The great thing about a computer notebook is that no matter how much you stuff into it, it doesn’t get bigger or heavier. — Bill Gates
Out here in the little law office on the prairie, horsepower and hydraulics rule, so the term mobile is very, very broad; this is farm country where 1200 pound hay bales are stacked in the barn like Lego™blocks, and 2000 pound cows are lifted to table height to save the farrier’s back. Folks out here are much more impressed by the technology that makes large things mobile than they are in lightweight mobile technology – after all, it is far more awe-inspiring to watch a 4 man crew lift a house and move it 60 feet to the right than it is to watch one guy pick up a laptop and walk down the street.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I dearly love those dainty bits of battery sucking silicon that keep me tethered to the outside world. The fact is, I was mobile when being mobile was all about lead/acid batteries and 9 inch black and white screens. It was an era when laptops the size of a suitcase weighing in at 16 pounds were considered sexy enough to rate a swimsuit models for their magazine cover shots. It seems that, back in the day, courting a hernia was a sure path to the halls of übergeekdom and god-like sex appeal.While there were obvious strength-training benefits to those early luggable computers, today’s flyweight devices do wonders for encouraging the road warrior’s cardio-fitness as they allow facile movement between car and coffeehouse, coffeehouse and gym without the need to ever cut that etheric umbilicus cord that links us to our data.
For the rural lawyer, mobile technology’s promise of 24/7 access is but a siren’s song; luring us ever forward in the hopes of finding true connectivity only to dash all hopes upon the rocks of rural realities. For all that rural life offers – bucolic vistas, the tranquil peace of a meandering brook, the intoxicating smell of newly mown hay – the reality is that all this rural beauty comes at a price. The one thing those vistas, brooks, and hay fields have in common is that they are usually found at some distance from areas of high population density and all the wonderful infrastructure that blesses modern suburbia. So, as one travels those scenic country roads that wind their way through woods and over hills on your way to meet a client, you will find your path to be strewn with potholes both in the road and in the ether and its even odds that your destination will lie in one of those areas that cellular cover maps label terra incognita and warn travelers that hic sunt dracones.
The mobile rural lawyer may still cart around a 16 pound briefcase, this weight being distributed across an array of technology from ultra-lightweight laptops to slim, compact projectors and their concomitant silicon, but the goal is more about efficiency than it is about achieving demigod status among one’s peers. When considering investing in law firm technology, the lawyer needs remember that small town and rural clients really don’t care about the technology their lawyer uses; frankly, I’ve not met a client yet, big town or small that cared one whit whether I used a typewriter or a laptop. Clients are solely interested in outcomes; specifically, they are interested in a solution to their immediate problem and, if pushed, are willing to pay for it. It’s a bit like the attitude most folks have about sausage, they want something that tastes good, but don’t care to know about the journey from pig to table.
So, the technology we choose needs to have a positive impact on outcomes; it needs to make us more efficient, to allow us to provide faster, more accurate, or more comprehensive services. It needs to improve our ability to communicate with our clients, to reduce our overhead, or improve our ability to stay focused on the tasks that pay the bills. There are tricks to going mobile out here in the hinterlands of technology, the ever-present specter of inconsistent connectivity is, after all, the mother of, if not innovation, at least creativity. Like the ancient road warriors of the late 20th century, the rural lawyer’s mobile office is centered on the laptop and not the tablet, for it is a far more reliable and versatile ally as it is capable of doubling as the office workhorse should needs require.
To provide grist to the laptop’s mill, data is required and in these regions where the cloud may be more vapor than ware, the simple expedient of using an encrypted flash drive is the easiest way to keep active client files to hand. Yet it is this facile portability that is also their Achilles heel – they are easy to lose. Like mittens, it seems the only way to keep track of the migratory little things is to hang them off a string hanging around your neck. For those that don’t wish wear a stunning imitation of a geek’s Christmas wreath, the solution is to store your data locally on your laptop (preferable on an encrypted partition) and rely on either your practice management system or revision control software to keep everything in synchrony (mobile platform to office workhorse to office server to backup system).
While the laptop is the rural lawyer’s technological equivalent to the basic little black dress – a do anything little number that’s always appropriate – there are a few accessories that can really add some pizzaz to the mobile wardrobe. Add a compact, slimline projector to the briefcase and throw a lightweight screen in the trunk and the rural lawyer is ready for those group presentations be they for a high school Government class or a courtroom hearing. For those occasions when the local cafe falls within a cellular provider’s service area, a MiFi hot spot is just the ticket for making that quick connection over a fresh cup of joe (Out here in my neck of the woods, many small towns are, for some inexplicable reason, are espresso machine free zones. If one wants a cup of coffee, one heads to the local diner which, in all likelihood, will lack both an espresso machine and free WiFi. You will find that the coffee served will – as Robert Heinlein once put it – “be one of 5 descending stages: Coffee, Java, Jamoke, Joe, and Carbon Remover”).
Always the conservative (living around farmers provides endless object lessons from that harsh teacher: Mr. Murphy), the rural lawyer seldom trusts in the reliability or fidelity of his silicon playmates. Knowing the fickle nature of these battery-powered tarts (least we forget, data indicates that 1 in 10 laptops will experience a data loss event and that 60% of business that lose data close within 6 months of that event) , the rural lawyer always has a backup waiting in the wings. For most, a simple external USB hard disk and software capable of doing an incremental backup will suffice, though some (the more suspicious) will also copy their data to some offsite storage.
The bottom line is that out here where clients are spread thinly over the land, mobile technology is part and parcel of the effective and efficient delivery of legal services. Often the fact that the lawyer can come, carrying his law office with him, to the client is what makes the difference between ready access to the legal system or not.