On the case, on the move

Today's technology is the laptop of luxury for law firms, letting their lawyers stay on the ball when out of the office, finds Linda Tsang

With the revelation that over 300 judges have been surfing the World Wide Web on the 'JudgeNet', it seems that even the most technophobic of professions is learning to plug in to the latest technology.

Despite its reputation for technofear, the legal profession has caught on to the technological revolution. Most of the top 10 law firms have a pool of laptops available for lawyers on the move or who do not have a computer at home.

At Lovell White Durrant, Dell and Compaq laptops for general use and project-only are available from the supply desk. User-liaison and support manager Angela Boone says that she makes the decision over which manufacturer and model to invest in after lengthy research in PC User, Personal Computer World and Byte.

She adds that the reason the firm opted for these models is historical – they are also on the

firm's desktops – and that they are durable, resilient and easy to use. Availability and price are also important factors.

Other firms that have laptops and desktops from the same manufacturer are Slaughter and May, with Compaq, and Allen & Overy, which has a pool of HP Omnibooks. An Allen & Overy source adds: "It is a coincidence that the firm has also opted for those desktops. The company has a good, consistent range which doesn't change too often and the lawyers like its smallness as it fits neatly into briefcases."

The popularity of laptops as a flexible alternative and even a replacement to the standard desktop can also be seen in the recent acquisition of a supply of IBM Thinkpads by Simmons & Simmons. The firm's IT director, Gary Roberts, explains that other models from Toshiba and Compaq were put on trial "in the field" and adds that the firm went for the "big names" to reduce the risk. Roberts adds: "With lawyers involved in global business, they have to be able to work wherever they are and they also have to have the ability to connect remotely for support. There is also the facility of

IBM's international links."

But it is not just the international firms that are keen on laptops. Jet-setting lawyers are also enthusiasts. Dibb Lupton Broomhead director of IT Guy Liddell says that about 40 of the firm's fee earners are dedicated laptop users, and the firm has recently standardised its pool to Toshiba 100CT. And, he adds, clients in the computer industry expect their lawyers to be clued up on the technology and some believe that users of portable computers are generally more computer-literate than their desktop colleagues.

At Eversheds, the regional offices have a pool of laptops available, with the choice of supplier and model left to each IT director, usually dependent on the regional strength of the supplier. In London, for example, all the desktops are AST.

Firms say the general criteria to judge laptops are reliability and functionality and with the specifications for laptops sometimes varying more than desktops, there can often be problems with compatibility which call for back-up from the firm's IT support department. It also means training can sometimes be more expensive.

With fewer people to train, smaller firms may find that changing the computer culture is easier. Seven-partner practice Batchelors recently upgraded its IT system to provide desktops to all fee earners and acquired NEC, Mitac and AST laptops piecemeal, though these will be replaced soon. Practice manager Bernard Stotesbury says that although partners with PCs and modems can obviate the need for laptops, they are still used on the move. "The only caveat," he adds, "is that the insurance policy does not cover laptops while they are in the car. It means they have to stay with you all the time, even having to be in view when you're on the squash court."

But it is not just the monetary risks that can be a problem. Anecdotal evidence relates tales of PC Cards being rammed in upside-down or lawyers running down the laptop's batteries and assuming that the computer is broken. A more hair-raising story tells of a lawyer and laptop being hit by lightning and dying (the laptop, that is). However, the pros of being able to work on the move unplugged seem to outweigh the cons.