A little over a year ago, I predicted that the iPad would be an iFlop. It turns out I was dead wrong not only about it’s success in general, but also about how useful it could be for lawyers. In fact, I am writing this on my new iPad 2, which is fast becoming my most indispensable gadget, while my laptop is getting a lot less use.

What I now realize is that, while the iPad is not a better way to do hard-core document drafting than a desktop or laptop computer, it is an acceptable—if not superior—option for nearly everything else.

Portability and speed

The iPad clearly excels when it comes to portability. At a little over a pound, you can slip it under your arm or into your bag, and you will barely notice you have it with you. Most laptops, on the other hand, start at 4 or 5 pounds, and extended-life batteries pack on the pounds quickly. With the iPad, you don’t need an extended battery because it gives you enough juice to travel halfway around the world on a single charge.

Equally important with any portable device is the speed with which you can get to it when you need it. My laptop is a very fast ThinkPad, but it still takes a minute or two to wake from sleep (Dropbox seems to be the main culprit; without it, my laptop wakes up in less than a minute). The iPad, by contrast, is ready in about the time it takes to press the button to wake it up. That means if I need to get to a document or make a note, I would much rather have the iPad near to hand.

The form factor matters, too. Using a laptop while standing at a podium or standing outside a courtroom with a client or opposing counsel is awkward, at best. In contrast, it feels completely natural to do that with an iPad.

Altogether, opening the iPad is about as convenient as pulling out paper and pen, which is something you cannot say about any laptop, netbook, ultraportable, or otherwise.

The same could be said for a smartphone, but smartphones do not have a screen large enough to view documents at full size or a keyboard large enough to type on normally (the speed I can type on the iPad’s touchscreen keyboard—about 60 wpm—is a pleasant surprise, although it really needs to improve the autocorrect).

Getting work done with apps

While a keyboard and mouse are better tools for editing documents, you can get real work done on an iPad. I have been doing just that for the last week.

The other day, for example, I wrote a five-page tutorial for the Lawyerist LAB on creating a WordPress website, and I did it entirely on my iPad. I used Pages to create the document and Photoshop Express to edit screenshots. While neither has the full slate of options I have in OpenOffice.org, Word, and GIMP, they are easier to use and get the job done just fine.

Where you may run into more trouble is when you want to open an OpenOffice.org document (you can’t) or a Microsoft Word document that has anything other than basic formatting and fonts. While the iPad does fine with document creating, it isn’t very good at editing a document you already created elsewhere unless you don’t mind losing your some formatting and your fonts.

Realistically, the only way this will get better is if Microsoft creates an iPad version of Word. Since they did make an iPhone version of OneNote, I am hopeful a Word app—or at least a functional online version—is in the works, but only time will tell. (Unfortunately, I don’t think apps are on the OpenOffice.org roadmap.)

You may run into other hitches, as well. One of my co-counsel sent me a Word document the other day. Ironically, because he created it on a Mac, it didn’t have a file extension (like .docx), so the iPad did not recognize the file as something it could open. I had to wait until I was at my computer to edit it.

I am satisfied with the iPad for document creation and viewing, but it definitely leaves something to be desired before I can integrate it into my full document workflow. I can work around some of the iPad’s limitations, but its shortcomings mean I still reach for my computer when I need to work on most documents.

Adding a cloud drive to the iPad

Apple and other developers have released a lot of outstanding apps for business, but the primary weakness of the iPad remains the difficulty in getting files onto and off of it. The only solution Apple has provided is iTunes. This barely works, and only if you don’t mind plugging your iPad into your computer all the time. This is, obviously, a big pain in the ass.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to get around this limitation. My favorite is Dropbox, the file sync service I already use, plus DropDAV, a service that allows you to import and export files from and to most Apple apps, such as the iWork suite. Many other apps allow to import or sync files with Dropbox (and other sync utilities) directly or through a WebDAV service like DropDAV.

You can also use email, but setting up Dropbox plus DropDAV—or similar solutions—is like adding a cloud drive to our iPad. Until Apple, Google, or Amazon (the most likely parties) come up with a more deeply-integrated solution, it is also a pretty slick solution.

If you use Dropbox, the iPad is enormously useful as a file reference tool for client meetings, board meetings, and court hearings. You could use Dropbox, if you have an internet connection in court, but there are better options. I really like GoodReader, an app that let’s you sync files from Dropbox, Sugar Sync, and a bunch of other services. You can view and annotate PDFs and other files, which makes the iPad a perfect tool for referring documents in meetings or hearings.

Apple’s newest iFanboy

That’s overstating things a bit, but the iPad is every bit as wonderful as Apple’s marketing makes it sound. And I still think it has a long way to go. Tablets based on smartphone operating systems require a much more robust set of cloud services than currently exist, so while it is totally awesome, the iPad is also a sometimes-clunky look into the future of the internet-based operating system.

I love it, and I already love what my iPad can do, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future holds. Go buy your own and see for yourself. Seriously. You won’t regret it.