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Blue Sky or Dark Skies? Cloud Computing for Lawyers

[This paper was prepared for the 2011 State Bar of Montana annual meeting.]

Updated:  this is the Prezi presentation I used during the session.  I focused just on storage as an example both of the challenges of cloud computing but also some of the ways to integrate cloud technology into a law practice.

Lawyers are in turmoil over cloud computing.  This is not surprising.  It requires approaching our technology and information differently from how we have done in the past 30 years.  Cloud computing is relatively new but it has risen more quickly than previous technology trends have for the legal profession.  Law firms need to make decisions about what to do with the cloud – early adopting can be both a business advantage and a risk – more rapidly than they may have done about any other technology.

Cloud computing means, generally, sites that offer you resources that reside on their computers and that you access over the Internet.  Cloud is based on a long-time description for the Internet, since there is no there there.  It’s amorphous, just as the definition of cloud computing is hard to grasp.  It is complicated because cloud computing describes a type of service, and not all services are created equally.

What Cloud Looks Like

Anyone who has performed online legal research has experienced the benefit of the cloud.  You have swapped a locally-stored copy of your print law reporters for an online, remotely-hosted copy of the same content.  Instead of owning the information, you now pay for it in a subscription or license to access it.  When you access LexisNexis or Westlaw, you are using your Web browser and Internet connection to visit their servers, access materials they manage and enhance, and leave your research trail for them to study.[1]  When they improve their Web site – better search, new interfaces like WestlawNext, more content – you do not need to download or install anything new.  Everything is provided by their system.

The service need not to use your Web browser.  One of the most commonly discussed applications for lawyers is a file storage and backup tool called Dropbox.  Unlike legal research sites, Dropbox and other file synchronization tools download a small application to your computer.[2]  You do not interact with it directly.  When you save a file to your computer, if it is in one of the folders that Dropbox is watching, it will upload that file to your Dropbox account on line.  If you have connected that account to other computers, the file is automatically copied to those systems as well.

Raining on Your Practice

Cloud computing creates a challenge for lawyers because it shifts the location of critical information out from their direct control and into the control of others.  This is a very real challenge because of issues of privilege and confidentiality.  The legal profession first faced this issue with e-mail – could we send confidential information in an e-mail – and now we are dealing with moving more, perhaps all, of our client information onto the Internet.

Lawyers have purchased business software in the past without worrying too much about the stability of the company behind it.  Most lawyers use Microsoft Windows running Microsoft’s Office, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and a smattering of other programs.  Business applications will also tend to be from well-known software companies, like Intuit (Quickbooks) or, commonly in the legal world, provided by Westlaw (Elite, Prolaw) or LexisNexis (CaseMap, Time Matters).

This changes with cloud computing.  First, many of the companies providing these services are relatively new, in business for just a few years.  Second, the rules they operate under – the software license you would agree to buy unwrapping the software you used to install – can change during the time you are using their online service.  The landscape is much more shifting than it was when the software, and the companies that provided it, were relatively stable and long-lived.  Even if a company went out of business, a law firm could in most cases continue to use the software they had purchased.  When a cloud computing company goes out of business, or your license ends, you lose access to that service.

It is not hard to see why there is reluctance, even out-right resistance, to putting law practice information into the cloud.  Lawyers have complained that they do not have the technical skill, even if they had the time, to perform the due-diligence necessary to ascertain whether any given system is sufficiently stable to be used.  Even if the company is a large and well-known one, like Google or Microsoft, there is still concern about the unexpected consequences of using a cloud-based system.

No Practice is an Island

Cloud computing provides substantial business benefits.  For lawyers, who often do not have dedicated technology staff or even technology budgets, cloud computing can eliminate some of the technical hassles that pile up in a practice.  This benefit should not be underestimated.  If the software in a law practice is not being kept up to date, if security precautions are not being taken, if backups and disaster recovery are not being managed, there exists real potential for loss of client information and an inability to fulfill professional duties.

This is not to say that cloud computing makes those issues go away.  It does give law firms an option as to how, and by whom, they get technology service.  Cloud computing should not be looked at as something you either embrace entirely or not at all.  It can be used by most law firms in bits and pieces, to respond to areas where there is a particular business reason:

  • Backup.  Mobile users can benefit from file synchronization tools like Dropbox, because it makes their files accessible from multiple devices.  These sites, and online backup sites like Mozy.com and Carbonite.com, can ensure that data is being backed up regularly and taken off-site.  Using a site that relies on files, rather than typical backup software, means that issues of restoring a backup can be eliminated. Compare the benefits of off-site storage of backed up data to your current backup process.
  • E-mail.  The cost of running an e-mail server, like Microsoft Exchange, can be beyond the reach of most solos and small firms, no matter how much value they might be able to get out of their own server.  Many lawyers use Web-based e-mail like Google Mail, and that is almost the classic case of cloud-based computing for lawyers.  Law firms can have Microsoft Exchange hosted, however, and get the benefits of using powerful, secure e-mail without having to resort to consumer-oriented free systems.
  • Practice Management.  Although most law firms have not installed a dedicated practice management software program, these can be critical applications.  Using software-as-a-service companies for this software can make it easier for law firms to adopt and get up and running with them.  Licensing the software on a monthly basis removes the cost that may inhibit purchasing it outright, and since there is no need to purchase hardware on which to run the software – or tech support to keep it up to date – law firms can try out practice management systems more easily than in the past.

