Thursday, March 15, 2007

Testing my virtual strength

On Monday, I had my first real test of virtual strength. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened.

Every year, my son and I go away for a weekend in March to go skiing. There are two kinds of skiing. Winter skiing and Spring skiing. Winter skiing is a test of man against nature. Spring skiing is about man appreciating nature. There’s nothing like floating down a mountain of snow on a warm sunny day.

I digress…my son and I were away for our annual father-and-son spring weekend. As always for solos, getting away, even for a weekend can be difficult. For some reason, several last minute client matters arise that you feel compelled (ethically or contractually) to address before you go away. Of course, this year was no different. I worked right up to the last minute. We were supposed to leave early on Friday, and instead left on Saturday morning.

Rather than rush home on Sunday night, this year I decided to take Monday off and test out my abilities as a virtual lawyer. The skiing on Saturday was excellent (good snow, warm weather, lots of sun). But it rained Saturday night and was icy on Sunday. I looked at the weather for Monday, and it looked perfect. Being so late in the season, you can’t expect too many more days of skiing. The combination of warming temperatures, day-to-day obligations, and previously scheduled events minimizes the chances of enjoying another spring skiing day. Go for it!

But Monday was not Sunday and there was no Partner or Associate holding down the office. Was I able to maintain a professional practice remotely, any time, any where? How strong were my virtual lawyering skills? Well, this was a good test. I hadn’t originally planned to take Monday off, it was more spur of the moment. All I brought was my laptop and a pad of paper with my todo list. I didn’t even bring a pen. I had to use the complimentary pen from the hotel room.

Sometimes, as a solo, you and get away for a day without the phone ringing, and even if it does most client matters can wait 24 hours. Sometimes, you can’t.

Sunday night, I knew there were several projects which had a sense of urgency from the clients’ perspective. From my perspective, they were the typical “hurry up and wait”. You know the financing transaction that has to close this week and then the client sits on it for two or three weeks because something comes up or they’re not really sure they want to go through with it.

First, I made a deal with my son. We can stay an extra day and go skiing (and he gets to miss school), but I had to get my work done Sunday night. We stopped at the local video store rented the Star Wars trilogy for $1.25 and then I was free to work for the evening. The theory was that I could generate enough work to keep my clients busy (and happy) while I was skiing on Monday.

The second thing I did was to call my wife and ask her to forward my office phone to my cell phone (you can only do that if you are a solo attorney). That way, I could take my cell phone with me and, if something came up, ski back to the lodge to get my computer.

Third, I connected to the free wireless Internet at the hotel. I would have been happy to pay for Internet service, which they used to charge for, but this year the hotel made the brilliant decision to make wireless Internet free (probably to avoid technical support). The connection was a little slow, but I could live with it. I could receive emails through Outlook, but I could not send emails without using the web-based interface. Sending emails with attachments was quite a bit slower.

Finally, I set down to work. I read a few weekend emails from clients (I hate those!) and started drafting documents. As I worked, I realized my outstanding projects were bigger than I thought and the critical deadlines were closer than I had expected. The good news was that I was glad to be starting work at 5pm on Sunday evening in my hotel rather than driving home in 3 plus hours of traffic, packing and unpacking the car, and then trying to work at 9pm.

As it got to be midnight, my son fell asleep in the middle of the third trilogy; I was still working. I was determined to get several projects off to clients to free up the next day, even if I had to stay up late. Then, several clients (also working on Sunday night) sent emails raising new issues that could perhaps wait for Monday morning, but not Tuesday. By the time I got to bed, it was 4:30am. No problem, I would get 4 hours of sleep and then go skiing. Skiing in the warm sun would energize me.

At 8:30am, I woke up right on schedule. However, those projects that I sent to clients in the middle of the night, were already generating responses. Rather than keep the clients busy, they confirmed that the critical deadlines really were critical. Now I was in trouble. I had to file a new corporation in Delaware, revise financing documents, confer with outside counsel as well as the client, and get the financing closed by the end of the day.

The first challenge was faxing a document to the Delaware Secretary of State (“DE-SOS”). Yes, I could have called CT Corporation and emailed the document to them. But I try to keep costs down for client and I have gotten used to faxing my filings directly to the DE-SOS. I had no scanner or fax machine. All I had was my laptop. I called the DE-SOS and they said they only accept faxes; they could not accept email. If you know government offices, they were not about to make any exceptions for me or my annual father-and-son ski weekend.

