Affinity Consulting Blog


It is summer. Vacations happen, whether we are ready for them or not. Solo and small firm attorneys often have no choice but to be available to clients and staff while on vacation. Some work might even have to get done. But how?

The Problem

Before I became a "virtual" lawyer doing only appellate work, my practice was primarily focused on trial court family law cases. Any family law practitioner can tell you that it is hard to find a moment's peace with that type of practice. The few days before and the few days (sometimes extending to a week or more) after a vacation were horrible. Trying to tie up loose ends before leaving kept me up so late that I could barely pack for the trip. Dealing with the client-related carnage upon my return kept me up even later.

Tech to the Rescue

As technology progressed with smartphones, tablets, lighter laptops, Chromebooks, fast cellular data, Cloud document storage, and almost-everywhere Wi-Fi, it became possible to address case or firm-related issues while on the road before they mushroomed in to nightmares to be addressed upon my return. There is much to be said for going "unplugged" on vacation and isolating yourself from your work life. But for many of us, that is not a realistic or even wise goal if it risks the interests of our clients or the health of our practices. Today, it is possible to handle almost any type of problem (if you choose to do so) while on vacation.

My Choices

Everyone has their own favorite tech items and services to use while on vacation. What I suggest here is very personal to me. It may not work for you. But you may find some of it useful.

First, understand that I am very tied-into the Google-verse. I use Gmail for my email (practice and personal) and Google Calendar for my scheduling and reminders. I don't have a true practice management program for those tasks. Not everyone will be able to do this. My appellate practice involves a relatively few number of open matters at a time (largely because I work alone and most of my appeals are fairly substantial, meaning I can handle only dozen or so open appeals simultaneously). However, I do use PCLaw for time/billing/accounting because (so far) I like it better than the Cloud-based offerings I've evaluated.

I am also a Microsoft Office user and love OneDrive, Microsoft's Cloud-based document storage. I like it better than Google Drive. Unlimited OneDrive storage is included with my Office 365 subscription.

So when I am on the road for vacation or business, I want easy access to Gmail, Google Calendar, OneDrive, and preferably some sort of remote access to my desktop computer at home running PCLaw. My suggestions for vacation technology address those needs.

The smartphone is the centerpiece of any lawyer's travel tech. As you would suspect given my use of Gmail and Google Calendar, I carry an Anroid phone. It has been that way for me since the original Droid 1. Now I carry a 2014 Moto X. It is stylish with its leather back and very well made. Its shortcoming is less than state-of-the-art battery life. When you depend on your smartphone while on the road, battery life is key. I carry an external USB battery pack I bought several years ago from Monoprice.com. There are many external battery packs available in a variety of sizes and prices. I would recommend getting one with a capacity of at least 5,000 mA/hour. This range is a good balance between capacity and size/weight. Some of the 10,000 mA/hour and larger batteries are a bit large and heavy for pocket or purse carry. The smaller 2,500 mA/hour batteries may not fully recharge your phone. The Wirecutter product recommendation site says this Anker model is the best choice for a pocketable external battery.

To make your external battery pack easier to use, pick up a short (6 inch or less) USB charging cable or a retractible charging cable. Trying to recharge your phone from an external battery pack using the standard 3 foot cable is inconvenient.

If you have a smartphone with a powerful battery, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note series, you may not need an external battery pack at all. And because, unlike most recent smartphones, the Note series has a removable battery, you can actually buy a second battery on Ebay or Amazon to carry with you. A spare battery is much smaller and lighter than an external battery pack.

On your phone, install the apps needed to access your Cloud-based document storage. This could include Drive (comes with the Android operating system), OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, SugarSync, SpiderOak, Carbonite, etc. Other good apps to have for travel are Yelp, TripAdvisor, HopStop (great for using public transportation in places like NYC and Chicago), your bank's app (to manage your finances), Audible (to listen to audio books), the app for the airline(s) you fly, DoggCatcher (for podcasts), Kindle (for ebooks), Netflix, Hulu, and/or HBO Go for entertainment, Skype for video calls, and Microsoft Office Mobile to read and edit documents. You will find all of thes at the Google Play store

To go with your smartphone, get a Bluetooth headset, preferably stereo. There are a ton of choices, but my favorite over the years is the LG Tone series. The Tone headsets have a unique neckband design that won't easily fall off. Each earbud connects by a short wire to the neckband. You can wear one (for biking or other activities when you still need to hear the world around you) or both earpieces (for listening to music or books on the plane). I wear my Tone Ultra all day nearly every day (and look like the dork I am, but that is OK with me).

