I’ve been practicing as a solo attorney for more than a couple of years now, and like all attorneys (or at least, all readers of this blog!), I like to find better ways to do things. If it involves technology, even better. This post describes why I decided to try the Livescribe 3 smartpen; see how it works and how I use, what I like about it, and what needs improvement.
We’re All Pressed for Time
Attorneys, and just about everyone else, seem to be short on time. For attorneys, efficiency helps us be both saner and more profitable in our practice. Any high-tech or low-tech tool that helps us to be more efficient is something just about any attorney (or anyone else) will appreciate. I decided to try it earlier this year, because it seemed like it could save me some time. I’d found, in my practice, that I tended to take notes on client meetings and phone calls by hand, as that was less distracting to me than using a laptop or mobile device. The downside was that I would spend up to an hour every day retyping my notes into my law-practice management software, so that they would be text searchable alongside each record of a meeting, phone call, or note on a project. That was not efficient!
I imagine most of us have heard of the benefits of a paperless office: portability and accessibility of documents, searchability, reduced expense of storage, reduced risk of loss with redundant backups, security (still need electronic security), and more. But paperless doesn’t necessarily mean zero-paper. I find several benefits to taking notes on paper:
- I like a physical record of some things, such as notes from client meetings.
- I find that I remember things better when I write them down—and there are studies supporting this, such as this one (Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014) and this (Mangen and Velay, 2011).
- It is often less distracting to me, and to the person I’m talking with or listening to, to take notes on paper.
- There are times when paper works better—sometimes far better—than taking notes on a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone: client meetings, phone calls, on the road, or a plane, or when the battery is running low!
In short, I was not willing to give up using paper for notes. But I wanted a faster way to get my notes into electronic form (and I didn’t want to spend time every night tearing apart my notebooks and scanning them). With those goals of increased efficiency and less paper in mind, I decided to try the Livescribe 3 pen. I thought that if it cut my daily average note-taking-and-retyping time by even 10 minutes, it would be worth it. I’ve found it to be more helpful than that.
How the Pen Works
The Livescribe 3 smartpen works like a typical ballpoint pen, in that you hold it in your hand, reveal the writing tip (take off the cap, click the spring-loaded top, etc.), and write on paper. But it does more than that, with several non-traditional-pen parts:
- An infrared camera in the barrel, to capture what you write as you write it.
- 2GB of memory, to record what you write.
- An indicator light to show you the pen’s status.
- A small speaker which also occasionally indicates status.
- An antenna to sync with your mobile device.
- A processor to tie it all together (and yes, your pen will occasionally need a firmware update—the mobile app will tell you and install it!).
- A capacitative tip for use as a stylus, covering the charging port.
Initial set-up is straightforward: turn on the pen, download and install the (free) mobile app, pair the pen to the app on phone or tablet, and then activate one or more notebooks with the pen. Once you’ve done that, using the pen is easy: twist a ring to turn it on, write on special dot paper, and the pen records what you write.
When you sync the pen to the app, the pen syncs data in real-time—you can watch your handwritten notes appear on your phone with a lag of a few seconds. You can also use the pen without the mobile device present, or the app open. When you connect later, it will download. In my experience, 2GB of data storage on the pen has been plenty for a full day of writing (and the pen battery lasts more than a day, too).
You do need to write on special dot-pattern paper. Each page has a pattern of dots that tell the software the page of the particular notebook you’re using, and where on the page you are. You can buy them in a range of sizes, or download and print your own, so you could use looseleaf and bind it, or file pages (or shred them—which may be attractive to the security-conscious, see below under security concerns). I like to have a durable and portable physical record of key notes, and you can always tear pages out and shred them, or file them. Depending on how you like to use notes, you could use separate notebooks for each client or project.
Each page of each paired notebook is visible in the app, with your handwriting appearing on the digital page where it appears on the physical page. Along with where on the page you wrote, the pen combo tracks when you wrote and when you paused, and automatically divides text up into chronological sections that Livescribe calls the “feed.” You can view your notes in a “page” view and a “feed” view. Note that the feed view may be in a different order than the page, if you jumped around on the page.
How I Use the Livescribe Pen
I use the pen for client meetings, phone calls, when I’m on a bus or train, or any time it would be obtrusive or inconvenient to have a phone or a laptop out. I also like to use it for CLEs and bar association lunches. I find it to be very portable (the “flip” notebook is sized like a reporter’s pad) and durable (I’ve dropped the pen on tile floors several times), and easy to use: just twist the ring and start writing.
