When you get me started on a topic like this, I can’t just stop at five, since there is much more available that lawyers should investigate for their clients’ needs as well as their own:
1. Using RSS Readers (News Aggregators)
On a daily or weekly basis, how would you like to stay up to date on a hundred or more different web sites and blogs in under an hour, all without having to surf individual sites until your mouse pad wears out?
I’m not exaggerating. Many mainstream news sites and blogs offer RSS feeds (Really Simple Syndication or Rich Site Summary). Much has been said about this topic, so I won’t go into the technical details. Suffice it to say, it allows people to read more content in less time and with less effort than manually visiting each site on their daily or weekly mental list. It's a convenience and time management approach to keeping abreast of online content, both internally within an organization as well as on the Internet. Many RSS Readers have a search feature so you can search for specific topics across your selected sites.
Adding RSS feeds to you own site gives you additional reach to many more people who would not otherwise have given your site the time of day. This translates into more visitors, increased hits on your site, and potentially more business and referrals. And if more web site and blog operators end up linking to your site, you may just get higher Google rankings too.
With all due respect to legal publishers, if you've ever watched the movie, "Men in Black", I consider blawgs (legal blogs) to be the "Hot Sheets" of the legal world. To adapt Tommy Lee Jones' line: "Best damn legal practice commentary on the planet. But hey, go ahead, read the New York Times if you want. They get lucky sometimes." RSS readers enable us to increase our overall awareness in a more efficient manner.
You’ll note that I’m consciously excluding blogs from my list, in the context of my not recommending that all lawyers publish blogs. Why? Because the question posed relates to all (or at least most) lawyers. While using an RSS reader to consume information is something everyone can do, even the technophobes, blogging itself is a bit different.
So although I could write volumes extolling the many benefits of blogging, I agree with fellow blawger Jerry Lawson when he stated that:
"Blogs have enormous potential, but it’s important to keep the phenomenon in perspective. I think we're going to see another instance of the ‘80/20 Rule.’ It will probably shake out something like this: About 80% of all lawyer web logs will fail. The remaining 20% will have greater or lesser degrees of success, mostly modest. One per cent or so, maybe less, will be extremely successful. However, some of that 1% will be so successful that they will make their owners very, very glad they got into the blogging game.”
Thus I believe blogging (both in front and behind the firewall) has many benefits relating to personal KM, collaboration, best practices, marketing, and many more. But unless the people doing the blogging truly “get it” and invest the appropriate time commitment and mindset, I’m with Jerry. I believe they will be disappointed from what has been hyped on the subject.
There are also a slew of collaborative web tools available. Some lawyers will “get it” and use them with other attorneys and clients, some won’t get it at all, and probably many more will keep wishing for it, but not implement anything due to cost vs. ROI concerns.
2. Using Smarter E-Mail Tools
E-mail used to be a great tool, wasn’t it? It beat faxing for speed without long distance charges, and you ended up with an electronic document that was actually readable and could be reprinted if you lost the hardcopy. We got to stay in touch with friends, colleagues, clients, and could access it from a variety of methods. Sounds great, right?
Then came e-mail newsletters, listservs, a flood of internal “Does anyone know where the Smith file is?” queries, and worst of all, spam.
Thus e-mail has quickly devolved into a free-for-all of information glut, requiring spam filters, e-mail filter rules, and zillions of folders to sort, spindle, and archive all those seemingly important pieces of information. There was a lack of good tools included in the major e-mail packages to actually have a way to manage and find things without spending a lot of time trying to manually create organizational tools (e.g., folders and mail filter rules) and concocting creative search strings, hoping that you recalled the exact phrasing of the e-mail just right.
Worst of all, due to spam filters, we now have to worry that our message was actually seen by the recipient, thus forcing some to have to call the recipient to make sure it made it past her spam filters.
Is e-mail broken? You bet. However, it’s still an effective tool if you can get it under control. That’s exactly what new services or programs are trying to accomplish:
Gmail is Google’s new webmail service, with 1GB of storage, but without the need for using e-mail folders due to the ability to do a Google search within your e-mail.
Bloomba is an e-mail client with very fast search speeds and a PIM (Personal Information Manager), so you can instantly search all e-mail, attachments, calendar and contacts, and schedule appointments with colleagues remotely over the web. Bloomba is smart enough to know they can’t take on Outlook directly, so they are going after the smaller business and SOHO markets.
Nelson E-mail Organizer, or NEO, is a search or indexer add-on for Outlook, which offers a slew of additional e-mail management tools, including fast searching, categorizing, saved searches, search on conversation, etc.
New technologies in this category are on the horizon, as others are exploring the concept of meta-mail, the term for the extension of e-mail into a broader set of tools that can manage processes and the user’s attention, instead of just information and content.
