Everywhere you look these days, people are using tablet computers. In planes, trains and cabs, on exercise bikes at the gym, and even at home in beds, recliners and likely even bathrooms, people can’t seem to get enough of the simplicity and accessibility that their tablets afford. The availability of email, Internet, photo sharing, video messaging, and apps and games galore make tablets the ultimate digital Swiss Army knife. But when looked at in the context of use in corporate legal departments, the question remains whether tablets can evolve from portable entertainment device to useful professional tool. So far, the jury is still out.

Because the tablet marketplace is still relatively new, and with mobile operating systems still being optimized as the underlying technology rapidly continues to improve, it’s still a bit early to predict what the role of the tablet will eventually be for in-house legal professionals. On the law firm side, however, among the many tablet options available, the iPad is already becoming de rigueur. An informal September poll at Chicago-based law firm Levenfeld Pearlstein indicated that 43 percent of its attorneys already own and use iPads in their practice.

“In the legal industry, iPads are dominant,” says Levenfeld Pearlstein Executive Director Angela Hickey. “They’re easy to use, very intuitive and there’s definitely a cool factor. Usually we’re pushing technology out to the lawyers, but with this device, the lawyers are actually pushing the IT departments to hurry up and find ways to effectively use it.”

Portable Perks

Aside from the obvious form factor difference of a tablet being far lighter and more portable than a laptop, there are a number of ways in which a tablet could benefit legal professionals. Email appears to be the No. 1 area where attorneys are finding tablets most useful, with word processing and document review following closely behind. With larger screens and enhanced application functionality than most smartphones, it’s much easier for lawyers to perform those relatively basic but important tasks.

“The advantage is a lot of portable computing power in a small package,” says Foley & Lardner Partner Andrew Serwin. “You can do a lot more and basically replace your laptop with your tablet for certain trips.”

Down the road, tablets’ document review capabilities could be further enhanced as companies’ use of cloud computing rises, and they shift to web-based document management. In this instance, tablet users would have the same access to documents as they do on desktops or laptops.

On the green front, tablets also can be seen as an alternative to paper, especially in the courtroom. Unlike smartphones, which aren’t allowed in some courtrooms, tablets can be used as a substitute for paper notes and document sharing.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of tablet use doesn’t come from the device manufacturers at all, but as a result of developers adding to the ever-growing stable of third-party applications. Levenfeld Pearlstein Partner Peter Donati says the Penultimate note-taking app on his iPad has helped him to get rid of the million legal pads he used to have strewn about.

“Because I always have my iPad with me, I can take notes using a stylus and pick up where I left off,” he says. “I can then send those notes to my email in PDF form, and they’re stored in the client’s database here at the firm.”

Hickey notes that corporate counsel may find the document-sharing apps available for the iPad extremely beneficial, as well as its desktop video conferencing capabilities once the technology matures. There also are a number of legal-specific applications currently available for the iPad, including apps for the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, criminal procedure, appellate procedure and evidence.

Risky Tableau

As with any portable device, concerns over data security are paramount, especially for lawyers who routinely carry confidential documents afield. However,the security risks for tablets are really no different from those laptops or smartphones present.

To start, like the other devices, many companies enforce password requirements on tablets before users can sync with their Outlook system. VPN access also is similar, as users must input a password for access. If a tablet is lost or stolen, the tablet should be configured so it quickly locks and companies can then remotely wipe and/or disable the device. Tablets also should be routinely backed up on another computer so their data is stored elsewhere in case they’re lost.

One area of concern that needs to be better investigated and quickly addressed by IT and legal departments is how tablets connected to the cloud may create new data security problems for companies.

“As cloud becomes more relevant and more companies begin to use some sort of cloud implementation, you become less concerned about encryption because you’re not storing anything on the device, but what is your ability to cut off user access to the cloud where the data is stored?” Serwin asks.

To begin, Hickey suggests companies ensure their cloud platform is secure, and enable its encryption and password features. “The IT department should be able to help legal identify what’s safest,” she says.

Necessity or Newton

Despite the glowing reviews and potential benefits, not everyone is ready to forsake their laptop or smartphone for what could just be the latest fad.

“I’m really cynical about this,” says Andrew Siegel, vice president and assistant general counsel at CBS.

Siegel, who writes a tech blog, has tested a range of tablets for use in his department. Based on his experiences, he agrees that they’re great for reading email and documents, and have potential for e-discovery despite the iPad’s lack of Flash capabilities, but don’t currently offer much business value otherwise.

“The failure of tablets,” he explains, “for the moment, at least, is the keyboard, or lack thereof. I can sit and type a 30- to 40-word email on my Blackberry with the keyboard and be reasonably certain of doing it quickly and not have many typos. I can’t do the same thing with a tablet. My tools should not make my life more difficult.”

Another detractor, Siegel notes, is the iPad’s inability to encrypt drives, which is a serious concern if a tablet is stolen and doesn’t have any form of remote wipe capability. He also doesn’t find the iPad’s presentation capabilities up to snuff, and says it is immeasurably easier to just use PowerPoint on his laptop.

When it comes down to it, he believes tablets are wonderful personal toys, but are still a few enhancements away from becoming a legal panacea.

“I have colleagues who use personal iPads to read the paper in the morning, check their email and sit at home at night and read a book, but they’re not using it in their practice,” Siegel says. “There are lots of tablets around, but I don’t see them being used here at work—for the moment, at least—for legal purposes.”