Mobile Lawyer Apps & Gadgets

This is the paper I wrote for the 2016 Ontario Bar Association TechXpo.  It covers what I think are essential or useful apps for lawyers practicing on the go.  Most of them have little to do with the law, and some of them reflect my information interests as much as anything.  It’s not comprehensive, which is part of the challenge for the legal professional using new technology.  It’s going to be something that needs to be tailored to how you practice and the device(s) you decide to use.  Hopefully some of these examples will be useful, or at least highlight the types of things you might use.

The paper is broken into:

Download the Paper

TL;DR.  I’ve included the full text below but this is a really long post.  You can grab a PDF version to download and read offline.

Apps and Gadgets for the Mobile Lawyer

You’re going to meet your client.  You’re on your way to court.  It’s the end of the day, you’re on a GO Train, and you’ve got some time to think about what you did today and what you’re doing tomorrow. Lawyers have many reasons to take their work with them and a variety of devices that can fit their particular style and the demands of their law practice.  Here are my thoughts on device choice and apps and gadgets I use to be more effective on the go.

Most lawyers are now working at least part of the time outside their office, according to the 2015 ABA Legal Technology survey. 27% are working outside the office between 25-50% of the time, and 47% are working outside the office between 10-24%.

Device Choice

Laptops are the all-around choice.  They allow you to work the same whether you’re in your office or on the go.  You can create and consume content with a full size keyboard and an operating system that supports business and law practice software.  52% of solos and 63% of lawyers in firms of 2-9 who responded to the ABA’s 2015 survey use a laptop as their primary computer.  92% of solos and 85% of small firm lawyers had a laptop available, even if it wasn’t their primary PC.  Laptops are still almost mandatory if you’re planning to project a screen in a courtroom or client’s offices, unless you are comfortable with, and your device allows for, screencasting.

Tablets are a nice middle ground and provide a couple of options.  Your choice will depend on whether you plan to primarily consume information (perform legal research or review documents) or plan to create information (type facta or take hand-written notes) on the go.  Any tablet will suit you if you are primarily going to consume information.

If you want to create on a tablet, you’ll need to be able to either write on it or type into it.  For the former, you should get a tablet that supports palm rejection.  These screens will ignore your hand and only focus on the stylus or pen you write with.  You can write and draw on any tablet but the ones with palm rejection are more accurate and simulate a paper pad more closely.  Some tablets like the Microsoft Surface come with their own keyboard, but you can get inexpensive Bluetooth-enabled keyboards for most tablets.  Tablets with integrated keyboards can cost more than more powerful laptops.

Finally, there is the simple phone.  It’s ideal for consuming information and communicating in short bursts.  If consumption is your focus, most apps and tablet functionality are the same on the phone, just with a smaller screen.  Or not, when you consider the phablet.  I would choose a tablet over a phone only because of the larger screen size and its ability to create information more easily.

While you can easily carry all three – a laptop, phone, and tablet – one concern for the mobile lawyer is keeping client information confidential.  If you are using multiple devices, you will need to secure that content on each of them.

Universal Apps and Gadgets

Some things are universal to the mobile lawyer, regardless of device.  A lot of this is security-related, because, as soon as you leave your office, you’re creating the risk of losing information.

Encryption (APP)

You need to use encryption on any mobile device.  On laptops, many business versions of Windows and all recent versions of Apple’s MacOS include built-in encryption (Bitlocker and FileVault II respectively).  You should enable it.  If your laptop operating system doesn’t have its own encryption, grab a copy of Veracrypt, an open source disk encryptor.

You may not use the proverbial coffee shop – most lawyers don’t, with ABA 2015 survey respondents using public wi-fi only about 40% of the time.  But solos and small firm lawyers responding to the survey were least likely (18.5% of solos, 28% of small firm lawyers) to use VPNs on any outside network.

Virtual Private Networks (APP)

There is no way to be able to trust networks that you did not set up yourself.  Once you leave the office, use a VPN to cloak your traffic in encryption.  A VPN will encrypt your activity so that an eavesdropper can’t pick out your usernames, passwords, and client information. You should also be aware that a wireless data connection may be passing through a fake cell tower, so use your VPN for all data traffic.  Use the app that comes with your law firm’s VPN hardware, if you have one.  Otherwise, most VPNs will provide the same level of security; avoid free or ad-based VPNs that are primarily for avoiding geo-blocked web content.  Expect to pay an annual subscription for a VPN.

