You are a road warrior, even if you don't know it yet. Every lawyer works on client/firm business when out of the office. Some of use do it more than others. I do it full-time in my virtual appellate practice.
I know a very experienced family law attorney who swears she cannot get work done at the office. When she needs to focus on a motion or brief, or prepare for trial, she grabs her laptop and heads to her favorite coffee shop. Free from the distractions and interruptions of the office, she is more productive.
There are other lawyers who have family responsibilities. Caring for young children or elderly parents frequently keeps them away from the office. Yet they still need to handle client business and keep their law practices running.
And all of us need to vacation occasionally. But the demands of running a small/medium law firm require we be productive even while traveling for pleasure.
This month, as summer travel season begins, we focus on tech tips for road warrior lawyers - those who choose to be and those who have no choice. In addition to this article, sign up for our FREE Road Warrior - Virtual Practice webinar June 14 at 1 p.m. EDT.
Let’s start with hardware – not because it is necessarily more important than software or services, but because we need to start somewhere.
Laptop v Tablet v Convertible?
The essential device for a road warrior lawyer is a laptop computer. Tablets are nice content consumption devices. The more advanced tablets such as the iPad Pro or Google Pixel C running Android can also handle some content creation tasks, but are not ideal for much of what a lawyer must do to run a law practice remotely.
There are special uses, such as trial presentations, where an iPad excels thanks to high-value apps such as TrialPad. But for standard lawyer productivity purposes, you want a device with a permanently attached and comfortable keyboard. The keyboard is how most lawyers enter information and trigger commands on their devices.
Voice input has come a long way and works well on phones and tablets (Google Now is better than Siri for most users). Voice input cannot be used many of the places lawyers work, such as in court, depositions, ADR sessions, etc. Even outside of those settings, voice input risks compromising client confidentiality if overheard by others.
Yes, you can add a Bluetooth, USB, or other directly connected keyboard to most tablets. Such keyboards are fine to use in a pinch, such as on the narrow confines of an airplane tray table. They usually lack the size, feel, key spacing, and key travel of a real laptop keyboard. They are also light and tend to move around while you type. Few are able to hold the tablet steady at multiple adjustable angles to match your use situation. If you have a tablet, you should buy an add-on keyboard for light-duty use. Just don’t expect your tablet/keyboard combo to substitute for a real laptop in heavier use.
What about these new-fangled convertible devices like the Surface Pro 4 and competitors from other manufacturers like HP, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, etc... I had a Surface Pro 3 and hated typing on its keyboard. So much so that I sold the Surface Pro and keyboard on eBay after about a year of trying and failing to get used to the keyboard.
Then, with introduction of the Surface Pro 4, a much improved keyboard was introduced that is also backward compatible with the Surface Pro 3. There is even a model with a fingerprint reader for logging into the device. Still, even with the new keyboard and the nicely-designed kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 and 4, it isn’t nearly as “lapable” or stable as a regular laptop. I recommend a convertible only for those lawyers who have a specific use case for the tablet format. I have a Surface Book with a detachable screen that turns the device into a tablet. I also have a specific use case for that capability. Many lawyers do not. More on that later.
The best laptop choice for a mobile lawyer falls into the category generally called “ultrabooks.” An ultrabook was the response by Windows laptop manufacturers to Apple’s MacBook Air. Like the Air, early ultrabooks were underpowered and not suitable for power users. That has changed. Modern ultrabooks have full-powered Core i3, i5, and i7 processors, plenty of RAM, fast and relatively roomy (for an SSD) solid state drives. Some even venture close to convertible territory with touch screens that fold all the way to the bottom of the keyboard to create a useable, if somewhat thick, tablet.
I like having a touch screen on my Surface Book. I used it often for annotating PDF documents on screen using the Surface Pen stylus and the excellent DrawBoard PDF app that came with the device. But I would venture to guess that a significant percentage of lawyers with new touch screen laptops rarely if ever use that feature. Most simply forget they have a touch screen device because most of the software lawyers use is not touch optimized. Still, if the price premium is not too great, I recommend getting a touch screen laptop because Microsoft is working on making Office more touch friendly. Other software makers are doing the same with their products. Your laptop will last at least three years, and I believe touch will become more important before anything you buy today needs to be replaced.
You could get a beefier “business class” laptop that is thicker and heavier than an ultrabook. Some come with dedicated graphics adapters - useful if you need to edit video. Business laptops also tend to have larger screens measuring 14 inches to 15.6 inches diagonally. They also come with Windows 10 Professional.
