Features - The Virtual Law Office: The Busy Attorney's GuideBy Sheryl Cramer, Published on October 15, 2001
Sheryl Cramer is President of Cramer Consulting in Lawton, Oklahoma. Ms. Cramer has worked in technology and management for the last fifteen years. In addition to being a certified consultant, she also manages and integrates technology in her attorney husband's law office. She is an assistant SysOp for the OBA-Net, a member of the Association of Legal Administrators and the American Bar Association. She is also a member of the Solo and Small Firm, Law Practice Management, General Practice and Family Law sections of the ABA.
Today’s attorney has to be a little bit of everything - spouse, parent, caretaker for parents and provider, to just name a few. How in the world can you fit in time to practice law? By utilizing the proper technology you don’t have to be tied to the office; you can take care of your family and clients anywhere you may be.
Before you run out and purchase new equipment, you need to sit down and figure out what you want to accomplish. You need to decide what work you expect to do outside of the office, where you expect to do the work and the best way to accomplish your objectives. Will you be working from home? While traveling (car, plane, hotel, etc.) or do you want to get some extra work done while waiting at the courthouse for your case to be called? There are many tools available for working outside of the office, and by stating your goals clearly not only will you save time and money in the long run, but you will also implement a procedure that will better suit your needs.
An important part of any law practice is its case management program. Most case management programs today will allow you to sync your calendar, contacts and to do list with a portable device and carry it with you; some will even allow you access from outside the office. If you choose and implement a good case management program you can have all your client and case information at your fingertips, away from the office, and deal with the cases accordingly. Add a good scanner and scanning program and you can also view your case files away from the office while being on your way to a paperless office.
Laptops can be a central point in the virtual law office. Laptops are pricier than their desktop counterparts, but make up for the difference in price with the portability and accessibility to your data when you need it. There are laptops for all price ranges and computing needs, ranging from a laptop small and light enough to fit in your briefcase, to the powerhouse desktop replacement. Choose the smaller size and you give up some of the features of the larger laptops, such as a floppy or CD drive; choose the desktop replacement, which can weigh anywhere from eight pounds and up, and you have an item that will get heavier every day as you carry it. It is up to you to figure out what your needs are, and then to choose the best product for your needs. You can get a great deal with refurbished products from major manufacturers, but be sure to know what the warranty is that you will be receiving! Sometimes it is worth the extra money and get a better warranty for the peace of mind you will have knowing that if anything should happen to your laptop it will be taken care of. Remember, a laptop is more accessible to mishaps than a desktop.
Once you have decided on a laptop you will need to decide which accessories you need. A docking station or port replicator will allow you to have your mouse, keyboard, and other peripherals connected to the station and waiting for your laptop. All you have to do is plug your laptop into the station and viola! Instant desktop machine. You might think about placing a docking station at your home and at your office for the convenience. Another great accessory is a portable printer. The Canon printer can also be used as a scanner, and HP makes great portable printers as well. Following is a checklist of other accessories you will need:
______1. Bag to carry your laptop and all accessories. Tip, don’t get the fancy bag that screams LAPTOP INSIDE! Also, think about a backpack, which is easier to carry.
______2. Surge protector.
______3. Modem - you can get an internal modem in your laptop or purchase a combo modem/ethernet card.
______4. Ethernet card for networking.
______5. Virus protection (McAfee and Symantec are two of the most well known.)
______6. Firewall to keep strangers out of your machine while you are online - ZoneAlarm and BlackIce are two of the best.
______7. Security so no one will steal your stuff (you can get a lock for your laptop, but don’t ever let your laptop and bag out of your sight!)
______8. Some type of backup system. Make sure you backup your files both at work and on your laptop!
There are several flavors of PDA’s available, from those using the Palm Operating System to those using a miniature Windows operating system called Windows CE. There are several brands, to include Palm, Handspring (Visor), Compaq’s Ipaq, HP’s Jornada PocketPC, Sony’s Clie and Handera. Which one you choose depends on what equipment you already have and what you want to do with your PDA.
