Last month Legal Technology Insider asked a series of questions in its online reader poll to see whether the Blackberry device was still regarded as a handy gadget or had now become a business critical application for law firms.

The first finding to stand out from the results was the wide range of tasks Blackberrys are now being used for:
• 100% said email (no surprises there),
• 95.5% said calendar and scheduling,
• 77.3% said they also used it as a mobile phone,
• 9.1% said it was being used for digital dictation,
• 4.6% said billing, and
• 22.7% cited accessing ‘other applications’.

This topic was also discussed at the lunch hosted by the Insider and Avanquest earlier this month (November 2007) where the point was made that the ability of the latest versions of document management systems to integrate with Blackberry and effectively handle the filing of email messages had significantly boosted the status of the Blackberry from handy to critical. This view was echoed in the survey, which found that 66.7% of firms agreed that the Blackberry Enterprise Server (BES) must be considered a critical application for business continuity and disaster recovery purposes.

When asked how long a firm could function effectively without access to a BES:
• 27.3% said it would become critical after between 30 minutes and two hours;
• 22.7% said between two and four hours, and,
• 41% said between eight and 24 hours.

But there were also 9% who said a BES crash would have no impact on them. Given this apparent importance, it is surprising that only 50% of respondents said their Blackberry infrastructure was part of their firms’ current DR and business continuity strategies. There again, the BES does seem robust, with 50% of respondents saying they had suffered no server failures over the past 12 months, and 45.5% saying they had only lost user connectivity on between one and five occasions.

We also asked about the size of Blackberry installations at law firms
• 32% of respondents saying they had between 200 and 500 Blackberrys,
• 4.6% had between 500 and 1000 Blackberry devices, and
• 9.1% had 1000 plus.
• 22.7% had between 50 and 200
• 31% had less than 50.

In terms of Blackberry Enterprise Servers, 68.2% had just one BES server, 18.2% had between 2 and 5, and 13.6% had more than 5 servers.

Finally we asked who got the Blackberrys in your firms. The most popular answer (45.5%) was all partners & fee earners who ask and only 9.1% said all partners & fee earners. However 18.2% said support & support staff would receive Blackberrys and 22.7% said “anyone who asks”. But we did also have 4.6% of respondents who said only partners got them.

The debate over lunch also revealed the interesting fact that while many firms had a notional policy of optional Blackberrys (in otherwords you could have one if you wanted one) fee earners and trainees who did not ask for a Blackberry, subsequently did so because they felt it was viewed as demonstrating a lack of commitment to the firm and so constitute a black mark against their name when it came to their next appraisal/review.

The view at lunch was that the cultural issues surrounding the use of Blackberrys had not been properly addressed, with both clients and lawyers falling into the trap of feeling that because it was always-on 24/7 technology, they ought to respond to incoming messages on a 24/7 basis. Another comment was the fact that along with taking their Blackberrys on holiday, it was also now common to see people checking their Blackberrys during meetings and conferences when they should have been concentrating on other matters. (We also heard that at one firm a partner had gone down with RSI because he used his Blackberry so much.)

Two other points to come out of the lunch were that:
• While billing was a popular application to run on the Blackberry, it was probably fairer to say it was the reporting side of these systems (how much WIP relates to this client, how much have we billed them in the past, how much do they owe us etc) rather than mobile time recording, that was the most widely used feature.

• And, it was also suggested that the reason for the relatively poor take-up of Windows Mobile etc devices was that most lawyers do not have a need to create or edit Word or any other Microsoft Office documents on a PDA – not least because of the pokey screens – and so where happy to stick with their almost idiot-proof Blackberrys. As one IT director pointed out: as long as they receive the message and know the document is available (and which they can at least now read on a Blackberry) they don't need all the functionality (and complexity) of Windows Mobile.

You can find the Readers Poll located on the right handside of the website. This month we are asking about law firm IT budgets as a percentage of turnover – as ever all responses to the questions are strictly confidential