[Written in December 2004. Published in Law Office Computing.]
A Mobile Computing Kit for Lawyers
An anthropologist could spend years studying what lawyers carry in their briefcases and laptop bags and how the items have changed over the years. There is always a story that explains the need for each item. The story usually involves a traumatic incident that made the lawyer vow never to travel without the item ever again.
In my case, you will find the screwdriver I carry because I couldn’t unscrew a projector cord that had tightly secured too tightly to keep the cord from pulling out of my notebook computer. You will see the USB hub I carry because I can’t always fit USB devices into the space for the USB ports on my notebook. The three-prong adapter is the result of finding myself with a three-prong plug in a room with only two-prong outlets.
You get the idea. However, my purpose in this article is not to share my technology snafus that only seem funny in retrospect. Instead, I want to help you put together the best travel kit for your mobile computing needs based on the lessons I’ve learned the hard way and from the wise and kind advice of others.
1. The Focus is You.
In mobile computing, the idea is not to assemble a set of 5-star reviewed devices, hot gadgets or status items. You want to have the tools that help you get your work done, often when you are under pressure, up against time deadlines or in other stress-inducing situations.
Your first guiding question should be, “What do I need to do?” Great athletes visualize themselves in expected scenarios, from making the perfect shot to skiing the perfect slalom run. The best users of technology use a similar visualization process.
Think carefully about the scenarios in which you are most likely to use a notebook computer. Picture how you will actually be using it. If you expect different types of uses, consider how the notebook will work for you in the most important setting.
For me, I care the most about how a notebook works for me when I do presentations, many of which involve air travel. That use dictates my choices. If your main use will be taking notes in depositions or drafting documents in your favorite chair at home, my choices will not be the best choices for you. Focus on what works best for you.
The second key question is just the follow-up to the first one, “Does the item you want actually help you do what you want to do?” If you plan carefully, visualize and understand what you need, you will know the answer to this question. The true challenge is whether you can put aside cost, envy, desire and all of the other tangible and intangible issues that conspire to keep you from voicing that answer and acting on it.
2. Let’s Get Started . . . With the Bag.
Your choice of computer bag plays a more important role than you might imagine.
What you have in your ultimate travel kit will be limited by how much you can fit into the bag. As a result, your ultimate travel kit is going to contain something less than everything that you might want and something more than the bare minimum essentials. You want to make the best use of the space you have.
I have been using a two bag approach. The first bag is an “everyday bag.” For the past six years, I’ve used a Targus combination bag that can be carried as a briefcase, used with a shoulder strap and also works as a backpack. It’s very versatile and makes a great standard choice.
However, even in the backpack mode, it still gets heavy when I hoof it long distances through airports. I now use a wheeled laptop bag when I travel. I thoroughly recommend this approach for air travel and other times you need to carry a heavy bag for an extended time or distance. Test them out before you buy because small details make big differences. Features I like include the little feet on the bottom that keep a bag from falling and smoothly rolling wheels.
Certain people might also consider a less-functional “dress bag,” such as a fancy leather or aluminum case for client meetings or court appearances. Don’t forget about functionality in your quest for style. The other option that might come into play is the “bohemian” backpack or satchel to make the scene at a coffee house.
A well-chosen computer bag is an essential component of the ultimate travel kit.
3. The Essentials.
The notebook computer is the central core of your travel kit. Today’s notebook computers truly have the power and storage capacity to let you carry your office with you. If you haven’t purchased a computer in a few years, you will be amazed at what you can get today.
It’s hard today to make a really bad choice in notebook computers and most of the ones available will do more than the average lawyer requires. There are still a few important factors to consider.
First, you will want to identify the appropriate category for you. Today, there are six categories of notebook computers to consider. One of them will make the most sense for you.
The Middle of the Road – These moderately-priced notebooks are solid, if unexciting, computers that are great all-around choices. They fall into the middle in almost every category and will never dazzle anyone with their design. However, they do almost every job well.
The Desktop Replacement – These notebooks are high-powered and high-priced. They are also big in many ways – big screens, big hard drives and did I mention the big prices? If you handle large amounts of data or work with audio and video, you might consider these. The cost can be a thousand dollars or more than a middle of the road computer.
The Subnotebook – If you travel, every pound you save is important. You can find subnotebooks under four pounds. There are tradeoffs with subnotebooks, including smaller screens and external, rather than internal, CD or DVD drives. These make the most sense for frequent travelers or if you simply want to use a computer in different rooms in your house.
