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Cloud software in the Legal Practice
By Susan Kuchinskas. She covers business and the business of technology for publications including Scientific American, Portada, and Telematics Update.
Streamline your practice by using cloud software.
The basic premise of cloud services – renting Web-based software instead of buying – means that your firm doesn’t need to pay up front for programs that could soon be obsolete. And it means the vendor takes care of installing upgrades and patches because it is hosting the software on its own servers. Using cloud services also lets lawyers and staffers at your firm work wherever they are, on whatever device they choose, as long as they have an Internet connection.
Such mobility makes cloud services well suited to the way today’s lawyers and their clients do business, says David Mitroff, founder of Piedmont Avenue Consulting in Oakland. “People are out and about, at meetings, working at home.” Traditional software would require you to connect to your office network to get work done; cloud services let lawyers share documents and interact with clients more efficiently, he says.
Though the business world’s move into the cloud involves ceding control of applications and possibly the data within them, Mitroff says cloud providers review and update their systems – and encryption and other security measures – more intensively than any firm’s internal staff is likely to. To be entirely confident, Mitroff recommends asking potential vendors whether they’ll track who accesses the data they store and keep their own staffers away from it.
Another important criterion for selecting a cloud provider is the location of its servers, says Shannon Brown, an attorney who consults on technology with law firms. “Your data can be stored in multiple locations around the world. If you need to acquire that information, or it’s being subpoenaed, you could run into jurisdictional issues,” says Brown, who is based in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. So far, there’s no case law concerning the security and control of data stored in the cloud, he notes.
As you move to the cloud, be sure to evaluate your own network as well. If a software provider promises 99.9 percent uptime, remember that you need an equally reliable network connection to enjoy that rate. And, finally, if you plan for your firm’s lawyers and staffers to access your cloud service on mobile devices (as opposed to laptops or other computers), make sure the service you choose provides good mobile apps for the tablets or smartphones in use at your firm.
To start the transition, Mitroff advises testing the waters with a single cloud service, one that interacts well with software you already use. Next, make sure the tool fits into your existing business processes. For example, if you have invested a lot of money in a full-featured website, you may want to embed a scheduling service in one of its pages, rather than sign on for one that takes your clients to a third-party website to make appointments.
Finally, Mitroff says, the product should offer a good user experience: “You spend all this money and set up this huge thing and it works very well, but if no one is using it, why have it?” If the service does work well and your staff and clients use it, then you’re ready to “move more and more to the cloud.”
In 2013, the American Bar Association found in a survey that 30 percent of practitioners used cloud services – for case management, file sharing, scheduling, reputation management, and more. Here’s a sampling of programs on the market.
– Go Matters offers calendaring, contact, task, and billing management for multiple users with unlimited document storage; $50 a month for up to three users.
– MyCase manages cases, including documents and contacts. It offers automated billing, shared calendars, unlimited data storage, unlimited client accounts and tech support; $39 a month per attorney, and $29 a month for staffers and paralegals.
– Uptime Cloud will host your existing legal software and documents, and offers its own cloud-based applications, including management of email, calendars, and contacts; its LegalWorks product includes a client portal. Priced from $35 a month per user.
File Sharing – Box lets you share files via URL, shared folders, or Microsoft Outlook. Users can set levels of permission and get notifications of file access; $5 a month per user for a shared workspace and up to 100 gigabytes of storage; limited personal accounts are free.
– Rackspace offers secure, unlimited storage at 10 cents a month per gigabyte, including 24-hour support; cost depends on volume.
– Zoho Docs can sync files between desktop computers and the cloud; users share documents via a link or secure email (with optional password protection), create multi-level folders, and see version history. Priced from $25 a month for five users with 250 gigabytes of storage; limited personal accounts are free.
– Genbook creates a “book now” button on your firm’s website, sends automatic confirmations, and syncs with a variety of calendars. Priced from $20 a month per user with unlimited support.
– Schedulicity provides a “book now” button on your website that leads to a firm-branded scheduling page; includes a searchable marketplace where consumers can find businesses by ZIP code; $19.95 a month for one user.
– Timetrade integrates with desktop calendars and lets you set up unique appointment types. Unlimited appointments for one user cost $49 per year.
– vCita merges scheduling with client contacts and online billing; provides a branded scheduling page linked to your website, which clients can access from any device; sends automated reminders; and syncs with multiple calendars. Full service is priced from $9.99 a user per month a limited version is free.
– Google Alerts are invaluable for tracking appearances of a key word or phrase – such as a client’s name (or yours) – in the Google News aggregator; notifications can be set for a variety of frequencies; free.
– Martindale.com provides peer reviews of lawyers; search your name regularly to monitor your professional reputation; free.
– NutshellMail gathers mentions and messages from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yelp, delivering them by email at scheduled intervals; free.
– Sprout Social provides a single in-box for all social media messaging and mentions; offers keyword monitoring and analytics; and allows scheduled publishing to social media; $39 a month per user.
Storing a small law firm’s files in the cloud
Adam G. Slote is a principal in Slote, Links & Boreman in San Francisco.
