National Technology Roundtable: The rise of the smartphone

  • January 07, 2009
  • National Magazine

The newest National Technology Roundtable focuses on smartphones — those ubiquitous devices that people either love for their versatility and connectedness or hate for their distraction and intrusiveness. Do you need one? What features should you look for? Are there security issues? How will smartphones evolve? Our expert panel tells all.


Simon Chester: In this roundtable, we're going to focus on a purchasing decision that many lawyers are facing: should they be taking the plunge to invest in smartphones? Is a smartphone an essential tool for today's smart lawyer? But let’s start by asking: what exactly is a smartphone?

David Bilinsky: Generally speaking, I would define a smartphone as a cell phone plus some added features: presumably, the ability to carry with you your schedule, contacts, and all your client telephone numbers and information; the ability to link up with your email in one fashion or another; and web access.

Richard Ferguson: Another aspect of smartphones is their ability to access the Internet. It’s not simply a matter of accessing Outlook information at your office, or other data from your office, but your ability to access the Internet and all of the resources that it has to offer, including GPS, from virtually any location,.

Jeff Flax: My definition of a smartphone is the opposite of a not-smartphone — additional features like instant messaging, web access, specific remote device functions, email to GMail and other public services, secure email over VPN (virtual private network), and a sundry other features that are not found on a traditional voice-only cell phone.

Simon: Does this mean this is going to replace some of the technology tools I currently have?

Dan Pinnington: I think it all depends on the type of practice you have and the tools you already have. For some, the ability to answer emails on a smartphone will be a godsend, especially those who are sending and receiving quick short questions and answers. If you frequently get very long and detailed email messages, or messages with large attachments that you need to access, a smartphone is not ideal.

Smartphone features

Simon: What phones do you currently have, and would you regard them as smart?

Richard: I’m most familiar with those phones that use the Microsoft mobile operating system. They come in various formats, but they all run a native Windows operating system and Windows programs, they have phone functionality and Outlook synchronization, and they’re compatible with some of the practice management software that lawyers are using.

Dan: I’m a recent BlackBerry convert. Prior to that, I was using my laptop in combination with a simple cell phone. I resisted getting a BlackBerry for a long while. I was hesitant about the incursion on my personal time, in part recognizing that the vast majority of what I deal with is not that urgent. But I now have the relatively new BlackBerry Bold. I’ve found that the BlackBerry is very helpful when I’m out traveling and need to deal with very simple and quick emails. So when I do get back to the office, my inbox is far more manageable. I really like having easy access to my contacts and my calendar, and the Web access has been helpful, too. But while it’s possible to download PowerPoint presentations and lengthy articles in various formats, it’s not entirely user-friendly and practical that way.

Simon: I too am using a BlackBerry Pearl, probably 95% for email, calendaring and contact information, and probably 5% for Web access. I also have Google Maps on it, which I am finding an absolute godsend when I am lost, as I frequently am. But I’m surprised that nobody has yet uttered the words Apple iPhone, the sexiest phone on the block. What are its advantages?

David: The big difference, I think, between the BlackBerry Storm and the iPhone is that the BlackBerry has cellphone network/data service only, in terms of your Internet access. But the iPhone has both Wi-Fi as well as a cell network connection. So the iPhone offers greater options for being able to download data. It means you don’t necessarily have to eat into your cell phone data plan as much as you would if you were just on a BlackBerry Storm. If you find a free Wi-Fi spot, you can just fire up the iPhone and start surfing without eating into the megabit limit on your data plan.

Dan: The BlackBerry Bold has WiFi; the Storm does not.

Simon: I would have thought that in the legal market, BlackBerry is still the dominant player.

David: Certainly, we see the iPhone outselling the BlackBerry these days in the general phone market. Now I’ve seen a lot of lawyers who are adopting the iPhone. BlackBerry had an early head start, but the iPhone has really got a lot of momentum behind it.

Jeff: I’ve used two different models of the Treo, as well as a BlackBerry, for several years. In my experience, BlackBerry devices offer far greater security than their competitors. Currently, I have a traditional cell phone rather than a more advanced smartphone, but it has GPS service, basic email, text mail, and obviously the standard fare such as voice and camera features. Additionally, I have an iPod Touch with access to the Internet via wireless; however, unlike the iPhone, it does not have phone service.

