Shift the Digital Membership Library

Research often plunks all libraries into a single bucket but there are differences between those with open populations and others and the types of services they can offer.  Membership libraries – where you pay for access – have a closed membership and, like academic libraries, primarily (sometimes solely) provide services to those paying the fees.  Unlike corporate or law firm libraries, though, with similarly closed audiences, the membership library isn’t serving a corporate body.  The members have offices, and possibly infrastructure, of their own.  The latest announcement from LibreOffice sent me off on a tangent about the types of digital services a membership library could spin up to support its fee-payers.

Many North American law libraries outside of the government, law firms, and academia are membership libraries, even when they serve the public.  But there are plenty of other membership libraries out there, serving niche audiences.  My thinking centers on law libraries but I think some of these ideas would work in academic environments as well as other membership locations.

I’ve talked about technology in law libraries before but I’ll say this again:  providing digital services that store user information requires care.  The open source tools I mention below are all free to acquire and easy to implement but need to be properly hardened.  A library wouldn’t want a lawyer’s personal work to become public.

Which is one of the reasons this topic is so interesting.

Shift from PC to Server

When you walk into a library of nearly any kind, you’ll find a computer terminal.  In most cases, you can create content and search the internet or subscription databases.  Both activities leave traces.  Public libraries will use system freezing and cleansing apps but they’re not foolproof.  I don’t use a library PC for anything but catalog searches but I have the luxury of having my own PC.  If you can move some of these activities further away from a public PC, behind a password, you can freeze more and perhaps worry less about privacy.

At the same time, anything you can shift off the public PC is something that is potentially accessible from the user’s own device.  A membership library – with a known body of users – may be able to get out of the PC business and rely on user’s bringing their own hardware.  It then becomes possible to shift resources from maintaining PCs to spinning up networked resources.

Digital Law Library

Discussions around digital law libraries usually focus on content access.  But we’re just gatekeeping someone else’s product in that discussion.  There are services we could deliver that could enable lawyers to rely less on our physical space, that can be used in or out of the library, and to better leverage the work we are already doing.  Here are some ideas:

  • RSS using Tiny Tiny RSS.  I won’t belabor this one because I’ve written about Tiny Tiny and teams elsewhere.  If the membership library has a specific topical focus (law, science, medicine) then creating a core RSS feed for all members is easy.  But you can create more specific sub-topic RSS feeds as well and, potentially, even personal ones.  I’m assuming the library has already cracked the topical e-mail discussion list, because this would be a nice alternative or complement to that.
  • Document storage with Owncloud.  When I see documents on a Windows desktop, my skin crawls.  You’d think lawyers would understand that public PCs are, well, public.  There are plenty of ways for a lawyer to use their own cloud options or even a USB key.  However, Owncloud provides a file storage and synchronization service similar to Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive.  Each member could have a personal account and store what they need in it.

    But wait!  That’s not all!  In fact, that’s not anything!  Why replicate what is already being done by someone else.  Instead, picture the ability to upload document delivery scans or other supporting documents to a lawyer’s personal Owncloud.  That upload then immediately synchronizes to the lawyer’s PC, wherever she’s working.  Now you’ve got an ability to break document delivery out of the email cycle and give the member a document repository of past research.

    It doesn’t even have to be a document delivery alternative.  Upload the answer to a reference question instead of sending an e-mail.  Now the lawyer is able to store research knowledge with research, outside of an e-mail system.  There is also the collaboration benefit, where a document in Owncloud can be shared with other lawyers.  If someone asks a colleague a question that you’ve already answered, think about the value you add for that lawyer who can now share your professional advice without having to maintain the email.

  • Online document creation with LibreOffice Online.  This is the app that kicked off the idea behind this post.  Why send your members off to G Suite or Microsoft Office Web apps when you could provide the same online editing environment?  If, as I’m sure is more common than we care to admit, our public PCs are in fact the lawyer’s office PC, they may not be able to store their content anywhere else.

