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Smartphones: lighter than laptops

Have you started leaving your laptop at the office?

Originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine.

Have you ever met prospective business contacts while surfing (at the beach, not on the net)? Jared Jacobson has. “I put their information in my BlackBerry,” says the Philadelphia, Penn.-based solo attorney.

James Baron, a Waltham, Mass.-based special education lawyer who has used BlackBerrys since 2000 and switched last year to an iPhone, goes a step further. “I scan in business cards through my phone, perform optical character recognition and add the contact to my phone contacts,” he says.

Baron and Jacobson typify a growing group of lawyers who are increasing the amount of time they work on phones when away from the office as they reduce the time they spend using computers.

Little wonder. Today’s phones enable people to do most of the things they use computers for, via native or third-party applications or websites designed with smartphone screens in mind.

So what else can lawyers do using smartphones besides acquiring contact information? You might get a shorter list if you turn that question into a negative. Lawyers use smartphones to: research law, read documents, edit documents, manage documents, attend meetings remotely, run background checks, read publications (like The Lawyers Weekly, of course), dictate memos and quickly send those memo recordings to transcribers.

In some places, law students use smartphone apps to prepare for their exams.

This list isn’t exhaustive, and excludes the ordinary email and personal information management apps (calendar, contacts, task list) smartphones have.

Given the lucrative and quickly evolving nature of the smartphone market, big-name technology corporations are competing for supremacy. Apple’s iPhone may currently lead in mindshare, but Google’s Android operating system is coming up fast. Windows Phone 7 is off to a promising start, and Hewlett-Packard is rumoured to be rejuvenating the WebOS of Palm, which it bought in 2010. And RIM’s BlackBerry, the traditional favourite among lawyers, is stepping up its game.

All this competition benefits customers as well as accessory makers, who are accelerating the transformation of smartphones into mobile offices. For instance, since the BlackBerry runs Microsoft PowerPoint, RIM offers the BlackBerry Presenter to connect a BlackBerry to a projector, making a computer unnecessary.

In a throwback to the halcyon days of Palm PDAs, Bluetooth keyboards make typing on smartphones far easier than the typical two-thumb tap dance. Baron uses a keyboard to prop up his phone and type notes during meetings. “Without a large screen between me and clients, I think there’s much less separating us,” he says.

“When traveling overnight, I used to bring my laptop to get email and documents,” Baron adds. “Now I no longer travel with my laptop.”

The “double-holstered” Marlene Monteleone carries both a BlackBerry Bold and an Apple iPhone with her. “The BlackBerry is the workhorse for my office,” says the New York-based senior partner with Bivona & Cohen, P.C. about its email and phone capabilities.

Monteleone loaded her iPhone with research and reference tools like WebMD, Wikipedia, Epocrates and other medical reference apps. “I like the ease of use of the iPhone interface,” she explains.

While Baron has also downloaded research apps to his phone, he rarely uses them. “I rely on Google to get the stuff I need,” he explains.

Monteleone figures leaving her computer at the office when she leaves for business meetings makes her more productive. “With a phone, you can immediately respond,” she says of the instant-on performance. “By the time you start up a laptop, the moment to act may have passed.”

Baron runs a paperless office. He scans his documents and backs them up to the Internet from where he can read them when away from the office.

Baron takes mobile scanning beyond business cards. He scans whole documents in courts and libraries using his phone. “Copies in court can sometimes cost as much as one dollar per page, so I avoid that if possible,” he explains.

He also notes a security argument against laptops. “I’ve heard of attorneys having laptop bags stolen while in court,” he claims, noting his iPhone always sits in his pocket.

Relying on a smartphone does have its drawbacks. In spite of the hundreds of thousands of mobile apps available for smartphones, some tools simply haven’t gone mobile (yet). “We do not have mobile versions of our billing and case management tools,” Monteleone notes.

Smartphone users rely on Internet access to a greater degree than laptop users. “It isn’t common, but certain buildings block access for me, and I can’t get to my documents,” Baron admits.

His backup? Printouts, which he stuffs into his case in the spot he used to reserve for his laptop.

The fact that smartphones enable a certain type of work doesn’t mean people use them to do that work. For instance, Monteleone doesn’t view email attachments on her BlackBerry since it’s a “cumbersome” process, one she considers a major weakness. “When you’re dealing with a time-sensitive issue, you don’t want to waste time,” she says.

And, as lawyers know, smartphones can become tethers. Jacobson wants to take a week’s vacation with his family, and he’s wondering what to do about incoming list emails. “I want to block them, not read them while I’m away,” he says.

“CrackBerrys can be habit-forming,” Monteleone admits. “You think you’re missing something if you don’t look at it every 30 seconds.”

Every smartphone’s small size comes at a price: cramped keyboards and tiny screens that can put off anybody used to working on “full-sized” computers. “I wouldn’t work on a long document, like a brief, or commercial lease, or operating agreement among investors,” Jacobson says.

That’s a common refrain. For all the power, apps and overall ability of today’s smartphones, the small screens and keyboards on pocket-sized devices continue to limit their overall usefulness.

Maybe tablet devices will help lawyers keep their load light. Tablets rival or better smartphones in just about every department other than size. And if the Apple iPad is any indication, tablets may cannibalize sales of low- and mid-market laptop computers and incent more lawyers to leave their laptops at the office.

For a PDF of this article, click smartphones.