Open Source File Storage and Synchronization for Law Firms

[This article originally appeared on Law Technology News, October 17, 2013]

The cloud presents challenges to lawyers who want to take advantages of the tools without risking their professional responsibilities. In most cases, law firms can adopt cloud technology within their ethical requirements, but there are more options. Choosing “cloud” is more nuanced than just signing up for Google Apps, or not. Storage and synchronization services are good examples of how you can roll a pretty personalized package.

Cloud syncing services — such as Dropbox for Teams, or Box for Business —are easy to adopt, requiring little in the way of adapting the way you work to a new interface or technology. Similarly, if you create your own file synchronization option, you can build it into your practice without a lot of disruption.

You can build your own using open source options, such as ownCloud or  Pydio.  Each of these can be installed on your internal servers or hosted private servers to enable the same kind of file synchronization — complete with Web interface and administrative tools — that your firm may want from a commercial provider.  Both will run on Windows or Linux servers and rely on common open source technologies such as  PHP and MySQL.

Which one is right for you requires the same advanced work on your part that any software acquisition would include.  AjaXplorer has iOS and Android apps that mean your lawyers and staff can access their files on the go.  It also offers a number of free plugins to help customize the system to integrate with your security and other systems, like the law firm’s content management system.

OwnCloud has a community version but also an enterprise version so that, like Red Hat Linux, you can get patching and support more like a typical commercial product. Its app store contains plugins, like an e-book reader or a tool to apply legal notices to all documents in the system.

Rolling your own can mean not really being in the cloud at all. But a hosted system with fixed limitations of hard drive space, for example, may be a good trade to a remotely controlled site with endless potential resources.  Law firms outside the United States may need to consider where their servers are located.  This shifts the responsibility back to your own IT support but gives you greater control than you might have with a commercial software-as-a-service provider.

Commercial cloud storage and synchronization is a great option for most firms.  If you want a bit more control, or if your practice requires you to know where your servers are and audit them more carefully than you can with an external service, an open source alternative you host yourself can allow your law firm to get the benefit of the technology without some of the unknowns.

David Whelan is manager of legal information for the Law Society of Upper Canada. Email:

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