Cloud technologies offer the flexibility, mobility and even the security that a modern law firm requires. Attorneys were rightfully skeptical about the technology when it first appeared, but it has been around long enough to have established itself as a viable option for any law office. Cloud applications have excelled in three areas in particular — document authoring, file sharing and backups — so let’s look at some of the most popular products in each category.
Attorneys often have to prepare documents in collaboration with other attorneys, clients or other entities. Emailing documents back and forth quickly clutters your inbox and hard drive, as well as being an insecure way of transmitting sensitive information. Online document collaboration streamlines the authoring process as well as limiting access only to authorized users. All of these office suites are free to use, though some have subscription options that allow more space and features.
- Google Docs – This is probably the most well known of the online office suites. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation maker, drawing app and form maker. Documents can be shared with everyone or with only select users, and it is easy to see who has made changes. Documents can be edited by multiple users simultaneously, which can be helpful when working together over a conference call or video chat. A subscription of $5 or $10 per month per user gives more storage space, technical support, video and voice calls and other features.
- Microsoft Office Online – Microsoft has become the standard for desktop office suites so it is only natural that they are trying to do the same for cloud-based office suites. One of the big advantages of using this product is that if you are already familiar with the desktop software, then you’ll find the online version very familiar. You don’t have to learn new commands, and documents are automatically saved in Microsoft formats that have become industry standards.
- Zoho Docs – Zoho Docs allows collaboration on word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Free users get 5 GB of storage space and standard collaboration tools. Subscriptions of $5 or $8 per user per month give more space, greater control over access permissions and custom branding. Zoho also offers a host of other business apps including meeting software, project planning and a calendar. Each of these apps has a separate pricing plan, though most have free options with limited functionality.
File sharing can serve two purposes. For the solo attorney it gives a secure online space where files relevant to a matter can be stored. This allows the attorney to easy access all case files from the office, at home, in court, at a mediation site or anywhere else with internet access. The attorney can use any computer without having to worry about, for example, the copy of the file on a home computer being a different version than the one on the computer at the office.
Attorneys also use file sharing services for the same reason they use document authoring sites: collaboration. Once again we’ll point out that emailing files is insecure, while most file sharing sites have an option to allow access only to authorized users. File sharing is also useful for sharing documents such as video files that are too large for email.
There are many file sharing options available but not all of them have the security needed by a law practice. Appropriate choices for attorneys include:
- Dropbox – Solo firms may be able to get by with the free version which gives 2 GB of sharable space. Folders can be made private, public, or shared with specific users and documents are protected by 256-bit AES and SSL encryption. The Pro plan for $10 per user per month gives 100 GB of space as well as the option of file recovery and version history for an additional fee. The Business plan is $15 per user per month and would be idea for large firms with five or more employees who regularly need access to a central file repository.
- Box – Not to be confused with Dropbox, Box is a business-oriented file sharing service, though it does have free personal accounts and $5 per user per month Starter accounts for small teams of users. The service is really built around the Business ($15 per user per month) and Enterprise ($35 per user per month) accounts, which allow unlimited storage, access permissions, and more security options. This service might be overkill for a solo attorney but would be an ideal option for a large law firm.
- Google Drive – It’s an online service so it’s not surprising htat Google has a product. Google Drive is relatively new, introduced in 2012, and was originally simply the storage portion of Google Docs. It’s been redesigned as a standalone file sharing service that integrates with all of Google applications including Gmail and Google+ Photos. Free users can store 15 GB and additional plans range from 100 GB for $2/month to 30 TB (that’s 30,000 GB) for $300/month.
- Microsoft OneDrive – Another major player in the computer world, Microsoft originally debuted this service as SkyDrive in 2007. The name was changed to OneDrive at the beginning of 2014 due to a trademark dispute. Users can store up to 7 GB for free and up to 200 GB for $100/year. OneDrive for Business offers 1 TB of storage along with auditing and advanced access permissions for $2.50 per user per month. OneDrive integrates with other Microsoft products such as Office Online, Outlook, and Windows Photo Gallery.
As your practice’s documentation moves to electronic format it become more important than ever to have a robust and reliable backup solution. Even if you use cloud-based office suites and file storage, if you have any files at all on your local computer then you need to make backups at least once per day. Something as simple as copying files to a flash drive that you carry in your pocket offers you protection against hard drive failures, viruses and office fires. However your documents are too important to trust to such a simple backup scheme.
Industry experts recommend a 3-2-1 approach to backups: 3 copies of your files on 2 different media with at least 1 offsite backup. Disasters such as Katrina and Sandy demonstrated that even offsite backups are not safe as long as they are in the same city. A cloud-based backup solution offers not only an easy, automated archive solution but also the advantages of having files stored in a professionally managed data center with state of the art digital and physical security, and located sufficiently far away that even the largest natural disasters won’t destroy both your original files and your backups.
If you are used to local backups using flash drives, DVDs or even magnetic tapes then you will be surprised by one thing: cloud backups are slow. Your first backup will take days or weeks. However after that, the service needs to back up only files that have changed so daily backups will take minutes. Many services offer continuous backup so they archive your files the instant they are changed.
Warning: be careful about using consumer backup utilities for your business. These services often don’t offer the level of security and redundancy a law practice needs. Business backup services cost more but are better choices for attorneys. Some plans simultaneously backup to an external drive or a trusted computer on your business network, giving you two backups for the price of one. There are so many backup services that it’s hard to keep track of them all but here are some of the most popular business applications:
- CrashPlan – Continuous backup, 448-bit encryption (your bank probably has weaker security), unlimited file versioning and access to deleted files forever make CrashPlan a strong contender. They offer two pricing plans: Unlimited Data charges a fee per computer per month but can back up as much data as you want, while Unlimited Computers gives you a predetermined amount of space for a flat monthly fee but you can back up as many computers or mobile devices as you like.
- SpiderOak – SpiderOak offers the same features as the other backup services on this list but their big selling point is privacy. Nobody, not even their own staff or the NSA, can see your data except you. They are sort of a combination of backup drive and online storage, so you can set folders to be shared with authorized users as well as automatically backing up files and folders according to your own schedule. Business plans run $60 per user per year for unlimited storage.
- Carbonite – This is one of the oldest cloud backup companies around. Their Pro plan, most appropriate for law practices, starts at $270 per year for 250 GB of backup space. They boast their storage is HIPAA-compliant and they offer free valet installation of the software, handy for the less technically proficient attorneys out there
A full array of cloud-based tools can allow you to create a true paperless, virtual office. You have the flexibility to meet clients at their convenience, practice law on your terms, and focus your efforts on being an attorney rather than shuffling papers.