I know a lot of lawyers who have purchased an iPhone. Without exception, they are very pleased with the device, primarily because of its ease of use. It’s incredibly easy to navigate and use. That said, there are still some drawbacks. It doesn’t yet have cut-and-paste. Some of the searching capability may be limited, depending on what email system you’re using. However, the most recent version of the iPhone operating system (2.2) added VPN for secure access to firms using certain email systems. It also supports remote network access using Citrix software.

Simon: What are people paying for their smartphones?

Richard: The service providers that I’ve checked with say that the average user will be at about $100 a month. 

Smartphone vs. laptops

Simon: How many people are now not traveling with their laptops, as a result of having smartphone access?

David: Well, I’m still traveling everywhere with my laptop, only I’ve changed laptops. I’m on a MacBook and it is faster, lighter and easier to use than my old Lenovo T60 — and a lot more fun to use! And that’s partially what’s swaying me to really consider whether I need all the features of a smartphone. I have big hands, and I prefer the full-size keyboard on my MacBook versus the tiny little cramped things that you get on any of the smartphones. I’ve also recently acquired a Rogers USB “Rocket Stick” modem that provides me with Internet access wherever I can get cell phone reception, plus Wi-Fi built into the laptop, so I can surf off Wi-Fi access if available and not always eat into my megabyte limit on the USB modem. So I think I have the best of both worlds! I’m finding more and more lawyers have laptops these days. As they get lighter and faster and easier to use, I wonder if smartphones will start fading a bit.

Jeff: I’ve had my laptop surgically implanted, so I’m not able to separate myself from the laptop anymore. If I’m traveling at all, I need to be able to view and edit documents and work with a wide range of material. It’s just too limiting not to have a full-featured laptop at my disposal.

Dan: Like Jeff, for years my laptop has been surgically implanted in my backpack when I’m on the road. I pack it before I pack my shaving kit. On major trips, I still always take both. However, for some short meetings and lunches, I find the Blackberry is fine and I leave the laptop on my desk.

Richard: I still travel with my laptop and rely on its connectivity to access the information at my office. The number of occasions when I need instant access to email or other resources is relatively limited. And for my part, rather than attempt to text back and forth and get thumb-itis in the process, I find it just as easy to use the telephone.

Does size matter?

Simon: Of course, with a smartphone, you’re looking at a much tinier screen than a laptop. Do any of you have problems with visibility in terms of reading and typing?

David: Well, I don’t even try to do any kind of Web access with my little Nokia not-smart cell phone. It doesn’t have a dedicated QWERTY keyboard, so you’re doing multiple clicks for any kind of alphabetic access, which slows you down immeasurably. The screen is also quite small (2" x 1.3"). But many web pages have now been optimized for either BlackBerry, iPhone, or smartphone access, so it’s not as bad as it used to be.

But even so, like Jeff, I’m kind of attached to my laptop with a 13" screen, and I’m a little loathe to go down to a little 3x4 inch screen or smaller. I’m paying about $40 a month for my Rogers flexible USB modem data plan which, I believe, is what you’ll pay for a data access plan for any smartphone from Rogers. Note that the charges could rise to $100 month if I really downloaded a lot of data.

Dan: As a 40-something person in denial/transition between no glasses and reading glasses, I struggled initially a little reading the screen on the BlackBerry. With a few settings tweaks, I increased the font size a little bit, and it’s now quite usable when it comes to reading and replying to emails. Most of the other apps are fine as well. I don't mind reading longer documents — hit the space bar to jump down one screen at a time — but typing longer replies is a pain.

Jeff: Age seems to be playing bad tricks on my eyes, and there are times when it’s particularly difficult to see the screen. And I agree with Richard, there certainly are a number of repetitive injury syndromes, such as using one’s thumbs on BlackBerrys. It’s a little easier on the iPhone, but it can still be tricky. Yet I like the iPhone, since you can magnify the screen with simple finger motions. However, you must scroll back and forth to see all of the data. As I get older, I find it more difficult to type on small devices, whether using a stylus or finger touch on the screen itself, such as on the iPhone.

