19 June 2004

Technology in the Practice

Of the friends and colleagues in my immediate circle I think I am the most proficient with computers. It's a scary thought when you actually consider that I'm not much more than a fairly proficient user with a smattering of html knowledge.

Anyway, I am a big believer in technology as a great tool for the office. I thought I'd go through some of the various software and technology that I find useful.

Word Processors: Okay, Wordperfect and Lotus WordPro are far better word processors than Microsoft Word. Word is, simply put, a bad program. Still, it is the industry standard [snide anti-MS comment deleted] and most legal offices have capitulated to it. With this in mind I really cannot recommend that anyone starting out go with the two better programs. Yet, all is not lost. Rather spending far too much money for a weak program you can get far better programs online for free. OpenOffice.org provides a far better program and it is absolutely free. It's better laid out, it's not counter-intuitive like Word, and it comes with a suite of companion office programs which all use MS format (for those of you who might think that a major boon). When you save documents it wants to use its own format but it is easy to save in .doc and it's not a conversion but a document which works perfectly in MS products. For the life of me, I don't know why anybody with access to the web would ever use Word when they can download this for free. BTW another, even simpler, option is AbiWord.

E-Mail: First, let me say that if any of you are using the mail programs that come bundled with your web browser, STOP!! Stop right now. Why are you doing this to yourself? These programs pull down and erase the mail from your server so that you can only see them on the computer you first see them on. They also directly expose your computer to all sorts of viruses which are actually pulled down into the computer with the e-mail. They also leave your saved e-mail addresses available for the virus to duplicate and mail itself out to everyone you have contact with (friends, clients, etc.). This is what happens when you get email from a buddy and your (hopefully up to date) virus software screams "infected" but he swears he never sent it.

Second, let me thank the kind people over at Google for offering their massive storage 1 gigabyte e-mail service. I don't plan on using it because it doesn't have all the bells and whistles but because of them Yahoo has raised the space in its free accounts to 100 megabytes. In case you are not, you should start using Yahoo immediately. Go to Yahoo and set up an account; then download Yahoo Messenger and sign in under that account name. Turn on the Bulk Mail option in Yahoo mail and it will catch 98% of spam; I think maybe 10 a day get through on mine. You'll have to scan the bulk mail every so often to make sure some things aren't getting sidetracked but you should do that no matter what your spam catcher is. The advantages to the Yahoo account are numerous. (1) The storage space is so large that unless you are getting a ton of attachments every day you should not have to do anything but read and store your messages for a loooonnng time. (2) Your messages are, and remain, available anywhere you can find a computer with internet access. So, if you are in the courthouse without your cell phone you can usually pop into the law library and check to see if anyone has left you a message. Yahoo mail also works with most modern cell phones so you can check your mail when you are away from the office. (3) The virus is on Yahoo's computer, not yours, and Yahoo automatically scans any attachment before you download it to make sure it is clean; the virus cannot get the saved e-mail addresses and spam your clients either. (4) Yahoo messenger will notify you (by sound and pop-up) whenever a message comes in. It is the best way to go.

Internet Research: If it hadn't been for the web, I'd have never gotten off the ground. Aggregaters, such as FindLaw and AllLaw are useful in getting you to the many sites wherein you can find the cases and statutes you need. FindLaw is still the best among these but things seem a little lax over there since West bought them out. My searches do not yield as much useful information (maybe I'm looking for harder stuff) and little problems have crept in (i.e. The link to the Virginia constitution has been broken for a long time now even though you can link to it here).

As far as pay sites, it is hard to beat West (and probably Lexis) but my personal favorite is VersusLaw. For less than $15 a month you can get all of the appellate decisions from all the State and Federal systems. Now, there are no headnotes so you actually have to read and think for yourself but I'm not a big fan of headnotes anyway (having seen too many which say one thing while the case actually seems to say the opposite). One thing I really, really, really like about VersusLaw is the fact that it numbers the paragraphs in the opinion. For a trial lawyer this is wonderful. As you stand there in front of Judge Smith with a 40 page decision you can point him to exactly the paragraph which supports your position. It is much easier than the painful back and forths we've all seen where the judge and the attorneys try to figure out where exactly certain language is. The only problem is that VersusLaw only goes back to the 1930's. This can cause some difficulties in Virginia where there is something of a mania for citing cases from the beginning of the Commonwealth, the founding of the Republic, and maybe even back to Blackstone or the Magna Carta (not that these cites often prove very relevant to the actual matter at hand).

