Compare & Contrast
Taking the Pain Out of Keeping Tabs
By Anthony Paonita
Seriously, we need our labor-saving devices. One of my least-favorite tasks is doing the expense account or time-keeping paperwork generated by a project or a trip. Because I don't have a full-time accountant at my disposal, I still have to track and process the information myself. he trick is to have such a boring task done as painlessly as possible.
So what's the best software to help me organize my reports? And what's the best equipment to process those documents? Typing into a computer isn't practical, unless you drag your PC with you everywhere you go. Even light, expensive and cool Sony Varios or Apple PowerBooks take forever to boot up. Besides, they don't lend themselves to typing while hailing a cab.
So the technology gods have given us PDAs: personal digital assistants. Most of us use Palms or their clones, but Microsoft is trying again, with its latest Pocket PC software that has generated new devices from Compaq, Hewlett Packard, Casio and others. Even "smart" cell phones now can be used to track expenses.
The benefit of the handhelds: easy portability. You can whip them out of a pocket, purse, or briefcase; they turn on in a flash and you can enter your time-and-expenses data with a pen or stylus. Best of all, you can hook them up to your mothership computer in the office and transfer the data, to a spreadsheet or account manager program if necessary. And in some cases, you can zap your expense info directly online from your PDA.
Palms and Pocket PC devices all have a rudimentary expense function, but keeping track of time isn't a well-developed function, at least not on the Palm. So you'll need to add some software. The software that's out there ranges from the all-inclusive and fun to the utilitarian.
Some of the more expensive packages are tailored specifically for timekeeping professionals, and some specifically for lawyers. Setting those up requires the services of an IT department. Among other things, your firm's techies may have to arrange secure computer network access for the PDAs and smart cell phones.
Generic programs can be found on the Web, are often free, and generally are usable by mere mortals. With these, you download a Palm module from their Web sites, and then install it as part of your next sync routine. Here's a sample of what's out there:
Red Gorilla, a Web-based applications company, seems to want to take care of our every need except dental flossing. With Red Gorilla, you can track contacts and expenses on the Web, and access your information from any computer with a Web browser. Like Excite's calendar or Yahoo mail, the basic service is free; the company says it makes money from the ads you see online.
Red Gorilla also sells a subscription service called the Gorilla Go-Pack. It's a wireless connection to the Web, via a WAP (Wireless Application Protocol)-enabled device like a smart cell phone. WAP devices strip out the graphics and other computing-intensive parts of Web pages, so that you can see a Web page on your PDA or cellular phone readout.
You also can call a toll-free number, log on and enter information following phone menu prompts. It's like navigating through the typical voice mail system, except here it's actually doing something useful. After you're done, you can check your entries on the Web.
No matter where you enter the information, Red Gorilla, and most of the other time and expense programs described, do similar things. You enter such information, such as date, place and expense in the provided blank spaces. And many of them have a virtual stopwatch: Click on it when you start a meeting with a client, click at the end and the software computes the time.
Red Gorilla's wireless plan runs about $20 per month -- small change if you're on the road a lot and need to file expense reports quickly and from a variety of devices.
Another contender in the expense arena is Time, Expense & Automobile Keeper from EB7. You can keep track of time, again via a stopwatch, select various categories to organize your entries, vary billing rates, and sync it all with your computer.
T.E.A.K., as you'd guess from its name, is also tailored for the itinerant lawyer or salesperson who spends a lot of time in the car. A big part of its feature set makes keeping track of gas and miles easy. But it lacks Red Gorilla's wireless capabilities.
In the same vein is iambic Software's AllTime. It's got the additional virtue of being Mac-friendly, for you lawyers who think different(ly). It also offers a stopwatch feature, like the others, and once you've entered the name of a client or project, it becomes part of the permanent database and the name never has to be re-entered. There's no Web component right now; you zap data to your PC or Mac through the sync feature.
Larger law firms usually have dedicated computer professionals who roll out computers, provide training, support servers, and set up the databases upon whose existence we depend. This includes client and case files, and the software that gives us access to them.
One of the top "client" interfaces to this information is Wireless Verticals' MobileTimeBilling. With this powerful and relatively costly software ($275 per workstation), almost any kind of mobile device, from a Palm PDA to a Blackberry to a smart cell phone, can enter client time and expense information. Then that device dials the law firm computer network and sends its info into the database. Wireless Vertical also promises Windows Pocket PC connectivity soon.
Software Technology, Inc.'s TABS III Handheld Integration software is designed to interface with Advanced Productivity Software's DTE InHand for TABS III. With DTE InHand for TABS III, lawyers can accurately track billable time and costs for clients while working away from the office.
When you sync the data from your Palm, all fee, expense and advance transactions is transferred back to the PDA from the firm's network. And if TABS III is integrated with STI's General Ledger, journal entries will automatically be created at the time entries are transferred from the Palm to TABS III.
So whether you're surfing the Web trying to find a quick and easy time/expense solution, or working in a large firm with computer support, you'll find a way to keep track of that dreary stuff that somehow gets the bills paid on time.
Anthony Paonita is senior editor of The American Lawyer and contributing editor of Law Technology News.