Password Management (APP)

Many of the internet hacks you hear about are actually breaches due to password loss.  Lawyers are now years past the point where you could create and memorize all of the passwords you need to practice law.  Assuming the basics – encryption, operating system login, e-mail, and legal research – you’ve already got a handful to remember.  Using an offline password manager enables you to (a) manage lots of passwords, (b) make sure each one is unique and strong, and (c) access your passwords whether you have internet access or not.  The free and open source KeePass is an example of a password manager that you can use on multiple devices.

Screencast [Gadget]

Google’s Chromecast plugs into your projector or display monitor and you can project your laptop, tablet, or phone screen.  This can be an easy way, particularly with a tablet, to display information in a courtroom without being tied to a wired projector connection.  On the other hand, casting takes practice and you should test it out before going live before a jury or client.

Recovery [APP]

If you lose your device, you should be able to remotely lock and, more importantly, wipe it.  You should activate this function before you put any client data on a device. Laptops can be secured using services like the Prey Project, and most Android and iOS devices now have remote wipe capabilities built-in, but not activated.  Needless to say, this isn’t a replacement for backing up your data in case of a lost device.

Get a Different Browser [APP]

Without question, the default web browsers on your devices are the worst options available.  Okay, perhaps not the worst.  But for lawyers, the web browser is an integral part of legal research, current awareness, and a host of other activities.  You can’t get rid of Safari on Apple devices or Internet Explorer on Windows ones, but you can add Mozilla’s Firefox or Google’s Chrome.  Both have extensive collections of add-ons known as extensions that make the browser even more powerful.  If you’re on Windows 10, Microsoft Edge is a nice alternative to Internet Explorer too.  It is closely integrated with your Microsoft online accounts (OneNote, OneDrive, and so respects single sign-on:  once you’ve logged into your PC, these accounts are all accessible.  It is also starting to support extensions, although not as many as other browsers.

Two-Factor Authenticator [APP]

These days, using mobile devices almost demands using the cloud.  If you’re using the cloud – whatever that means (read my book for what I think it is!) – you’re managing passwords and account access.  As a rule, I don’t think you should put client confidential data on
any site that doesn’t support two-factor authentication.  This added security layer stops people from accessing your account using just your password.  I’ve written about this too but I would use either Google’s Authenticator app or Microsoft’s Authenticator on phones or tablets.  Laptop users can try Authy. Each of these apps can be configured to generate the second factor – a six digit code based on the device and time of day – needed to authenticate.  Do not use SMS text message authentication; these can be intercepted.

Laptop Apps and Gadgets

Screen privacy [GADGET]

I sit on a crowded GO Train every day, heading out of Toronto to Barrie.  A lawyer frequently sits in my carriage, with a laptop, working for the hour before he gets off the train at Barrie.  Inevitably, his screen is visible to me and I have seen him working on discovery, letters, and facta.  Working on a train is ideal productivity time for some folks.  But make sure your screen isn’t visible.  For laptops, get a screen filter.  It’s a sheet of plastic that clings to your laptop screen and obscures your screen except for the person sitting in front of it.

OneNote [APP]

Any research notebook is good to have around.  I prefer Microsoft’s OneNote because the app, available in the Windows 10 store, is free and, more importantly, it emulates a research binder.  You can divide a OneNote notebook into sections, and each section can have pages.  It accepts both typed and handwritten input so it’s a useful tablet app as well.  If you buy Microsoft Office, you may have the desktop app, which is different from the free version and has more features.

Time Management [APP]

There are a number of useful apps to help keep track of your time.  RescueTime and Chrometa are two well-known options.  Both will also work on your other mobile devices and both keep track – based on the software you run and web sites you visit – of how much time you spend on each activity on your device.  Chrometa has some specific features for lawyers, including integration with accounting software like Quickbooks and payment services like LawPay.

