Abnormal Interviews: Jeff Richardson of iPhone J.D.

Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners and other commentators in the field. For the latest installment, we turn to Jeff Richardson, author of the superb legal tech blog, iPhone J.D., and a partner at the firm of Adams & Reese, L.L.P. in New Orleans, Louisiana. The interview, which mostly concerns iPhones and legal uses of smartphone technology, is as follows:

1. Generally, how has the practice of law changed with the advent of smartphones?

When the BlackBerry and similar devices started to become popular almost ten years ago, the practice of law began to change dramatically. Tech savvy lawyers could impress clients by always being available to receive and respond to an e-mail. This then led to clients expecting that they could contact their lawyers 24/7. Around the time that the Palm Treo 650 started to become popular, attorneys were able to do more than just read and respond to e-mail; they also had tools to find information on the Internet, edit documents, et cetera. We saw the possibility of being a mobile attorney without having to carry around a laptop. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, it forever changed what consumers expected from a smartphone interface, but it didn’t have much of an effect on the practice of law at first. But, in 2008, when the iPhone 3G came out, and the iPhone was suddenly able to work with Microsoft Exchange, the e-mail used by many lawyers and law firms, and at the same time the App Store opened, the iPhone started to become an extremely powerful device for lawyers. The tools that made mobile lawyering a possibility on the Treo 650 started to become available for the iPhone, but this time, the software was much more powerful and polished. We are now at a stage where clients are very used to expecting 24/7/365 availability for their lawyers, and with the iPhone, lawyers really can do quite a bit to meet those needs even when they don’t have a laptop computer nearby.

2. What ethical issues surround the use of a smartphone, and of them, what is the most overlooked? Are there any that are iPhone specific?

Preserving confidentiality is always a concern for lawyers, but not only is this not unique to the iPhone, it isn’t even unique to technology. If you leave a legal pad — or even worse, a briefcase — in an airport, restaurant, courtroom, et cetera, you risk possible exposure of lots of confidential attorney-client information and attorney work product. A smartphone can potentially hold much more confidential information than a briefcase, but at the same time, there are tools to help keep data private (such as password locks) and to locate a missing iPhone or remotely erase the iPhone if it is lost (such as the fantastic Find My iPhone app that Apple recently made free for the owners of all new iPhones).

Another concern that I see is that e-mail on a smartphone tends to be much more casual than e-mail on a computer, which is more casual than a letter drafted on the computer. And yet, the consequences of the written word can be the same, regardless of whether it is in the form of a text or an iPhone e-mail or a formal letter. Clients need to be aware of the potential for liability that results from sending a message without really thinking about it, but attorneys need to follow that advice, as well. Moreover, risks such as accidentally using REPLY ALL or FORWARD exist on the computer and the smartphone, but can be easier to make on a smartphone when people are trying to dash off messages in a matter of seconds.

3. Not too long ago, there were some concerns expressed on some blogs about the security of the iPhone and its appropriateness in legal practice. Have those concerns been put to rest?

You still see a few people issuing dire warnings about security on smartphones such as the iPhone, but often, these people are security professionals looking to sell their services. In the real world, I am not aware of any instance in which an attorney’s iPhone or other smartphone has been obtained by a hacker who knows how to use sophisticated tools to access data notwithstanding the use of passwords, et cetera. I know that these tools are out there, and I know that many police forces are learning how to use the tools (with court approval) to obtain information from a suspect’s iPhone or other smartphone. But the fact that a trained professional can hack into an iPhone or a laptop computer doesn’t lead me to believe that attorneys shouldn’t use an iPhone or a laptop computer. Instead, I urge common sense. If you use your iPhone in your law practice, activate the passcode lock feature so that a stranger cannot simply pick up your iPhone and start to read your e-mail, and be aware that there is some information that is so confidential that it should receive extra protection.

4. What are the three most essential apps for the practicing attorney?

In the spring of 2010, I did a “60 Apps in 60 Minutes” presentation at ABA TECHSHOW 2010 that sought to answer that question. You can still see that list here; I’m working on a new list for ABA TECHSHOW 2011 in April. But if I had to pick just three, I would probably pick Dragon Dictation (so that an attorney can quickly dictate an e-mail), DataViz Documents to Go (so that an attorney can edit MS Word documents and more easily view Word documents) and LogMeIn Ignition (so that an attorney can access his or her desktop computer even when out of the office). Having said that, I really hate to pick just three because there are so many great apps with so many new great apps coming out every day. After a hard day of work, sometimes I consider it “essential” to play a quick game of Angry Birds.

5. If you could will into being one legal app that does not yet exist, what would be its function?

The best feature of the iPhone for attorneys is having information at your fingertips. The information that I want to access is usually available somewhere, but sometimes, can be a little difficult to access. My dream app would be able to sort through information from all of my data sources — my document management system, my e-mail, the documents on my work and home computers, court dockets for my cases, such as the PACER system for federal courts, my notes, et cetera — and allow me to find information from any of those sources with the speed of a Google search.

BONUS QUESTION: What do you think is the best depiction in popular culture of legal technology?

For lawyers and non-lawyers, I think that the technology goal is the same; we want powerful technology without the human interface barriers. As a child, watching Luke Skywalker, Michael Knight, and Dave carry on conversations with C-3PO, KITT, and HAL 9000 made me long for the day when I would be able to access vast amounts of information just by asking questions to a computer or robot. Speech is making great advances, not only on the computer, but also in cars and on small devices like the iPhone, but the reality is that whether I am walking down the street or trying to work in my office, I don’t want to be surrounded by lots of people talking to their computers, their watches, the water cooler, et cetera But the new touch interfaces — which amazed all of us when we saw Tom Cruise in Minority Report, and which we are now seeing in real life on the iPhone and iPad and with the Xbox Kinnect — seem to have the advantage of removing barriers without the noise. I am excited to see these technologies continue to improve in the future.

BIOGRAPHY: Jeff Richardson is the publisher of iPhone J.D., the only website devoted to the use of iPhones by attorneys. iPhone J.D. was voted by readers of the ABA Journal as the best legal technology blawg in 2010. Mr. Richardson is a New Orleans native and a partner in the New Orleans office of Adams and Reese L.L.P., where his practice primarily involves representing defendants in class action and complex litigation, appellate litigation, products liability litigation, constitutional litigation and legal ethics. He has served as court-appointed liaison counsel for defendants in numerous complex cases. Mr. Richardson graduated from Emory University in 1991, summa cum laude, and Georgetown University Law Center in 1994, magna cum laude.

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