March 4, 2009 9:00 AM

iPhones Make Inroads at Law Firms

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Alan Cohen from the February 2009 issue of The American Lawyer

Even in an uncertain world, we could always count on three things: death, taxes, and the knowledge that nothing was ever going to pry a BlackBerry out of a lawyer's hand. Well, make that two things now. While the BlackBerry is by no means an endangered species, there is a new contender, and a growing number of lawyers (and their firms) are embracing it. The upstart's name--yes, we know; big surprise--is iPhone.

Iphone3g Few products have been as talked about, written about, or, frankly, well-marketed as Apple's iPhone. And as anyone who has ever tried one can attest, it's certainly a slick device: part phone, part iPod, part mobile Web browser, all wrapped up with a groundbreaking interface that lets users pinch or flick their fingers to zoom in and out of documents, e-mails, and Web pages. But how does it fare in a law firm environment? The first-generation iPhone was decidedly a consumer product, with gaping security holes and poor support for corporate 
e-mail--two deal-breakers when it came to business use. But with the release of its 2.0 software--along with the new iPhone 3G, capable of running over a faster cellular network--the device's corporate chops were vastly improved. With more attorneys clamoring for iPhones, some firms began taking a serious look at the platform. And a few have embraced it.

At Chapman and Cutler, more than half of the firm's attorneys--some 160 in all--now use iPhones instead of BlackBerry or Treo devices. (Chapman has long been one of the few firms to use Apple computers, switching to Macs in 1992.) Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal has "a couple of hundred" users, according to the firm's chief information officer, Andrew Jurczyk, with some 50-100 of those so itching to get on the platform that they went out and bought iPhones on their own, instead of waiting for the firm's 24-month replacement cycle to kick in. Howrey has about 100 iPhone users. "I had e-mails and people stopping by to thank me for making the move," says Daniel Gasparro, Howrey’s executive director of firm operations and chief information officer.

None of these firms, however, has adopted the iPhone exclusively, instead offering it as an alternative for lawyers who want it. And not all lawyers do. "Some stayed with Treos because they can use them to connect their laptops to the Internet, which is something Apple and AT&T Inc. [the iPhone’s exclusive carrier in the United States] don't allow," says Chapman and Cutler chief information officer Todd Nugent. "And we have eight or nine [lawyers] who still use a BlackBerry."

And that's really the rub: While the iPhone now offers many features that make it a viable option for business use--easy integration with Microsoft Exchange for BlackBerry-style "push" e-mail; remote wipe (a sort of self-destruct command that lets administrators erase the contents of any iPhone that's been left in a cab or airport lounge); secure access to law firm networks--it also has drawbacks that don't make it an option for everyone. There is no built-in keyboard à la BlackBerry; instead, users tap out messages using virtual "keys" displayed on the iPhone screen. Nor does Apple offer the option to use an external Bluetooth keyboard (Howrey loans out iPod Touch devices—essentially iPhones without the telephone function--so prospective users can see if the virtual keyboard is for them). "The touch screen is never going to be the equivalent of physical keys," says Shane McGee, an iPhone user and counsel in Sonnenschein's Information Security and Internet Enforcement Group.

Battery life--or lack thereof--is another frequent complaint about the iPhone. "We couldn't go one day without needing a charge," says David Gregson, chief information officer at Kilpatrick Stockton, one of Apple's own outside counsel. Kilpatrick recently concluded a six-device iPhone pilot program and found the end result "mixed."

The biggest beef, however, is how the iPhone fares for heavy e-mail use. "Coming from the BlackBerry world, you get used to the conveniences they have refined," says Gregson. "A BlackBerry is really an e-mail device with a phone added on, where the iPhone is a phone with e-mail added to it. You can't search through e-mail or cut and paste, like you can on a BlackBerry. You can only sync with your inbox, not with subfolders. You can't set priority when sending messages. Attorneys are going to be disappointed if they are real power users." Kilpatrick currently has no plans to deploy iPhones firmwide, although it has recently given them to two partners in New York who work with Apple.

Foley Hoag came to a similar conclusion, but will support iPhones for any lawyer who wants to use one (currently, there are about ten). "E-mail does not come in as smoothly as it does on a BlackBerry," says Frank Bayley, the firm's director of information technology. "It’s not as quick. If you send yourself a test message, you'll see that it takes [longer] to come through....[Our] hard-core people dealing with hundreds of e-mails a day are mostly sticking with BlackBerry."

But for many users, e-mail is now just part of the mobile productivity equation, and for them, that shifts the balance in favor of the iPhone. "I don’t think the BlackBerry grew enough," says McGee, who used one for more than five years before switching to the iPhone. "It’s still a platform maintained and developed for e-mail, and while that is very important, we now communicate via instant messaging, SMS [short message services], social networking sites--things the iPhone does well. Its Web browser is fantastic--one of its great feats is the way it can fit a big screen into a small space."

Already, some of the early iPhone adopters are exploiting the "beyond e-mail" features of the device. At Sonnenschein, iPhone users can securely access the firm's network and--via Safari, the iPhone’s browser--search and retrieve more than 6 million documents. "The nicest thing about the iPhone is that all the formatting, indenting, and styles display on the screen," says Jurczyk. "[Apple] really nailed it on mobile browsing with Safari." Chapman and Cutler also provides remote access to its document management system. "Because the browser works so well, attorneys can go into our private Google search engine and pull any [file] they need," says Nugent.

Another key benefit, say iPhone users, is the device's ability to work with thousands of applications available at Apple's new App Store (accessible directly from the iPhone). Many of these are free, or cost just a few dollars. IT directors like them because the applications are downloaded and installed directly onto the iPhone, so nothing is ever put on a desktop PC. This allows firms to maintain a safe, locked-down PC environment, while giving attorneys the freedom to add any mobile application they desire. Some of the most popular apps among lawyers are Google Mobile App, which lets users enter search queries via voice, and--thanks to the iPhone's location-tracking capability--find nearby businesses and services without taking the extra step of specifying a location; Taxi!, which provides telephone numbers (and user ratings) for local car service companies; and Jott for iPhone, which transcribes voice notes to text. There's even a mobile copy of the U.S. Constitution. (All of these are free via the App Store.)

Of course, all of this may make the iPhone even harder to pry from a lawyer's hands than a BlackBerry. "Not one person who switched to an iPhone went back," says Chapman and Cutler's Nugent. That's good news for Apple--and maybe less so for lawyers' spouses.

Alan Cohen is a freelance writer in New York. He can be reached at [email protected].

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