Downtime Efficiency

As lawyers, we’re busy people. Between meetings, court appearances, and document drafting, we’re often on-the-go. One problem with being busy outside of the office is that work continues to accumulate in the office. Your absence doesn’t halt the flow of “to do’s” to your inbox. This problem has been incrementally addressed by technological advances. First pagers, then cell phones, and most recently smart phones. Your office progressed from notifying you to reaching you, to allowing you to work outside the office during travel downtime.

Leaving aside the argument about constant availability and mental health, if you have a modern smartphone then you’ve no-doubt discovered the world of apps. Beyond email and text messages, your phone is really a pocket computer. What do attorneys mostly do with computers? Research and writing. How can you turn on-the-go downtime into reading and authorship time? Let me tell you about two app ecosystems that make this possible.

The first, which I have used for more than a year, is Apple Macintosh specific. Don’t worry; there are PC incarnations as well. The program set I use is called Byword. It is a word processing program that comes in iPhone, iPad, and Mac versions that seamlessly sync your writings via Apple’s iCloud Internet network. I can start writing a letter, agreement, or pleading on my Mac, edit it further on my iPad during lunch, and then still further on the iPhone while waiting for an afternoon meeting to start. The syncing happens in the background for any document you save on iCloud. It’s wonderful because the only thought I have to put into it is whatever I want to write. I don’t have to think about where I am physically or what device I have access to. Whether Mac, iPhone, or iPad, I open the Byword app, select my document, and pick up writing where I left off. It’s a very cool way to make use of downtime, or add those key passages or edits as soon as they occur to you. Using iCloud sync eliminate the need to wonder whether you have the document’s newest version or having to make a note to yourself to add another “to do” to the pile when you return to the office.

For PC users, or Mac users wanting to share their writings with Windows-using colleagues, I suggest a combination of Dropbox and the text editor of your choice. On the Mac, my favorites are WriteRoom or iA Writer. Both work cleanly with Dropbox, come in Mac and iOS versions, and store writings as text files in the Dropbox folder of your choice. On the PC side, Q10 is an excellent freeware option. Even Notepad for Windows or TextEdit for the Mac, both are built into their respective operating systems, will do the job.

That fact brings a final note before we move to researching plus writing on-the-go. All of these programs handle plain text and very basic formatting. You draft your letter or brief in these tools, but you’ll still need Microsoft Word or your word processor of choice to format the document — add paragraph or page number, fonts, etc. This is okay; even good. Separate the doing (writing) from the designing (formatting). The hard part of writing is getting the words out – not picking their font. If you use your downtime to do the hard work of writing, then the formatting will be a walk in the park.

The first question I hear from lawyers to whom I make this argument, is that they need their research in front of them. Doubtless this is true for some writing, but not all. Once you’ve eliminated the cover letters, follow-ups, and “thank you’s”, it’s time to draft agreements and pleadings. While lawyers are comfortable with “Alt+Tab” or “Cmd+Tab” to move between apps on a PC or Mac, moving between apps on an iPad is a pain. If you have research in WestLaw or PDFs in GoodReader (my preferred PDF viewer) and you’re writing in Byword, then traditionally, you’re stuck double-tapping the Home button to change apps. There’s a new and better way.

A recent post on one of my favorite blogs, The Brooks Review, described an interesting new iOS app, Writing Kit. This universal iOS app (meaning it works on both iPhones and iPads) integrates a writing program (with Dropbox syncing) and web browser, offline webpage storage, and Instapaper support into a single app. You create your documents in Dropbox and begin writing. When you want to access your research material (including anything stored on Delicious, Instapaper, Pinboard, or Zootool) you simply hit the compass-like button in the top right of the iPad’s screen and you land in the app’s “research area” where you can read, cut, and copy material. When you’re finished researching, just hit the “Done” button and you return to your document. Writing Kit is the first app I’ve seen to combine research and writing in a single app. It’s an elegant way to overcome the app-switching hurdle.

Being a new tool, Writing Kit does have a few limitations. First, it does not support PDFs. Second, in order to load research into the app, as opposed to relying on the built-in web browser, you have to join a third-party service (Delicious, Instapaper, Pinboard, or Zootool) and save research there before you launch Writing Kit. Installing a bookmark to save research is for Instapaper, for example, is incredibly easy. This is not hard, just a small step when you setup the system.

Hopefully these two mobile options help you make valuable use of your downtime. They’re not perfect solutions, but both help you maximize your available time so that fewer assignments pile up while you’re out of the office, and leave less for you to face upon your return.

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