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Personal Digital Assistants for Lawyers:
Eliminating the Information Archipelago

Lawyers have been using Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), such as Palm® and Windows CE® devices, for several years now, mostly to keep track of their own calendars and contacts, and in some cases to follow stock prices or to play games. (A PDA is loosely defined as a small mobile computing device that stores information normally found in personal information management ("PIM") software, such as a contact list, calendar, memos, etc.) Invariably, there was no relationship between the PDA and the applications the law firm used to process its legal work, such as the billing system, calendar, tickler system, or the Rolodex® on each person’s desk. Each lawyer was an information island unto himself. All of the information in the lawyers’ PDAs formed an "information archipelago," a string of information islands, with no sharing of the information.

Recently, however, two developments have taken place to make PDAs an integral part of many law firms’ standard technological tool kits: the synchronization of PDAs with law practice management systems, and the increasing functionality of the devices themselves.

Synchronization of PDAs with Law Practice Management Systems:

Because the leading law practice management programs, such as Time Matters®, Amicus Attorney®, PracticeMaster®, Abacus Law®, and ProLaw®, have synchronization with Palm devices (and in some cases with Windows CE devices) built in, PDAs have become an extension of the lawyer’s desktop. Practice management programs manage client and other contact information, calendars, to do lists, file notes, documents, e-mail, and all the other minutiae that accumulates in a law practice. Although the extent of this synchronization varies among the different programs, generally speaking, a lawyer can enter or change information in the PDA, and then synchronize it with the law firm’s practice management system, and vice-versa.

For example, a lawyer at a pretrial conference might need to change a trial date. The PDA shows her up-to-date calendar, so she can check it and make the change to an open date. She can also add the client’s cell phone number to the PDA’s contact information, and enter a reminder to revise her answers to interrogatories. Meanwhile, back at the office, one staff member has entered three new appointments and others have added two new clients’ names and contact information into the practice management system.

When the lawyer returns to the office, she places the PDA into its cradle and presses the synchronization button. All of the changes she made are transferred to the firm’s practice management system, and all of the changes made to the firm’s practice management system in her absence (at least those which she wants on her PDA) are transferred to her PDA. In addition, the information in the practice management system can be synchronized with laptop computers or among multiple offices.

With everyone’s up-to-date schedule available with the push of a button, it is much easier, faster, and more efficient to schedule conferences, depositions, and other meetings. No longer do you have to contend with trying to schedule attorneys who are not in the office and have their only up-to-date calendar with them. A supervising attorney can see everything on the to do list of the attorneys she is supervising, or can see a list of all the to do’s for a particular case.

By synchronizing with the firm’s practice management system, no longer do many people have to enter the same information into a variety of PDAs, Rolodex® cards, paper calendars and to do lists, etc. Information is entered only once, then re-used for many different purposes.

Increasing Functionality of PDAs:

PDAs have become more functional, combining the traditional features of a PIM with the features traditionally found in pagers, and wireless e-mail and Web devices. Instead of carrying a mobile phone, pager, wireless e-mail device (such as a RIM Blackberry®, www.rim.net), and a traditional PDA with a cellular modem for Web access, all of these features are available in fewer devices. Some phones have paging and Web access built into them.

The most intriguing permutation of this "less is more" philosophy is the Kyocera SmartPhone (http://www.kyocera-wireless.com/), a tri-mode mobile phone with a Palm device built into it, which I purchased several months ago. My service provider includes e-mail and Web access with the cost of the phone and one-year service contract with the same rates as its other mobile phones. Instead of carrying several devices, I have one device that is slightly larger than my previous mobile phone, but I do not have to carry a pager, a separate PDA, or a wireless e-mail or Web device. The display area is slightly smaller than my old PDA (a Handspring Visor®), but the SmartPhone’s font size is variable, which mitigates this shortcoming to some extent. Making the display larger would make the whole device larger, which would be a bigger shortcoming for many users.

