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In the space of a few short years, the BlackBerry two-way pager redefined large law firm life. Firmly tethering lawyers to client matters wherever they might wander, the little blue devices opened up a whole new world of billable hours. But now firms are preparing for the possibility that their ubiquitous BlackBerrys may go dark. A federal judge in Virginia Wednesday rejected an effort by Research in Motion, the Canadian company that makes BlackBerrys, to enforce a $450 million settlement of patent infringement claims filed against it by Arlington, Va.-based NTP Inc. The judge also denied RIM’s motion to stay further proceedings pending a re-examination of NTP’s patents by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The decision by Judge James Spencer of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia will require RIM to reach a new, larger settlement with NTP or face the possibility of an injunction barring BlackBerry sales and shutting down the system. The judge already issued such an injunction in 2003 following a jury finding that RIM infringed NTP’s patents. That injunction was stayed pending appeal, then vacated in August by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The appellate court, which upheld some of NTP’s infringement claims, sent the matter back to Spencer to determine a new damages award. In a statement issued Wednesday, RIM said it was appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court. It also said it had prepared a software workaround to keep BlackBerry services in operation. But law firm administrators said they had begun considering their options if the worst happened. Dierk Eckart, director of information technology at Thacher Proffitt & Wood, said Palm Inc.’s Treo and Good Technology’s GoodLink were competing messaging products that the firm might consider adopting in case of a BlackBerry shutdown. “It’s the same idea, same basic drill,” he said, noting those devices also had tiny screens and keyboards similar to the ones lawyers have become so accustomed to. He said he would expect it to take a week to introduce new devices to the firm’s 274 lawyers, providing a sudden BlackBerry blackout did not create a shortage of alternative devices. Dennis D’Alessandro, executive director of Dewey Ballantine, said his team had talked about BlackBerry alternatives some months ago. He said Wednesday’s ruling meant it was time to revisit the issue. “The alternatives are expensive,” he noted, “and they usually require you to sign a year’s contract. We would be looking at hundreds of thousands [of dollars].” But he said there was no way the firm would merely forgo the technology that allows its lawyers to open documents and input billable time anywhere, anytime. Indeed, in marketing materials aimed at law firms, RIM boasts that firms can gain four billable hours a week per lawyer using BlackBerry. “In one month, 500 lawyers have the potential to generate an extra $40,000 in revenue,” the company says. Of course, law firms are not the only ones hooked on BlackBerrys. Banks and corporations provide many of the 3 million or so users, as does the federal government. Indeed, last month, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the judge to consider the impact of any ruling on government personnel, including emergency workers.

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