The Solo Legal Cloud

It is funny to hear someone refer to me as the guy who literally wrote the book on practicing law in the cloud.  I did write one of them.  And so I’m still amazed that it continues to hold such fascination for lawyers who aren’t quite sure what it is or how to take advantage of it.  I sat through 2 sessions at a conference yesterday, plus my own on mobile apps and gadgets, and it came up explicitly or implicitly in all of them.   It came up in another session as well, according to the Twitter hashtag feed for the conference.

One of the reasons that Canadian law firms don’t use the cloud is that their clients do not wish to have client and matter information stored outside of Canada.  And most software-as-a-service options are hosted on US-based cloud operations like Amazon Web Services.  Large law firms can manage this issue more easily, balancing hybrid clouds supported by internal and third party, Canadian-based IT.

This conference was for solos and small firm lawyers and there is a sense, which is probably pretty accurate, that they have limited choices.  If they opt out of using the cloud, they are stuck with whatever’s on their desktop and internal server(s).  I haven’t seen anyone discuss what a solo or small law practice would actually put in their private cloud, so I thought I’d take a crack at it.

I’ve got a couple of assumptions:

  1. The solo or small law firm has little or no technology budget or investment.  One benefit of using the consumer cloud (free online services) is that they’re free.  I’m going to keep my focus on open source options since the acquisition cost is zero.
  2. The IT support for the firm may be (a) the lawyer, (b) someone who isn’t a full-time or dedicated IT person, or (c) the person is a full-time IT person but isn’t available to the firm 100% of the time.  About 1/3d of our session’s attendees yesterday were self-supporting lawyers (a).
  3. The firm will invest in their own servers or will identify a hosted service or cloud provider in Canada that will manage the physical aspects of this environment and will allow you to run your cloud applications on their hardware.

At this point we’re tending towards the most diaphanous end of the cloud, which is really just “hosted apps that look like cloud apps but aren’t” but the devil is in the details.  For all practical purposes, a solo lawyer with a server inside her office firewall can run all of the apps I mention and, with a terabyte hard drive, will experience the same limitless experience of the cloud.

Since most of the software I’m going to mention is open source – free to acquire – it’s worth also noting that most of them come as community versions.  If you like the app but are leery of doing it entirely by yourself, most offer a commercial version that will also provide support, upgrades, and so on.

Cloud Storage

This is the number one cloud resource lawyers use, according to the 2015 ABA Legal Technology Survey.  Solos and smalls use it heavily.

The 2015 ABA Legal Technology Survey report showed that the cloud services lawyers used most tended to be storage-related (Volume 2, Q19).

If a solo or small firm practice was going to roll their own, storage would probably be the easiest place to start.  There are a number of good choices that will emulate one of the popular consumer storage services.  These include:

Open source Pydio online file storage and synchronization screenshot

Open source Pydio online file storage and synchronization screenshot

What to choose?  Some open source cloud storage support mobile apps, so if you’re planning to use a tablet or phone, this will matter.  There may be specific operating system requirements, so if you only have a Windows server, that will be a criterion.  Because it’s storage, and it will hold client documents, I’d lean towards those that support two-factor authentication and strong passwords.  In other words, the same considerations you’d have if you were using a 3d party cloud storage service.

Communications

This is the no-brainer of cloud services for solos and small law firms.  In fact, I think it’s not the top choice for the ABA survey only because we often don’t think of our e-mail, calendar, contacts, and tasks as being part of the cloud. This is one of those things that, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I’m assuming you don’t have Google Mail or Microsoft Outlook.com, since those come with cloud storage like Google Drive and OneDrive and beg the question why you’d roll your own private cloud!

If you aren’t already running e-mail and other communications tools on the same server that you are building out your law firm’s private cloud, you might look at:

Open source community version of Zimbra's e-mail view. Also has online calendaring and contacts.

Open source community version of Zimbra’s e-mail view. Also has online calendaring and contacts.

There’s no point in doing just e-mail.  All three of these have collaboration components, to the extent you need those.  Shared calendars and contacts will get you part way towards some of the features in a full-on practice management system.  They’ll be similar to what you could do if your law firm was using Google’s G Suite or Microsoft’s Office 365 for shared collaboration.

You may actually get a bigger benefit from using with clients, so if that’s a goal, you’ll want to make sure you understand how to control who can see what.  Just as with the storage providers, you may have things in your practice – like using Microsoft Outlook as your e-mail client and needing a connector like Zimbra’s – that are important in your e-mail server so develop a list of needs before making your selection.

Research Management

If I were using public or consumer cloud, I’d be using Microsoft OneNote, a web app that enables you to store notes, organize pages of notes into a binder-like resource.  It has a mobile app so this research can go with you to trial, the client’s office, wherever.   If you are a solo, you don’t need to run this as a server.  You could instead just run the note-taking app you like and synchronize it, although that often leaves a copy on a public cloud site (OneNote, Evernote, and so on).  A small firm could install a server instance, though, and have all staff use the same service.

Paperwork is an open source web-based note taking tool similar to OneNote or Evernote

Paperwork is an open source web-based note taking tool similar to OneNote or Evernote

If I were rolling my own cloud, I would definitely want to have an equivalent resource, like:

One other research tool that doesn’t really fit anywhere but I’d throw in is an RSS news server.  Tiny Tiny RSS is a great tool for monitoring current awareness.  You can have multiple users, each with their own account.  And if you find information to share, you can flag it to appear on a public or team accessible news feed.

Can I Host My Own Legal Apps?

Maybe.  I wouldn’t recommend any host-your-own open source legal apps, for practice management or anything like that.  There have been open source attempts but they lack a community or support.  If you decide you want a practice management application, want it web-accessible, and don’t want it on a public or vendor-hosted cloud, you’ll be looking at licensing software in the traditional way.

You can still run it on a hosted cloud, but your cost of doing so – from the need to run a virtual environment to licensing and maintenance – will be significantly more than business-oriented apps.  If you’re able to put some of your practice into a private cloud, practice management is probably the app that needs to live on your local computer, and which may or may not be accessible to you outside the office.

 

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