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Computer Counselor - October 1997

Five Steps for Getting Started with Notebooks
With a fully equipped notebook, you can become a road warrior

By Daryl Teshima
Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Law Office Computing, a bimonthly legal technology magazine. 

Have the following scenarios ever happened to you? While in court, you think your opponent has just cited a questionable authority during oral argument, but unfortunately the resources you need to confirm your suspicion are not at hand. Or, during a critical out-of-town contract negotiation, you need to revise a 200-page agreement by midnight or a deal (and an angry client) will break down. Or even worse, you experience that sickening feeling that comes when you realize, while someplace far from your office, that you have left a critical document on your office computer. 

Technology, in the form of a notebook computer, can conquer these problems. For less than $4,000, you can become a legal road warrior. When you are armed with such action accessories as a notebook computer, an Internet account, a modem, and legal CD-ROMs, you can battle opposing counsel anywhere and anytime, perhaps even with the panache of Mel Gibson. To become a legal road warrior, there are five basic steps to take. 

Step 1: Choose a Notebook 

The most important weapon in your arsenal is a notebook computer. Luckily for those who have not yet taken the plunge, notebook prices have significantly dropped in recent months, with Pentium machines regularly selling for less than $3,000. The rule of thumb is to get the fastest and most powerful notebook that your budget allows. Proper due diligence is essential. Given the difficulty of upgrading notebooks, the decision you make is one you will have to live with for many years. 

When conducting research, closely examine the following components of any notebook you consider purchasing: 

Processor. Unless you still work only in WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, opt for a notebook with a Pentium processor. 

Memory. The most cost-effective improvement to any computer is the addition of memory. A Windows system should have a minimum of 16 MB, although 32 MB is fast becoming the standard. 

Screen. You have two choices-dual scan and active matrix. Dual scan screens are difficult to view from the side but will not drain the battery as fast as the higher-quality active matrix screens. You can also save money (if not your eyesight) by going with a dual scan because active matrix screens increase the cost of the notebook by $750 to $1,000. 

Batteries. Lithium ion batteries are lighter and last a few minutes longer but cost almost twice as much as nickel metal hydride batteries. Batteries represent another area in which you can shave dollars off the final price tag. If possible, always purchase a spare battery. 

Keyboard and pointing device. Often overlooked, these components have more of an impact on your ability to operate efficiently on the road than any others do. For example, many notebooks feaure a touchpad rather than a mouse, a change that most people either love or hate. Be sure to try before you buy. 

Hard drive. In consideration of the ever-expanding size of most software programs today, get the biggest hard drive that the notebook can handle. 

CD-ROM drive. Although not essential, this component is valuable to legal road warriors because it allows them to access a library of legal resources. 

Printer. This is one accessory that most road warriors skip. Usually, you can connect your notebook to a printer at your business destination. One important tip: install printer drivers for commonly used printers on your notebook (e.g., HP LaserJet and DeskJet, and a generic "text only" driver) so you can quickly connect to a remote printer. 

Step 2: Accessorize with PC Cards 

One of the big challenges in using a notebook computer is connecting peripherals such as modems, network cards, printers, and scanners. Small credit-card-size devices called PC cards (formerly known as PCMCIA cards) help overcome this disadvantage by allowing users to swap devices as needed. 

Perhaps the most important PC card you can buy is a modem, the best method for connecting your notebook to the outside world-the Internet, Lexis, Westlaw, or your office desktop computer. Purchase a PC card modem with a connection speed of at least 28.8 bps. 

Most modem cards also double as a fax modem, which allows you to send and receive faxes from your notebook. In a pinch, the fax modem can also generate a printout of a document stored on your computer. To do this, simply fax a copy of the document to a local fax machine. 

Another important PC card is a network card, which allows you to hook up your notebook to your firm's network. This card essentially transforms your notebook into a desktop computer, making it easy to transfer files from your network to your notebook's hard drive. 

Besides network and modem cards, there are PC cards that allow you to connect SCSI devices to your notebook. Other PC cards act like a second hard drive. 

