Hot products: Technology that Can Make a Difference
California Lawyer
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Hot products: Technology that Can Make a Difference

August 2012

There are plenty of shiny new electronic gadgets and websites out there to tempt the discerning attorney/user, but only a few of them can make you a more efficient lawyer.

Sure, Apple's latest iPhone 4S featuring Siri - the devilishly smart voice-activated personal assistant - impresses a lot of people and can actually give you useful driving directions. But try asking it a tricky legal question. The world awaits "Siri, Esq.," the voice-activated personal assistant with a law degree. In the meantime, consider these latest innovations.

The Ultimate Portable Scanner
Document scanners are a great way to reduce office clutter, converting massive wads of paper into portable digital files. But what if you want to capture something you encounter on the go, while you're away from the office?

Turns out all you need is a smartphone and the right app. CamScanner is an application for the Android and iPhone platforms that instantly turns your smartphone into a document-scanning device.

With CamScanner you can scan multipage documents, and its algorithms enable it to automatically crop images. You can adjust color and brightness to make the electronic document easier to read, and there's a built-in anti-shake feature to help unsteady hands produce crisp images. (However, if your hands are shaking that much, maybe you should take some time off.)

Once the digital image is produced, you can transform it into a PDF in a variety of formats, depending on the size of the paper being scanned (letter, legal, etc). When that's done, you can transmit your scanned documents via electronic fax, save the processed images into a digital album, send PDFs or processed images to yourself or someone else via email, or upload the resulting files to an online storage service such as Dropbox.

CamScanner is a great way to capture legal documents, as well as other two-dimensional items you want to preserve, such as receipts, notes, and whiteboard sessions. And it sure beats hauling around a large and fragile document scanner.

What They Said
Hard to believe, but a lot of attorneys still rely on the trusty yellow legal pad for recording notes when they interview clients or witnesses. When you need a perfectly accurate record, though, try one of the new digital voice recorders that have come on the market lately. Not only do these models faithfully record what's going on, they also supply a permanent audio file of an event should the facts be in dispute at a later date. (And where would the legal profession be if the facts weren't regularly in dispute at a later date?)

The quality of digital recorders has gotten better in recent years, while the prices have dropped - even a top-of-the-line recorder now can be had for less than $100. Sony's Digital Flash Voice Recorder (ICD-PX312) is priced about $50 online, the Olympus VN-8100PC Digital Voice Recorder runs about $75, and the Coby CXR190 Digital Voice Recorder costs just under $40. These recorders fit neatly in the palm of your hand, weigh less than a pound, and most have more than enough storage capacity to capture anything you're likely to face out in the field.

Best of all, the recorders store the audio recording as a digital file (usually in the MP3 or WMA format), which you can easily transfer to a PC or laptop hard drive for archiving via a USB cable.

After that, you can transcribe the audio recording yourself, fob it off on an assistant, or email the file to an outside transcription service. If you decide to do the transcription in-house, there's a handy (and free) application called Express Scribe that you can download to make the task much easier. The software features variable playback speeds so that you can slow down the recording as you type, with the settings controlled either by a mouse, keyboard commands, or a foot pedal.

Another handy piece of related technology lets you record conversations on your cell phone. (The Olympus TP-7 Telephone Recording Device, for example, is available online for about $16.) You wear the contraption like an ordinary audio ear bud, and plug it into the microphone jack of a digital voice recorder to capture both sides of a phone conversation. Use the device to record conference calls or other phone conversations, freeing you to focus on the matter at hand instead of madly jotting down every salient fact on a legal pad.

And yet another option is to pair those recording devices with voice recognition software. Philips, for one, offers what it calls Speech Exec Software ($99) that automatically converts voice recordings to electronic text.

One caveat, counselor, if you want to record telephone calls. California is one of a handful of states that require all the parties' consent before a phone conversation can be recorded. Violators can be punished by a fine of up to $2,500, thrown in the slammer for a year, or both. Just to be safe, always ask permission before recording any conversation. Otherwise, you may be making your next call from the county jail.

The Stealth Legal Scholar
Plenty of reputable services provide online access to legal research - for a price. But locked deep inside Google, the world's leading search engine, is Google Scholar, with features that surprisingly few lawyers know about.

With Google Scholar, lawyers can conduct quick-and-dirty legal research with a few well-placed mouse clicks. For legal research, all you have to do is click on the Legal Documents setting on the Google Scholar home page. That will give you access to the site's trove of law-related information, including all state appellate opinions dating back to 1950; federal district, appellate, tax, and bankruptcy court decisions since 1923; and U.S. Supreme Court cases since 1791. It also includes citations for cases cited by indexed opinions or journal articles. And you can refine a search by specifying a range of dates or by selecting or deselecting particular state or federal courts.

To be sure, Google Scholar has its limitations. As many users quickly discover, a significant body of scholarly information - including many law journals and databases - simply isn't available through the website. That's where paid legal research platforms such as Lexis and Westlaw come in. (LexisNexis also provides free access to all published state court opinions).

For attorneys, though, perhaps the best thing of all about Google Scholar, apart from its price, is the boilerplate disclaimer that serves as an implicit advertisement: "Legal opinions in Google Scholar are provided for informational purposes only and should not be relied on as a substitute for legal advice from a licensed lawyer."

Nice to see that the world's largest search engine appreciates the value of skilled legal advice. Or at least its lawyers do.

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