Apps for Small Law Firms

Apps for Small Law Firms

David Ferry writes from San Francisco about the law, social issues, and technology

Almost eight years since the first iPhones hit the market and even longer since digital assistants were introduced, mobile apps still can’t replace all of the software on your laptop or desktop computer. But they’re getting more useful for lawyers.

The task now is figuring out which ones are worth your time and money. Numerous companies make mobile applications specifically for law firms and lawyers. But these can be pricier and less refined than mainstream products. Scott D. Hughes, a solo criminal defense attorney in Orange County, finds that attorney-focused apps are rarely worth his time. An avid user of mobile apps, he handles presentations, scanning, and file storage on his iPhone. Hughes has even made his own smartphone apps to store case law and sentencing information. “As somebody who is solo or small-firm, like myself, I can leverage my cell phone,” he says. “Mostly, I don’t really use any straight lawyer apps. I’ve tried a lot of them out, but I don’t find them particularly useful.”

Some of the best options, Hughes says, are actually general-interest apps found in the “productivity” category wherever apps are sold. Attorneys on the go can use them to cost-effectively manage firm business while using any device. Here are several apps introduced in the past year to organize email, documents, and billing.

Microsoft Office mobile suite
Free (but users who subscribe to Microsoft’s Office 365 enjoy extra features in the app); for Windows Phone and iOS and Android
Until last year, people who rely on iPads or iPhones had to get by without the productivity tools that dominate the market. Last spring Microsoft released a pared-down version of its Office suite for the iPad, but users could only view documents (including spreadsheets) for free. If you wanted to print or edit, you had to pay for a subscription or license. In November, however, Microsoft overhauled its apps for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint and released powerful, intuitive versions that are just as capable as their desktop cousins. A Wall Street Journal review described their “no-compromises approach to viewing and manipulating files,” though it also noted bugs in syncing across devices.
Slack
Free (advanced features start at $7 per month per user); for iOS and Android
Slack is a slick program for streamlining communications among coworkers. Popular across Silicon Valley, the app aims to kill intra-office email. Using Slack on desktop computers or mobile devices, coworkers can share links, chat about projects (one-on-one or in groups), and exchange documents, including spreadsheets. And if you miss an important message from a coworker on your desktop, Slack can ping your mobile device. The app also integrates with tools such as Twitter, Dropbox, and Google Drive.
Scanbot
Free (but varies); for iOS and Android
The hoards of paper documents that accumulate each day – receipts, bills, handwritten notes – are easy to lose. Scanbot is the cleanest, easiest scanning tool for iPhone and Android devices yet. In one quick process, users can snap a picture of a document, convert the image to a PDF, and upload it to the cloud. And the app resizes and reframes shots to make each image appear as though it had been captured with a professional scanner the size of a toaster oven.
1Password
Free (advanced features cost $9.99); for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone
1Password has been one of the most popular password managers across mobile platforms since 2008, but the app’s 2014 update for Apple devices took it up a notch. 1Password randomly generates (extremely complex) passwords for your most important apps – banking, social media, email – then stores them behind a single master password. The latest version integrates Apple’s Touch ID feature so a user’s thumbprint can replace that single password to sign in to any app or account on the device. No more meticulously typing in your ultra-strong password on those tiny keyboards – and as a New York Times reviewer wrote, “Good riddance.”
Third-party keyboards
Prices vary, some are free; for iOS and Android
Speaking of fumbling across miniature keyboards, Apple’s latest iOS update includes the ability to switch out your iPhone’s or iPad’s standard on-screen keyboard. Several apps already popular on Android purport to offer quicker, easier typing. Swype lets you drag (i.e., swipe) your finger from letter to letter to create whole words without hunting and pecking for the right spelling. There is a learning curve, but the results are impressive.
SwiftKey looks pretty much like your standard iPhone keyboard, but the app has a powerful component that learns what you typically type in each app. The end result, multiple reviewers say, is that the keyboard can practically predict whole sentences.
Fleksy’s claim to fame is speed: The app holds the Guinness World Record for fastest text message typed on a touch screen, and its predictive capacity is so smart that in some cases users can type every single letter incorrectly and still end up with the word they’d hoped for.
Task management apps
$9.99 a month and up; for iOS and Android Loaded with features linked to its full-service version, Bill4Time is geared for professional services providers. It lets you plan, check payments received, and perform other tasks related to billing – all in one place. The app is free with a desktop subscription.
$19.99 for iPhone, $29.99 for iPad; for iOS only
Version 2 of the popular task-managing app Omnifocus 2 came out last year with a slew of new features. It is designed to help you wrangle all of the large projects that make up your job. Big projects can be broken into bite-size pieces and ticked off as you power through them. The app can also separate your work flow into “contexts,” organizing your to-do list by area and allowing you to segregate client matters, accounting work, and home tasks, for example.
$6.99; for iOS only
Hours is likely the prettiest time-tracking app you can find for the iPhone. But it also may be the most intuitive and useful, according to reviewers from Forbes to TechCrunch. In addition to letting you track your time by project, the app works with a calendar to show how you’ve allocated all your time. It also can gently remind you to start or stop your meter, depending on your habits. And all the data is exportable to PDFs or spreadsheets.
Email management apps
Both are free; for iOS and Android
A handful of new email apps claim to surpass the standard applications that ship on Android and iPhones; two may well deliver. The first, Acompli, bought by Microsoft in December (reportedly for more than $200 million), aims to be as powerful as a desktop email platform. It can unify all of your email addresses in one inbox, integrate with your calendar in a tap, and enable you to quickly open files you recently sent or received. The Verge, a tech website, says it’s the prime app for anyone who relies on Microsoft Exchange.
The second contender is actually Google’s second release for mobile devices. Inbox by Gmail, still available only by invitation, automatically sorts email messages by type – under “promotions,” “purchases,” or “travel,” for example – and keeps track of when a package will be delivered or whether your flight is delayed. Inbox also can serve as a to-do list, and it lets you “snooze” emails that don’t require immediate attention but that you may wish to answer later. Soon, we may all be able to surmount the tyranny of the overflowing inbox, on the go.