Technology is creating an ever-growing assortment of practice options for lawyers. The fact that lawyers can access cloud, mobile, and telephone services from virtually anywhere on the planet means that an attorney can open and operate a legal practice from his or her couch. These virtual legal offices cost less, provide more opportunity, and usually adopt non-traditional methods of working with clients and serving legal needs. Research from the American Bar Association shows that more than nearly 90 percent of lawyers practicing in the United States work in firms with fewer than 10 attorneys. Solo attorneys account for 50 percent of the legal workforce.
The longer I practice law, I realize that smaller, more technologically capable law firms are best suited to handle the world’s legal needs. I also see that technology erodes the concept of traditional office spaces. Attorneys who adopt a mobile lawyer practice model will thrive with success.
The idea of the mobile road warrior
Mobile practices aren’t a new concept in the professional world. House-calling doctors garnered community support because of their “down home” feel. Lawyers though, probably because of the nature of the practice, dodge the “mobile warrior” concept and usually stay with brick-and-mortar solutions. “Clients like seeing your office,” is the usual response, though I’ve heard other reasons why the office concept is king. But as technology improves, smartphones, tablets, and cloud computing systems also help replace the traditional notions of an office.
Mobile lawyering involves adaptation and acceptance of systems and processes to improve efficiency. Part of the acceptance is the decision to find new ways to meet with clients and provide high-quality legal solutions.
Practice is the easiest way to discover whether mobile lawyering works for you. Testing solutions and techniques will help you determine whether you can adapt yourself to a more mobile law practice.
Becoming the mobile road lawyer
Using and understanding your tools is the first step to becoming the mobile road lawyer. Thankfully, today’s mobile devices are much more powerful than their predecessors. These highly functional mobile tools help keep everyone connected.
Mobile phone and tablet
The lawyer’s best friend is his or her phone, so it’s important to find a high-quality device. Newer Android phones are coming installed with Android 4.4.4. Some manufacturers have already committed to updating devices to Android L upon release. Look for phones with a great camera, simple operation, and a manufacturer dedicated to keeping their legacy devices up-to-date.
Similarly, there are almost as many tablets as manufacturers. Personally, I prefer to own a 10-inch model as my “daily driver,” but my love for 7-inch tablets is growing, especially those with Miracast capabilities. (Miracast lets your display your device’s screen to a television.) I’m really loving the Nexus 7 (2013) tablet, though there are new rumors of a nine inch Nexus 9 device. If Nexus isn’t your preference, Samsung makes some high-quality tablets loaded with functionality.
A good tablet should also include a Bluetooth keyboard, which will improve your ability to create documents directly on your Android tablet.
WiFi or internet access
You’ll need dedicated wireless internet access in order to perform just about any mobile lawyer task. Obviously, if you decide to run your mobile law office from your home, I suggest using your home internet to connect with the world.
But some attorneys are tempted to hit up a WiFi hotspot at Starbucks or Panera Bread. That’s not a smart move. Attorneys should cautiously use public WiFi, and almost always seek out more secure connections. Public WiFi allows any connected user to view your internet traffic, see your connected documents, and even possibly access your computer files. It’s a best practice for attorneys to avoid public internet.
Instead most wireless carriers offer WiFi tethering as an add-on option for about $20 per month. Tethering is the process of using your Android phone to create a wireless hotspot. The process is quite simple and works well. The number of allowed connected devices varies, so check with your wireless carrier for specific details. (Some Android apps are available that allow you to access tethering for free; they’re spotty, at best, for operation.)
If you’re not sure you want tethering, but you would like to keep connected while you’re on-the-go, check out other mobile hotspot options from your wireless company.
I travel outside of the city quite often, and T-Mobile’s data coverage is worthless. (I love the fast 4G LTE speed and my Nexus 5, so I tolerate the lack of coverage.) To boost my mobile coverage, I opted for a wireless hotspot from Verizon. The mobile hotspot gives me exceptional data coverage where T-Mobile is lacking.
Alternatively, if you can find connected points (especially in hotels), you might invest in a travel router — Zyxel is one example. These small devices plug in to dedicated connections and create WiFi hotspots from those connections. You can use these to help avoid paying for wireless, or to boost the signal you’re receiving. Additionally, you should see faster connection speeds because of your dedicated line, rather than using the shared wireless resources.
Your current requirements will dictate the type of computer you need. If you’re committed to cloud services, the perhaps you can work your mobile magic with Chromebook. However, if you’re heavily invested in traditional software systems, then you’ll want a laptop, or perhaps a Windows Surface Pro tablet. My choice is a hybrid combination: a Chromebook for mobile work (because I can stay connected with my mobile hotspot), and a Windows desktop at home (for more serious tasks and file storage.)
Printing, scanning, faxing
“Paperless” is one part of the mobile lawyer’s mantra. Being able to access documents in PDF is an important element to being mobile. I prefer traditional printers, scanners, and fax machines, but there are plenty of other options available. A lot of lawyers love the Fujitsu ScanSnap brand of scanners, which work well and even have WiFi scanning capabilities. I’ve talked to some lawyers who use FedEx Office, or other print centers, to handle their printing needs (they rarely print to paper, so it’s cheaper than owning a machine.) Similarly, a lot of users chooses electronic faxing, which eliminates the need for a phone line. eFax is one solution I like, but there are others available.
Whatever printing, scanning, and faxing solution you choose, it’s important to find one that works for you.
Getting assistance and “meeting” clients
Virtual assistants are one of the best way to multiply your resources and improve your abilities. Virtual assistants can help perform general or complex tasks to help save you time and money. If you’re connected to cloud resources, VA’s can also upload files, or provide digital assistance with your tasks.
I’m also finding some value in using video conferencing systems such as Hangouts or Zoom Cloud Meetings. Both systems are easy for clients to set up, and give you the ability communicate in real-time. You can easily set “office hours” to discuss issues and provide advice. Getting clients on board is the most difficult part, but those clients who use the programs prefer this method over in-person meetings. Plus, each product allows a large number of participants, so you can collaborate with a large group, if necessary.
Unleash the mobile road lawyer in you
Once you begin to ditch traditional the notions of lawyering, becoming an effective mobile lawyer is easy. I love being able to set my own terms, work in my own locations, and still give clients quality legal representation. And often, my clients prefer their bills since they’re less expensive without the extra add-ons.
Image: Mobile Internet Device, Beijing; Cory Grenier via Flickr