Ultrabooks are a bit smaller, usually having 13 inch to 14 inch screens. We are starting to see full-sized 15.6 inch screens on new ultrabooks that retain the slim and light profile typical of the ultrabook class of laptops. Today’s ultrabooks, unlike those of just a few years ago, are a better choice than bulkier business laptops for most mobile lawyers. Just make sure you order your ultrabook with Windows 10 Professional insead of the Home version of the operating system. The need for Windows 10 Professional on a mobile lawyer's laptop effectively rules out walking into a Best Buy, Staples, or Office Depot and walking out with a new computer. You likely will need to custom order your laptop online directly from the manufacturer. There are a few exceptions, like the Surface Book and the Surface Pro 4, which come only with Windows 10 Professional, whether purchased in-store or online.
Trying to keep up with the new model introductions and make specific purchase recommendations is beyond the scope of this article. However, there are some great sources for this information. The best is The Wirecutter. They have a comprehensive set of recommendations based on your use case that is updated a couple of times each year. Their current Windows ultrabook pick is the Dell XPS 13, which manages to fit a 13 inch screen into a chassis that is about the same size as laptops with 11.6 inch screens. On the Apple side of things, they recommend the MacBook Air with the 13 inch screen.
I don’t share in the latter recommendation. While there are exceptions, the legal world is primarily a Windows world. The choice of software is greater, there is a wider variety of useful accessories, and prices are a bit lower. Also, the MacBook Air is an older design in need of updating. It has less powerful hardware than most Windows ultrabooks. It also has a non-touch display that is much lower in resolution than a typical Windows ultrabook.
I am not arguing that Windows is a superior operating system. It may well be, given that Windows 10 is very modern with lots of new capabilities, while Mac OS X is getting old and looks a bit tired. However, both operating systems are very similar to one another in capability. This is particularly true in an era of Cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) where so much of what we need to do runs in any standard web browser. You can run Windows a couple of different ways on a MacBook, but that adds costs and complexity. Why bother?
The “third wave” operating system is Chrome OS. It runs on Google’s relative newcomer to the laptop market – the Chromebook. When they were introduced, many people (including road warrior lawyers) laughed. No one is laughing at Chromebooks today – certainly not Apple or Microsoft after Chromebooks are displacing both companies in the education market.
As Chromebooks and Chrome OS have become more capable, concerns over mobile security have increased. A Chromebook is more secure than either a Windows laptop or a MacBook, particularly if you use strong passwords and two-factor authentication on your Google and other accounts (which you should). Chromebooks are also almost foolproof. And if you mess it up, just trigger the “powerwash” feature to wipe it clean and reinstall the OS. On reboot, just log back in with your Google password. In a few minutes all of your stuff is back the way you left it.
One of the early knocks against Chromebooks was their limitations when not connected to the Internet. Google has slowly added many off-line functions. Then, last month Google made a huge announcement. The Google Play Store and all of its million plus Android apps will start running on select Chromebooks this month and on nearly all newer Chromebooks this fall.
This is a big deal. A very big deal. This advance converts Chromebooks from being limited to what will run in a browser (which was never entirely true – Chrome OS is based on the Linux kernel) to a device with actual apps that can run whether or not online. The best example for lawyers is Microsoft’s excellent Android versions of its Office applications - Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. They are not as full-featured as their Windows and Mac variants, but will do 99% of what lawyers need to do with documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. For many lawyers, it will be fully sufficient.
Chromebooks are much less expensive than Windows ultrabooks or any of the MacBooks. I recently saw a refurbished Hisense Chromebook 11 available online for $90 (which quickly sold out). This is not an older discontinued model. In fact, this Chromebook is on the list of recent Chromebooks that will run Android apps starting this fall. This means that for $100 (including shipping), a lawyer could have a serviceable and very secure laptop capable of running apps that will meet all of his/her mobile needs. Life is good!
The bottom-line? A laptop will be more useful than a tablet when doing legal work on the road. A Windows ultrabook is your best choice of laptop. But don’t rule out a Chromebook, particularly if you use Cloud-based services and can get by with the slightly limited versions of MS Office available on Android.
The next hardware item you need is a smart phone. I don’t know any lawyers who don’t already have a smart phone. I am sure there are exceptions. What I know for certain is that most lawyers use only a fraction of the capabilities of their smart phones. These powerful mini-computers can do a lot.
So what platform should you get? First, just because you rely on Windows and Microsoft Office on your laptop, don’t think you need to buy a Windows Mobile smart phone.