Another invaluable tool for working outside the office is a cell phone. Most cell phones will allow you to send and receive e-mail, which is useful if your office needs to forward some information to you while you are in court (it is usually text e-mail and not complicated documents or graphics that can be sent) and some cell phones will even allow you to get on the Internet. You can use your cell phone to talk to clients or opposing counsel while taking your child to his or her next sports practice. With the proper cell phone, modem and cable, you can use your cell phone to allow your laptop or PDA to get on the Internet or check your e-mail. By combining your laptop and cell phone you can send and receive faxes almost anywhere you are. When you purchase your phone, make sure you know how many minutes you are getting in your plan and at what times these minutes are available. Also, make sure to know what area you will incur any roaming and/or long distance charges or you may be unpleasantly surprised when you receive your bill. Choose the phone that is capable of what you need - not all phones can send e-mail or visit a website. If you do need to be able to do these things, one of those free phones that are offered will probably not suffice. Another great item to have with your cell phone is a hands-free device. Not only is this a must when driving, but it also works great at home or at the office while using the phone - it leaves your hands available for other things.
While not as powerful and convenient as a cell phone, but still useful, are the new two-way pagers that are available. You can use these to not only receive pages, but to also receive, and respond to, e-mails, without wires. Make sure that coverage is available in your area!! One of the most popular devices today is called a RIM.
Another useful item to carry is a handheld scanner, which is great for making quick copies while on the run. If you are at the courthouse and need a copy of a document that OC has, just quickly scan it into you scanner and/or laptop.
When traveling, make sure to carry extra batteries, cables, and protectors. Also, carry one of those AOL CD’s with you that you get every other week. Get your free, 30-day trial and you have instant Internet access! Make sure of the amount that the hotel charges for local calls, and make sure that the local call you are using really is a local call or you may be surprised with your phone bill.
Do you receive or send a lot of faxes? Now you don’t need a dedicated line and can receive or send faxes anywhere you have e-mail access. Using an Internet fax service, faxes are sent and received as e-mail attachments. Receive and send letters, depositions, settlement offers, etc. wherever you are located. Usually, the free services will not give you a local fax number, but an arbitrarily chosen number from another state. Before you sign up for paid services, make sure that a local fax number is available where you live.
Do your research online from wherever you are. Many of the county courthouses are online where you can actually view the documents that relate to a case - check to see what information is online for your county and state. An excellent starting point is your state bar association. The major players in legal research have online sites that you can use while out of the office, as long as you have an Internet connection and an account with the provider. Make sure you read the fine print for the costs for using these sites and choose the plan that is best for you and your firm.
Keep a list of your tech phone numbers available and serial numbers to your equipment and programs (great for your PDA to store!). When traveling carry copies of your operating system and most used programs. Think about purchasing tech support for your most-used equipment and programs. If something is going to break, it will happen when you don’t have time to fix it yourself and the cost of the tech support will be well worth it.
E-mail: The best e-mail accounts are one you can also view from the web. This makes it possible to view and respond to your e-mail from anywhere you are (with Internet access, of course). If you can’t do this, check with your Internet service provider and see if this can be made possible. If this can’t be done, think about getting a free account from somewhere such as Hotmail or Yahoo! When you are on the road have your regular e-mail forwarded to your free account for instant access. While this is not a perfect idea (you may forget to forward your mail before you leave) it is an option. Another option that will allow you to view all of your e-mails online is at Mailstart.com.
You can download and read electronic books with your PDA or computer (make sure that the document reader you choose is compatible with the books you choose). The advantage to electronic over paper is you can read them anywhere - while waiting for your hearing to start, at home, and in the car (if you are not driving!). There are books and documents for free, and for a cost, on the web with titles ranging from entertainment to the US Bankruptcy Code. You can also download audio books that you can play in your car or on an MP3 player or cassette player.
While driving, have you ever thought of a letter or document that needed to be prepared and sent out quickly? You can use your cell phone and dictate a letter to Cybersecretaries (www.youdictate.com) 24 hours a day! The cost is one cent per word. Once complete they will either e-mail or fax your document to you, whichever you indicated. Another option is to dictate into a recorder that is compatible with a voice-dictation system (such as Dragon Dictate) and then connecting to your computer upon return to your office.