Law firms can benefit from the different pricing model that cloud computing brings.  Instead of having a significant up front cost, most cloud services provide a monthly or annual subscription rate, paid per user.  This can help a law firm plan their technology expenditures with far greater accuracy than in the past, and ensure that they have a technology budget that will enable them to keep their systems up to date.

It is worth noting that there are many free cloud-based systems, particularly the Google applications (Mail, Calendar, Documents).  In most cases, law firms will want to license the paid version of these services.  They provide more business-like support and commitments to disaster recovery and backup, and also offer enhancements to make your practice more efficient.  If you select a consumer-oriented version of a cloud-based system, you should be aware that you may not be making the best decision for your law practice.

Just as you would have assessed a technology or other business purchase in the past, you need to determine the business problem that needs a solution.  Cloud computing should be part of that solution set but it will not necessarily be the right answer each time.

Making the Cloud Work

Security is the most common concern where cloud computing is concerned.  Law firms want to make sure that information they store online is not accessed in a way that breaches confidentiality or other legal obligations.  While attorney-client privilege is a relatively specific concern for lawyers, nearly all businesses share the same security concerns as law firms.  Many of the concerns lawyers have about the cloud have been answered.  Whether it has been answered by the particular service you wish to use is a different question.

The most basic issue is secure communications.  This means that when you connect to the site and transmit and receive information, it remains encrypted.  Otherwise, someone who was able to digitally overhear your communications would see what your private information.  This is similar to an e-mail being intercepted, except that the communication and eavesdropping is happening at the same time.  Most cloud systems provide secure connections using a technology called SSL.  When you have connected securely to a site, whether your bank or practice management software company or Twitter, you will see an s appear after the httphttps://www.westlaw.com.  You can even secure your Google searches by using their encrypted search engine, https://encrypted.google.com.

Consumer-oriented systems like Google Mail offer secure https connections too.  In fact, this is a base line way to determine whether your cloud provider is serious about security.  If they do not provide a secure connection, then you should not be using them.

You should also be concerned about how your data is stored and whether that data is encrypted.  If you are using a system where files are being transferred up to a site and stored there – like Dropbox, or Google Docs, for example – they should be stored as encrypted files.  That way, if someone used the cloud service’s site in an unauthorized manner (whether an employee or not), they would be unable to view the files that were in your account.

A cloud-based file synchronization tool will still store a copy of those files on your computer.  If you use Web-based or cloud-based e-mail, you can likewise store a local copy of the e-mail in your office.  The systems that require additional vigilance are those where both the software and the data reside entirely on remotely-hosted servers.  Services like Clio, Rocket Matter, and other law-focused software-as-a-service companies will have documented backup information, as well as procedures for you to get your data back from them in case their system becomes unavailable.[3]

Cloud is the Future

There is no reason to shift your practice into the cloud.  However, the dominance of cloud technology cannot be underestimated.  There are substantial benefits to approaching cloud computing as one of the options available to your firm.  It is here to stay and large law firms are moving their systems out into the cloud to gain the benefits the cost and other benefits they provide.[4]

Approach cloud computing with the same expectations as you do your off-site physical storage provider, your landlord, and other service providers with whom you have trust relationships over their physical access to your files and system data.  Understand as well as you can the risk and benefits of using any given cloud-based service, and compare those risks and benefits to your current business practices.

The biggest challenge remaining is a trust issue.  Cloud computing is sufficiently new and occupies a rapidly shifting landscape that it makes decision-making difficult.  Since a system may take a few years to mature, it is often hard to know whether a service is stable enough to rely on for business purposes.

There will be greater differences between law firms as we see more lawyers practicing in the cloud.  While there will still be software applications installed on local computers – and Microsoft Office’s dominance is nowhere near being challenged yet – we will see a greater variety of applications being used as lawyers take advantage of the greater choice of cloud-based options.  Lawyers can use cloud systems to customize their technology needs to their individual practices.

 


[1]   LexisNexis.com and Westlaw.com are two of the best known, but this applies to Fastcase.com, Loislaw.com from Wolters Kluwer Law & Business, and other paid legal research services.

[2]   Dropbox.com, Sugarsync.com, and Box.net are well-known file synchronization and storage tools that offer both free and paid accounts.  Microsoft also offers a system that synchronizes with its Skydrive service, where you can use Microsoft Live Mesh to upload up to 5 GB of data to your 25 GB Skydrive account.

[3]   Clio:  http://www.goclio.com.  Rocket Matter:  http://www.rocketmatter.com.

[4]   See Foley Lardner’s shift to Netdocuments.com, a cloud-based document management system, as one of the most significant examples.

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