    I’d envision a lawyer working on an online document in LibreOffice – hosted on a server run by the library – without ever having to put it on the PC.  Because it’s “in the cloud” (not), it can be accessed anywhere the lawyer is.  It’s not a Microsoft Word replacement any more than the other web productivity suites are, but it’s a substantial productivity tool.

    Something like LibreOffice supports features like digitally signing documents, generating PDFs from the text documents.  It can even be integrated with Owncloud or using Nextcloud and Collabora.

One reason I’m thinking about the library as provider is because I think there are a lot of solo lawyers who could use similar resources.  But they may not have the resources to create them themselves.  Membership law libraries that have a large solo audience or want to attract one, since they’re the most numerous law firm size, could meet these needs within the research support role.  These also scale, so a library could collaborate with other libraries to create a shared service and spread the costs.

Another reason I like the idea of the library as provider is that it takes the member out of their e-mail box.  Like marketing, it creates the opportunity for them to interact with library resources more, as part of their workflow, rather than only when they ask a question and receive a reply.

Open Source Preferred

The easiest way to do this would be to license Microsoft Office 365 and just pay for the service.  Or you could run your own Terminal Server and create a similar, in-house environment.  I think both of these are poor options in the long run.  Most membership libraries are not funded at a level to support paying for an enterprise cloud product.  Even if they were, the library is then outsourcing the responsibility for knowing where that content is, which is critical to some audiences, like lawyers.

Similarly, something like a terminal server environment is delivering far too much technology, including a virtual desktop.  Open source apps like the ones listed above are free to acquire and hosting for most membership libraries, even with thousands of members, would be nominal compared to the licensing and maintenance required for terminal servers.  You would need to hire expertise – from your host or a third party, or on your own staff if you’re large enough a library – to harden the systems and configure integrations.  These ongoing costs are, I think, manageable to the extent they reflect new value provided to the members and enable a shift of resources from other fixed, in-house technologies.

I do not fall into that group of people who think law libraries in particular should veer off into service delivery for the sake of having something to do.  But there are opportunities for the library to provide services that enhance the value of what we are already doing.  These are probably scratching the surface but I think fall within the financial and technical resources of many membership libraries.

 

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.

 

Keep Your Marbles

[ This post originally appeared on Slaw.ca, November 12, 2013 ]

Law firms are spoiled for choice when it comes to cloud computing services. You can place any or all of your practice technology somewhere other than your office. The maturing of the cloud world, and the seemingly endless proliferation of open source software, create additional options. If you are on the fence about where your information lives, these may push you over.

A challenge of using cloud or hosted Web services is the same kind of change that occurs on your desktop. Companies shut down products, change their business model and start charging for something that was free, or go out of business altogether. When your information is on someone else’s hardware, however, you may be faced with finding a new option.

A good, if narrow, example of this is Google Reader. Shaunna Mireau has done a good job of covering the demise of this information pro tool elsewhere on Slaw. Google Reader users hashed out many possible alternatives in Web discussions and many went to another cloud reader, like Feedly. But some decided to serve themselves with open source Tiny Tiny RSS.

Tiny Tiny is free to acquire and is installed on a server that you control. It might be in your office or you might have a Web or in-country cloud hosting service that provides you with the infrastructure. Like many open source projects, you’re on your own to get it installed, with possible help coming from the community of other users, some of whom also contribute to the development of the software.

As I said, this is a narrow case. But the result is that you create a stable information platform that has features (privacy, the ability to create multiple users, and do some internal sharing ) you might not have on a commercial site. It gives you some additional control over what you use, and how.

Since many open source projects rely on the same underlying open source technology, a solo or small firm can get just as much benefit out of it as a larger firm. Someone with a bit of technology chops can quickly follow the recipe-like instructions to get an application like Tiny Tiny up and running or you can pass it off to your IT support for the 30-60 minutes of labor involved.

A broader case might be an alternative to file synchronization services like Dropbox or Box. You might consider using ownCloud or Pydio (f/k/a AjaXplorer). Each offers a locally installable, open source file synchronization and storage service that supports multiple accounts. Both have a paid enterprise version, with additional support, but the community version is free. You can have an Android or iOS app to access your files with either one. If issues of server location or security have held you up from using a service like Dropbox or Box, these can give you some greater latitude.

