Chromebooks and the Law Office

Chromebooks are starting to come into their own little power sphere, which is perfectly acceptable to me. I’ve been using and loving my Chromebook for well over 2 years. And more attorneys everyday are turning to Chromebooks as a legitimate way to manage their law practices. One attorney, Jay Fleischman, is going “all-in” with a Chromebook after his $2000 Macbook Pro “gave up the ghost.”

Chromebook Desktop

Jay announced his all-in experiment with some enthusiasm, but got some mixed reactions about the possibility of using Chrome OS all the time in his law office.

What’s a Chromebook?

I won’t bore you with too many details about Chrome OS, because of the many different discussions in the past. I will encourage you to read my All About Chromebooks post, which explains some fundamentals about Chrome OS and and Chromebooks. I’ll also point you to this post, You Ask, I Answer: Chromebook or Tablet, where I discuss the advantages of a Chromebook over a tablet.

Ultimately, Chromebooks are cost-efficient devices that provide a lot of power.

Can a Chromebook compete with my desktop?

The first thing you’ll notice about Chrome OS machines is that you’ll need internet access to complete most programming functions. This means that some browser-based applications won’t work without an active WiFi or LTE connection. This “flaw” is frustrating for some new users. I hear complaints that Chromebooks spend a lot of time offline, and thus unusable. If you’re highly dependent on your cloud-based utility, the Chromebook might not be a good choice. Note, there are plenty of options for offline productivity. Chrome Web Store has a full section of “offline-enabled” apps. I’m still searching for a good photo editing app, but that’s on my lower-tier to do list.

The second “flaw” people find is that you can’t run traditional software programs in Chrome OS. That’s usually not too much of a problem anymore because most software developers are offering cloud versions of their programs. For instance, Office 365 and OneDrive are viable alternatives to MS Office, if you want to use those instead of Google’s word processing option. (If you do a lot of PDF editing, try CutePDF Editor, which is cloud-based, or use your Android tablet.)

If you absolutely need to run applications, and you’re not afraid to tinker a bit, then try sideloading a secondary operating system (or here for Ubuntu) on your Chromebook. This process is not for the faint-of-heart, and on a level of 1 to 10 for difficulty, this gets an 8. The secondary operating system will let your Chromebook run Linux programs like your desktop. (Linux users are a general cult of software geeks, but even though there’s a limited number of Linux programs available, the software is usually top-notch and stable.) Unfortunately, some vendors only produce Windows or Mac versions of their software, so check before you waste time and effort.

Android apps running on Chrome OS

After the initial, “I have to be connected to WiFi” shock, the “problems” of using Chrome OS become less noticeable. And those problems will become even less noticeable as you learn how to run Android apps on your Chromebook.

At Google I/O 2014, Google announced that Chrome OS would run Android apps natively. The first set of Android apps for Chrome are now available. Although the selection is small — 4 total apps — they’re amazingly simple to use and feel like regular software.

Another enterprising developer named Vladikoff has a GitHub repository for running custom Android apps on Chrome OS.

You can check out Reddit for some further details. Degree of technical difficulty for this one: 10 of 10.

You haven’t quite sold me

A little time ago, I published this post on the death of the Android tablet. Lawyerist picked up the post for a discussion in its “Lab,” which generated some comments. Of course, someone pushed the common misconception that “Chromebooks don’t work without the internet,” but many comments were directed at the superior benefits of tablets.

One comment (who’s also a friend of this blog) focused on the several points where Chromebooks fall short.

  1. Run a full-featured trial presentation application at trial. (There is no web-based solution that comes close to a dedicated application like TrialPad)
  2. Review and issue-code deposition transcripts using various proprietary formats that court reporters send.
  3. Scan a document using the iPad’s camera, convert it to PDF, OCR it and then fax it or email it to someone all over LTE b/c you aren’t at your office
  4. Record and edit audio
  5. Edit video
  6. Edit photographs and sync them back to Lightroom
  7. Split and organize PDFs
  8. Read the books I have on Kindle (Yes you technically could do this on Chromebook using CloudReader but the laptop form factor and the poor quality screens on most Chromebooks makes it a poor experience)
  9. Watch a movie (Same)
  10. Monitor and change my firm’s network setup (Dedicated app).
  11. Use OmniFocus (There simply is no web equivalent . . . Yet)
  12. Play Games (Yes Chrome has a few but not the good ones I want)
  13. Use OmniOutliner to outline a brief.
  14. Use as a GPS device in my rental car
  15. Quickly access my expense tracking software while on the go, enter an expense & assign to a matter, take a picture of the receipt and attach it to the entry.
  16. Dictate and send an email or text message to a colleague while walking through the airport.
  17. Use the SkyGuide App (Syncs a star map with your current view of the sky using camera and GPS) to help my daughter with her telescope.

Fortunately, I had an answer (or solution) for most of the issues:

Okay, so I have some issues, of course.

1 & 2 – Probably .0002% of the population cares about this (I know, we’re on Lawyerist, which is for lawyers, and we should care, but let’s get over ourselves in the grand scheme of importance). Yes, this is handy, but I rarely use either.

3 – I do that with my phone, so I wouldn’t ever do that with a Chromebook. I guess that’s a “winner.”

4 – Just one option, though there are several others. I happen to like Myna.