David: Perhaps I only hear from people who have problems, but I have yet to find someone who’s happy with the way their BlackBerry interlinks with their case management software, whether it’s Outlook, Time Matters, Amicus Attorney, or any of the others. They get client telephone numbers and the client names, but that’s about it. It’s a hard slog to get it to work properly, synchronizing your calendar information or any of the other stuff that’s anything beyond basic information. The Palm and other smartphones seem to be able to do this better.

Richard: Some of these case management programs have a browser-based interface through which you can access your server. If that’s the case, then so long as the smartphone can access the Internet, you can get to that web page to gain that access.

David: Part of the reason for taking a small portable device with you is the ability to not just view attachments, but also to work on them. You’re working on a small screen from a small keyboard. The BlackBerry Storm [among others] will allow you to not only review the documents, but also revise them. On the iPhone, you can only view them; the edit feature is yet to come. But I guess my question is, how often are you actually going to work on these tiny little screens and keyboards to do anything but the most rudimentary changes to a document?

Simon: That's one thing I want to say to everyone who's designing a law firm web page — please go and look at how your page performs on a small mobile device, and if it doesn’t work, reconfigure it.

Security concerns

Simon: I understand from a recent American survey that a quarter of law firms have lost devices containing client documents. Should security be a concern of law firms, and how do the various products perform?

Jeff: Absolutely, it ought to be a concern. Minimally, you want to set up the device with a username and a strong password that is not easily guessed. I have always used security features that have an auto-delete of the entire system after some number of unsuccessful logins. It’s not as bad as it sounds — you can go back to your office and link the device back to your computer to reload your data. There are also encryption technologies available both for the storage of the information on the device as well as for transmission of data, depending on with whom you’re in contact.

Richard: On some servers, if the smartphone is lost, your network administrators can instantly delete access from that device to your network and delete the information that’s on the remote device.

Simon: Can we be confident in the encryption that is available on these systems?

David: The BlackBerry Storm has AES or Triple DES encryption with the BlackBerry server, and the iPhone has got MS Exchange 2003/2007 at 128-bit encrypted SSL and VPN. Other phones would vary. There’s an article today on eWeek Channel Insider titled “Cybercon Paying Well and Growing Strong” that talks about all the different things that people steal by hacking into or recovering stolen devices. Login details from online accounts are the second-most commonly offered commodity for sale.

Even if your device is secure, you have to be careful about the network that you’re using to access your account. If you see a Wi-Fi network called “Free Internet Access,” this could be a “honey trap” that could be sniffing your account and login/password details. Only use Wi-Fi internet access networks that are reliable, such as from Telus, Bell, Boingo, Fatport, Wayport, Spotnik and the like.

Lawyers and smartphones

Simon: How are lawyers different? What are the special needs of the legal market?

David: To a certain degree, lawyers need access to network servers and the information that has been stored there, particularly as we move towards the paperless office. Lawyers are increasingly mobile, and they’re interacting with offices that have gone to electronic document management systems. So the devices they carry have to be able to interact with the office systems and allow them to work effectively from wherever they have to be — whether it’s in court, at the cabin, or in another lawyer’s office. They also need access to their practice systems, whether that’s case management, legal research, or time and billing. As a result, any and all of the applications that are on their desktop at the office should be accessible to them on the road.

Simon: What are individual lawyers going to use smartphones for? If it’s to access and read email, is that so time-sensitive that they have to be able to get it onto a smartphone? Do lawyers really need to be able to have instant messaging on their phone? What are the repercussions in terms of quality of life? Do you have to be available 24/7 to your office, to your clients? Would it be better off for you to be available 24/7 to your own sanity and your family instead? How are smartphones changing us? Are they unchaining us from the desk?

Richard: Absolutely — but they’re putting you on a chain that’s a heck of a lot longer, that reaches to the golf course and to the weekend and just about everywhere else. The key issue there is controlling client expectations and controlling yourself, being able to turn it on or off. If your client is the Royal Bank of Canada, then there’s probably a greater need to be available 24/7. But for most lawyers with ma-and-pa clients, I think you could do a better job of controlling client expectations. Make yourself far more available to your client than you might otherwise be using only a desktop computer and laptop; but draw a line somewhere that says, “Okay, there’s no expectation that you’ll have an answer to an email at 10:00 at night or 2:00 on a Saturday afternoon.”