Step 3: Network with the Internet 

As with everything else in the computer industry, the Internet has added a whole new dimension to remote computing. With an Internet account, you can connect not only to your law firm and clients but also to the entire world. Even better, all you need to access this brave new world is a telephone line and an access number. This means you can access the Internet in an airplane equipped with airphones or in a car that has a cellular phone. 

The most important aspect of the Internet for road warriors is e-mail, which enables you to transmit messages and files to anyone who has an e-mail account. Usually this transfer takes place within minutes and delivers the message/file in a format that you can revise on your notebook. E-mail is by far the fastest and cheapest way to receive the latest draft of a contract or brief. 

Besides allowing you to communicate with others, the Internet is a great resource for the road. For example, the Mapquest Web site (www.mapquest.com) can give you directions to anywhere in the continental United States. All you need to do is enter your current location and destination address. The site will instantly give you detailed directions on the best way to get to your destination. Other good sites include the Weather Channel site (www.weather.com), overnight delivery services (www.fedex.com, www.ups.com, www.dhl.com), and airline and hotel reservation services (www.travelocity.com or www.travelweb.com). 

In addition to traveling resources, there are a number of great legal . Web sites that allow you to access a library of legal resources. The best place to start is the Findlaw site (www.findlaw.com), which lists all available Internet legal resources by state and federal district. The Los Angeles County Bar Association's site (www.lacba.org) also provides you with excellent local legal resources as well as links to important sites across the nation. You should also investigate the expansive offerings at commercial Internet sites such as V. by VersusLaw (www.versuslaw.com) and Law Office Information Systems (www.pita.com). 

One important factor is your choice of an Internet service provider. National providers like Netcom, Earthlink, and America Online allow you to access your account from most major cities with a local phone call. International travelers should check out Compuserve, which boasts a worldwide network of access numbers. 

Step 4: Use Remote Access Software 

An enduring truth in remote computing is that no matter how much you prepare, you will always forget a key file when you leave the office. Not even the Internet can help you in such cases, because most office computers are not accessible from the Net. This mistake can turn even the most powerful legal road warrior into a homesick weakling. 

Remote access programs, however, can save the day. They let you connect to your office and get that key file. These programs serve as a software safety net while away from the office, letting you access data and applications through a phone line or network. You literally take control of a computer (for example, your office computer) from a remote computer. Such an ability is the next best thing to being there. 

Remote access programs are not just for traveling lawyers anymore, as telecommuting becomes a more common practice in law offices. Also, many attorneys want to work in the comfort of their homes after hours and during weekends. 

The best overall remote access packages for attorneys are pcAnywhere 32 version 7.5 (Symantec 800-441-7234) and Laplink for Windows 7.5 (Traveling Software 800-343-8080). These veteran programs are stable, easy to use, and provide fast file transfers. 

Choosing the right remote access program for you, though, depends on your own particular needs. If you need a program to transfer files back and forth, pcAnywhere is your best choice. If you are new to remote access software or want to remotely control another computer, consider the latest version of Laplink. Its simple but powerful interface allows novices to become instant road warriors. 

Step 5: Prepare for Everything 

Even the most well-equipped road warrior can be defeated by such small obstacles as an inconvenient power outlet or forgotten e-mail account. The best advice is to be prepared for every eventuality. 

Here are some important tasks to perform before leaving home: 

  • Charge your notebook batteries.      
  • Set up your office PC for remote access.      
  • Transfer working files to your notebook.      
  • Get phone numbers for your Internet account.      
  • Protect your notebook by purchasing a rugged case.      
  • Pack an extension cord, extra RJ-11 phone cords, a spare printer cable, and small tool kit.      
  • Create a startup/emergency diskette for your notebook.      
  • Carry extra blank diskettes.      
  • In case your e-mail account goes down, bring blank courier-service airbill envelopes so you can overnight key documents.      
  • Bring appropriate user manuals for your system.      
  • Bookmark the key Web sites you will need to access in your notebook's browser.

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. However, it may provide you with a good starting point for helping you win those fierce battles on the road.


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