As part of my daily routine, I review my notes in the evening, and I convert my writing to text, and move what I need into my practice management system.
The text transcription happens locally on your mobile device—you don’t need to be connected to the Internet to do it, and Livescribe assured me that they don’t have access to your data. It supports many languages of handwriting, though I’ve only tried English. I’ve found it works well, though I do have to write relatively neatly. If another person would have trouble reading your writing, so will the app!
You can copy and paste text in the app, and edit the transcriptions (it initially said “cold-fusion reactor” instead of “cold-fusion realtor”), though I often do that on the computer if I need to edit my notes.
After conversion from handwriting, you can edit, attach photos or notes to a text section, copy, delete, add tags, share a feed section, or merge more than one together (which is useful for putting all of a meeting’s or CLE’s notes together). You can also create a reminder from the text selected—it’s not perfect but gets it into Apple’s Reminders app—and you can work with an address like you would any other text that iOS recognizes as an address, including creating a contact or launching in Maps.
You can move page images out of the Livescribe+ app as PDFs to Evernote, OneNote, or any apps that can open PDFs or images—they open as PDFs, allowing you to zoom way in (which is great if you later have trouble reading what you wrote). You can then use them like you would any document in that app—mark up a PDF, share a file through a cloud storage service like Box or Dropbox, save it, and so on.
The pen/app combo can record sound, using the built-in microphone of your mobile device. The pen doesn’t have a microphone, though it alerts you (and anyone who can see your pen) when the app is recording by changing the indicator light to red. You can start and control a recording from the app, or from controls printed onto the paper, but only if the app is open and the device is already paired. Note that you should be very mindful of audio recordings and wiretap laws—start with the Digital Media Law Project’s excellent summary of laws on recording conversations, and see below in my discussion of security concerns.
I’ve shown the pen and my use cases to friends and colleagues, and other attorneys have asked me if I have any security concerns with the Livescribe pen and app. I do. There are a few things to keep in mind.
- Can the camera take pictures of people? I haven’t asked Livescribe about this, but I’m not concerned. The camera is focused for the page, about an inch away, and it has to resolve the lines of ink and the dot pattern—and they’re small—so I don’t think it would be able to pick up anything other than a very blurry picture, unless you’re holding the pen an inch or so from the subject—it’s no Google Glass! It’s also an infrared camera, so it won’t yield a typical visible-light picture.
- Can it be used to record sound? Yes. Anyone using this pen should be aware of wiretap laws in their jurisdiction, which often include any recording of sound made without express consent. The pen doesn’t record sound—it uses your phone/tablet’s microphone, which is likely better quality than a mic in a small pen could be—and you can place the phone near to the audio source, and not have the mic pick up the sounds of you and your hand dragging along a table. But be very clear that you are recording sound, and get permission to do so.
I think this is the biggest vulnerability of the pen. It is very convenient to have all of my notes digitally accessible. But it is also vulnerable. The data is not encrypted, and I don’t know of a way to wipe it remotely (I believe “archiving” a notebook would remove that data from the pen, but then you couldn’t continue to write in that particular notebook). The pen can pair with multiple devices. It requires a tap on a control with the pen, as well as actions by the app user, so I don’t see a realistic risk of someone on the other side of the room hacking into my pen.
The real risk is that a pen that is lost or stolen still has all your un-archived notebook data on it, and anyone who has your pen can pair it to a device and download all of your data. For lawyers using this for client notes or other purposes, this creates a significant risk. And of course, any notebook that you have with you could also be lost or stolen—but that is the case for any paper. The difference with the pen is that you are effectively carrying around all of the notebooks that you’ve been using, at all times. I’d like to see this improved by being able to encrypt the data on the pen, set a password for any device pairings with the pen, and ideally, an ability to wipe the pen remotely (though that would require more connectivity than just the Bluetooth it currently has).
You can print your own dot paper (the website has four downloadable and printable “notebooks” of 25 pages each), take the notes you want to take with pages from a notebook you printed, and then archive that notebook from the app on the phone. The archiving feature is designed to allow users to indicate that they’ve finished using that instance of a notebook (all notebooks in all sizes are numbered, typically 1-4 or 1-8) and use a new “notebook #1” in a particular size.