Jeff: I still think there are some quality-of-life issues with respect to when and where one uses BlackBerrys or other smartphones. This turns into a 24/7 device. You need to develop expectations, both with yourself and with clients, regarding the frequency with which you are checking email and, more particularly, how quickly you will respond.

David: In terms of etiquette, one of the things that absolutely drives me crazy is going into a meeting, and half the people aren’t paying attention because they’re sitting there playing with the thumb wheel on their BlackBerry. I think you owe it to people, when you go to a meeting, to pay attention to whatever is transpiring at the meeting. You’re just wasting the time of everyone else around the table trying to get some legitimate business done. It’s equivalent to going to a concert and having some idiot’s cell phone go off. It demonstrates a lack of respect.

Simon: And don’t try it in court, because the judges won’t be amused.

Dan: I’d like to raise the malpractice prevention angle. A case recently came up of a lawyer who was having discussions on the eve of discovery with her client about settlement offers, and at the same time having discussions with a lawyer on the other side about logistics and timing with respect to the pending discoveries. In the course of dealing with messages, the lawyer accidentally sent opposing counsel the entire thread of discussions with the client on settlement offers.

A word of warning: it is a very tiny screen, and smartphones will make certain assumptions in terms of who the messages are going to and coming from. Often, when you’re doing a reply-all or a cc, you don’t see all the addressees of the message. You need to be very, very careful about who you’re sending a message to.

Simon: Do smartphones have utility for solo or small-firm practitioners?

Richard: There’s a survey showing the utilization of smartphones in large law firms to be at about 60% and above; in solos and small firms, the uptake is 36%. Yes, it may allow them to go out on the golf course with a client and enjoy at least some fresh air or some exercise. But I think these people are using smartphones so that multiple assistants can communicate with them while they’re away from their office, for guidance and assistance wherever they may be.

Smartphone applications

Simon: Do smartphones support decent time and billing, matter management, or case management software?

Richard: The Windows mobile devices at this stage probably have the greatest diversity, though I’m certain it won’t be long before the other smartphones catch up. On a Windows mobile device, you have access to Outlook programs, word processing, spreadsheet and PowerPoint programs, and some of the time and billing software.

Dan: The incredible utility of having easy access to your calendar and contacts at all times is essential to any lawyer who’s out of the office.

Jeff: One application that I think is brilliant is access to statutes and case law, especially for litigators who may be in court — assuming that courthouse security permits you to take the device into the courthouse. It can be incredibly handy to literally have a law library at your fingertips that’s not as intrusive as a laptop.

David: Amicus Attorney Mobile will connect to the mother ship using any PDA or smartphone with cell or Wi-Fi capability. But I prefer my laptop with my copy of Amicus Attorney. That way, I have all my information right there automatically; I don’t have to worry about some communication link to get to it.

Richard: Another functionality is the ability to do voice recordings on your smartphone and send that recording by email back to your office, to have it transcribed or even run through one of the voice recognition programs to create text documents. I don’t think it will be very long before we actually see that kind of technology built into smartphones, so that instead of having to use your thumbs or your input pointer or whatever, you’ll just be able to speak in your phone and have it recognize what you are saying to it.

Dan: We have a voice-over IP system at LawPro, which means any voicemail left for me appears as a message both in my inbox and on my BlackBerry. Attached to that message is a WAV file containing the voicemail message. This lets me easily hear my voicemail anywhere the BlackBerry can connect — amazing!

David: There’s one application coming out from a developer in San Francisco called Feemail that will allow you to track and log your time spent on a smartphone, whether in email or working on a document. It will build a log, so that that time traditionally spent outside the office can be captured in fairly short order.

The future of smartphones

Simon Chester: Crystal ball time: what’s coming down the pipe?

Richard: I think you’re going to continue to see smartphone manufacturers play with the format, whether it’s the flat phone we see in the iPhone or the HTC Diamond Touch phone, the thumb input keyboard or the QWERTY keyboard, the one-handed input format or a fold-out keyboard. The manufacturers will continue to experiment with what works and what doesn’t.