You don’t have to be at the office to attend meetings - have one online! There are several places available, some free, some for a fee, where you can set up a meeting with opposing counsel, clients, or your office staff. Some of the services need the actual software installed on each person’s machine, such as CUSeeMe (just merged with First Virtual Communications) and Microsoft’s Netmeeting, while others, such as Webex, just require the participants to log onto a website at a predesignated time.
If you just need to keep in contact with your office mates and don’t need the full-blown services of online collaboration, try an online instant messenger such as ICQ, AOL Buddy List or Yahoo! While you do have to be online to receive and send messages, you can instantly send or receive information for important matters.
You have several briefs that you’ve worked on and want to work on them at home. You have a file that you want to take with you and it won’t fit on a floppy. A colleague wants a file that is to big for you to e-mail. Has this ever happened to you? If so, you are a good candidate for online storage. You can upload, download, share, store and retrieve documents from one of these sites. While this is not the ideal situation for you to store your only copy of a file or for your only backup solution (what are you going to do if the place shuts down in the middle of the night, taking your precious files with you?) It is great for "spot" backing up, storing, and sharing documents with clients, co-counsel and staff.
With all this great virtual lawyering going on, don’t forget to backup your data!! If you forget, you may find that the marvelous brief that you spent the weekend preparing is gone after lightning hits your computers and destroys their hard drives (very feasible in Oklahoma). Make sure you backup your server, data storage, laptop and any PDA’s that you have. There are several ways to do it, from tape backup, to an extra hard drive (hard drives are very inexpensive) to backing up to CD’s (this can take a lot of time and CD’s but is better than nothing.) Do your homework, purchase a good backup system and save yourself some grief WHEN (not if) you lose all of your data.
Manage your expectations! You are not going to do everything as quickly and as efficiently as if you were sitting in front of your computer at your desk in your office. Remember, remote connection is not as fast as the network in your office.
Last, but not least, don’t forget to take care of yourself! Carry snacks for energy and nutrition. Listen to books if you don’t have time to read them on your PDA. Download some games for your PDA or laptop. If you forget to take care of yourself, it’s only a matter of time before everything else starts to go downhill.
With the proper planning and research on your part you can be well on your way to a virtual law office that will allow you more time for your family, to practice law, and most importantly, peace of mind for yourself.
- Keep a phone cord with you for dialup Internet connection. Most people have these laying around; if you don’t, you can purchase a retractable phone cord or pick one up for free from a legal technology show.
- Keep a spare, retractable ethernet cable available to make an "instant" network with other computers while on the road.
- Have a spare battery for your tools (laptop, Palm, etc.).
- If you have a large enough hard drive, make a section called "backup programs" and copy your most used program CDs into that directory. If your hard drive is not large enough, make sure you carry CD’s around with you that have all of your vital information that you may need.
- If your hard drive or computer should fail, you will need actual CD’s of the programs to reinstall.
- Carry a boot disk with all of your drivers to bring your laptop back up if it should crash.
- Carry a modem saver - this will make sure that the phone line you are connecting to is safe and will not fry your modem.
- Carry a surge protector for all of your electrical equipment.
- Carry some type of security / lock for your laptop if you are traveling.
- Carry phone numbers for all of your technical support. (Tape to the bottom of your laptop.)
- Make sure you backup your data!
- Keep your items secure - never let your laptop out of your sight.
- Have a lawyer backup buddy for emergencies for when you can’t get to court or in to the office.
- See if your bank has online services - transfer money or balance your account wherever you may be. Order postage and supplies online.
- Before you purchase anything, make sure you check out the warranty and reviews. Talk with other attorneys; what are they using? Do they like it? Is it working? (Remember, what works for one attorney may not work for another.)
PDA / 2-Way Pager Information
Downloadable Stuff (viewable and listenable)
Memoware (Has tons of stuff available in a vast array of subjects,
ranging from children’s literature to law).
U.S. Postal Service (Many new services, to include online billing. You can buy postage online and order shipping supplies.)
Remote Access Technologies