Tablet PC – Tablet PCs seem to be made with lawyers in mind, yet lawyers rarely buy them. No one really understands why. Tablet PCs are full-featured computers that allow you to enter data and write on the screen with a stylus. If you are a litigator, you owe it to yourself to look closely at the Tablet PCs. Other lawyers should consider them as well. The cost differential is less than most people think. Tablet PCs would be great on crowded flights.
The Mac Notebook – Macintosh notebook computers are a realistic option today. They are excellent wireless tools and highly-regarded notebooks. Consider your actual uses and what software is available. If you do your homework, there might be a Mac in your future.
The Mini-Theater Notebook – This new category consists of behemoth notebooks with very large screens, DVD drives and great video and sound cards. They will meet your work needs, but they are unparalleled for watching movies on DVDs. These might be good choices for litigators working with video depositions or for lawyers who need large screens for particular purposes. Frankly, though, traveling with small children is one of the best reasons for using one of these. These notebooks probably are options for small firm lawyers because it is difficult to imagine getting a request for one of these approved by a large firm IT department.
Recommended Specs in 2005.
I see 512 megabytes of RAM as a minimum choice these days and suggest getting a gigabyte of RAM. Unless you are playing high-end games or working with video, almost any processor chip available today will be more than adequate for normal use. The built-in wireless networking and improved battery life make the notebooks with Intel’s Centrino chips a good choice.
Take a good look at screen size and quality and pick the one you like. USB and Firewire ports are all-but-required today. Bigger hard drives are better. I recommend some form of optical writing device – DVD writer, CD-RW, or a combo DVD/CD-RW. If you don’t have a Centrino-based notebook, a wireless network card (very inexpensive) is essential.
4. Communications/PDA Device.
Notebooks with wireless Internet access are changing the equation in this area. I personally have moved to a notebook computer and a standard cell phone and stopped using a PDA (Palm or Pocket PC device). This area is truly one where personal preferences reign supreme. Make your best choices and toss them in the bag. Don’t let your IT department convince you that a Blackberry is as good as having a notebook.
5. Accessories – Essential.
Required Power Supplies, Rechargers and Add-on Devices – You cannot live by batteries alone. In fact, you will want to use AC power whenever possible to reserve battery life for when you need it. Some notebooks have swappable or external drives. Take them with you.
USB Flash Drives – These tiny devices hold a ton of data at a tiny price. Since the summer of 2004, prices have plummeted, all but killing off floppy drives. These drives come in 128 megabyte, 256 megabyte, 512 megabyte and 1 gigabyte sizes and plug into the USB port on your notebook. They are indispensable. They are also easy to lose, so be careful with them. Your travel kit should have one or two of these.
USB Optical Mouse – Gadget gurus talk about all kinds of cool devices. The one thing they all use is an USB optical mouse. These are often available for under $20 and come in wired and wireless flavors. If, like me, you have the habit of dragging your thumb across a touchpad, these are immensely helpful. Just plug them into your USB port and your ready to roll.
Portable USB Hub – With so many useful USB devices available, you can easily have more devices than ports. For about $20, you can get a very small 4-port hub to plug into your notebook’s USB port and plug in four devices.
Headphones – If you can’t work on a plane, you might as well listen to music or watch a movie. They can also come in handy if you don’t want to talk to the people sitting next to you.
The Emergency CDs for Your Computer – They’re no help if they’re at home.
Standard Network Cable and Phone Cable – Worth their weight in gold when you need them.
A Small Screwdriver or Toolkit – Or any other item that past experience has taught you that you can’t be without. Be prepared. Avoid the Swiss army knife with tools unless you enjoy getting the full security treatment in airports and seeing your knife tossed into a trash can.
6. Accessories – Recommended.
Three-prong Adapter, Extension Cord and/or Small Power Strip – An adapter will one day save you if you have any cord with a three-plug. In many rooms, there are available outlets, but they are too far away from where you are sitting. Making your extension cord or power strip available to others is a great way to make new friends.
Surge Protector – Of course, no one ever buys one of these until their notebook gets fried. Some “mobile essentials” packages combine these with a mouse, USB hub or other useful items.
Extra Battery and Extra Power Cord – I didn’t list these items as essential for two reasons. First, they can add significant weight. Second, they can be breathtakingly expensive. I once packed the wrong power cord. I learned that a replacement cord was $150 and a universal power cord cost about the same. I thank my co-presenters for loading my presentations onto their computers. I’ll consider buying one of these if I see a great sale price or if I make the same mistake a second time. For long plane trips, a second battery may be a necessity. Emergency power sources may make sense if you will be away from electrical sources for an extended period of time.