Clean Laptops [APP]

One way lawyers can use laptops is solely as a remote access device.  No data is left on it – ever – and if it’s lost or needs to be checked at a border crossing, there’s nothing to see.  You use a web browser to access client data in the cloud, or a remote desktop or VPN tool to connect directly into your office PC or server.  Apps like Piriform’s CCleaner can help to tidy up things like your web browser history, any cookies and other data that might be left in the background that you didn’t intend to leave there.  You might also look at Bleachbit, an open source disk wiper that has been in the press recently.  It removes traces of files that were once on your laptop hard drive.

External Drive Case [GADGET]

At some point, you will upgrade to a new computer.  Your old data can move to your new computer’s hard drive.  But why not re-use that drive?  Starting at about $15, you can buy
an external hard drive case.  Once you remove your old hard drive from your laptop, you can place it in this case.  It acts as a super-sized USB drive. Keep it encrypted if it has external data on it or wipe it and use it for other purposes.  If you have multiple old drives, you can swap them in and out of the case.  And if hardware on your current laptop dies, you can pull out your laptop drive and access it while you wait for your new laptop.

Microsoft Office 365 [APP]

The Microsoft cloud options are the best choice for lawyers.  Whether you use the free or paid versions, they are a great set of tools for working on the go.  If you create a free or OneDrive account, you get access to the Word, PowerPoint, and Excel web apps.  You also have the Sway and Skype apps available through your web browser.  These are not as powerful as the Microsoft Office suite but they’re handy to start new documents or edit current ones.  You can buy the full suite separately or license it with Office 365.  These are better than the other online apps – Google’s G Suite and Zoho – because they will integrate that
much more easily with your PC versions of the software.

Solo and small firm lawyers can benefit from using Microsoft cloud tools because they create an environment similar to a larger law firm using SharePoint.  You can share documents from your account with clients.  When you use it as a document storage system, you can eliminate duplicate versions and recover old (or deleted) versions.  Office 365 (paid) accounts allow you to select where your data is stored and provide a broader array of resources, including more storage space and Exchange e-mail, the system most large law firms use.

Most apps that lawyers use are not legal-specific.  Only 44% of respondents to the ABA 2015 survey had downloaded a legal-specific app and 8 of the top 10 were legal research-related. The other 2 were for litigators.


Offline Maps [APP]

Sometimes you don’t have wireless coverage and can’t pick up GPS.  In my case, I don’t like sharing my location with any apps on my devices.  I use the free Here app (formerly owned by Nokia) for offline maps.  You can download whole provinces, states, or countries.  They are easier to use than downloading for offline use from Google Maps.

POP Phone [Gadget]

pop-phoneThis is for old school communications!  It’s a handset that plugs into your mobile phone jack and handles both the receiver and speaker of your phone.  It may be a bit bulky for the jacket pocket but will give you a more private conversation than most modern phones.  It works with any voice-over-IP (VOIP) service and can plug into your laptop or desktop computer as well.

Shopping Lists and Temporary Notes [APP]

I mentioned Microsoft’s OneNote as a laptop app.  I like it on a tablet or phone as well, but for even simpler note taking, I use Simplenote. It’s a free, open source app from the same people as WordPress.  You can synchronize your notes among devices and also up to a cloud site.  If you have a  Google account and use a lot of their apps, Google Keep is a good note taking app.

Writing [APP]

Samsung Galaxy tablets that have palm rejection come with the S Pen.  It is worth paying the extra for the S Pen version of their tablets.  Other palm rejection tablets, like the Apple IPad Pro and Microsoft Surface Pro 4, come with styluses as well.  You can use any stylus, but these will give you the best performance.  Samsung S Pen users will like S Note, the default writing app on Galaxy tablets.  I also like Wacom’s Bamboo Paper, which has more of a drawing feel to it.  You can buy additional writing effects (mostly for drawing) but the default writing pen
provides clear note-taking and a good replacement for paper notepads.

Battery Pack [GADGET]

Increasingly, I never leave the house without a battery backup.  There are many to choose from; I have Anker PowerCore chargers, and the Mini+ will fully charge a phone at least twiceThe larger battery will charge phones and a tablet multiple times each.  Make sure any battery pack you intend to use on a tablet is powerful enough to charge it.  Having a battery pack means not worrying about access to outlets or an embarrassing moment when you need to make or take a call and your phone is out of charge.

