December 06, 2003

Legal Uses for Tablet PCs

I was pondering where Tablet PCs might fit in well with legal practice needs, and recalled Marc Lauritsen's recent ABA LPM Magazine article, "Smart Pads on the Wireless Web". He did a nice job itemizing a number of things one might be able to do on a Tablet PC, particularly considering the pen (or stylus) interface, namely:

  • Client interviews
  • Depositions
  • Due diligence work (intelligent checklists)
  • Trials
  • Negotiations and closings

With Marc's extensive expertise in document assembly systems, he insightfully picked up on the opportunities that an automated and pre-populated practice system would bring. He also notes that web-enabled knowledge tools and Wi-Fi accessibility further enhance its capabilities.

However, he aptly observes that we're not quite "there" yet:

"[...] legal technology vendors have yet to adjust their software for optimal performance in tablet modes. Handwriting recognition, like voice recognition, still makes too many mistakes. [...] We need more Wi-Fi hot spots—and unquestioned data integrity.

Finally, interactive checklists and intelligent templates can be expensive to build and maintain. We’ll want some ready knowledge tools to outfit our new devices. An open marketplace of prefabricated applications, starter kits and componentry is my personal dream."

I agree with Marc that tablet PCs won't truly be "enabled" for legal professionals until there are legal-specific tablet-based systems and tools available. Palm-based PDA usage soared as the needed applications (including Windows-based data synchronization programs) entered the marketplace. Will software developers rush out and create them for the legal tablet market? I believe the answer to that question is ultimately dependent upon how deeply tablet PCs penetrate the legal market. Right now, very few attorneys use them. As with regular PC-based document assembly, many forms and other documents are jurisdiction-specific, further limiting their marketability.

Thus we may eventually see several developer niches for tablets. However, I think that is still a ways off, again, because there is not a substantial market to which they can currently sell. It's partially a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum: Developers need legal professionals to buy and use more tablet PCs, in order to grow the potential market to where it is viable for developers to jump in. However, many attorneys may not buy a tablet PC until they know there are legal-specific tablet applications to justify the investment. This reluctance will most likely continue while tablet PCs command a substantial price premium over traditional, higher performance notebooks. When tablets equalize with notebook prices, we should logically see wider adoption.

Another factor could contribute to faster adoption: Current PC-based software developers might be able to add tablet-based features, and therefore extend their existing programs, with only a marginal cost required. This leveraging or adaptation of existing applications could break the status quo stalemate and give the market the necessary boost.

For the near-term, however, I believe that if attorneys want to be have such a well-enabled tablet-based practice system, they will more likely have to develop them in-house or with the direct assistance of a qualified consultant or vendor. Of course, some developer may come along and prove me wrong, but that's my best educated guess for now. The convergence of PDA and laptop features into the tablet format is definitely intriguing. I'm still waiting for the evolutionary break to make them compelling to more than just the early adopters in the legal market.

Topic(s):   Legal Technology  |  Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard

I also know someone who said the handwriting function is useless. This seems to be a recurring theme.

Posted by: Samuel at December 10, 2003 12:50 PM

I agree that Tablet PCs are not yet optimized for the legal world. A lawyer friend of mine bought a Tablet PC about a year ago, and I ran into him recently and asked him how he was enjoying it (initially he raved about it). He said he still liked it, but that he rarely used the Tablet functionality. Basically, he said it was a laptop computer that he occasionally flipped the screen around to show a client something, but even that was a rare occurence. He said the handwritting function was useless. If he just kept the notes as graphics then they weren't much good because he couldn't read his own handwriting later or search for things. If he OCR'd the writing the results were poor and it took extra effort to do that, which he wasn't inclined to do. Bottom line: he likes the laptop function, and since he types well enough he doesn't really see the benefit of the Tablet data entry.

Posted by: Ernie at December 6, 2003 09:29 PM