While there’s a lot of hype in this space, it bears watching.
3. Spreadsheets – Financial, Trend, and Fact Analysis
Okay, so perhaps this isn’t a “new” technology, but there are numerous uses for spreadsheets that most lawyers just don’t realize. Besides number crunching, they’re great for creating charts, parsing data between different programs, spotting issues, and analyzing trends. I’ve found many attorneys tend to be “math adverse” (but ironically not “math challenged”, as they certainly dive into every detail of their yearly compensation and bonus plans). So what’s holding them back from using spreadsheets? In a nutshell, ease of use. Spreadsheets can be daunting at first glance. However, many overlook some of the wizards and pre-created templates that are included with various spreadsheet programs like Excel. Other programs exist to create spreadsheet-like “what if” comparisons, especially for tax and financial planning.
Savvy litigators are already using spreadsheets in a brand new way – analyzing facts and issues. CaseMap is a perfect example of an innovative use of a spreadsheet interface. In any case, but in particularly complex ones, mastery of the facts is a great advantage. Tie it together with a good timeline chart generator such as TimeMap, and you’ve got a powerful set of tools that doesn’t take an MIT grad to understand them.
Surprisingly, despite the above, I still see that many attorneys are not using these tools, which is why I think it’s a technology that many should incorporate into their practices, but probably won't.
4. Alternative Billing Practices and Processes
This isn’t a technology per se, but savvy technology implementation sure helps in a number of ways to make this happen. Used properly, things like document assembly and matter management allow one to generate repetitive work in far less time than without it. And that provides the time flexibility to consider non-hourly billing options, including value-based, task-based, and flat rate billing options.
Clients like choices, and particularly, the ability to know exactly what a legal matter is going to cost them. The billable hour alone falls short in meeting this expectation. Over the years, I’ve had a number of business people and governmental attorneys tell me that they need the ability to set a monthly or yearly budget for legal fees, and many of them have sought out attorneys and firms who were willing to provide this level of predictability combined with competent representation.
5. Wi-Fi Access and Laptops
There’s a certain freedom and creativity that wireless connections provide. I wrote this post on my laptop at home on my Wi-Fi network while doing a number of other things that relaxed me and got the creative juices flowing: Sitting out on the deck, having a beer, later watching a movie, or listening to Internet radio stations playing exactly the kind of music I liked (with no commercials I might add), being accessible to my wife and kids, and so forth. In other words, I wasn’t chained to my desk and PC, and I had a fast Internet connection should I need to run a Google search on a whim.
But Wi-Fi isn’t just about you, even though it’s incredibly useful while traveling. It’s also a great resource to provide to visiting guests and clients, especially when tied to your office’s broadband connection. While you certainly don’t want to let them into your regular office network for security reasons, a Wi-Fi network can be crafted to allow guest Internet access in a DMZ (DeMilitarized Zone) or another area of your network that is separate from your sensitive areas. Which brings me to the next topic…
6. Wireless Security
It’s shocking and downright negligent that the vast majority of private wireless networks are left completely insecure. Many people just take the wireless routers and access points out of the box, plug in their Internet connection and PC’s and start surfing. Newer Wi-Fi devices include much more secure technologies such as WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) encryption, TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol, which provides a method for automatically rotating the security keys of your wireless network – very cool), and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard, a much more robust type of encryption). It’s definitely an area ripe with acronyms, jargon and technical alphabet soup, but it’s careless to ignore them completely.
When enabled, and especially when used in conjunction with other security measures such as MAC address filtering (i.e., limiting network connections to specific network cards), these newer technologies help make wireless networks more secure. Let’s face it, if a wardriver or hacker is not targeting you or your company specifically, then an appropriately encrypted, reasonably protected Wi-Fi network is going to require them to take much more time to hack than does your neighbors’ wide-open network. Unless they’re looking for a challenge, they’re going to move on to easier pickings.
Even though many wireless routers have easy-to-use browser based configuration screens, and it’s fairly easy to conclude that most people don’t have the necessary understanding of networking and wireless security to secure them properly. Luckily, a number of wireless manufacturers’ web sites include tips for securing their network, and folks like me have written things like “Wireless Networking Best Practices”. So you don’t have to be a networking guru to harden your Wi-Fi network. However, if it’s still Greek, I’ve found that some of the wireless manufacturers’ tech support people to be quite helpful in this regard for the how-to’s. And if all fails, you’re better off hiring someone knowledgeable to do this for you. Don’t just leave it wide open for convenience.
Lastly, don’t forget about installing personal firewalls, antivirus, and anti-spyware programs for essential protection.