For the security-conscious, archiving could serve to purge the data from the pen. Note that doing so would also purge the data from the app, so you’d want to have exported your data (as text, PDFs, reminders, etc.) before archiving it.
Depending on your how risk-tolerant you are, you might want to make archiving part of your weekly or even daily workflow, so that you’re quickly cycling through your own printed “notebooks.” Sure, doing so would remove some of the convenience of the smartpen system, as you wouldn’t have your notes in the phone app at all times, and you’d also need to work with looseleaf paper, or bind each printing. But, you want to be extracting your notes and moving them into your practice management system regularly, right?
Here are better ways to make the smartpen more secure.
- Password protection of the smartpen is a no-brainer. Ideally, when you buy a new smartpen it has a default password, and when you first sync it to a device you must change the password. You could then update the password through the app, and no one who finds or steals your smartpen could pair it to another device without your password. The password could be required for every sync, and/or there could be a password on the app—which would also be great for in-device security. Ideally it would be integrated with Apple’s fingerprint scanner. How feasible is password protection? It seems to me it could be done with an update to the app and to the smartpen firmware (which is handled through the app). I’ve asked Livescribe for this addition—feel free to hop on over to my request on the support site and encourage them, by agreeing or adding your own!
- Hardware encryption is possible and wouldn’t raise the cost prohibitively. It wouldn’t affect smartpens already sold, but it could be an attractive “premium” model offering in the future. (Livescribe, are you listening?)
- Remote wiping would require adding cellular equipment and a larger battery. That might be feasible and affordable someday in a pen, but it seems unlikely at present.
- Fingerprint sensor would be very cool. It might be tricky to fit it onto a round pen barrel…and probably unnecessary. Let’s start with password protection and then hardware encryption.
Caveats for using the Livescribe 3 pen
No system is going to be perfect. First, there are the security concerns I described above. I think the biggest risk is data vulnerability, and the best way to secure it at present is to keep hold of your pen, and be vigilant about archiving notebooks. Happily, it fits nicely in a pocket, so you shouldn’t have trouble carrying it around.
The other caveats I have with using the pen are:
- The app is currently available only for iOS. Sorry, Android, Microsoft, and Blackberry users, it seems your phones don’t use a new enough version of Bluetooth. I’m sure Bluetooth 4.0 is in the works though, right?
- I have to write a bit more neatly than usual to make the transcription work well. While this slows me down a bit, it’s not a terrible thing to make my writing legible, as sometimes I have trouble reading it myself (like other attorneys, from what I hear).
- The pen isn’t cheap. I paid about $150 for the pen and a starter notebook, plus more for different ink cartridges (as many users suggested), and for other notebooks beyond the starter notebook. My total investment was close to $200 – not cheap for a pen and paper! But, it does do more than just a pen and paper, and it saves me a lot of time.
Improvements I’d Like
There are some improvements to the pen and app that I’d love to see.
- The data-security hole needs to be fixed. Password-protecting the pen is a must. The app should be too. Sure, responsible lawyers (and non-lawyers) secure their phones and tablets, and I’m sure savvy readers of this blog have complex passwords, or a fingerprint scanner. (If you don’t, take a moment and add one—right now, please!) Even so, it would be nice to have a separate passcode to enter to open the app, given that attorneys will likely use this to record confidential client information. Sure, the pen is marketed to students more than lawyers—but wouldn’t every competitive pre-med undergrad want his or her Orgo notes password protected? I’d think the same goes for every competitive 1L.
- Android app. This is a huge market, and I imagine Livescribe is working on this—but Bluetooth 4.0 support seems to be holding it up.
- The ability to creates tasks/reminders/calendar events in more than just Apple’s default apps. Apple’s Reminders is fine, but it would be great to be able to create directly in other apps. Livescribe has recently announced integration with Noteshelf for iPad users, but I’m sure users of OmniFocus, Things, Fantastical, and all of the popular cloud-based law-practice management platforms (such as those listed on this LTRC chart) would be interested.
- Allowing integration with Launch Center Pro and support for x-callback-urls, so that other apps (e.g. practice management software) could have items created in them from text in the Livescribe+ app.
In short, I love using the Livescribe 3 pen, and I love the time it saves me. The data vulnerability is a risk—but so is carrying any paper at all. I’ll keep using it. If you have questions or comments, ask away!