How To Practice Law Out Of A Back Pack
Alfred K. “Kent” Morlan
When I entered law school in 1969, the legal world was about highly cross-referenced books, electric typewriters, fax machines and telephones. Law libraries were the intellectual warehouses of the legal world and Corpus Juris Secundum, Digests, Annotated Statutes, Reporters, etc. were the units of storage in which lawyers delved to find the law that they needed to practice. Nothing much had changed for nearly a century and nothing much would change until about 10 years after I graduated from law school and began practicing law. The development of the personal computer in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the beginning of the end of what had become an accepted operational paradigm for the legal profession.
In 1983 or 1984, I, like many others, became aware of the marketing of the IBM PC. While on a trip to California, I was a guest in an old friend’s house and he had recently purchased a Compaq computer. It looked like a portable Singer sewing machine when it was closed up for transportation and weighed in at 33 pounds or so. It had two 5.25 inch floppy disk drives and 64 megs of memory. My friend let me play with his new toy and by the end of the weekend, I was convinced that the personal computer was going to change everything. While passing through John Wayne Airport on the way back home, I bought every company magazine that they had and began re-educating myself about computers that I had been trained to repair by the United States Air Force in the 1960s.
Eventually, I asked my law firm to buy me a computer and they looked at me as if I had become mentally ill. In their collective opinions, no lawyer would every directly use such technology to practice law. I eventually used my own money to buy a computer and began using some software products called PFS to write letters, collect data and build spreadsheet. I still use one of the software programs that I bought in the 1980s but will probably not be able to do so with the next version of Microsoft’s operating system. By 1991 when I left the firm, some of the lawyers and all of the secretaries and paralegals were on a network of personal computers and my firm was upgrading and expanding its computer system on a daily basis. By that time, legal materials were available via dial up systems and CD-Rom libraries were beginning to become available. The 33 pound Compaq had been replaced with a 13 pound Toshiba. Most lawyers were still essentially tied to desktops.
A lot has changed since I left the firm that I was with in 1991 to start my own solo practice. One of the most significant was, of course, the Internet. It has changed almost everything. In the science fiction novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy written by Douglas Adams, Ford Prefect, an alien, who befriends Englishman Arthur Dent and saves him when the Earth is destroyed to make way for a galactic highway. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was an eccentric electronic encyclopedia about everything. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy originally aired as a radio show on the BBC in 1978 and everyone found the idea of a device that could hold everything known about everything to be amusing and preposterous. Well, as I said, a lot has changed.
Today, with a Wi-Fi equipped laptop, a cell phone and one of the smaller inkjet printers on the market, it is literally possible to practice law anywhere in the United States, if not the world. For example, I ran into an oil and gas lawyer at the courthouse recently and he told me that he took a vacation to Vietnam and was able to sit on the beach and write oil and gas title opinions. I now have two laptops that are capable to connecting to the Internet in airports, restaurants and a lot of other hotspots or can access the Internet via a wireless cell phone card at DSL speeds about anywhere my cell phone can communicate while sitting still or traveling down the Interstate at 70+ mph.
Back in the 1980s, I proposed to the Bar Association that it recommend that the Legislature enact a statute authorizing the filing of pleadings faxed to a courthouse in lieu of having to file an original document. The Bar and the Legislature both concurred and the statute can be found in Title 12. The Federal Courts resisted claiming that they had to have documents signed with ink pens by the sponsoring lawyer. How times have changed. The Federal Courts now insist that pleadings be filed electronically and that no paper be filed at all with a few exceptions. While the state courts have not kept up in this regard, it is still possible to fax a pleading to the law libraries in Oklahoma and Tulsa Counties and they will, for a fee, file your pleading with the clerk for you.
