Any Smartphone in a Storm

[This article first appeared on the Slaw.ca collaborative blog on May 11, 2012.]

There is no perfect smartphone for lawyers. In fact, the most important part of the smart phone is probably the phone part, since it enables you to keep in contact with your clients, your office, and other parts of your life. Once you’ve established that baseline – your phone is a phone – then it becomes a matter of very personal choices. It’s not about who has market share, it’s all about you. This has always been true for solos and smaller firms, but choice is even emerging at larger law firms. Most of you already have a smartphone but you may be thinking of making a change.

Can You Hear Me?

There are some mobile carriers whose network won’t reach where you practice. If they are exclusive providers of the smart phone you want to use, you may find that the simplest baseline isn’t met. I spoke to a bar association that has a large number of rural members. At the time, there were very few Apple iPhone users for the basic reason that the wireless provider had poor coverage. It had nothing to do with the phone itself, but lawyers in that state were talking far more about Android phones and the competing wireless providers because of it.

Get the One that Makes Julienne Fries

There is a lot of hype about what you can do with a smartphone. No, hype isn’t fair. There is a lot of information on the remarkable things that are now possible. What is interesting is that lawyers are, for the most part, not using their smartphones much differently from how they have for the past decade, before the advent of apps. Apps stores aside, lawyers use smartphones for phone calls, e-mail, contacts and calendaring. The 2011 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report found that 93.1% of lawyers with smartphones used them for e-mail, while 83.1% made telephone calls. After calendar (80.1%) and contact (76.2%) management, Internet access brought up the top 5 at 55.1%.

It’s interesting to think that e-mail may be more common on smartphones than talking. It’s not surprising, though. It’s as common to see “Sent from my iPhone” as a 4 line e-mail disclaimer nowadays. We often picture lawyers, bent in apparent prayer, typing madly on miniature keyboards. They are, however, sticking with the basics.

The Apple Slices are Better for You

If you want to stretch beyond the basic functionality though, one phone does stand out. Legal publishers and technology providers have focused almost exclusively on the iPhone and iPad in delivering their apps. You can grab apps for the iPhone fromLexisNexisWestlaw, and Fastcaseamong others.

The apps will most likely define your phone choice. Blackberry, despite its other problems, appears to have the weakest app offering for lawyers. Android is roughly the same, although some of the law-specific apps are now crossing over, although they appear frequently be e-books rather than apps. Both of them, like Apple, offer large numbers of non-lawyer apps, many of which would be useful, productive, or just plain fun to use. But the iOS products have the edge in law-specific tools.

In the Gutter, Looking Up

Lawyers are often lumped with a conservative attitude towards technology. I’m not so sure, and smartphone adoption – nearly 88% of respondents to the ABA survey used one – and usage seem to be in sensible ranges even if they do not perhaps meet the aspirations of the more gung ho adopters.

There are practical limitations on what any given lawyer wants to do with a smartphone. This personalization is perhaps the most important aspect, and why there’s no reason to feel app envy or backwardsness. For some, it is a laptop replacement and they do time and billing, expense management, word processing and spreadsheet work on it. Some use their devices for presentations or litigation support, although that seems to now be shifting to the larger tablets powered by the same software. For many, it seems, it is really just a powerful communications tool.

That’s the beauty of the smartphone, though, and, more importantly, the extent of the app ecosystem that supports it. Lawyers also have their own smartphone oracles, whether it’s iPhoneJD or the Droid Lawyer. Next time you are thinking about switching your smartphone, you may want to start with the apps first, and look at the specific phones second. The less you need to rely on law-specific apps, the more choice you will have. But whatever your choice, they’ll all make phone calls and play Angry Birds.

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