Blank CDs – Not everyone has a USB port and sometimes a network connection is not available. CD drives are almost universal and a blank disk will give you another option for transferring data.
7. Accessories – Special Situations.
USB Hard Drive – External hard drives with USB (or Firewire) connectors are an attractive way to back up your data or carry large amounts of data. You can now routinely find 100+ gigabyte hard drives for not much more than $100.
Remote Control Mouse and Laser Pointer – Depending on your style of presenting, these can be useful devices, although remote controls can be a little temperamental.
Digital Camera – A surprisingly versatile tool that can be used in a number of useful ways, including, in a pinch, as a document scanner.
iPod/MP3 Player – Another versatile device that can be used for more than listening to music or audio CLE, including as a voice recorder or as an extra hard drive.
Portable Printer – For most lawyers, the extra weight and space will rule out portable printers. However, they may be invaluable for you in your practice, especially in a courtroom setting.
Projector – If you need a projector, you can expect to be carrying an extra bag. Key factors: your brightness needs, weight/portability, and compatibility with your notebook. The extra cost of wireless projectors might well be justified by the elimination of the need to carry around a cable. An extra bulb is a must.
8. Helpful Hints.
Watch people who travel a lot when they dig into their computer bags. You can learn a lot of useful tools and techniques. Here are two useful tips.
Resealable Plastic Bags – Many mobile lawyers use one- and two-quart resealable plastic bags to organize the items in their computer bag. Group like items into bags and label them. This technique allows you to check to make sure you have what you need and should prevent you from taking the wrong power cord or other similar mistakes. Plastic bags also work well when you use two or more computer bags and transfer items between them. They are also great for storing your snacks.
A Couple of Pens and a Small Notebook – Sometimes paper is the best or only option.
9. The Final Check.
Take everything that you have decided must be in your ultimate travel kit. Put it in your computer bag and attempt to zip it closed. Give your self time to stop laughing. Eliminate items until the bag can be zipped without undue effort. Even better, clear enough room to throw in a book or a couple of magazines, airport souvenirs for your children and whatever items you will need to remove from your pockets to make it through airport security without setting off the metal detectors.
10. Bringing It Home.
When putting together your ultimate travel kit, the emphasis must be on “your.” Use this article and the advice of other people as checklist of items for you to consider, not as requirements. Consider carefully what you want to do and what you will need. Then make the best choices you can.
Learn from your mistakes and always be on the lookout for ways to improve what you are doing. Listen patiently to what experts tell you, but observe carefully what they actually do and what they actually use.
Mobile computer will only become more common. Whether your mobile computing is by flying around the country or the occasional trips to the local coffee shop, you can put together a great travel kit that works for you and keeps the items you need most often with you when you need them most. The effort you put into getting it right will pay for itself many times over.
SERVICES FOR THE MOBILE LAWYER
Veteran mobile computing lawyers also develop a travel kit of useful services to cover emergencies and other surprises.
1. Backup National ISP Account – Don’t delete all those AOL and other ISP offers that come preloaded on your new notebook. In a pinch, you can activate one if you have no other way to get Internet access.
2. Internet Email Accounts – Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo Mail and other free email accounts give you options for sending and receiving email if you can’t get to your usual email account. Most services offer address book and even calendaring functions.
3. Internet Fax Service – Maxemailsend and eFax are two examples of inexpensive Internet fax services that let you send and receive faxes by email. You can fax yourself at your hotel to get a printout of a document if you are otherwise unable to print.
4. Online Backup Services – An online backup service will give you accessible storage space for a copy of your presentation or other documents you need. You might also email the documents as attachments to yourself at an online email address.
5. Online Bookmark Repositories and Newsreaders – Get access to all of your bookmarks and favorites no matter where you are. Bloglines is a popular online newsreader so you can keep up with the RSS feeds you read.
6. Connect to Your Office – Depending on your setup in your office, Citrix software, virtual private network software, GoToMyPC or PCAnywhere will allow you to access your office network from the road.
Note: This article is one of a series of my previously-published articles that I’m making available for free on my website and incorporating into my blog. Other of my articles may be found in the Articles category archive on my blog.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
This post brought to you by Dennis Kennedy’s consulting services, featuring RSS and advanced blogging consulting and technology committee coaching packages for law firms, corporate legal departments and other professional services providers.