Computers: I'm of the opinion that you should probably be able to get away with one portable computer (per person) to run your law office. This explains why I have 2 desktops at my office, a portable, a desktop at home (strictly for professional use of course) and a PDA powerful enough to be a computer by itself.

I've tried various configurations of the computer equipment I have. I've tried putting all my computers on a wireless network and that worked for a while but my internet provider would only allow one of my computers at a time to access the internet with my DSL so that turned out to be pretty useless. Actually, it was useful for a while as I kept all my legal docs on a single computer and accessed from every computer, thereby ensuring that I wasn't always pulling up a number of different variants every time I pulled up a model file from a different computer. However, when my primary computer died a while back I just bought a USB thumb drive which would fit in all my computers and never set the intranet back up.

USB thumb drives are a very convenient item. The one I have has 512 MB of memory and has the original of every form I use. Whenever I develop a new form it goes on there as well. It goes with me everywhere. If there's a computer nearby I can get an order or motion together in just a couple minutes. Not a necessity, just a nicety.

While most guys are off drooling over Corvettes, I am that geek who's a sucker for new computers. However, there really isn't all that much need for all the bells and whistles. Most of us could get away with a middle of the line computer in order to do wordprocessing, bookkeeping, and internet searching. I'd suggest that everyone should probably still have 3.5" drive and a writable CD drive. In reality you shouldn't need either; anyone else with a computer should be able to get your files more quickly thru e-mail. However, some people are stuck in old-fashioned mode and want to have that disk in hand. In order to back up your important files, I recommend buying an external hard drive; plug it into your computer's USB port one day a week, download the files, and store it somewhere else. External hard drives have become amazingly compact. If it wasn't for the cords my 40 gigabyte external would fit easily in a pocket.

The portable computer is probably the best way to go for a law office. It takes up less space and you can take it with you so you can actually work somewhere other than your office. The 9-10 p.m. nights at the office can fade into obscurity because you can take some work home with you. It can also travel with you to a law library if you intend to do some work there. Don't get suckered into one which is a big clamshell; sure they have bigger screens but that doesn't really mean much while you are using a word processor or using the internet for research purposes. On the other hand, don't buy one of tiny ones unless you have very small hands or you can type using just one. Some of them are about the size of 2-3 of my PDA which means they are small, light, easily carried but how anyone could type on that is beyond me.

If you have a decent PDA and a desktop don't bother getting a portable computer. Buy a wordprocessor for the PDA and an expandable keyboard. Since the day I did this my portable has mostly sat gathering dust. The only thing a PDA cannot do is hook into the internet over the phone like a computer. It may even be able to do that somewhat if there is wi-fi coverage or if your phone has the ability to hook to your PDA and the internet or if your PDA and phone are a single unit.

PDA's: My first PDA was some old model of which I can't even remember the brand. My second was a Palm and I have been through m100, i705, Tungsten C, Tungsten T3, and back to Tungsten C. I use them hard, keep them in my pocket with me at all times, and have been impressed by them all. I don't have one of the phone models because no court around here will allow me to bring a phone in and my calendar is in the PDA. Most of the functions which I use have been available from the very beginning. I don't remember the exact program but there was some sort of word processor on my old m100. The major difference on the new models is that the wordprocessor is more advanced, I can leave copies of most of the files I use on the PDA, and there is a database program I use. There are lots of gimmicks but I don't use most of them.

I'm only going to discuss the two Tungstens here because they are the ones you are likely to still find. The Tungsten C has a nice little thumb keypad which is convenient for inputting small things (if you are going for more than a sentence or two you might want to hook up the expandable keyboard). Functionally, that is its one major advantage. It also has wi-fi but that really isn't a function which finds much use out in the hinterlands where I usually find myself; I end up in jails so far out that my cell phone won't work – wifi ain't even a dream out there. The best part is that it is sturdy and that is a serious requirement when it sits in my pocket all day every day.