Why not? There is nothing inherently wrong with Windows Mobile. It is a clean, efficient, and user-friendly mobile OS. But it is dying a slow death because there are no apps. Okay, it is an exaggeration to say there are "no" apps. There are apps, just far fewer than on iOS or Android. If you want to do mobile banking, you won’t be doing it on a Windows phone. I have not physically been inside my bank branch in years thanks to its Android app that lets me deposit checks, make transfers between accounts, and pay bills. It saves me a ton of time. Time is money. Unfortunately, my bank (like most banks) doesn’t have an app for Windows Mobile.
Blackberry is also out of the question. To the extent that Blackberry will survive, it will be as an Android phone maker, such as with its Priv phone.
Your choice is between an iPhone and Android. Either will be fine. If you plan to use a Chromebook or if you already use Google services, Android is the logical choice. Also, if you are a Microsoft user at the office, Android may be the best bet for the way Microsoft services integrate with the Android operating system and with Android apps. Or at least so says Microsoft authority Paul Thurrott.
If you are a Mac user, iPhone is the logical choice. But don’t think that the iPhone is a bad choice for a Windows user or that Android is a mistake if you use a MacBook. You can do almost anything today “cross-platform” by using Cloud-based services.
It is a bit of a generalization, but if you like simplicity, want things configured for you, and just want your smart phone to work with minimal intervention on your part, pick an iPhone. If you are a “techy” type who likes to tinker and customize your smart phone, go with Android.
I won’t attempt specific make or model recommendations for smart phones. There are too many very good choices. The Wirecutter can help you narrow it down. Their current Android pick is the Samsung Galaxy S7. Their iPhone recommendation is the 6s.
Although others use them, I personally don’t use or recommend a separate mobile Wi-Fi hotspot device, sometimes called a Mi-Fi. All recent smart phones and nearly every phone plan allows “tethering” of your laptop to your smart phone for Internet access. This can be accomplished one of three ways – USB, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.
The advantage of USB tethering is that it is faster, arguably more secure, and the USB connection also simultaneously recharges your smart phone. You can use the same USB cable that you connect to your wall or car charger to charge your phone. Most people seem to use Wi-Fi tethering because it is simple and familiar, but it does quickly drain the phone’s battery and risks allowing others to hack into the connection. Bluetooth tethering is slower, but drains the phone’s battery more slowly than Wi-Fi tethering. The speed is sufficient for email and light web browsing. However, it is harder to configure.
Software and Apps
Hardware gets you only so far. You need software on your laptop and apps on your smart phone to get the job done. You must have Microsoft Office. Yes, there are alternatives. However, all Office alternatives have shortcomings that could impede your ability to complete important tasks.
The best way to get Microsoft Office is through an Office 365 subscription. But isn’t Office 365 a Cloud-based service? Not exactly. Although you access your account online, you download and locally install onto your laptop the same Microsoft Office applications you get if you buy Office rather than subscribe to it. Plus, many Office 365 subscriptions give you a ton of OneDrive online file storage along with Exchange email, calendar, and contacts hosted by Microsoft on its own highly secure servers and accessible on all of your computer and mobile devices. Don’t think about it. Just do it!
Next, you need a way to work with PDF documents. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint can export files to PDF format, but they can’t annotate, combine, redact, edit, or do many of the other things you need to do to PDF files in your law practice. I think you should take a deep breath and spend the big bucks on the full Professional version of Adobe Acrobat. It will run several hundred dollars. I think it is worth it. There are alternatives that cost half as much. What they lack is the huge online collection of information about how to use Acrobat to accomplish law office tasks. Rick Bornstein’s Acrobat for Legal Professionals blog is a great example of the type of helpful information available online.
I mentioned my use case for the detachable screen on my Surface Book convertible laptop. That use case involves on-screen annotation of PDF documents. Before I bought my Surface Book last fall, I used an iPad, then a Sony Digital Paper device (a great tool for mobile litigators), at appeal oral argument to give me quick access to my briefs, transcripts, and research while at the podium. Now I am more likely to use my Surface Book screen detached from its keyboard in tablet (called “Clipboard” by Microsoft) mode. The Surface Book comes with Drawboard PDF, a nice PDF annotation app that works well with the Surface Pen (active stylus). I use it to highlight or write notes on the briefs, transcripts, etc., in preparation for oral argument.
You also need software to access your practice management and/or time/billing/accounting programs. If you use Cloud-based versions of these mission-critical applications, all you need is a web browser (I prefer Google Chrome, but often use Microsoft’s new Edge browser as well) and in Internet connection.
If you use locally installed software back at your office or home, such as PCLaw (which I have used since 1999), you need a way to connect to it remotely (at least until your software maker moves to the Cloud, as nearly all plan to do soon). I use Chrome Remote Desktop.
