“It’s in the cloud.” New Web-based services provide solo and small firm lawyers new low-cost technology options and opportunities

“Cloud technology” is a major technology trend in development that can benefit solo and small law firms. “In the cloud” is a technology program that is located on the Web, that combines service, data storage and data management. Working in the “cloud,” lawyers now have access to sophisticated services with minimal investment and not have to maintain or have access to expensive in-house technology expertise. It is up to the vendor, instead of the lawyer, to maintain the service and keep it up-to-date.

Cloud technology had a brief surge about 10 years ago but fizzled out because the technology and the Web were not sophisticated and fast enough to make it work effectively. Today cloud technology has evolved and high-speed access, both hard-wired and wireless, supports the use of Web-based programs and applications. Lawyers are not only traveling with their technology but they now use multiple computer platforms, tablets and smart phones, so cloud technology offers a good way to solve a lawyer’s need to be able to work anywhere using multiple devices. A number of the programs and exhibitors at the April 2011 ABA Tech Show in Chicago illustrated the variety of “in the cloud” applications and options. Cloud services can be a single application or a whole office system.

Back-up services

A Web-based based cloud application can be as simple as a remote backup. There are several remote or off-site backup services available. They range in price from a nominal amount for a small amount of data to fairly expensive depending upon the amount of data storage space, indexing and types of access required. For most solo and small firm offices the charge involved is very affordable. Mozy <www.mozy.com> has been an exhibitor at the ABA Tech Show for a number of years as a cloud backup provider and has gotten good reviews. Others getting good reviews are Carbonite <www.carbonite.com>; Barracuda Networks <www.barraudanetworks.com>; and Symantic’s new Norton Online Backup 25GB <www.Norton.com>. There are a number of others that have been favorably reviewed in the computer magazines and online computer sites listed on the Internet. As with any cloud application, the key in selecting an off-site backup provider is the stability of the provider and the ability to have another backup available if the company goes out of business or suffers a disaster. The mantra “Backup, Backup, Backup” still applies.

Office Services

A number of Web-based cloud providers such as Clio <www.goclio.com>, Rocket Lawyer <www.rocketlawyer.com> and Houdini ESQ <www.HoudiniESQ.com> offer cloud services that include time and billing, word processing, spreadsheets and other essential law office case management, docketing and calendaring programs. The major advantage of the cloud services is that for one monthly fee the software and data are always up to date for all of the computers used by the office. With cloud service a lawyer can work anywhere and have access to his or her data and programs without having to rely on any in-house programs, hardware or personnel and without being confined to an office network or intranet. This enables law firms or individual attorneys to operate in multiple stand-alone locations, without having to invest in considerable computer hardware at each location.

Web Document Database Services

Database services provide indexing and searchable databases for large volumes of e-discovery and trial documents. The documents are turned over to the service and converted to a searchable database for the firm or, if agreeable, other parties to access. Joint access to the database can provide a considerable cost savings. BlueStar Case Solutions <www.bluestarcs.com>, OrcaTec <www.orcatec.com>, and VeeLegal USA <www.veetechnologiesusa.com> were among the Tech Show exhibitors which offered these kinds of services. While these services normally work with large litigation firms, in my discussions with them, I found that most are available for occasional use by solo and small firms for those cases which involve a large volume of documents. These services save data on the providers’ data servers for Web-based access, tailored to the individual needs of the firm or the particular case. The cost and nature of the service is subject to negotiation depending on the case and the needs of the firm or firms involved. With these services, an individual solo or small firm lawyer then does not have to invest in expensive programs or develop their own database. This is an affordable way to level the playing field and compete with the larger firms.

Other Considerations

In most cloud services the technology is always up to date and includes the latest state-of-the-art applications. For solo and small firm offices, particularly newer or startup firms, the cloud offers some affordable options because the possible expense saving on much of today’s office-based software such as Microsoft Office or WordPerfect Office because the cost of upgrades or multiple computer licenses can be substantial. For a small monthly amount the firm can have up-to-date software in the cloud at all times. There are all kinds and combinations of service that can be obtained depending on the firm’s needs. The three main considerations in selecting vendors are: first and most important is will the vendor be able to stay in business, next does the vendor have security to protect the office data from destruction, compromise and hackers, and finally the options to access the data at any time and does the vendor have more than one source to access the backed up and live data.

An example of how cloud technology works is the Amazon Kindle book application, which holds a person’s Kindle books. Using the Kindle app I can read any of my Kindle books on my Kindle, my main computer, my laptop computer, my BlackBerry and my iPad. With the Kindle applications, no matter which platform I read the book or materials on, the Amazon application will synchronize to where I ended so that the next time I open the book on any of the platforms, the “cloud” will take me to the correct page and I can start reading from there. I can also move around in the book and look at other pages without disturbing my place. I have had an occasional glitch but each time I created the problem, not the system.

A major disadvantage of the “cloud” is that it can sometimes be knocked out of service. For example, in a recent major storm a Western Kentucky electric company lost its entire cloud database of customers for a short time. Recently United Airlines lost its entire computer data because of a “connectivity issue” and United Airline flights were disrupted throughout the country. This can happen to a law office cloud service so the office data needs to be accessible in an alternative way to keep the law firm from being out of business if the cloud goes down. Glitches happen with computer programs and data and most tend to happen at the most inconvenient time.

Developing Services

Microsoft is developing cloud applications under the name Microsoft Office 365. It is in beta testing and can be seen at <www.microsoft.com/office365> but the full details, pricing and release are scheduled for some time in 2011. It will be interesting to see how these develop as many law offices now use Microsoft Office applications. Given the history of Microsoft having Office as a “service” offers some unique issues and possibilities for the solo and small firm lawyer. Within the last month Apple has introduced its cloud application which should be available in the fall. There are few details about the Apple cloud. Such major vendors will provide the security that they’re always going to be around. But given their histories they tend to be proprietary and if the service is not profitable they tend to discontinue it. Lexis and West are getting into the cloud with case management and time and billing applications so there are many developing options out there.

As with most technology the cloud is evolving and growing. With the recent entry of the Apple cloud application Microsoft will undoubtedly attempt to do Apple one better when it releases Office 365. The race for bigger and better cloud applications and technology will undoubtedly provide better applications hopefully at a more reasonable cost. Things are evolving but there are some good options already available which can meet the needs of many solo and small firm practitioners. Care must be taken to check out the vendor and the offered services, to make sure what is being purchased meets the lawyer’s needs and there are no hidden or surprise extra costs, especially if you use multiple computers. As with all technology each service has some special feature the others don’t have so there appears to be no perfect solution but there are a lot of good options and tradeoffs to select. While cloud services seem to be getting better as they evolve, if you find something that works and will improve the firms operations at a reasonable cost there is no reason not to purchase the service now because it will also evolve. The service you purchase will undoubtedly improve as it evolves with the advantage that your provider will do the upgrade for you.

Cloud services are an option, but if your present in-house computer network and programs are working there is no reason to rush to change them. When the time comes to upgrade your computer system the “cloud” offers other alternatives which might provide a cost effective solution to the computer needs of solo and small firm lawyers. ■


This article originally appeared in the July 2011 edition of the ISBA’s General Practice, Solo & Small Firm newsletter, Vol. 40, No. 1.

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