The Tungsten T3
has all sorts of spiffy things. The screen widens out which is nice when you are showing people pictures you have transferred to the PDA or are using it in conjunction with a keyboard to be able to see more of the document. However, most of the time that space is either taken by a virtual keyboard or a place to write script so that it will appear above. Using the stylus in order to hunt and peck just doesn't work well for anything more than a couple words. The writing works better except for two things. First, it cannot keep up. If you write too quickly it screws up every time. Second, Palm screwed up its letter system. Instead of keeping everything a one stroke per letter alphabet it made the T's and K's two strokes. This made them more as one would write them in the real world but it also guaranteed that at least a third of these letters would come out wrong; it is very annoying. There were, however, some benefits to buying this PDA – it came with full copies of the books The Wizard of Oz and The Last of the Mohicans. So I read the entirety of The Wizard of Oz while I was sitting around in courtrooms and jails waiting (BTW, it is very different from the movie). I didn't get too far into Mohicans before I gave up on this model.

Why, you ask did I give up on the T3? Well, I bought it as a compromise when I broke my C doing something stupid (no, I will not tell the story) and I could not find another at any local electronic store. It worked well enough and everybody is impressed by the sliding action. The thing that resigned it to the scrap heap was the fact that it kept losing its charge and every bit of data. This is very annoying if you have forgot to sync your PDA last night; most PDA's hold a charge in reserve so that your data is saved when the PDA is recharged. As best I can figure it, while riding in my pocket the button on the side which triggered the voice recording and playback system would get pushed in and drain all the power. It is a serious design flaw. One of the reasons I was convinced to compromise and buy the T3 was this recording system. I reasoned that since it was supposed to have a hour of recording capability it could replace my tape recorder. The only problem was that the recorder would shut off after three minutes when the PDA automatically shut down to save power. As well the button on the left side was badly placed and very sensitive so that it would get hit and switch you out of whatever you were doing into the voice recorder or turn the PDA on by accident. After losing all my newly entered data about 4 times I knew that something had to give so I ponied up the money to buy another C.

The Future: If anybody out there wants to be on my good side forever and a day, buy me the Electrovaya Scribbler SC2010 Windows XP Tablet. It's the only Tablet I've seen with the battery power to actually make it a viable system, something I could take to court with me every day bring back home or to my office at night plug it in so that it recharges and then take it back out for another day. My vision for this is to scan all files for my case (warrants, etc.) into it, takes notes on it, and keep everyone's file in it completely electronically. Of course, it wouldn't work completely. Residual case files would have to be maintained for everything which must be signed in State court. And the federal courts are so technophobic that they won't even let me bring in my PDA. Heck, federal courts are so technophobic that I'm surprised they let us bring in pens and paper. They could provide us with quills and inkwells at our tables so we could sign the parchment they give us. After all, the most dangerous item which goes into the hands of my clients while they are in the courtroom is the pen; most people don't think about it but a pen is a well constructed, dangerous puncture weapon (that's why prisoners only get those specially made flimsy ones while incarcerated).

Okay back to the Scribbler. I want one and I want one badly but ever time I get enough expendable money stored away something comes up and I just cannot place this at the top of my list of priorities. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to keep using paper (or find someone rich to marry).


Blonde Justice said...

I have a Palm Tungsten E. I mostly use it to keep my calendar organized and to play games while I'm waiting in court. (Doesn't sound that important, but if you've ever waited hours on a wooden bench, you'd know it's priceless.)

I intended to use it to work on motions. And I do that sometimes. The one problem that I find is that the Word To Go software can really mess with formatting. If I have to renumber all my paragraphs and hunt for the random symbols it threw into the text when I get back to the office, it didn't really save me too much time. I know there's an update out there, so maybe when I get around to downloading it, that'll help.

Do you ever use technology during a trial? Power point, for example? It something they harp on a lot during trial technique classes, but it doesn't seem widely used in crim cases.

Ken Lammers said...

The most technologically advanced thing I've used during a trial is a big sheet of paper up on a folding tripod.

I think criminal trials often go too fast for anything all that fancy and often there is little to put on a powerpoint display. I've never seen it used in a criminal case.

The one place that I have heard of technology really being used in a courtroom was in the Muhammad (Sniper) trial down here where the Defense used computers to keep track of thousands of pictures and exhibits which were dumped on them without explanation. Even then it wasn't used to wow the jury, it was used to figure out what the prosecutor was introducing into evidence in the trial as they sat there at the Defense table while the prosecutor pulled out the items. They didn't win the case but it kept them in the hunt; it would have taken a miracle to win that case after Muhammad decimated the Defense at the beginning.

Anonymous said...

If you want people to buy you computer stuff, do the following: 1) claim to be a girl; 2) post pics; 3) post your amazon wishlist. It works. The talkleft lady did this and she got a new laptop.

Ken Lammers said...

Dang. I already fail the first test.