Chrome Remote Desktop is a free remote access and control app that requires only that Chrome be installed and running on both your remote host computer (the one with your practice management software installed) and your laptop. I’ve found it to be fast and reliable, although there are some issues when your host computer and your laptop have radically different screen resolutions. Chrome Remote Desktop can also be used to remotely run other software you have only installed on your host computer. This may include expensive specialized law practice software whose licensing prevents you from installing it on your laptop without buying a second license.
If you don’t use Chrome as your browser, you can’t use Chrome Remote Desktop for remote access and control. TeamViewer is the most-recommended alternative. Also consider Windows Remote Desktop. It is sometimes called RDP or Terminal Services. It requires that your host computer run a Professional version of Windows, not the Home version. It also requires more configuration to create a “static” IP address for your host computer or the use of a dynamic DNS service to give your host computer a persistent “name” on the Internet to facilitate the remote connection. This method is for the tech savvy or those willing to work with a consultant for the setup.
You also need to decide where your “stuff” is going to live and how you are going to get to it. I am a firm believer in storing your law practice documents in the Cloud. There is no solo, small, or mid-sized law practice that can afford to build a network or local storage as secure as any of the leading Cloud storage options such as Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, and especially SpiderOak, a service designed with lawyers in mind. All of these services offer two factor authentication requiring both your password (something in your head) and an authentication code from your phone or other mobile device (something in your hand) before you can log in. If it is available, you should enable two-factor authentication on all of your Cloud-based accounts.
If you want to be mobile or operate a virtual law practice, keeping all your “stuff” in the Cloud is essential. It is the only practice and secure way to access your documents and data while you are on the road.
I use multiple services, but Microsoft OneDrive is my primary repository of client and law practice documents. I have 1 TB of OneDrive storage that came with my Office 365 subscription. That is enough storage for a career’s worth of documents, briefs, transcripts, trial video recordings, etc., for my solo appellate law practice. I utilize as service called CloudHQ to automatically synchronize my OneDrive documents to my Google Drive and Box accounts. That means I have three readily-accessible on-line repositories of my documents.
File syncing to the Cloud is not the same as backing up. Not all sync services keep earlier versions of files. If a file become corrupted on your local machine or is deleted, it may become unusable or deleted in your Cloud sync service. True backup includes versioning. The backup service keeps several prior versions of each file included in the backup set. I use Carbonite to back up all of my practice-related and personal documents to the Cloud. Carbonite does versioning.
I also have two local backups. One local backup goes to a large external USB hard drive. The other is routed to a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device with its own internal hard drive. This might seem excessive, but it is my career and my life in these documents and data files.
In addition to using strong passwords and enabling two factor authentication as noted above, all road warrior lawyers need to use appropriate security software on your laptop computer. This includes antivirus and antimalware software – unless you have a Chromebook. Chromebooks have this protection built in as an integrate part of the Chrome operating system. No matter what type of laptop you use, you also need a virtual private network (VPN) service and it accompanying software.
Windows comes with Windows Defender, Microsoft’s in-house antivirus and antimalware software. There was a time when it was on par with its competitors. Recent testing suggests that is no longer true. You should consider using something else. There are both paid and free options. Highly-rated paid programs include Webroot, Kaspersky, McAfee, and Bitdefender. The top free programs include Avast, Avira, Panda, and AVG.
If you are a road warrior, you will frequently connect to the Internet and access your documents and Cloud services over Wi-Fi connections with security, or lack of security, that is beyond your control. You need to construct a private tunnel from your laptop through the Internet to servers holding your data. That is the function of a VPN.
Many leading VPN services come with a small program you install on your laptop (or other mobile device) to enable and configure your virtual private network through the Internet. The services charge a monthly or annual subscription fee. Don’t use a free VPN. You get what you pay for.
When you want to use the VPN, you start the VPN software and log in with the user-name and password you created when you subscribed. Once enabled, the data you send and receive over the Internet should be invisible to others. Use it whenever you don’t have complete confidence in the security of your Wi-Fi Internet connection. That could even be at your home or office.
I use a subscription VPN service called Witopia. I picked it largely because it can be configured to work with my Chromebook as well as my Windows laptop, my Android phone, and my iPad. Other highly-rated VPN services are Private Internet Access and NordVPN. Expect to pay $50 to $100 annually. It is worth it.
