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Working on the move

originally published in Lawyers Weekly

David Woolford, a partner with Cassels Brock & BlackWell LLP, may conduct business from home (an hour commute from the office), the cottage (even farther) and locales like Germany or Hawaii.

Kevin Davidson, a general civil practice attorney “based” in Appleton, Wisconsin, spends 80 per cent of his work hours elsewhere in the Badger State.

For New York “based” employment attorney Jason Stern, that figure is 90 per cent. “I’m in the office once or twice a month,” he said.

All three have it easy compared to Henri Alvarez, international commercial arbitrator and partner with Fasken Martineau Dumoulin LLP. His “jurisdiction” may include a construction camp 10,000 feet up in the Andes or a cement plant in the heart of the Philippines.

In an already mobile profession, these three consider themselves at ultramobility’s edge. They’ve developed practices that keep them balanced on that edge as they juggle their work.

“I always want to stay on top of all of my cases and keep the procedure moving,” said Alvarez. “As the chair of a tribunal, if you don’t respond quickly, things will drag.”

Those who go mobile travel light. Davidson says his “office” consists of a Dell laptop and Motorola mobile phone.

A string of bad luck running Windows computers and evangelism from the converted around him led Woolford to buy a three-pound MacBook Air laptop. Unlike some businesses, Cassels Brock IT staff support the Mac, and it has proven a viable choice for Woolford. “The BlackBerry and the Mac Air serve all my needs,” he said.

Completing many lawyers’ portable setups are smartphones like BlackBerries and USB memory keys, which have largely replaced other media for quickly transferring files from one computer to another.

Packing light means taking less paper, so ultramobile lawyers tend to espouse paperless office principles.

But the “paperless” rely heavily on dependable data access, which isn’t always there. Alvarez takes hard copy of documents he expects he will have to deal with during a trip. “For example, I have to sign and issue orders,” he said. “Typically I will not allow anybody else to sign the order for me.”

“In Peru, there was no way to get a written copy out from where I was,” he continued. “I couldn’t fax my signature, I couldn’t transmit it electronically. All I had was intermittent telephone contact.” Alvarez made an exception to his rule and called to ask another member of the tribunal to sign a document on his behalf.

“Even ‘paperless’ lawyers like me have to deal with paper,” Stern complained. “I encourage both clients and adversaries to email me copies of everything, but some attorneys are tree-killers.”

A light “front office” can necessitate a heavier “back office” to handle more of the processing. Woolford uses Citrix, Word and the Internet when “remote.”

Davidson uses Dell DataSafe Online Backup to safeguard his documents on remote servers. He also works with a virtual office service. (This trend to online services, while not strictly necessary, appeals to lawyers who might not visit the office often enough to synchronize and back up their information regularly.)

The obvious need for a Net connection leads the ultramobile to opt for cellular data access. Davidson, for instance, bought a wireless access card from Verizon for his laptop. Should lawyers have Bluetooth-equipped phones and laptops, they can tether laptops to the Internet wirelessly using their phones as modems.

The need to work on the road does not negate the need for security or privacy. Virtual private networks work over the air as well as through cables, and all business information needs to travel through a VPN to protect it from snoopers.

A certain type of phone-related privacy breach puzzles Davidson. “I still see people talking about things that are private and privileged, out in the open,” he said. “People lose track of where they are.”

Mobility suggests perpetual action, which can keep lawyers from thinking about the planning and organizing they need to keep their practice on track. Davidson finds and occupies a quiet space in courts, hotel lobbies or other places (“I’m not into coffee shops,” he said) for an hour every day to handle correspondence, daily planning and the minutiae of his practice.

And his office? Davidson uses it primarily for meeting clients and quiet planning time.

Remember: mobile connections can be tenuous at best. This goes for both remote areas and big cities. Due to a gremlin’s antics in the cellular grid, Stern received my interview call several hours after the fact. (He promptly left sheepish apologies in both my voice and electronic mail.)

Technology, often wondrous and liberating, is not foolproof. But in 2008, most people understand this and take it in stride. Technology writers might even poke a little fun at the ultramobile New Yorkers among us.

For a PDF of the published article, click Mobile_worker.