Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : September 2005

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Top 12 Reasons Why a PDA is Essential to a Modern Law Practice Management System
By Bob McNeill

The purpose of a computerized law practice management system (LPMS) is to get your work done “better, faster and cheaper” (i.e., produce higher quality work-product in less time and at lower cost by building expertise into the system, automating routine documents and tasks, and putting most of the information used by the practice at everyone’s fingertips). A personal digital assistant (PDA) 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). The following attributes can enable your PDA to provide your LPMS with additional leverage.

Lawyers do not work in the office all of 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, such as contacts, calendar, tasks and memos, can be stored on a PDA. A PDA lets you take your practice information with you, without lugging a laptop computer. Being able to work “anytime, anywhere” not only means that you can be more productive, it also allows you to be more responsive to your clients. (Time is saved by not having to call the office to obtain information that could be stored on a PDA. How many times have you called the office to find a telephone number that was in your practice management system?)

Single point of entry. One of the principles of a well-designed LPMS is to enter all information once and only once, and then use it elsewhere as needed. Once a client’s name and address is entered into an LPMS, it can be viewed like an index card on each person’s computer so you can get rid of each staff person’s paper desktop Rolodex®. The same name and address information can be used to create a retainer agreement and other standard documents. It can also be sent to the billing system to open up a new matter. Connecting your PDA to your LPMS extends these efficiencies further; like a very long hose on a vacuum cleaner, you can suck information in 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’s newsletter mailing list.

Synchronization. How do you keep all the information in the PDA current? Entering information directly into a PDA using the Palm’s graffiti is not very efficient. Built-in or add-on keyboards are better, but better still 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. This is much more efficient because the information is already in your LPMS. Most legal-specific practice management systems have some type of Palm synchronization, and some have Windows CE/Pocket PC synchronization, but what exactly they synchronize varies. Some have the ability to define the scope of the synchronization so that you see only your contacts or calendar, rather than those of the entire firm.

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 LPMS in your office, everyone can access everyone else’s calendar at the same time.

Task management. 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, such as 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? Being able to review your “To Do” list on your PDA (and to add new “To-Dos” and change existing ones) means being able to make use of time that would otherwise be wasted. Adding, changing and marking completed To Do’s on your PDA and synchronizing the changes to your LPMS makes more efficient use of otherwise wasted time.

File notes. An LPMS 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? If your PDA synchronizes notes with your law practice management system software, creating a memo on the PDA gets the job done quickly and easily.
To create longer notes, dictating on a handheld recorder is probably best, even though it requires time on the part of the staff to transcribe it and your time to review it, which means it may not get to the electronic “file” for a couple of days. Entering lots of text into a PDA is not its strong suit, so if you plan on entering lots of notes, check out the size of the PDA display and available methods of text entry (e.g., graffiti, mini-keyboard, external keyboards and folding portable keyboards) to make sure that you will be comfortable with the amount of text entry that you plan to do.

Capturing Caller ID information. If you use a combination PDA/cell phone (such as the Treo), you can easily add a contact’s name and telephone number to the PDA’s contact list. When you synchronize the PDA with your LPMS, the new contact will also 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 to be recorded incorrectly (or not recorded at all). If the time recorded is more than was actually spent, then the client is overcharged; if less, the lawyer is being underpaid.
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. Recording work when it is fresh in your mind avoids having to recall it hours or days later when trying to enter the information into the billing system.

Expenses. How do you keep track of miscellaneous costs, travel mileage and other out-of-pocket expenses? 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. Even if you do not synchronize your PDA with your billing system, tracking expenses when they are incurred makes it more likely you will track them at all.

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 client/matter-related e-mail at the least. 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.

Documents. If you need to be able to review and perhaps create documents on the go (in addition to being able to view static documents, such as statutes and rules of evidence), then you should investigate whether synchronizing your word processing documents, spreadsheets, PDF files, etc., to your PDA is the answer. There are add-on programs that will let you load a Word or WordPerfect file onto your PDA and make changes to it before synchronizing it back to your desktop computer. The obvious limitations are the size of the PDA display and its input capabilities.

Internet access.
Being able to access the Internet is increasingly important for lawyers. Some PDAs have the ability to access the Internet over a wireless connection, and some websites can deliver content in a format that is easier for the small display of a PDA to handle. With this combination, you can perform online legal research “anytime, anyplace,” giving you more flexibility in where and when you do your work.
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, enabling you to provide better and more timely legal services to your clients.

Bob McNeill has 15 years of law practice experience. He is a past Chair of the MSBA Law Practice Management Section.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: September 2005

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