Tech Audit

Pretty Darn Awesome


These handheld phones combine cellular-phone functions with the scheduling, Inter­­net and e-mail ac­cess of personal digital assistants. But they can do a lot more—and Stucki has put just about every bell and whistle he can justify on them.

Since more than a dozen of his lawyers like dictation devices, he’s had dictation software built into the hand­helds. And even though it cost tens of thousands of dollars, he’s installed a system that lets lawyers access their e-mail on their handhelds with voice commands as well as the usual keystroke commands.

“It might be a little redun­dant, but it was so cool, we had to do it,” he says of the voice command software. “Be­sides, if it lets someone check their messages in the car and prevents a crash, it’s worth it.”

According to the 2004-2005 ABA Legal Technology Sur­­­vey Report, 44 percent of all lawyers use some sort of hand­­held digital assistant when they are out of the office. Use of PDAs is highest among solo lawyers and large-firm attorneys, with 53 percent of both groups reporting they use the devices. “It’s gone from the deserving few to the privileged many,” says Dan Rudolph, director of industry solutions with Good Technology, which makes software to synchronize handheld devices to corporate software.

PDAs started out at many law firms as experimental devices available to a few partners. Now law firms have seen enough benefit that handhelds are often standard-issue equipment for all lawyers in many firms.

PILOT PROGRAM

Palm Pilot organizers once defined the handheld, but in recent years, Palm had been slow to offer e-mail and cell phone handhelds. Palm’s Treo phone and handheld devices have proven popular, but Black­Berry maker Re­search In Mo­tion and soft­ware giant Micro­soft have been quickly taking the lead. Smaller makers like Good Tech­­no­logy have been winning corporate and law firm clients.

The variety of PDAs means law firms have to consider a few different criteria in choosing one. First, firms need to consider how their lawyers work and which devices will fit their needs. For example, lawyers at Mor­gan Miller Blair rejected the BlackBerry 7100 because it didn’t have a full keypad. They waited for a new version with a built-in full keypad before making the leap.

“Over the years, I’ve seen people get excited about a new PDA, but most stop using them eventually and put them in a desk drawer,” Stucki says. “That hasn’t happened with the BlackBerry because it fits the way our law­yers work.”

Since lawyers often already have handhelds of their own, law firms have to consider preferences their staff may already have for one device or another. Good Tech­nology has been attracting law firms who want functions similar to a BlackBerry’s, but want to use something other than BlackBerry hardware. Gordon, Feinblatt, Roth­man, Hoff­­­berger & Hollander, a Good customer in Bal­timore, encourages its employees to use Treo 600 or 650 phone/­­­­hand­held organizers, but uses Good Tech­nology software because it allows em­ployees to use different brands and models of phones and/or organizers. It also allows employees to keep their calling plans with their current carriers.

As handhelds offer bigger screens, full keypads and fas­ter downloads, law­yers have begun to use them not just for e-mail, but also to download full documents and even do editing and writing.

Many firms have tied their handhelds into the firm’s time-and-bil­ling and document management software. Stucki has a system that allows staff to access any voice mail, fax or e-mail. And a number of hand­helds offer fold-out keypads that make them into mini-laptop computers.

3G-WHIZ!

As useful as these devices can be, a relatively new technology is making them even more powerful: Wire­less companies are rolling out 3G networks, which dramatically increase the bandwidth available to handheld wireless devices. These 3G, or third-generation, wireless networks have greater capacity than current systems and allow phones to offer faster downloads, better reception, and more multimedia like video and Web browsing. With 3G, handhelds have the power to make using da­tabases such as Westlaw or Lexis convenient.

That means lawyers who work on the road can replace their laptops and cell phones with one device.

“I was sitting in a legislative hearing and heard testimony on an environmental bill,” says Michael Pow­ell, a partner with Gor­don Fein­blatt. “I thought something that was said was incorrect and was able to look it up and had the correct information by the time I testified. I don’t think you could get away with that click­ing away on a lap­top in the back of the room.”

Mobile technology has changed how lawyers interact with clients and even other lawyers at the firm. “Frank­­­­ly, most days I only see half of the attorneys anymore,” Stucki says. “The BlackBerry is one of the few technologies that have changed the way we work.”

And the handheld PDAs or smartphones are mutating so quickly that it’s hard to keep up with the changes. Last month’s brave new idea could be next month’s standard function.

Right now, most of the vendors are trying to beat each other to the punch with bigger color screens, more usable keypads, and bells and whistles like built-in MP3 players. Since Palm has been around longer, there are more le­gal applications available on those de­vices. But Good (which works with Palm products) and the maker of BlackBerry are pushing ahead to make more legal ap­plications like time-and-billing available on handhelds.

Of course, the bigger question lawyers may need to ask is wheth­er having their work follow them ev­ery­where they go is a good idea for their lives outside of work.

“I’m seeing that cli­ents are now more spoiled and expect wireless e-mail access to our lawyers,” Powell says. “Cli­ents think it’s a good thing. I don’t know if it’s a good thing for one’s life, though, to always be tethered to your work.”

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