So, what has the modern era produced that now makes it possible to practice law out of a back pack? Wi-Fi and the Internet! Unlike a lot of other areas, where Oklahoma ranks at or near the bottom of the economic/social pile when compared to other states, Oklahoma ranks “Number One” when it comes to access to legal information online. OSCN.net is clearly the best web site of its kind in the United States. That Oklahoma elected to incorporate every appellate court decisions ever rendered in Oklahoma in the site makes it unique among the jurisdictions for building a free integrated legal information system for everyone to use. Having access to the court dockets, statutes, rules, etc. via the Internet, when combined with other free public access legal information, makes it possible for a lawyer access the information that is essential for the successful practice of the law.
The laptop computer and the cell phone are the two essential ingredients for the mobile or virtual practice of the law. Laptops are available in various configurations starting at about $800 or less for a reasonably configured machine that is capable of doing most of what an attorney needs to do, other than play. While laptops cost more than desktops for equivalent power and features, they lend themselves to the practice of law because they go where the lawyer goes. The practice of law is, of course, an intellectual function and except for the work products, e.g., letters, pleadings, motions, briefs, etc., everything goes on in the lawyers head. It is, therefore, possible to effectively practice law anywhere if it is possible to communicate with clients, opposing counsel, the courts, etc. and to produce work products digitally or on paper. A laptop can have a keyboard, mouse, monitor and printer plugged into it in the office and can be unplugged and transported anywhere any time. Even if one elects to use a desktop model in one’s office, a laptop can be used as a backup device connected to an office network and can have everything on it that a lawyer’s desktop computer has on it at the end of the day. The new thumb drives that are now available can be used to backup and move information from one computer to another so the computer upon which work product is produced is not terribly relevant any more.
Padded back packs and brief cases with and without wheels are now sold in most office supply stores. I recently bought a Swiss Gear computer back pack at Sam’s for $40.00. The same bag is available from Office Depot at about $80.00. Targus deluxe leather notebook cases with wheels costs $83 and any traditional brief case can be converted into a suitable laptop bag with the addition of some foam rubber.
Another element of a mobile law office is the ability to print documents locally. Canon and HP both make compact printers designed for road warriors. The Canon iP90v portable inkjet Photo Printer is priced at $260.00. While pricy for an inkjet printer, it will fit in a back pack or brief case with a laptop. Similar products are available from all of the major printer manufacturers at similar prices.
A cell phone is also an essential for any lawyer who wants to stay in touch with his or her office, clients, wife and/or kids. Nearly everyone who is anyone has a cell phone. I recently stopped by a local AT&T store to check prices on new phones and with rebates, etc. on a two year contract, could get a cell phone at a cost of from $10 to $500. Almost every cell phone now comes equipped with a camera and the G3 models can perform all kinds of functions including acting as a wireless access point for your laptop for about $50 a month or you can purchase a wireless card for laptop and access the Internet at DSL speeds for the same $50 per month on a two year contract.
Once you have selected your laptop, your printer, your cell phone and a back pack or brief case in which to tote your office around, you will need to be connected to the Internet. At home you probably already have a DSL or cable connection to the Internet but just like a traditional office, you can only use it at home. You can, if you are cheap, use AT&T’s dial up system to access the Internet is you can find a phone to use or want to attached your laptop to your cell phone using a cable. AT&T has access points about everywhere in the United States. I use to use these numbers to get on the Internet when away from home before free Internet access became available in about every motel in the country. For the really frugal, many coffee shops and other public places provide free Internet access to attract customers. Visit any Paneras, Starbucks, McDonalds, etc. and you can probably get online for free using the Wi-Fi built into your computer. If you are going to be really mobile and want to be able to get on the Internet anytime and about anywhere, you will want to look at the subscribing to one of the wireless access services provided by AT&T, Sprint and Verison. With a two year commitment and a small upfront charge for the wireless card that is required to utilize one of these services, you can have access to the Internet about anywhere a cell phone works for about $50 a month.
If you want to fax directly off of your laptop, consider subscribing to eFax or one of the other fax services. eFax Plus costs only $16.95 (USD) a month, with a one-time $10.00 (USD) fee to activate your number. You get 130 pages of incoming faxes and 30 pages of outgoing faxes free each month. After that, incoming faxes cost $0.15 (USD) a page and outgoing faxes cost $0.10 (USD) a page to numbers in the U.S. Other services are available from other vendors for about the same cost per month. This is much less expensive than having a dedicated line with a fax machine attached to it and you get your faxes by eMail anywhere in the world. For about $30 you can add a web camera if you have clients who want to talk to you face-to-face over the Internet.
