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Matt Berger doesn’t go mano-a-mano over power outlets anymore. He doesn’t show up early to board meetings to claim space and an AC supply. He no longer hogs tables in Starbucks to read his e-mail. It’s the laptop-free life, and Berger — of counsel in Morrison & Foerster’s Los Angeles office — is learning to love it. “I used to take my laptop everywhere,” the technology lawyer says. “Now I take it less than 50 percent of the time.” But Berger isn’t exactly traveling solo those other days. There’s a younger, thinner, sleeker gadget in his life. Actually, there are two: a Palm Vx and a BlackBerry. Together, they can do much — but not all — of what Berger used to use a laptop for. The four-ounce Palm Vx is the souped-up flagship of Palm Computing’s line of personal digital assistants (PDAs, if you want to talk the talk). It keeps appointments and notes, lets you read documents on the go, and runs thousands of handy applications, thanks to all the third-party software you can load onto it. Research In Motion’s five-ounce BlackBerry — Canada’s finest export since, well, whatever fine export came before Celine Dion and William Shatner — is a wireless handheld unit that keeps you constantly connected to office e-mail. A big hit on Wall Street, it’s now standard equipment at one in five Am Law 100 firms, according to the most recent Am Law Tech Survey. Berger carries both, he says, because the BlackBerry is great at e-mail, but “doesn’t do everything else that well.” And lugging the two around is no big deal. Even together, they weigh a lot less than a laptop. But have handheld devices really advanced to the point where you can slip them in a pocket (or two) and leave that six-pound brick behind? Even the most gadget-happy lawyers won’t give an unqualified yes. “For most of the functions that are used in law practice on the road, a handheld is a pretty blunt instrument,” says Ralph Miller, a partner in the Dallas office of New York’s Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Miller is a big fan of the Palm VIIx, a wireless version of the Palm PDA. But he hasn’t donated his laptop to the kids just yet. While handhelds, says Miller, are fine for checking e-mail, taking notes (with an add-on, collapsible keyboard), and reading a document or two, they “are not there yet” for the more substantive uses lawyers need, like editing lengthy memos and tracking changes. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Berger’s laptop still sees 50 percent of the action, and the meatier 50 percent at that. His handhelds are the tools of choice, he says, for initial client meetings, board meetings, and lunch meetings. When it comes to overnight trips and anytime he’s “substantively editing or reading a lot of documents,” Berger sticks with the full-blown PC. But does he have to stick with his own PC? Why not find a PC at your destination? Hotels and airports have business centers. If you’re traveling to a client or to one of the firm’s other offices, there’s bound to be a spare desktop machine you can commandeer. Not so fast, says Miller. For one thing, business centers tend to keep business hours, which aren’t necessarily lawyer hours: “They open at 9 and close at 6. They’re closed when I’m there.” Nor is working at the client’s office often an option. “Many of them don’t operate on the same schedule as I do,” says Miller, who will often write briefs late at night after meetings. “You have to ask the question: How much trouble is carrying a laptop compared to looking up a Kinko’s and taking a cab at midnight?” “Borrowing” a computer can get dicey in other ways, too. “There’s the anxiety of finding a PC,” says Miller. “Most people react to that request, in my experience, like a suggestion that someone wants to borrow their toothbrush.” Maybe they don’t have the software you need and aren’t crazy about your loading programs and possibly crashing the machine. There are security issues, as well, says Miller: “If you use a common PC, someone can come in [afterward] and get a good idea of what you’ve done.” Here’s another reason to think twice before looking for a loaner on the road. Many firms allow access to their network only from specific computers containing special software. Thus, that borrowed PC won’t let users link to the firm’s system. The good news, however, is that you may be able to get along without any laptop — your own or borrowed — more often than you think. Keep in mind the 50 percent of the time that Berger does leave his laptop at the office. Like other handheld-savvy lawyers, he’s learned to exploit all the third-party software available for his Palm, cobbling together some pretty advanced solutions. “I’ve had lots of success using these,” says Berger. There are limits to what you can store in a handheld’s on-board memory. Even the top-of-the-line Palms, with eight megabytes, run out of capacity. Robert Bourque, a partner at New York’s Simpson Thacher & Bartlett who has “gadgets coming out of my ears,” says that only a laptop will cut it at depositions where he needs to refer to voluminous records stored on CD-ROM. And no one can be excited about reading an 80-page pleading on a tiny black-and-white screen. Yet handhelds are bulking up, and the latest can do — and store — more than ever. One product raising eyebrows is Compaq’s new Pocket PC, the $500 iPAQ H3600 Series. Pocket PCs are Palm-like devices that run on a stripped-down Windows operating system and run bare-bones Microsoft applications. The iPAQ has a bright color display and 32 megabytes of memory. Expansion modules let you boost this to 340 megabytes, and also add PC cards, including wireless modems, so you’ll be able to check e-mail on the go, download attachments, and read and edit files — all seamlessly and from one device. Is the laptop history? Not exactly, asks Charles Uniman, a corporate finance partner at New York’s Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner and self-proclaimed gadget freak. “But we’re getting close.” Alan Cohen is a freelance writer based in New York.

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