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August 24, 2015

Surface Pro 3 – The Modern Legal Pad


Law and technology share a lot in common. Both fields are constantly evolving, whether it’s another Proposition passed by the electorate and that new edition of the latest gadget, or an appellate decision that changes the way we approach certain investigative practices and a software update that revolutionizes but frustrates those who grew accustomed to the old version. Like case law, tech companies build upon past versions to improve, and sometimes completely ruin a product line. Yet, when we talk about technology in the legal field – and especially the adoption of new technology – the common ground often turns to sharp skepticism and a preference for age-old tools that are struggling to keep up with the data demands of the modern attorney.  The Microsoft Surface Pro 3 binds the legacy of the legal pad and the promise of digital technology together thereby allowing attorneys to work in the same way they always have — but with a modern legal pad that never runs out of paper or ink and is always accessible.

A courtroom is not a friendly environment for your personal space, or your time.  What does a lawyer need with a computer?  We’ve always been content with a legal pad and a pen, but in today’s world a pen-enabled computing device is not only a benefit, it is rapidly becoming a necessity.  A device that goes with you everywhere has real world benefits over a desktop workstation that stays in your office.  A device that can double as your workstation at home or your office as well as in court makes even more sense.  Deputy District Attorneys like myself will spend a large portion of our work day in the courtroom.  We handle dozens of cases a week, maintain caseloads that can sometimes creep into the triple digits, and still have to manage to find the time to prepare for and go to trial on a regular basis.

We have so much data in our files, some on servers and some in paper files, which travel back and forth to court every day.  Rarely is that information readily available to us when we need it.  A question will come up about a case that is pending in the near future, a Judge will ask a question about a case for which we have detailed notes written on a legal pad in our office, or a colleague will be in a different courtroom and be asked a question about a case that isn’t assigned to them.  In all of these situations access to the data would eliminate huge gaps in efficiency.  That was the primary goal when the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office started our Surface Pro 3 pilot program in late 2014.

For a few years I had been making use of other tablets and never could find the complete solution to my personal goal of moving towards a paperless practice.  With the Surface Pro 3 and its digital pen I have found the best tool for the modern trial attorney.  It’s a full-fledged Windows-based PC, with as much computing power as the desktop workstation it replaced.  Being a Windows machine, it has full Enterprise compatibility allowing me to have seamless access to all my files, and any of the office case data if the need arises.  I can work from any location with an Internet connection as if I were sitting at my desk.  This means I can get work orders and case note updates done in court while I’m waiting for the next case to be called.  I can take my Surface Pro 3 home in the evenings and have access to my entire caseload and all discovery through our secure remote access.  I used to have to carry boxes full of files home to review at night.  Now those files and all the important documents they contain can stay at the office; they don’t ever have to be moved until they are closed out.  The Surface Pro 3 represents the possibility of mobile data access and is, in my opinion, an excellent form factor for a trial attorney. It is light, powerful and presents the option of using digital ink, a technology that should be widely adopted by the legal community.  We make dozens of critical decisions every day and each one can have a profound impact on someone’s life.  The Surface Pro 3 puts all the data and information into our hands when we need it.

With Microsoft OneNote and the Surface Pro 3 pen I finally have the device that removes the legal pad from my workflow.  I used to have literally dozens of notepads – each with notes on cases, or legal research or legal education updates that affected me every day.  I couldn’t carry all those legal pads to court with me.  All that data, all my notes, were worthless to me when I was in court – the one place I needed them most if the issue arose.  With OneNote, my legal pad is the Surface Pro 3.  Every note I take now goes with me wherever I go.  I can share those notes with colleagues as needed.  OneNote can embed nearly any type of file or media making it the perfect replacement for a three-ring binder.  Using OneNote, I can take hundreds of pages of police reports and transcripts and have them at my fingertips all searchable with my handwritten annotations right there.  I can prepare these case notebooks from Day One and build my trial strategy from the very beginning.  OneNote is perfect for attorneys because it is software designed to help students learn and to help teachers teach.  Lawyers begin as students of their cases, learning about the facts, applying legal theory, testing those theories, discovering new facts and incorporating them.  As the life of a case continues through the justice system we transition from student to teacher.  A trial attorney develops the lesson plan for that case, the arguments and evidence that we will present to a jury.  OneNote is a natural partner on the trial attorney’s journey through the life of their cases, and the Surface Pro 3 allows an attorney to work with digital pen and digital paper on the modern legal pad.

The courtroom is one of the most difficult places to present, it is often not friendly to the things a good presenter wants to have: lighting, acoustics, modern technology, and an audience that actually wants to be there. Attorneys don’t want to be tied down to a laptop tethered to a projector, we move around for emphasis, we have multiple exhibits to show and many topics to cover. Sometimes those topics organically flow one from another, other times we are arguing one point and a thought pops into our heads and we run with it, changing the direction of the presentation.  The Surface Pro 3 allows us to move about the courtroom as we always have.  It can project wirelessly to our jury and we can control the presentation of exhibits from the palm of our hands.

Trials are not scripted events, they are living, breathing affairs that involve many moving parts and many attorneys don’t leverage the best tools technology has to offer. I think the juries of the next 5-10 years will come to expect better digital presentations to go along with our closing arguments. The investigations and cases are already generating so much data that our paper files and old three-ring binders turn into multiple volumes taking up time, space, and effort to marshal them in trial.  The modern trial attorney knows that tools like the Surface Pro 3 are an integral part of courtroom advocacy.  It’s time we started embracing it, teaching it, learning it, and using it to its fullest potential.

About the author: Luigi V. Monteleone is a Deputy District Attorney for the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office currently assigned to the Training Unit. He is a tech enthusiast and has developed and presented many Paperless Prosecutor trainings and workshops on the use of technology in the practice of law. Please feel free to contact him with any questions or comments.  You can find him at The Paperless Prosecutor