If you do not want to answer your own phone, the telecommunications industry in rapidly coming to your rescue. A number of services have sprung up recently that offer to have a real human answer your phone for you and transfer your calls to you’re your home office and/or cell phone or into a voicemail box that will send you a copy of the voice mail message as an attachment to an e-mail.
Oklahoma lawyers are blessed with OSCN and the outstanding access that it makes available to everyone. The Oklahoma Bar Association is now supplementing what the Supreme Court Net is providing access to Bar Association members to FastCase® free of charge. “Fastcase® is the premiere American provider of online legal research. The company's patent-pending research software helps busy legal professionals sort through the clutter, ranking the best cases and statutes first, and enabling users to re-sort search results to find answers fast. Fastcase® puts the whole American law library on the desktop -- providing online access to millions of cases, statutes, and regulations, and at a fraction of the cost of existing alternatives. Fastcase is an American company based in Washington, D.C. and founded in 1999. It was built by lawyers for lawyers, with the input of specialists in legal research, library science, and law.”
If you want more legal resources available from your laptop and OSC and the Oklahoma Bar Association provide for free, WestLaw®, LexisNexis® and LoisLaw® all stand ready and willing to provide you with at value added extra research edge that you may think that you need to make your legal research complete. A LoisLaw® subscription to its Oklahoma Library plus of the federal circuits and federal materials is currently $110 a month. LoisLaw’s national library is currently priced at $140 a month. West and LexisNexis are more expensive and have various kinds of plans to suit individual attorney’s needs.
The marketing of legal services, like everything else, is migrating from paper to the Internet. Martindale-Hubbell, which has never been a good marketing strategy for the solo or small firm practice lawyer, no longer even publishes books to my knowledge. LexisNexis developed Lawyers.com to complete with Thomson’s FindLaw.com. Switchboard and others Internet companies provide of local online advertising solutions and Internet-based yellow pages, interconnecting consumers, merchants and national advertisers. These services claim to make it easy for consumers to quickly and easily find and compare local businesses offering specific products and services, while creating revenue opportunities for merchants. Switchboard is a wholly owned subsidiary of InfoSpace, Inc. Marketing digitally can cost nothing via the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Find-A-Lawyer service, on MoreLaw.com and other places on the Internet. Other services like Martindale, FindLaw, Lawyers.com, etc. vary in price but generally cost more than $100
As you have probably concluded, it is my opinion that it is possible to practice law out of a back pack or a brief case without any problem. All of the technical and research resources that you might need are readily and inexpensively available off the shelf in about any office supply store in the United States. It is also possible to have an office without having an office. There are various reasons for not telling your clients that you office out of a back pack or your home. This is not seen as being “professional” by some and there are certainly reasons for not having some clients come to your home office. A number of years ago, my wife and I created a legal executive suite in Tulsa where we rent real and virtual offices to lawyers and other legal service providers. More than half of our tenants are “virtual tenants” which means we make it look like they have real offices with us with when they do not, in fact, rent an office. They rent the use of the common areas in our office including the reception area, kitchen, conference rooms, etc. We make it look like they have a physical office in our office by listing them on the roster of the building and treating them and their clients just like we treat the lawyer who rent physical offices and their clients. For a very reasonable monthly fee, Beacon 400 LLC d/b/a MoreLaw Suites will provide the office façade that the home office based lawyer needs to project the professional image that they want to their clients.
The legal playing field is leveler today for the solo and small firm practice lawyer. Technology continues to become less and less expensive over time and the Internet has made information, including legal research materials, easy and inexpensive to access. Place is becoming less and less important to the practice of law and there is no reason why a solo practice lawyer should have to pay thousands in overhead costs for a traditional law office just for appearances. You can now pack an entire law office into a back pack and practice law just about anywhere.