The challenge was how to get an unsigned document out of my computer, signed, and faxed to the DE-SOS. First, I applied my electronic signature to the Certificate of Incorporation. Then, I saved it as a pdf to preserve the formatting. I attached the pdf to an email. All I had to do was to email to an online fax service and I was done.

Well, I had been meaning to sign-up for a PC to fax service, but had not gotten around to it. As a virtual lawyer, my plan was to forward the fax line in my office to an email fax. So, it was a problem I needed to solve anyway. Years ago, I used the free version of eFax, but I disliked having to download special software to read faxes written in a proprietary format. I assumed the fax services were better today, but I didn’t have time to research it.

So, there I was in my hotel room. The client said, “let’s go forward with the incorporation today.” It was 10am and the fax needed to be received by DE-SOS before 2pm. I can do this…I just need to signup for an online fax search. I did a quick Google search to find the most highly rated fax services. Several reviews came up quickly. One service offered a free trial. Great! Rather than take the time to compare services, I’ll just use the free trial to send out my document now.

In the meantime, there were a number of phone calls and last minute revisions to the financing documents. I still planned to buy a half-day ticket and go skiing in the afternoon. By noon, the sun would soften up the slopes and the skiing would be better.

Don’t forget to read the fine print. I sent out the fax document using the free trial, but nothing happened. No quick “confirmed” status. The website screen just said “processing.” That’s funny, in the real world, I hit the send button on the fax and it either goes through or fails within a minute or two. Instead, it just sat there “processing”. By 12pm, I got nervous and started reading the FAQs for help with the online fax service. In the fine print, I discovered that the free-trial was only good for 10 pages; my pdf document with the filing cover memo was 12 pages. Even when it gets done processing, this document was not going through.

Plan B was to go back to the reviews and, instead of the free trial, sign up for the top rated for-pay fax service. I could always cancel or change services later. I quickly concluded that MyFax and eFax were the most popular. The reviews suggested that they were equally as good, but MyFax was cheaper. I’m always in favor of supporting the underdog and saving a little money. ;-)

I signed up for MyFax, paid by credit card, uploaded my document and within minutes I received confirmation that the transmission was successful. At 1pm, I called the DE-SOS and confirmed the fax arrived. Crisis averted. In the meantime, my son was thrilled to be playing video games rather than skiing. And after two hard days of skiing, he needed the break.

Okay, so grab a quick bite to eat for lunch and then hit the slopes. Right? Nope…more client issues that had to be solved today. Each one passed the test: will a 24 hour delay adversely affect the client? If so, get it done now. By 2:30pm my hopes of catching the last few rays of the new daylight savings time were fading fast.

I finished the critical projects by 4pm. We packed up the car and drove home. No, we didn’t get to enjoy that glorious day out on the slopes. No, technology did not save me time that day. But yes, the virtual lawyer experiment had worked. I could access information, knowledge and tools from a remote location and provide the quality of service that clients deserve.

Maybe I still need to improve my life-work balance, but that will come. Already, I feel more comfortable knowing that I can leave the office spontaneously and I have acquired one more tool (PC to fax) that will facilitate working remotely.

Have you tested your virtual strength lately? What technologies have helped you to work remotely?


Paul said...

What I see in your experience is not so much that working remotely is possible, but that is is now practical. What makes it practical is more than the tools. An increasing number of places, not just hotels, are now connected to a "fat pipe" through which data can pass quickly and reliably. Unless guests can access that pipe, it isn't much use. Cheap wireless makes that possible.

High speed internet access is now just another item in a list of comforts to attract guests. Had you been in the same position 10 years ago, you would have had access to pretty much the same tools (though you would have used alta vista instead of google) but I'm pretty sure your connection to the outside world would have been over a phone line. I can't be sure how much slower the hotel's wi-fi was, compared to what you are used to, but I'm pretty sure it was faster than a phone line. Imagine downloading that fax program through that! (I could be wrong and maybe your hotel once had or would have considered wiring all the rooms with ethernet?)

