Using Non-Legal Apps for Current Awareness

I’m delighted to take this column over from my dear friend, mentor, and former boss, John Gillies. As John’s work has narrowed and deepened into precedents, he asked me to step in. Thanks, John, always, for your personal and professional support!

My subsequent columns will engage more specifically on legal technology (which, I see from the recent Slaw survey, is readers’ favourite topic! Pressure much?) . With this initial contribution, let’s start with widely-available tools that legal professionals can turn into set-it-and-forget-it vehicles for current awareness consumption.

Current Awareness: Automation is the Answer!

Certainly, continuing legal education requirements ensure lawyers acquire several hours of guidance each year through seminars and similar sessions. With these sessions, we tend to get more we get skills-based learning, as well as overviews of big cases and legislative developments. But we continue to struggle with how to keep up-to-the-minute with caselaw, industry and legal news, and generally understand how current events and trends translate into our practice areas.

There is now a wealth literally at our fingertips for the traditional knowledge management-related activity of current awareness, which is very much the bane of lawyers’ professional lives. With apps and internet platforms, we can automate knowledge flow into our mobile devices, learn on the go, and always be informed. It’s the automation that’s the key: relying on apps to find and “set” what you need for your practice and driving it straight to your hands. You won’t have to do just-in-time searches, reading through undifferentiated Google search results. You’ll finally get ahead of your own learning curve.

Case in point: the recent Pokémon Go craze caught us all unawares. Lawyers in privacy, tort, personal injury, and property law have had to scramble to interpret the game, anticipate legal issues, and determine the legislation that might apply in different contexts. How does a sole practitioner, already busy, find the time and resources to understand how and why augmented reality will walk through the door and what to do once it does?

Let’s say it together: there’s an app for that. Actually: several.

Current Technology: Apps, Mobility, and Recommendations

While the apps I mention below are also available via your browser, mobility is a boon to any busy legal professional. In addition, many of these apps allow you to log in through Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other platforms, enabling saving and sharing.

Here are my top recommendations.

Flipboard has a lovely layout and, unusually for an app, great sound design. You choose “magazines” of curated content, which are updated daily. Some magazines are created by Flipboard, others by Flipboard users. Each magazine’s content scrapes from different online sources, so you will want to try different magazines to ensure you’re getting the coverage you like.

To start, search for whatever might interest you to see relevant topics.

  • If you’re a banking lawyer, a search for “Volcker”, as in the Volcker Rule, gives you “Wall Street,” “Federal Reserve,” and Recession”, “stories,” and “profiles” of people you may want to follow.
  • You can also install a bookmarklet and other widgets to collect anything you come across on the internet into your own Flipboard magazine for later reading, or even publish your own magazine.
  • Once you have chosen the content you want to see, you don’t have to do anything else (except check your phone and actually read the items).

If you spend a few minutes a day or an hour or two a week even just skimming headlines, you’ll be much more current with your key information.

Feedly is a terrific news aggregator app. Similar in concept to Flipboard, it has a marvelous user interface. Again, you can search for content based on topics and automate a feed of that content. You can “flip” through each day’s content quickly.

  • A search for “Pokémon Go,” for example, results in a Google News feed, with content from sources as varied as Business Insider, Forbes, iTech Post, and Newsweek. Add this feed, and you’ll see all sorts of Pokecraze news, including legal issues.

Tired of reading? The answer is podcasts. Podcasts have become my go-to source for current awareness, great journalism, and personal entertainment. This is hands-down the best use of your downtime – you’ll be walking the dog and offering to do the dishes, all so you can hear more podcasts.

When Automation = Overload

I expect most practitioners will respond that there is still too much content to possibly sort through and read. To help you leverage your time – especially your downtime – I suggest the following apps.

Pocket is a hugely functional app. I use it two main ways – to “save” content from the internet and apps like Flipboard to read later, after which I delete those items. This is very useful for “downtime” reading like on a subway commute, as the material in Pocket is usually available offline.

I cook a lot, and so also use Pocket to save interesting recipes forever; Pocket lets me tag and organize that more permanent content. You might consider doing the same with really good news and legal articles.

Finally, if you have a mobile device, you’ve heard of Evernote. It’s simply the best all-around app for note-taking, writing, lists, and keeping links and pictures. I use it to keep meeting minutes and jotting down ideas. There are lots of use cases for Evernote. You can skip Pocket altogether and just keep all your useful links in your Evernote files.

Parting Wisdom: Commit the Time

If you don’t like any of my suggested apps, that’s ok! Keep looking. There are lots of news aggregators, for example.

Be advised: you do need to put in time to test and choose an app or two (start small), “tune” your automated content, and find the right sources.

But we have to acknowledge that current awareness – actually reading and thinking and discussing – takes time. Using automation through tools like Flipboard and Feedly will significantly decrease the amount of time you spend looking for the content you need.

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