Cloud File Storage [APP]

Whether it’s Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, Google Drive or any of the other consumer-oriented cloud storage services, use the service’s dedicated app to manage and access your files.  Unlike accessing the service through a browser, you can keep local copies of a document synchronized so that, when you get back to your office you can see your changes.  Also, you can keep your offline password management file synchronized across systems.

Larger firms may use Citrix ShareFile or Egnyte but the added controls are probably not much use in a small or solo law firm environment.  I use ES File Explorer (Android only) too, because not only can I manage my local files, I can connect to multiple cloud file services (I use more than one) and move files among them easily.  Cloud storage isn’t a backup replacement, but it is a good option to have a quickly accessible copy of work product and client files.

RSS Reader [APP]

Wait, come back!!  I know this sounds pretty geeky but it’s a useful way to stay up to date on case law.  The Ontario courts now publish cases to their web site and offer a feed of updated cases, via CanLII.  You can add this RSS feed to your favorite RSS reader so that new updates appear in your news stream.  Apps like Feedly or Unread will do if you just want to get the feed.  Some RSS apps like Smart Feed Reader have filters, so you could, for example, only display cases that CanLII flagged as having support as a topic.

Smart RSS Feed reader is an example of an app that uses rules to filter incoming RSS feeds, so you can flag the most important matches.
Smart RSS Feed reader is an example of an app that uses rules to filter incoming RSS feeds, so you can flag the most important matches.

Photo Editors [APP]

I like sharing information I find online and sometimes take pictures that have people or potentially private information in them.  Google’s Snapseed is a great tool for preparing images – cropping them, fixing the colors so they’re clearer.  One thing it is missing is the ability to pixelate parts of images.  For this, I use Cyberlink’s PhotoDirector app.  It has more powerful editing tools if I need them, although I lean towards the simplicity of Snapseed.

E-Book Reader [APP]

If you have a public library card, you should have the Overdrive app on your device. (And if you don’t have a public library card, why not?)  It is a large catalog of e-books that you can check out for free and either read on your computer or download to your tablet or phone.  For all your other e-books, particularly those without digital rights management (DRM), you can use Apple’s iBooks or FB Reader. Overdrive is good for general business books and for downtime reading.  Books from legal publishers like LexisNexis Canada can be read in any e-book app, as can many PDFs.  Unfortunately, some legal publishers – including Thomson Reuters Carswell and Irwin Law – require proprietary apps, similar to Overdrive, to read their e-books.

AccessMyLibrary [APP]

Lawyers research information well outside the normal legal information universe.  You can do some free research using the Cengage Gale AccessMyLibrary app.  It uses your device’s location to determine the nearest public and academic library subscriptions.  You do not need to be a resident or card holder for those libraries.  Once it has found your nearby libraries, you can run a search on their Gale databases.  These include Canadian Periodical Index
Quarterly, an insurance and liability collection, business news and journals, and a criminal justice collection.  The app is free to download and use whether or not you have a library card. Open up the app, and it will locate the closest libraries you can search.

Great Library [APP]

The Great Library has a free app.  You can access information about books and other resources, but most importantly, you can find and download full text CLE articles for free. Our app search returns matches from all of our digital collections, including AccessCLE.  In the app, if you search for oziel, you’ll return papers and books by Allan Oziel in
our collection.  Click on his Top 10 Marketing Tips from the Law Society’s Solo and Small Firm conference, you’ll see a link to the full text.  Click that, and you’ll be able to download the PDF paper from that conference.

The Great Library connects you directly with information available from Ontario law libraries, including full text CLE articles
The Great Library connects you directly with information available from Ontario law libraries, including full text CLE articles

News and Awareness [APP]

One of the difficulties of information gathering on mobile devices is not creating a filter bubble.  By selecting an app and reading certain content, your experience may be personalized.  This will narrow down what you see.  To avoid this, I use Flipboard and Google Play Newsstand as my information starting points.  In both, I subscribe to specific content sources – the Guardian, the Toronto Star, Hacker News, and so on.  Then I use News 360 and subscribe to topics.  The specific publications give me expected news, while the topical,
following my general interests, often surface things I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. If you find that some content is pay-walled in one app, see if you can add it in another. The publishers are not consistent in their approach to walling off content.