I mentioned strong passwords at the beginning of this section. You also need to regularly change your passwords. If you are using the same password today that you used a year ago for any of your important on-line accounts, it is time to change your passwords. You can also use a password manager such as 1Password, LastPass, or Dashlane to create strong random passwords for all of your accounts and keep track of your password on your laptop or smart phone. All you need to remember is your master password.
You don’t need a portable printer. Nearly everything is efiled today. None of the documents in my practice ever make it into paper form, except in those rare occasions where I initiate an appeal and opposing trial counsel (under Michigan rules) has to be served with the initial appeal documents, but he/she isn’t a subscriber to the efiling/eservice system. If I need to print anything substantial, I email it to my local UPS store and they take care of the printing, addressing the envelope, attaching posting, and placing it in the mail.
You may want a portable printer if you are traveling for trial and need to print notes for witnesses or last-minute trial briefs for courts not yet accepting efiling, etc. Even then, it is better to find a print center or a cooperative local law firm to handle printing.
In the pre-efiling days, I used to try family law cases all around Michigan. I soon dumped my portable ink-jet printer because it was slow, expensive to operate, and the ink cartridges dried out and became useless if there was a month or two between trials. Instead, I packed a small Oki laser-class printer that was eventually replaced by an equally small HP LaserJet. These days I would recommend the smallest Brother laser printer with Wi-Fi networking, Google Cloud Print, and Apple AirPrint, the HL-L2305W, which sells for under $100. Still, I would try to go without a printer for as long as possible because even the small Brother laser printer is 14.0" x 14.2" x 7.2" and weighs 15 lbs.
If you are a litigator, you may want a portable scanner. When traveling for depositions, a huge pile of documents may be produced that require scanning. If you can’t outsource that task, you could use a portable scanner. A tiny single sheet scanner (no automatic document feed or ADF) may suffice. The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX100 at just under $200 is the best choice. If you need to regularly scan large quantities of documents, use the same scanner you would pick for the office, the ScanSnap iX500 ($420). A travel case for the iX500 costs less than $40.
I don’t carry a scanner at all. If I need to scan something, I use the Office Lens app on my Samsung Galaxy Note 5 Android smart phone. It uses my phone’s high-quality rear camera take a photo of document, convert it to searchable PDF, and upload it directly to my OneDrive file storage. The same app is available for the iPhone and iPad. There is also a Windows version that I could use with my Surface Book.
I hate touchpads on laptops. The Surface Book’s touchpad is the best I’ve used on a Windows computer, but I nearly always use a separate mouse. I have not yet settled on my favorite road warrior mouse. I often travel with a Microsoft Sculpt Touch Bluetooth Mouse, which is small and takes up little room in my laptop bag. Connecting via Bluetooth, it has the advantage of not needing to connect via USB cable and does not require a wireless dongle plugged into a USB port on my Surface Book. But I am not crazy about the touchpad version of the mouse wheel. As I said, I hate touchpads.
Affinity Consulting Group Partner Barron Henley recommend that I use the Logitech Performance MX Mouse. It is cordless and has a rechargeable battery, but requires the use of the Logitech Unifying Receiver plugged into the USB port of my Surface Book. It is a great mouse, but it is a little bulky and heave for travel. Similar in size and using the same Unifying Receiver, but much lighter, is my choice for desktop use, the stationary Logitech M570 trackball mouse. It takes some getting used to, but it prevents “mouse shoulder” – a particularly painful repetitive stress injury that comes from moving a mouse around on your desktop. It runs for months on an ordinary AA battery, making it great for portable use. Because it is stationary, it also works well when your desktop area is confined, such as an airplane tray table.
A road warrior also needs power accessories. Instead of carrying around a half dozen mobile device chargers, pick up one of Anker’s multi-port USB chargers. I travel with mine all the time. If you are buying one now, get an upgraded model with one or more of the USB ports compatible with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge specification. If you don’t have one now, soon or later you will buy a smart phone or other mobile device capable of using this rapid charging technology.
Also get a portable battery pack to give your smart phone a boost at the end of long day when its battery is running low. I prefer a smaller and thinner pocketable battery pack that I keep with me at all times. The smallest and most pocketable packs are 3000 to 6000 mAh, can cost as little as $10, and are the size of a lipstick tube or candy bar.
Finally, you need a mobile surge protector such as the Belkin unit that has three electrical outlets and two USB charging ports for less than $20. Poorly filtered or intermittent power at a hotel or conference center could fry your expensive laptop charger unless you have one of these devices.
There is so much more I could add based on a decade and a half of running a virtual law practice. But these tips will get you started. Continue to read the Affinity Consulting Group newsletter for tips on becoming a road warrior attorney and everything else related to law practice technology.