The iPad as an Indispensable Lawyering Tool

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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.

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Current Lab Discussions
  • I can’t wait for the day when a device which blocks cell phone signals and pours you a gin martini becomes the new “must have” lawyering tool.

  • I love my new iPad! In fact, I am writing this comment on it. This is because I read this post through FlipBoard on my iPad. One thing that isn’t being stressed on blogs is how good the iPad is at helping a lawyer peruse the many blogs and sites we read on a regular basis just to keep up on things. I can sit in my recliner at home and read through lots of content in comfort. Much better than sitting at my desk! Also allows me to leverage dead time in court by using it to get through my reading. Makes me more efficient! If you haven’t already, you should take a look at FlipBoard. It is awesome!

    • Flipboard is good, but I also like Zite, which includes new content based on what you read and what you like.

      However, I am mainly interested in the iPad as a tool for getting work done, not just for consuming content. I don’t need another toy; I need a better way to get work done when I am away from my desk.

  • I’m glad you finally made it to the iCult.

  • I’d love to use an Ipad with their monthly internet service. We’re using exclusively openoffice programs in my office right now–love the ease of saving docs in other file formats. So have you heard any word that openoffice will be supported at some point?

    • The opposite, I’m afraid. OpenOffice.org is open, and Apple is closed, and the OpenOffice.org developers seem unlikely to bridge that divide.

      • Well, that’s too bad. I had to switch from ubuntu for a similar reason. We loved it, but we couldn’t use several programs that weren’t compatible with it. You know, important programs like netflix. So you can’t open openoffice docs at all? Can you open them in some kind of read-only format even?

        • Nope, I haven’t been able to open them at all.

      • Any idea if OpenOffice is works on the Motorola Xoom?

        I take it that what you find useful is largely the hardware concept, not necessarily anything specific to Apple. I’d look more towards the Google developers, since the Droid is less a smart phone and more a tiny computer than makes phone calls. Tablets from them might be better for work.

        Also, if this stuff interests you, read Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (he warns about the future of closed system, such as with Apple).

        • I have an Android phone, and have not had any better luck with OpenOffice.org documents on it. Unless the OpenOffice.org or Libre Office developers focus on mobile apps in the near future, I think they may cease to be a viable alternative for business.

          • Google Docs might become a good substitute.

          • Google Docs may become a good substitute (and I’m hoping it does), but in its current form, it is barely usable for real work on an iPad. The formatting is unpredictable, at best.

  • Colbrook

    Does anyone have any thoughts about crossing platforms? What problems can I anticipate using an iPad with a windows computer?

    • I would not anticipate any problems. The iPad is (almost) a standalone computing device. I use Windows on my PC with no compatibility issues.

    • You can actually use a cool little app called AirDisplay that allows you to extend your PC Monitor to your iPad. It’s awesome, and gives you an extra (although little) monitor to park things while you work on your regular computer. Of course it works on the Apple too.

  • It seems like editing documents would be a great task away from your desk. Is there a way to just use the comment function in Word to edit documents. For instance, you’d see something that needed an edit and just noted it on the side?

    • Not in Pages, at least. You would either have to make the edit and cross your fingers that any formatting problems don’t get saved with the document, or make the edit and manually add it to your working document once you get back to your laptop.

      Not ideal, I know, but those are the options I can think of, at this point.

  • Kortney Nordrum

    I’m loving the iPad 2, as well. I bring it everywhere and get way more work things done than I anticipated (bought it a a toy). I, too, love Zite and note taking is so easy with WritePad – it turns handwriting into text.

  • My brain exploded reading the title.

  • Dan

    Great article and information, thanks for the post.

    I am curious about the five page tutorial you wrote using the iPad… do you use a Bluetooth keyboard for longer writing? Or is the touch keyboard all you need? Thanks again!

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the iPad, including your prediction of doom. The iPad will be around for awhile, and it looks like it will be pretty tough for the competition to play catch-up. Is the iPad ready to replace a computer? I don’t think so, but it can certainly make some things more convenient.

    For those interested in apps designed for lawyers, I have reviewed a number of them on my blawg (previously published on Law Technology News).
    http://trial-technology.blogspot.com/2011/03/popular-trial-presentation-and-court.html

  • Peter

    Does anyone have any experience with the HP Slate 500. It is a tablet which uses Windows 7 as its operating system.

