaeffer both recounted tales of how technology helped them successfully mix business with pleasure.

Despite coming down with flu along with her husband shortly before a long-planned vacation, George Stewart recently got a motion filed in federal court on deadline from a remote location on the shore of Lake Superior. Not only did she save her vacation, but, when she returned to Chicago, she won her motion.

George Stewart hadn't planned on working on her trip, which was to be a special birthday celebration for her husband, a dedicated fly-fisherman. But a nasty flu bug knocked both of them out before their scheduled departure, so that she lost time and wasn't able to file her motion before leaving.

"No problem," thought George Stewart. "I have my laptop, a wireless card, and my cell phone for internet access." When they got to their cabin on the lake, though, she discovered that there was not only no Internet available, but no cell phone signal, either.

"I panicked," George Stewart says. "It was Wednesday evening, and my motion was due Friday. I thought I could drive back to Chicago, or maybe get to Duluth, which was two hours away."

Calming down, she reconnoitered and found a coffee shop only nine miles away in Cornucopia, WI, with free Wi-Fi. George Stewart went there Thursday and worked until after the shop's 4:30 closing, reporting that the kindly proprietor stayed late to accommodate her needs. She then told George Stewart about a local tavern that was open until midnight and also had Wi-Fi.

"I don't drink, so I sat at the bar until seven or eight PM drinking a delicious locally brewed Point root beer, working on my federal court filing and making sure that I'd be able to file the next day. Then I went back and had dinner with my husband."

The next morning, George Stewart returned to the coffee shop, stayed until it closed, and repaired again to the bar for some more root beer. Though the bar was especially noisy that Friday night due to a local festival, George Stewart said it was no problem. "I keep a pair of ear plugs in my bag in case I need to really focus."

She filed her motion somewhere between five and seven PM and enjoyed the rest of her vacation with her husband. "The local people were all really friendly and helpful," she said. "They weren't used to people working at the coffee shop and bar."

Schaeffer, a trial lawyer in partnership with his wife, particularly enjoys traveling to Argentina. The two of them recently stayed there for a month, planning well in advance so that their calendars would be clear.

After they'd made final plans, though, a federal class action mediation was scheduled. "It was an important mediation, and the only time everyone could do it was when we'd already planned to be in Argentina."

Schaeffer had rented an apartment that was conveniently located next to a hotel with a conference room. "I rented the meeting room and made sure that Wi-Fi worked there. Then, I used Skype for the mediation. Everyone else, including my client and cocounsel, was at the mediator's office in the US. It went on for hours and finally concluded successfully at midnight my time."

Though technology now enables lawyers to work anywhere, anytime, Swanson and Petro add pleas for moderation. Petro says, "you can be too connected. We have to put reasonable limits on our workdays."

Suggests Swanson, "I would hope we all value our sanity and personal lives enough not to work 24/7. I think this becomes even more important if you're working remotely and/or from home. Otherwise, you can find yourself working all the time and, out of conscious or unconscious resentment, not working productively."


Helen W. Gunnarsson, a lawyer in Highland Park, is an Illinois Bar Journal contributing writer.


Resources for road warriors

All lawyers interviewed maintain their own blogs in which they post on legal practice and technology issues. Following are their blog names and URLs:


Login to read and post comments