When you are considering your options when trying to solve a technology problem, dig a bit to see if there is an open source alternative to the commercial products. Open source is not a panacea and comes with its own challenges – a project can stop development, and it still requires you or your IT support to manage and maintain it – but it can be another option to put in the hopper as you decide what’s best for your technology needs.

The growth of cloud computing and open source development appears to be stronger than ever and opening doors that may not have been there the last time you looked. They offer chances to blend cloud and local control so that you can keep your marbles, but not necessarily just to walk away.

What ISN'T Cloud Computing?

I finished my cloud computing manuscript a few weeks ago and have detox’d a bit now, although I did speak about it yesterday.  It’s given me a chance to get some perspective on cloud computing and firm up some thoughts I’d been leaning towards anyway.  As I mentioned at the session we did yesterday, cloud is shifting from a marketing term to something with a definition.  Which doesn’t stop every technology company’s marketing department from trying to wrap their product as either cloud or something-as-a-service.  The latest one I came across was desktop-as-a-service.  I loved Bob Lewis’ (I use his name like I know him!) riff recently in talking about leveraging cloud concepts internally:  “… the Conjunction Society of America will soon offer ‘as’ as a service.”

One thing I’m more firmly committed to is the idea that so-called private cloud is marketing hype.  Someone may actually be doing this but the ones I’ve heard of sound like they’re hosted, virtualized services.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, but they’re not cloud just because you traverse the Internet to get to them.  If you are opening up a remote terminal window that looks like a Windows desktop running Windows applications, you’re not using cloud computing.

Data Disappearing Due to Latency

Two comments were made at yesterday’s session, both by people at law firms who have bought something billed as cloud but which isn’t.  The first lawyer noted that they were having significant issues with data not being up to date, so that you might log in to your calendar only to see that certain appointments were missing that had been there before.  The explanation of the provider was that that’s how the cloud works.  But that’s the marketing cloud.  The whole point of cloud computing, as I understand it, is that the resources are pooled in such a way so that this sort of latency doesn’t happen.  If this is not in fact just a problem with insufficient bandwidth – trying to pour too much honey in the funnel and having to wait for it to empty – then it sounds like these are not really cloud systems but just hosted ones.  Because that’s the sort of problem that I’ve seen in Lotus Notes, in Microsoft Exchange, etc., in other words, systems that have some notoriety for being complex and/or clunky and not often built for cloud computing.

Our Cloud Reboots Nightly

The second comment was that they experienced substantial slowdowns in using their systems until the cloud provider shifted to a nightly reboot of their servers (Windows) which enabled the applications to run more smoothly.  The downside is that the entire private cloud vaporizes for 30 minutes every morning while the system restarts.  Anyone who has administered a Windows system knows the benefits of bouncing your servers – I had to do this about 15 years ago in order to ensure that our printing cost recovery system wouldn’t hang with a bunch of print jobs in queue.  And yes, hahaha for the Unix folks who rarely find themselves having to reboot due to a memory leak or other problem.  I run a pair of Linux servers and that’s my experience too  – they can stay up for weeks at a time without any need to restart.

If you have to bounce your servers nightly for operations, you’re not in the cloud.  I think the NIST definition of resource pooling and infiniteness underscores why – because you’re maxing out your resources – but also because these are clearly legacy applications with legacy problems that have been placed on virtual servers.  Virtualized servers are a fantastic breakthrough in the last 10-15 years, whether hosted or not.  But they’re not cloud.  A cloud provider with this problem would be forced to choose between bouncing ALL customers and disabling connectivity for 30 minutes or fixing the problem.  The rapid iterative updating that happens with software-as-a-service providers would mean that they’d fix the problem, rather than just falling back on the nightly restart.

None of which matters a jot.  Lawyers need to use the technology best suited to how they practice and that meets their regulatory and other obligations.  Cloud computing is a potent option but many firms have used hosted services for years, if not decades, enabled by broadband Internet or dedicated lines.  Just don’t confuse cloud computing with hosting companies that market themselves as cloud.