    • I’ve emailed HP asking for a test unit, but haven’t had any luck getting a response.

      A Windows 7 tablet comes with some great potential advantages for lawyers, but I don’t know whether those advantages make it preferable or not, given how powerful the iPad has become.

  • Julie K

    Tell your Mac using friend they need to show all filename extension so PC users can view their files too. It is one of the first preferences I set on my Macs: finder>pref>show all filename extensions. While the Mac OS X doesn’t need them, other OS do. They should also check the box to send windows friendly attachments.

    I am using my iPad more and more too. I found I had to leave the MacBook at home on a recent vacation to force myself to use it. Now it is more of my go to device for browsing, email and read blogs.

  • MarkStansbury

    Here’s the thing with the iPad: it’s not designed for creation–as you note–it’s designed for “Heavy Consumption.” And Heavy Consumption is most of what lawyers do–marking up briefs, reading cases, sending short emails. So you’re right and I couldn’t agree more. The iPad is the new Indispensable Lawyering Tool!

    • Marking up briefs and sending e-mails are creation, not consumption.

  • Our firm is beginning to use the iPad in Social Security disability hearings. As mentioned above, we use it to annotate documents and present them to the judge. Three out of our four attorneys have iPads so far, and our office hears nothing but good things about how they aid productivity.

  • What are you using to annotate and present documents? There are currently three iPad Apps for Trial Presentation, which may make it easier than cobbling something together. They are TrialPad, Evidence, and Exhibit A. Here are links to reviews. Each of them have been updated and improved.

    TrialPad, Evidence
    http://trial-technology.blogspot.com/2011/01/apples-to-apples-two-ipad-apps-for.html

    Exhibit A
    http://trial-technology.blogspot.com/2011/02/exhibit-ipad-app-for-trial-presentation.html

  • Rhonda Pagel

    Any thoughts on the Motorola Xoom? Many of the reviews I have read say it is a greater productivity tool than an iPad. I have been told you can install Word on it and there is a micro usb which allows you to connect with your computer. Apparently, you can get files on and off this way or by using the micro sd card. The biggest downside seems to be a lack of apps but most say that the droid apps work well enough and I have been told that new smart phones will be using honeycomb so more apps should be developed that way.

    • One of the problems with the iPad is that many apps still have no iPad version. The iPad has been out for a year, and the iOS developer community is still larger than the Android developer community. I think it will take at least another year before Android tablets “catch up” to the iPad.

      Plus, the Xoom form factor is a little goofy, and the battery life doesn’t compare well.

      This is coming, by the way, from a huge Android fanboy. I’m just not convinced that Android has caught up, yet.

      As for getting files on and off, a hard-line connection or a Micro SD card are equally inconvenient. If I can’t transfer files over the internet as I can using Dropbox and DropDAV, I’m not interested.

  • Nice article. I wish I’d had the benefit of an iPad 2 when I wrote a similar piece (http://is.gd/5SerNK). Still using my first-generation all the time.

  • doebtown

    Have you played with Google Docs on your iPad? Or on your DESKTOP computer, for that matter?

    • Yes, I use it all the time. It’s usable (just) for legal work, but the mobile version is seriously lacking.

      • doebtown

        Yeah, I don’t think I would ever use Google Docs to generate a pleading or anything. And I certainly agree that the iPhone version (which I would imagine is similar to the iPad version) could stand to be improved.

        BUT, for documents that require fewer formatting elements (lists, plans, letters), I find Google Docs unmatched. Especially (obviously!) for documents requiring collaboration. I’m to the point now that I create almost every non-formatting heavy document I use in Google Docs, on the assumption that at some point, I’ll want to share it with somebody else, see it on my iPhone, or access it on another computer.

        I’ve long been wondering if other lawyers were finding practical applications for the service. I’ve also wondered if editing documents on an iPad is any easier than it is on an iPhone. Guess not.

        • I’m sure Google will improve the mobile version, the question will be whether Microsoft improves Office.Live.com first (I doubt it). A competitive version of mobile Office would actually be a lot more attractive to me, even though I’m pretty embedded in Google’s platform.