The PIM features of the Palm are integrated with the mobile phone, so you can search for anyone in your firm’s practice management system by writing the person’s name with the Palm’s stylus, and tapping the person’s phone number. The phone then dials the number. It has the standard range of features found on most high-end mobile phones, including voice dialing, in which you record the names of the people you call most frequently so that you can dial their numbers just by speaking their names. Making calls with voice dialing while driving is much safer and easier than trying to look up the number and then dialing it.

With just the SmartPhone, you can synchronize not only your contacts, calendar, and to do information, but you can also enter notes, which you can later link to the related case. The Palm and Windows CE synchronization with most practice management systems do not include case information because the Palm synchronization program was not written with law firms, which store information on a case-centric basis, in mind. One exception is the Palm application from Software Technology, Inc. (www.stilegal.com) that integrates with its PracticeMaster case management system. STI has written its own Palm application, which will synchronize a wide variety of information stored in the PracticeMaster program, including case information and time keeping entries, with any Palm device. Look for other multi-functions devices to be introduced in the near future.

Implementing PDAs Firm-Wide:

How do you get your law firm to start using all of these great functions? First of all, keep in mind that a PDA is a tool just like any other tool you use to help you practice law. Look at how it fits into your firm’s practice management system and culture. It should conform to the practice management system, not vice-versa.

To get the most benefit from a PDA, it needs to be linked to the information in your practice management system. What, you have no practice management system? Then you should investigate the benefits of having all of the important information in your firm’s files in your computer system so that you only have to enter information once, and then re-use it for many different purposes, e.g., billing system information, retainer letter, calendar and to do entries, routine letters and pleadings, etc.

Evaluate the leading practice management systems, and decide which one best suits your firm’s needs. Make sure it synchronizes the information you need to share. Not all firms have the same needs. For example, not all programs synchronize the information in multiple offices. Standardize on one system, so that everyone is on the same page and all of your information can be shared among all of those in the firm with the appropriate security level.

Speaking of security, keep in mind that it is very easy to lose a PDA, and that all of the information in it may fall into the wrong hands. Determine what type of information you want to store on the PDA (perhaps name and address, but not sensitive information), and what kind of security to set up on the PDA, e.g., user ID and password.

PDAs are time-saving devices. The less time spent doing administrative tasks, e.g., manually entering information into the PDA that has already been entered into the firm’s billing system, the more time the attorney has to perform billable work. Provide all attorneys with a PDA that meets their needs. The firm does not have to standardize on a particular device, as long as each device chosen synchronizes with the firm’s practice management system. Some lawyers will make extensive use of all of the available functions, and can benefit from the high-end integrated Palm phone devices. For others, a multi-function device might be too confusing, and therefore might not be used at all.

Show your users how these devices will save them time and effort. Without giving lawyers a very good reason to learn something new, you will likely not obtain widespread use of any technology. In addition to practice management system functions, PDAs can be used to enter time into a billing system, store Word® or WordPerfect® documents to review at a later date when a computer is not available, and even retrieve the latest movie listings and weather in your area (www.avantgo.com). For lawyers who cannot or will not learn how to enter information into a Palm using the Graffiti® shorthand, palm-sized fold-up keyboards are available.

Provide training on whichever devices are provided to the attorneys so they make full use of the features that will make them more efficient and productive. Make your help desk available to answer questions and solve problems, or provide the vendor’s technical support contact information if you do not have a help desk.

PDAs are quickly becoming an integral part of a law firm’s ability to enable its attorneys to access information immediately, anytime, anywhere; to be more responsive to their clients’ needs; and to practice more efficiently, productively, and profitably. Proper planning and implementation is crucial to making this technology work for you, as it is with any new technology.

Robert S. McNeill practiced law for 15 years, is a former chair of the Maryland State Bar Association Law Practice Management Section, and for the past five years has been helping law firms leverage technology to provide higher quality legal services to their clients more economically. You can reach him at The McNeill Group, Ltd., 301-502-7209, Bob@McNeillGroup.org.

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