Cloud services like Dropbox may be revolutionizing the way law firms store data. Using this technology, members of even the smallest firm can enjoy instant access to every electronic file – from a second office or on the road, and by laptop or tablet. But global access is just the beginning. Cloud storage and synchronization can provide bulletproof data handling that a paperless law firm can depend on.
To illustrate the power of this technology, let’s imagine that a five-attorney law firm with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles needs to synchronize its file servers so employees in both offices can work on the same client files. Our firm also needs to sync its attorneys’ laptops or iPads with the firm’s files. And it wants to back up all this data off site.
The firm takes the plunge by choosing a cloud storage provider (more on that process later), opening a 1 terabyte business-level account, and installing the service’s proprietary software on its San Francisco file server, its Los Angeles server, and on firm members’ portable devices. Next, it synchronizes its servers. To reduce the volume of data that portable devices must synchronize, the firm then sorts its files by responsible attorney and syncs each portable device with only the folders its user needs.
That’s it: Both of the firm’s offices are now completely synchronized, and all the portable devices are automatically updated whenever they have Internet access. (The firm did not need to install the sync software on each workstation, because those access files from the local server in each office.)
Now, let’s simulate a problem. Assume the L.A. office loses its Internet connection for a day. The L.A. staffers work off the local file server, so most work continues uninterrupted. And as soon as Internet access is restored, the files in L.A. are synced with versions outside the office.
In another scenario, the San Francisco file server melts down (but Internet service is OK). Staffers could install the synchronizing software on individual workstations and sync them with the L.A. server. Or, they could access everything through the cloud service provider’s website and temporarily do without a local file server – it’s all online.
What if files are accidentally deleted? Some sync services offer an “undelete” feature, which can recover a single file – or thousands, in the case of hacking. Another feature available from some providers is versioning, which lets you recover earlier iterations of a document when it turns out you’ve over-edited and deprived it of all meaning.
As for choosing a service provider, you’ll need to determine which offers the features that meet your firm’s specific needs. Let’s say one of the file servers you use is not a computer but a network-attached storage (NAS) appliance by Netgear. That narrows your choices to two: Dropbox or Egnyte . Or, if privacy precautions or secure folder-level permissions are required, the only choice is Egnyte.
The type of mobile devices in use may also drive your choice – for instance, Box has an app for BlackBerrys, but Egnyte does not.
– Dropbox stands out for simplicity, and it offers undelete and versioning functions. It runs on Amazon’s robust S3 infrastructure, which promises availability 99.99 percent of the time and is designed to sustain the concurrent loss of data in two facilities. Dropbox lacks locked folder-level permissions, which would limit who can access specific folders.
– Egnyte is similar, but it lets you limit access to individual files and folders and stores data about who has read what and when. Egnyte has HIPAA-compliant encryption and can be used on NAS devices or integrated with Active Directory, Microsoft’s system for limiting network access.
– Box, initially aimed at the enterprise market, differs from Egnyte in three main ways: It adds both Web-based document management and places for sharing documents (it calls them deal rooms). And its software will not run on NAS devices.
– Google Drive is based on Google Docs, which excels in helping users share and handle Web-based documents and is notable for allowing two or more people in different places to work in the same document at the same time and see one another’s changes in real time.
– Microsoft SkyDrive provides Web apps for Office applications and integrates with Windows 8.1.
– iCloud from Apple, similar to SkyDrive, is good for the all-Apple office.
Most of these services have one annoying shortcoming: All files and folders you want to sync must be in a specific folder on your computer or device. If you want to sync documents wherever they happen to be, there are two options:
– SugarSync also offers folder-level permissions like Egnyte and is the only service with remote wiping (for when a device is lost or stolen); and
– Cubby from LogMeIn is good for lawyers who want to keep their data out of the cloud. It allows users to sync computers directly, but this means taking responsibility for your own backup.
No matter which service you choose, a potential pitfall of cloud storage is that anyone anywhere in the world who gets hold of your user name and password might be able get at all of your files by going to, say, Dropbox.com and entering the information. One precaution is to use two-step authentication – which requires the user to enter a code received by text message, in addition to the user name and password. This feature is built into Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, SkyDrive, and iCloud. Egnyte’s small-business plans do not offer two-step authentication, and enterprise customers must pay extra for it. Cubby sends the additional code by email, which could be a problem if your computer has been hacked or stolen.
Another security threat arises when employees sync using a home computer, which could be compromised by viruses or give family members access to confidential files. To address this risk, you might want to compartmentalize users’ access to files. Box and Egnyte both offer strong user-, group-, and folder-level permissions and integration with Active Directory . In fact, when properly configured, cloud storage services may increase overall security by enabling restoration of data after a malicious attack.
Most services charge $10 to $20 per month per device. (Remember, there’s no charge for workstations in the office because they’re connected to the local file server.)
So how did we ever survive without synchronized cloud storage? We used clunky synchronization software, flash drives, VPNs (virtual private network connections to the office network), and remote desktop programs. Now that smoother, more elegant technology is ready for lawyers to take advantage of, we just have to be careful with its power.