Using a tablet for appellate arguments.
By D. Todd Smith
When it comes to legal technology, I am a natural early adopter. By late 2015, when Apple released the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, I had been on Mac systems for years. Still, I viewed the extra-large tablet as a potential game-changer for my appellate practice.
Integrating the device into my day-to-day work is an ongoing process, but I remain excited about its potential. One area I am focusing on is using the iPad Pro to prepare for and present oral arguments to appellate courts. Having recently completed two 5th Circuit arguments using the device more prominently than ever before, I want to share my approach and my experience thus far.
Reviewing and marking up the appellate briefs and record is an essential component of argument preparation. For me, that once involved having hard work copies made from master versions in a physical file that sat on a shelf or in a cabinet somewhere in my office. Now that Texas appellate courts have joined the 5th Circuit as all electronic, it is easier than ever to forgo paper and maintain everything in digital form.
I use PDF Expert and Dropbox to sync files between my MacBook Pro and my iPad. Instead of paper copies, I create an “OA” folder in Dropbox using this structure …
… which, in PDF Expert, looks like this:
I use a combination of PDF Expert on my iPad and Adobe Acrobat Professional on my MacBook (connected to two 27-inch monitors when I am in the office) to display the briefs, record, and important relevant cases. With PDF Expert’s two-way sync feature, annotations I make on my iPad (using the Apple Pencil) will show up when viewed on my MacBook and vice versa. This gives me the ultimate flexibility to prepare wherever I am using the device most convenient for me at the time and capture my analysis in one place.
I recently started using a mind-mapping app called iThoughts. Mind-mapping is a great tool for organizing complex concepts and visualizing how they fit together. Much like PDF Expert, iThoughts will two-way sync between the iPad and MacBook through Dropbox, the only caveat being that you have to purchase both the iOS and Mac versions of the app to access a file on both devices.
To give you a better idea, here is a simplified version of the map I made when gearing up for my most recent argument (with all my mental impressions removed, of course):
So far, I have stuck to my old habit of preparing an argument outline in Microsoft Word. As shown in the image, I save the document in the OA folder and convert the final version to PDF. This still seems a bit archaic; I can envision using iThoughts to outline my arguments instead. I think that would work well when viewed on the big monitors in the office, but with my aging eyes, it could be somewhat challenging when relying on the relatively small iPad Pro screen
At the Lectern
Unlike many others, I have fully transitioned to using the iPad at the lectern in place of all paper except perhaps a legal pad and a few key documents. My former practice was to double-side print my outline and put it in a small notebook, which allowed me to see two pages at a time while speaking and was often helpful if I needed to jog my memory. My new approach allows me to make changes until the very last minute, pull up the final outline in PDF Expert, manipulate the image size, and move between pages using finger gestures. These advantages help offset the fact that, practically speaking, the most I can view on the iPad is one page at a time.
Despite some initial trepidation, the new approach has worked well for me so far. The only complication I have experienced is that the 5th Circuit does not allow use of electronic devices in the gallery, which makes reviewing my outline when I am second or third in line for argument a bit more challenging. However, I have acquainted myself with the notification system in the attorney lounges, which keeps me informed about when I need to enter the courtroom for my case and thus allows me to go over the outline in “game conditions” while standing by.
I waited a long time for Apple to release the iPad Pro. When I bought one, I knew it would become an integral part of my practice. I look forward to refining my argument-preparation process and discovering new ways to use this tool.TBJ
D. TODD SMITH is certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He is the founder and managing partner of Smith Law Group, an appellate boutique serving clients throughout Texas. For more information, go to texasappellate.law.