Gadget or Essential? How a PDA Can Make a Mordern Law Practice More Efficient
by Bob McNeill
Unlike the lawyers who went before us, rarely do we have the luxury of being able to do all of our work from our offices, focusing on one thing at a time. Increasingly, clients send us requests for work and documents via e-mail — then call us on our cell phone 30 minutes later to ask if it’s done. With more and more information to keep track of, and the need to access that information when you’re mobile, every lawyer (and staff) could benefit from putting most of the information used by their practice at everyone’s fingertips. A personal digital assistant is a handheld device such as a Palm or Palm phone, or PocketPC device, with an LCD display and some kind of data entry device, such as a mini keyboard or stylus. A PDA can provide additional leverage to your law practice management system because of its:
Portability. Lawyers do not work in the office all the time. We go to court, work at home, and meet at clients’ offices or nursing homes. Much of the information needed to be productive outside the office can be stored on a PDA, such as contacts, calendar, tasks, and memos. A PDA lets you take your practice information with you, without lugging a laptop computer. Being able to work "anytime, anywhere," not only means you can be more productive, it also allows you to be more responsive to your clients.
Single Point of Entry. One of the principles of a well-designed practice management system is to enter all information once and only once, and then use it elsewhere as needed. Connecting your PDA to your practice management system extends these efficiencies further, like a very long hose on a vacuum cleaner, you can suck in information from places you could not reach before. With your PDA, you can enter the name and e-mail address of someone you meet at a social function so that you can automatically add that person to your practice management system newsletter mailing list.
Synchronization. How do you keep all the information in the PDA current? Entering information directly into a PDA is not very efficient. Built-in or add-on keyboards are better, but better yet is the ability to automatically synchronize all the information in your practice management system with the PDA. Placing the PDA in its cradle and pushing a button is all it takes to synchronize.
Calendaring. Having an up-to-date calendar at your fingertips on your PDA makes it easy to schedule and reschedule appointments, pick a new trial date, plan a vacation, etc. Without a PDA, having your calendar with you means that the office does not have an up-to-date copy of your calendar, and that someone has to reconcile your personal calendar with the main calendar at the office. With a PDA synchronized to the law practice management system in your office, everyone can access everyone else’s calendar at the same time.
Task Management. Being able to review your "to do" list on your PDA, to add new "to do’s" and change existing ones, means being able to make use of time that otherwise would be wasted. How many times have you been stuck in court or in traffic and wished you had your "to do" list with you so that you could take care of simple tasks by dictating a letter, making a phone call, or delegating tasks? How do you remember to add an item to your "to do" list when you are out of the office and a great idea pops into your head? Jot it down on a piece of paper and hope it makes it back to the office? Adding, changing, and marking done "to do’s" on your PDA, and synchronizing the changes to your practice management system, makes you more efficient and makes good use of otherwise wasted time.
File Notes. A practice management system is only as good as the information in it. When you are not sitting at your desk, how do you record information concerning a telephone call, meeting, or hearing? For short notes, creating a memo on the PDA gets the job done quickly and easily, if your PDA synchronizes notes with your law practice management system software.
Capturing Caller ID Information. If you use a combination PDA/cell phone, such as the Treo, then you can easily add a contact’s name and telephone number to the PDA’s contact list. When you synchronize the PDA with your law practice management system, the new contact will be added to the office’s list of contacts.
Billing. One of the tenets of good billing practices is to record the work as close as possible to the time that it is done, because it is more likely to be recorded, and recorded accurately. The more time that elapses between the time the work is done and when it is recorded, the more likely it won’t be recorded at all, or will be recorded incorrectly. Many of the legal-specific time and billing applications have remote data entry programs that run on PDAs, with the ability to enter time and expenses on the PDA and then transfer the information to the billing system during the synchronization process.
Expenses. How do you keep track of miscellaneous costs, travel mileage, and other out-of-pocket expenses? A jumble of papers kept in a shoe box until the end of the year when you dump it on your secretary’s desk? Most PDAs have an application for tracking expenses as part of their standard array of programs that can synchronize with a spreadsheet such as Microsoft Excel.
E-mail. E-mail is on its way to replacing regular (snail) mail as the most common method of communication between lawyers and their clients, other lawyers, etc. Therefore, your practice management system has to be able to manage at least client matter-related email. How you should handle the barrage of e-mail you receive is beyond the scope of this article. One tool, however, is to read and respond to e-mails using your PDA, either with a live Internet connection on the PDA, or by synchronizing with the e-mail application on your desktop computer that is connected to the Internet. Using your PDA to help process your e-mail gives you the option of doing so at slack times when you are not in the office and do not have regular e-mail access available.
Deciding how you want to use a PDA to leverage your law practice management system, and choosing the right PDA for your purposes, will make you more efficient and productive, and will enable you to provide better and more timely legal services to your clients.
Bob McNeill has 15 years of law practice experience, is a past Chair of the Maryland State Bar Association Law Practice Management Section, is a frequent national speaker and author, and has been helping law firms leverage technology since 1990. He can be reached at Bob@McNeillGroup.org, http://www.McNeillGroup.org, or (301) 502-7209. © 2005 The McNeill Group, Ltd.