Cloud Computing

Cloud Computing

How small and even solo practices can compete against larger firms by taking advantage of cloud services

by Tom McNichol

Cloud computing has become one of the hot topics in legal circles. Practically every law conference these days features some guy yammering on about the promise and perils of practicing “law in the cloud.”

Cloud computing sounds more complicated than it actually is. In fact, you’re probably already engaging in cloud computing without knowing it. Popular Web applications such as Gmail, Google Docs, and Yahoo Mail are all examples of cloud computing – applications and services provided over the Internet rather than through a software program loaded directly onto your computer or your firm’s server.

So what’s the big deal about cloud computing? Well, the main advantage is that users rely on software and storage delivered online by an outside vendor rather than depending on their own internal servers for computing power. Instead of investing in costly hardware, software, data centers, and tech support staff, a law firm can pay a vendor to handle its computing needs over the Web on a monthly subscription basis.

Small and solo firms are particularly well suited to take advantage of cloud services, which accounts for some of the buzz the cloud is getting at law conferences these days. Because cloud services bill monthly, there’s no large up-front capital outlay for software, nor any long-term commitment to maintain. Software updates are implemented automatically online, so you don’t have to patch or replace software yourself. Cloud computing also lets law firms avoid bogging down their office computers with a lot of memory-hogging software.

Of course, cloud services – like any digital technology – also come with risks. The nightmare scenario for any lawyer is that an unknown party gains access to a client’s information while that data is stored on a vendor’s servers. Many cloud services these days handle enormous amounts of data, making them a juicy target for hackers and fraudsters. Last year, a hacker used Amazon’s cloud service to attack and temporarily cripple Sony’s online entertainment systems. Cloud services, it turns out, are just as cheap and convenient for hackers as they are for customers. The hacker who attacked Sony rented Amazon’s cloud service for less than $2.50 an hour.

While the security risk of the cloud can’t be ignored, it’s also important not to overstate it. Sure, someone could hack into a cloud provider’s server and gain access to your client’s sensitive legal information, but the same security breach could just as easily take place at a law firm running traditional software, and many firms have more unauthorized people near their servers than the average cloud service does. All of the major cloud service providers feature bank-grade encryption and other security measures that often make them at least as safe as a law firm running its own software, and potentially safer.

Several services let you share and track your documents and messages in the cloud. A cloud service called Dialawg offers a platform that uses encryption technology to provide message and document collaboration to lawyers and their clients.

The Dialawg platform can be used with an existing email-messaging system; it acts as a sort of oversight manager to organize, store, and (when appropriate) destroy online conversations. After an email message with attachments has been created, the platform enables an interactive conversation called a Dialawg to be conducted, letting participants share files, send messages, and engage in real-time chats.

As responses come in, the Dialawg system automatically stores revisions and provides status updates in an interface similar to a scrolling Facebook page. The platform archives all the data in the cloud for recall at any time; users also can set a timer to have the entire conversation permanently eliminated.

Dialawg offers a free basic account as a way of enticing users to upgrade to a premium account. The free account will let you try out the features of the platform, but it limits the number of Dialawgs you can start to two per month. The more robust accounts cost $24 a month for starting up to ten Dialawgs per month, and $72 per month for unlimited Dialawgs.

Law Loop is a recently developed cloud-based document- and practice-management service with a unique twist – a layer of social networking that allows for deep collaboration with colleagues and clients on legal matters.
What’s nice about Law Loop is its ability to create “loops” so that authorized parties can share documents, correspondence, and other supporting materials. Law Loop members communicate and collaborate through individualized profiles similar to those you might see on LinkedIn. Each profile contains the user’s contact information, with quick links to voice or video calling, email, or direct messaging.

Law Loop was created by a team of attorneys at Los Angles-based Zuber & Taillieu who were frustrated by the software systems they used to manage their operations. It lets attorneys share documents, contact files, and other information; they also can manage back-end operations such as time keeping and billing. Law Loop costs $39 per month per user.

NetDocuments is a cloud-based service for content management and collaboration that lets users store, manage, and share documents securely on any Internet-connected device. It handles the document side of the practice of law (as opposed to time tracking and billing). Access to NetDocuments costs $20 per user per month for the basic edition and up to $38 per month for the most advanced version.

Of course, cloud services do involve some trade-offs, and they aren’t necessarily the best choice for every law practice. Some cloud services don’t always make it easy to get immediate tech support over the phone or by email, and there’s no user manual to consult when things go wrong. Some cloud services direct users to FAQ pages or help screens when they have questions, which is not always the fastest way to tackle a problem. But many law practices, particularly small and solo shops, have found cloud services to be an affordable alternative to sinking thousands of dollars into software and other tech infrastructure. The lesson for attorneys is that the cloud can be your friend.