Thinking about this possible v. practical balance reminded me of the first time I tried to work remotely. In 1979, I went to work for a time sharing company in Wilton CT. It was my first job in software development. The company was proud of how progressive it was regarding work rules. You could wear jeans to work. Your time was project centric -- it didn't matter when you were in the office, as long as you got your stuff done on time. And, if you wanted to work at home, they would let you have a terminal and would pay for a second phone line. In the office we had ADDS terminals. A CRT. The office network could sustain a rate of 4800 baud. Not very fast by today's standards but fast enough to page through code a screen at a time. A screen was 24 lines by 80 characters. Pretty decent given that my previous job required that I wear a suit and tie, had to be there from 9 to 5, and had to record my code on punch cards.

This new job was the future. We didn't have email, but did have something similar that allowed us to compose messages and send them to other users and read what was sent from other users. There was no instant messaging, but someone came up with a way where we could directly send a line of text to someone's terminal. We even had a type of bulletin board where people could discuss topics by subject from business related subjects to personal hobbies.

After I joined, I took them up on their offer to have a terminal at home. Much to my dismay, that terminal was a Decwriter. I could edit files, but not with the full screen editor I could use at the office. Working remotely was possible. But not practical. There were times when I just got fed up, gathered my things and drove to the office.

Later, I was able get my hands on a CRT similar to what I had in my cube. Though it was much better than the Decwriter -- I could use the same full screen editor I used at the office -- it was still slow. The CRT connected to the office network over an acoustic coupler at 300 baud just like the Decwriter. Displaying a screen's worth of code was painfully slow. And, since I was communicating via an acoustic coupler, any static or noise on the phone line would occasionally throw junk into the data. This turned out to be a big problem where I lived. The phone lines weren't in great shape. Windy days really generated a lot of static. If I was in the process of paging through a file, or just editing a line of code, I had to do a refresh which meant getting that data again and losing whatever I happened to be typing in at the time. It was bad enough that this was slow. That was simply insult. I could deal with that. When it became unreliable, it became injury. So, just as with the Decwriter, eventually things got tedious, and I would have gather my things and drive to the office. Again, working remotely was possible. But not practical.

I was beginning to sour on the idea of being able to work remotely, but never gave up on it. Working from home eventually meant tying up lose ends at the end of the day, or launching a build in the morning before heading to the office, or just sending some messages or posting something on the bulletin board. On occasion, when I visited my parents in Pittsburgh, I actually took the terminal with me (I drove). That was not just a test of my virtual strength, it also tested my physical strength. From my parents' home, I dialed into the Pittsburgh branch office and could work as if I was at my home in CT. My dad was pretty impressed.

Because that was so clumsy, I would think back to a film I saw in my junior high school science class. It was about the future and some of the wonders we would have in the 21st century. One thing they showed, and really stuck with me, was a mock up of a terminal in an attache case. The person in the film set the case down on a table and opened it up revealing a keyboard at the base (with acoustic coupler to one side) and a flat panel TV on the lid. As I lugged that ADDS terminal to and from my car, I wondered if I would ever live to see the day when I could have a terminal like that. If I wanted to visit my family, and work remotely, driving didn't have to be my only option. I could actually bring something like that on a plane!

V-lawyer said...

paul -

You're absolutely right. Access to a fat pipe is essential to working remotely. The good news is that Internet access is fast becoming ubiquitous. I recently took the Limoliner
bus from Boston to NYC, which has wireless Internet access making the trip both enjoyable and productive.

Your story about bringing the terminal with you reminds me of my first computer, a 1985 Compaq luggable, which was built like a sewing machine and had two floppy drives (no hard disk). I remember lugging that, along with a printer on winter vacation from law school. Boy, has technology improved!

Paul said...

My son has been bugging me for a cell phone on and off for some time. My reply has always been, "get a job".

Not being one to give up, he then starts bugging me to let him have one of our decommissioned cell phones so he can play. The other day I gave in and let him have one of our old StarTAC phones.

His reaction was "oh my god it's so big and bulky and doesn't have any style."

After some back and forth about the differences between the various cell phones I've had over the years, and my trying to explain that these phones are part of an ongoing evolution, and that that StarTAC was once the hottest thing around, and that some of the earliest phones were much bigger, I showed him a picture of a DynaTAC phone being help by its inventor.

He couldn't believe anyone would want something so "clunky".

Imagine what his son or daughter might say when he tells stories of his first laptop!