7. Metadata Cleaners
More and more lawyers tend to know at least a little something about metadata. Yet only some are using metadata cleaners or using alternative measures for minimizing the risk of having embedded metadata being used against them. In this era of electronic discovery, that’s just an accident waiting to happen. Common metadata in MS Word documents show who authored it, how many minutes it’s been open in editing mode, the drive letter and directory path where it’s stored, and potentially the prior revisions and changes, among other things.
Thus I feel it’s a best practice to implement a method for removing the metadata from one’s documents, especially before sending them to the outside world, or even to another internal department. Generally, the cost per person for a good metadata cleaner is far, far, far less than the time, effort, embarrassment, and other costs and risks associated with leaving metadata unchecked in your electronic files.
8. Flash Drives
Call them thumb drives, key drives, flash drives, USB drives, or whatever, these tiny storage devices are easy to use and therefore a hot technology. In newer versions of Windows, you just plug them in and they’re instantly mounted as a new drive letter, just like a hard drive. Some come with encryption features for added privacy, and new features and faster read/write speeds are popping up all the time.
Regardless of whether you’re a mobile or office worker, and whether or not you have a floppy drive, these devices are much smaller than floppies and are perfect for transferring files between home and work, between laptops at meetings, and so on. Prices have plummeted so much that the smaller capacities can be had for as little as $10-$20. Some manufacturers and web sites have even provided tools and drivers to make them bootable as part of one’s emergency recovery tools.
The latest trend in flash drives is to provide the mobile user with a portable replica of their office PC’s data, look, and feel when working on a completely different PC in a different location. For instance, I’ve come across two emerging products that claim to do this: M-System's Xkey 2.0, and Powerhouse Technologies Group’s Migo. Obviously, it bears watching to see if either truly delivers on all the promises. One concern it that when working from an untrusted PC (e.g., public kiosk, hotel business center PC, etc.), these solutions need to incorporate a method for scanning and ascertaining if that PC is free from malware including keyloggers, spyware, etc., before typing in anything confidential. Otherwise, one can unwittingly provide the perpetrators with sensitive information that could lead to many kinds of problems.
How much time do you waste doing repetitive task in Windows? Think of repetitive typing of common information, clicking on Start, Programs, Whatever, ad nauseum. ActiveWords is an interesting type of Windows macro program that allows you to automate a variety of tasks and assign a word to it. Typing the word nearly anywhere within Windows or a running program launches the macro to do your work for you.
Much of what we do everyday is repetitive in some fashion, so when looking for personal productivity boosts, macro programs are often a nice solution if you can make them work for you. The problem with creating macros the old-fashioned way is that one needed to be proficient in a macro programming language, such as VBA (Virtual Basic for Applications). I like to look for things that are simpler, yet deliver.
10. Tablet PCs with Microsoft OneNote or Similar Application
Tablet PCs have been available for a couple of years, but there’s two particular combinations I find compelling with an application such as Microsoft’s OneNote: The first is a “convertible” – a tablet PC which can be switched between a typical laptop screen/keyboard layout to a slate-like tablet. This way it can do double-duty between serving as a regular PC for applications requiring mousing and keyboard entry. However, for note-taking, something that attorneys do a lot, the conversion to a digital pad of paper is useful and compelling.
Programs like OneNote add some great features that allow you to take notes more in your own free form style, rather than have to conform to more rigid tools such as Word and outliners. A key feature is the ability to take your handwritten notes and convert them into actual text – this makes it a lot easier to search and pass them along in e-mail.
The other format I’d like, but have yet to see, is a “slate” (keyboardless) tablet PC that’s closer in size to a thin softbound book. It’s smaller than a normal 8 ½ x 11” pad of paper, yet larger than a paperback. Notice my reference to good ol’ paper – it’s critical because most people still work with paper and this human factor needs to be embraced for it to succeed. The idea is to have something small, thin, and lightweight to be your digital notepad of paper that never forgets. Smaller size makes it easier to carry around so you’ll actually use it more. For instance, if I took notes at a meeting 6 months ago, I want to be able to search for and pull it up in real-time at a critical meeting. Likewise, if I have a brainstorm at an odd time or in transit, I want to be able to write it down for further refinement later, without having to carry around a 20+ lb. bulging laptop bag. I consider this second category to be the ultimate genetic splicing between PDA, paper, and laptop – if it happens.
Now add Wi-Fi to these tablets, and you have an indispensable personal productivity tool to recall everything you’ve written coupled with the ability to get to the Internet and an organization’s network for accessing, saving, or disseminating additional information on the fly without having the need for anyone to type up your handwritten notes. The main thing I keep hearing from organizations is that the perceived cost premium and lack of compelling tablet applications is holding back wider adoption in the legal market. Truth be told, the price gap is narrowing. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see more attorneys interested if someone who understands their needs would just present them with the right hardware/software combination. Thus OneNote has possibilities.