5 – Check out WeVideo. Works well.

6 – Okay…edit photos with Pixlr and store to Google Drive. Or/Then use Google+ photos for more enhancements. Oh yeah, it’s free.

7 – PDFBuddy. Not perfect, but works.

8 – You can still read….How about Google Books? I wouldn’t necessarily knock that, it’s not convenient, but it’s still possible. That doesn’t make Chromebook any less versatile. I’d use a Kindle, phone, or tablet anyway.

9 – Uh…sure you can. Why not? My Chromebook has an 11.6″ screen, or I can have a 14″ screen. I’d actually say that’s a plus. Plus I can play local content from an SD Card or directly from the SSD.

10 – Take your pick.

11 – Wait, you said CBs weren’t as versatile. Evernote, Google Keep, and Drive, still work well. Personally, I save and share to Google Keep. [Edit: I actually like Microsoft OneNote a little more.]

12 – See 11. Not sure I agree still. The “not the ones I want” doesn’t make it not as versatile. Plus, most apps have online, browser-based versions.

13 – See 1 & 3.

14 – Okay, but I don’t think anyone would try that…and I’d use my phone. But that’s another “winner.”

15 – If it’s browser-based, you can do it. Chromebooks do have cameras, too.

16 – Winner, I guess. I wouldn’t do it — I’d use a phone — but Chromebooks don’t have that versatility.

17 – Okay, winner again.

When it comes to specialized task, tablets admittedly prevail. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more versatile — especially considering some of the peculiar and specialized scenarios. Once again, versatility is not the same as convenience. Perhaps convenience was a more appropriate way of describing your iPad experience? Then I’d agree.

One of Jay’s biggest issues is the idea of using Microsoft Office documents in Chrome (or more appropriately, Docs, Sheets, and Slides). I’m sure a lot of attorneys have the same problem. But don’t worry, Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides handle Microsoft Office documents pretty well, but if you need native editing, try OneDrive. If you choose to use Google Drive, you can sync your files for offline use, or create entirely new documents for synchronization later.

I should also mention that Google Docs can work with native Word documents, and you can create simple or complex pleadings quite easily.

But what about the WiFi?!

Anymore, WiFi is universal. Certainly, I’ve heard of and experienced instances where WiFi wasn’t available. But that’s the exception and not the rule. My guess is that lack of WiFi is less of an issue than most people make it. You’ll probably use your Chromebook most at home (with WiFi) or at work (with WiFi). If you need a portable WiFi alternative, I’d suggest checking out your cell phone provider for tethering (usually about $20/month), investing in a mobile hotspot, or even using a travel-sized wireless router. These will enable you to securely connect your devices anywhere you go.

Not anymore: cold turkey and full-time

The idea that Chromebooks or Chrome OS can’t handle the “sophisticated” tasks of a law office is, well, balderdash.

Jay’s proposition of dumping everything and immediately switching to Chrome OS is revolutionary. Would I recommend it? No. I still use a Windows 7 desktop because I’m tied to programs that require Windows.

I’m sure Jay will discover plenty of problems still associated with over-coming the Chrome OS hurdle. But remember when Windows users used to say, “you can do anything on a Mac?” Yeah, that was a long time ago and the systems got better.

Updated to add links to Lawyerist Lab comments.

4 Responses to Chromebooks and the Law Office

  1. I’ve worked for several weeks using nothing but Chrome OS (and some ipad on the side). Love it. My biggest remaining issues have to do with scanning (can’t drive the Scansnap from Chrome) and manipulation of PDFs (breaking down, bates stamping and redacting hundreds of pages of PDFs can be a challenge).

    • I agree. The biggest difficulty is advanced PDF access. However, I don’t know how much demand/need there is for some of the advanced features outside of legal or government specialties. I’m willing to bet that most budget markets need to view a PDF document, and that’s about all. That said, Google is seeking comments on opening the Chrome scanning API, which I think is very beneficial.

      For offices that need to do a lot of PDF manipulation, there is at least this possible solution, but I suspect most people will need to use a desktop computer to accomplish their tasks.

  2. The biggest beef I still have with Chromebooks is that wi-fi access is far from universal outside of my home-office-favorite coffee shops. I had a Chromebook for about a year as my laptop (I kept a desktop at home). It was great, but when I would go to a conference (like, ironically, TechShow) I felt like I was marooned on a desert island, technologically. The only option was to use my phone as a hotspot and kill both batteries. Not awesome.

    • That’s definitely an issue. I’ve never been too happy with Techshow’s technology solutions though, so that isn’t a surprise.

      I haven’t seen too many problems, although I have a hotspot card from Verizon since I don’t use public wifi. You have the drain issue, but I can normally get about 3 hours of straight use on my Jetpack, and I can use a power pack to continue charging. Offline use for Chromebooks is good, much better than even 6 months ago. I can do most of what I need to — drafting pleadings, writing blog posts — without internet. All of my Drive files sync for offline use, Docs, Sheets, and Slides each work offline, as do many other apps.

      In reality, I find there aren’t too many non-legal things I do offline, so even with a laptop or Macbook, I’d still depend on an internet connection to function. I would like a decent video editing solution, but that’s a side-point.

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Jeff Taylor

I’m just an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. I’m also an attorney and I blog about Android for lawyers. You can follow me on Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, or Google+.