If I am going to be gone more than a few days and think I may need to do some work requiring a keyboard and larger screen than my smartphone offers, there are many choices. But recently I've leaned toward travelling with my Acer C720P (the touch screen model) Chromebook. I could take my Surface Pro 3, which is a great device and will run all of my familiar Windows software. But it is an expensive device and, unfortunately, not as secure as the Chromebook. Even the most expensive Chromebook (with the exception of Google's Pixel) is under $400. Many of the best sellers are in the sub-$200 range. My Acer touch screen model was a refurb from Acer's Ebay store. It has double the RAM and storage of the typical Chromebook, but was still only $270.

Chromebooks, particularly those with the Intel Celeron processor and 4 GB of RAM like my Acer, are speedy when running Chrome (my web browser of choice even on non-Chromebook devices) even with a dozen or more tabs open. I can use either the browser or apps to access my Cloud-based documents. I can edit them in their native format (.doc or .docx) in either the built-in Google Drive application or in Microsoft's very useful Word Online web-based program. Either will handle all but the most complex legal documents without corrupting the formatting. There are also Online versions of PowerPoint and Excel if I need to work on presentations or spreadsheets.

I mentioned security as being one of the benefits of a Chromebook. If you enable second-factor authentication on your primary Google account used with the Chromebook, it is about as secure a device as you can carry. So far, Chrome OS (the operating system on a Chromebook) is not at risk from virus or other malware attacks. Windows (or even Mac OS X) cannot make this claim.

To be even more secure, I recommend using a VPN service when connecting to the Internet using a public Wi-Fi hotspot or even at your hotel/vacation rental. My choice is Witopia because it is compatible with all of the devices I own (Windows, Chrome, Linux, iOS, and Android). Expect to pay for a good VPN service. I pay about $50 annually for my subscription.

I don't carry a portable printer. I used to in the "old days." But so much of what we do in the world today, professional and personally, is done paper-free in the Cloud. I don't see the need for most vacationing lawyers to carry a portable printer.

I also don't carry a portable scanner. As with the printer, I used to carry a portable scanner when travelling. No more. Smartphone apps that take a photo of a document, convert it to PDF, and upload it to your Cloud document storage do what my portable scanner used to do. I use either the Scan function in the Google Drive app or, even better since I store my practice documents on OneDrive, the Office Lens app from Microsoft (free from the Google Play store) to "scan" documents using my phone's camera.

Accessories

There are a few accessories I like to travel with. The first is a multi-outlet USB charger. I've used models from Anker and Photive, and both work great. Hotel rooms and vacation properties are often short on electrical outlets. A multi-charger lets you charge all of your gadgets using only one wall outlet.

Sometimes hotels offer only a wired (Ethernet) network connection. Wi-Fi is an extra-cost option. I bring along an Ethernet cable. Any Cat5e or Cat6 cable will do, but a retractable one is more convenient. Unfortunately, Chromebooks don't have an Ethernet port. So that means using an Ethernet to USB adapter. They are cheap and work well.

If your hotel or vacation accommodation has only a single wired Internet connection, but you need to connect several devices via Wi-Fi, carry a travel router. They are also cheap but effective.

If you need to crawl behind a table or desk to reach the network port, being able to see what you are doing is helpful. I ordered several inexpensive but small and very bright flashlights that work on a single AA battery. I always carry one (and a spare battery) with me when I travel.

Conclusion

There are many other tech travel items you could carry. And being in the Google-verse, I have omitted mention of Apple products (although I do have and enjoy using my 4G-enabled 4th generation iPad). These are items that I find useful in my travels. Your mileage may vary.

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