David: Even though Jeff’s comment about the implanted computer was tongue- in-cheek, I think he’s actually on to something. If you look at the iPhone, for example, the “squeezability” — you know, blowing up things with hand movements — is only going to be enhanced. The computer is no longer going to be tied to a keyboard or a little stylus or something like that. It will be much more intuitive — you make a gesture and the computer will respond. It will be able to read us, I think, in ways that I think right now is just not possible.

Jeff: I completely agree. And we are already seeing the ease of use with the new BlackBerry, as well as the new T-Mobile phone, based on the Google Android operating system (not yet available in Canada). A number of companies are producing devices that emulate the ease of use and functionality of the iPhone, including a QWERTY keyboard. Additionally, foreign-language keyboards can be configured on the smartphone. There are numerous other applications with the ability to switch back and forth between programs. These devices are incredibly easy to use and remarkably intuitive.

I see additional growth in the marketplace for more programs applicable to specific user needs, including lawyers. Vendors are moving their applications from the desktop to laptops to smartphones, so one has the ability to use the application regardless of the device on which it is being run. I also agree with Richard — I think voice and other ways of interacting with technology is the next the big thing.

Smartphones: yes or no?

Simon: Final word: is a smartphone a smart investment for the practicing Canadian lawyer today?

David: It depends. If you’re a fairly mobile lawyer, such as a criminal lawyer or a litigator, then a smartphone would pay for itself. If not — if you’re someone who really works in the office and wants their weekends free and really wants to maintain that life balance — maybe a laptop and an Internet connection is all you need. You really don’t need to be wired 24/7 all the time.

Jeff: I don’t think anybody is going to go wrong with an iPhone, assuming you can afford it — given not only the business applications, but also the personal applications that are just a lot fun to use. Everyone I know who has purchased an iPhone is very happy with the device.

Richard: The fact that you have a smartphone doesn’t mean you have to use it. Simply having your calendar and contacts on the phone you’re carrying with you, so that you can access and phone those clients, probably justifies having a smartphone even if you don’t use it for email access. I mean, we used to carry cellphones. We used to carry PDAs with information that would sync back to our computer. And we never even thought we would be able to have remote access to the Internet. Smartphones, even if you discount the Web access, email or messages on an instant basis, in my estimation justify themselves.

Dan: I would agree with Richard. I think any lawyer who carries around a traditional paper date book will find a smartphone eminently more useful and practical. It’s smaller, gives you the ability to access your email, contacts, calendar and more — I think it is an absolutely essential piece of hardware. But you need to draw the line in terms of where you use it, how long you use, and when you turn it off. Talk to lawyers who have similar practices and use smartphones and find out what’s working for them. Try to figure out what you really need to do and get a plan that will let you do that without overcharging you. And be aware that if you do go over, downloading larger amounts of data than are covered in your plan can get extraordinarily expensive very quickly.

David: Before you buy, evaluate what you really need. Make a list of the features and services you think you’re going to require before you walk into the store. You might end up buying a fair bit more than what you expected to buy, depending on the skill of the salesperson that you’re facing. I think if you really don’t need all the features of a smartphone, then perhaps an ordinary non-smart cell phone, combined with remote access software, would do you just fine. And you avoid those quality-of-life issues that Jeff talked about.

Simon: So the conclusion of the roundtable seems to be that, properly managed, smartphones can lead to smarter lawyers, and that they aren’t just trendy toys.


David Bilinsky, Vancouver: Practice management consultant with the Law Society of British Columbia, and in a past and present life was, and is, a computer geek (and proud of it!).

Simon Chester, Toronto (Moderator): Business law and litigation partner with the Toronto office of national law firm Heenan Blaikie.

Richard Ferguson, Edmonton: Business lawyer at four-lawyer firm Lynass, Ferguson and Shoctor.

Jeff Flax, Broomfield, Colorado: Litigation technology consultant and former National Technology and Litigation Support Administrator for the Office of Defender Services of the U.S. courts.

Dan Pinnington, Toronto: Director of PracticePRO at the Lawyer’s Professional Indemnity Company, helping Ontario lawyers avoid malpractice claims.