Small Changes Can Make Big Difference

[This post first appeared on Slaw.ca, July 4, 2016]

Lawyers practice in a world where technology comes in smaller pieces that are increasingly integrated. Like David Weinberger’s Small Pieces, Loosely Joined, some of the best ways to benefit from technology come from adding incremental improvements. While some software requires you to wait for a feature to be added by the developer, other tools you use every day can be extended thanks to extensions and add-ons created by others.

How to Extend Your Web Browser

Two of the most common law firm software tools are the e-mail client and the Web browser. The predominance of the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser has meant that many lawyers have missed out on the richness of Web browsing with extensions. Microsoft never really embraced Web browser extensions. You could download extensions for IE from other sources but the universe was small.

Contrast that with Mozilla’s Firefox add-ons and Google’s Chrome extensions, both of which are available from stores operated by the browsers’ developers. It may be worth distinguishing add-ons and extensions – which are essentially the same thing – from plugins.

Plugins, like Java or Flash, are more embedded within the browser than extensions. You can manage plugins (in Firefox, go to Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. and Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.; in Chrome, go to chrome://plugins) but they’re much further under the hood. Extensions, on the other hand, might be described as riding on the chrome of your browser. They broaden what your browser can do, not just the types of content it can process.

Which is why it is exciting that Microsoft Edge, the native Web browser in Microsoft Windows 10, is getting its own extensions. More importantly, it will accept ports of extensions developed for Firefox and Chrome. As Edge slowly takes over from Microsoft Internet Explorer, we should finally see a richer set of browser extensions for Microsoft’s own browser.

 microsoft-edge-extensions

Useful extensions for lawyers are not new. Some of my favorite research extensions have included:

I’ve written before on Slaw about privacy extensions, and use an extension to customize Canadian immigration online forms to work better for lawyers. There are many more extensions that can fit a niche need in your online legal work. Many of the ones I use – Larry Filter for Twitter, Stylish, uBlock – are geared towards customizing how I experience Web sites.

Once you have found the extension you want, it’s generally a one-click installation. In some cases your browser will need to restart. Then look for an icon on your browser’s toolbar to invoke the functionality.

Unfortunately, there are many fewer extensions on mobile devices, even when you’re using a browser with a rich set of extensions on the desktop. This reliance on apps instead of extensions can cause productivity gaps on mobile devices.

Beyond the Browser

It’s not just the Web browser that can be extended, although it’s central role in our online activity means it can have the most power. E-mail and calendaring are other areas that can also benefit.

Where Microsoft failed to make inroads with the Web browser, it’s flagship e-mail program Outlook has been more flexible. I like Slipstick.com for its wealth of Outlook-related information and list of utilities, add-ons for Outlook. It’s a quick way to drill into topics like personal search for Outlook. Microsoft’s got a Web store for Outlook (and Outlook.com if you use their Web email or Office 365 products) that has over 160 addons.

Outlook is the dominant e-mail client in the legal profession but it has its local and Web-based competitors. Mozilla’s Thunderbird e-mail client is still a good – and free – alternative to Outlook and has its own set of extensions. Firefox users with a GMail account can find enhancements for their e-mail accounts, as can Google Chrome users.

I’m a big believer in using small, incremental tools to find a balance between increasing my productivity without forcing me to necessarily change how I prefer to work. Fortunately, with increased availability of extensions in browsers and integration with practice technology, it looks like there will be even more choice in the future to enable small improvements.