Even as recently as the early 2000’s, the idea of achieving full in-office productivity while traveling on the road seemed difficult to imagine. The laptop, smartphone, cloud infrastructure, and internet access technologies of the day simply weren’t capable or ubiquitous enough to match in-office facilities and resources. But fast forward to 2010, and these ingredients have evolved and shifted significantly.
Firms like Heritage Law are predicated on the reality that any lawyer or staff member can work effectively from practically any remote office on a full time basis with nothing more than a Voice Over IP (VoIP) telephone, a broadband internet connection, a netbook grade PC, and combined printer/scanner. In this game changing model, each user is remotely served by the same set of highly integrated applications from their own personal Microsoft Windows desktop. These virtual desktops are hosted on servers in a centrally located, private and secure cloud. The private cloud is 100% firm owned and operated and is connected to the internet over a high speed dedicated line.
On the Road in the Virtual Firm
In a virtual firm, the requirements necessary to maximize productivity as a ‘traveling lawyer’ shrink dramatically when compared to the traditional IT deployment model, which requires the installation, periodic rebuilding and maintenance of every core application on both individual PCs and separate laptops for out-of-office travel. In the hosted or Desktop as a Service (Daas) model, the requirements for nomadic access from the road reduce to:
1. A sub $300 netbook PC running a basic installation of Windows from vendors such as Acer, Asus, Dell, or HP; depending on preference and budget, this “thin client” PC could be more capable with a larger screen, or even an Apple Macbook running a Terminal Services client, the key point being that compute requirements on the client side are minimal and therefore the required hardware cost very low;
2. A smartphone such as an iPhone, Blackberry, or Google Nexus One with 3G broadband wireless data connectivity and an unlimited data plan:
– The phone tethers to the netbook to enable broadband data access from practically anywhere with 3G wireless coverage, and delivers sufficient downstream bandwidth for hosted desktop access even where only 2.5G (EDGE equivalent) data coverage is available;
– All calls from the VoIP telephone back in the office are set to simultaneously ring this phone to ensure a single number dialing; and
– This phone serves as the primary telephony device for outbound calls.
If physical paper document scanning is absolutely required, a portable scanner like the Pentax DS Mobile 600, or Xerox Travel Scanner 100 suffice to generate PDF files from relatively small multi-page paper documents collected in the field. Effective portable document printing is somewhat more difficult to realize, and is impractical if volumes are high. Depending on the resources at hand, the best option is probably to bulk together multiple print jobs and leverage the use of a nearby business center or shared guest office printer. Portable battery powered printers from vendors like Cannon are available when document length is small and total portability critical.
The Virtual Desktop – A Single Integrated Productivity Suite in the Cloud
Virtual desktops in the private Heritage cloud consist of a highly integrated collection of document management, practice management, and collaboration applications. The Microsoft Office Suite is standard for working with Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. We host an Exchange server for e-mail, calendaring, and contact management. Critical document management functions are provided by the Worldox GL product sold by World Software. Worldox is the central repository for all firm documents, regardless of format. All documents are filed by client and matter number and fully enabled for text search. Lexis Nexus Time Matters and PCLaw are used together for practice management, contact management, scheduling, matter management, conflicts checks, accounting, and several other core functions. Time Matters connects with Outlook to support full bidirectioal contact and calendar synchronization. Together, Time Matters and PCLaw also integrate with Worldox to ensure that all client matter information is unified under a single matter reference system. HotDocs (formerly a Lexis Nexus product, recently sold to Capsoft) is used for document automation and assembly, and greatly enhances the productivity in our estate planning practice, in particular.
When accessing the virtual desktop as a traveling lawyer, a typical working session might last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours or even a whole working day. The venue could equally be a coffee shop, a commuter train in a well served 3G broadband corridor, an airport, or even in a doctor’s office waiting room. The goal is to enable productivity equal to that which is realizable when sitting at a desk in the home office.
The Role of the Smartphone
Beyond the nomadic scenario discussed thus far, where the assumption is that working sessions last at least a few minutes, there are many occasions when the task at hand is short or the situation simply doesn’t warrant powering up the laptop and tethering the smartphone to establish the broadband connection. When time is short and convenience paramount, the smartphone is the ultimate tool. At Heritage Law, we have no strict smartphone requirement; some lawyers use the RIM Blackberry, and others the Apple iPhone. We have not yet tested the Google Nexus One, as it remains unavailable in Canada at this time. Ideal basic requirements include:
1) Full bidirectional contact and calendar synchronization with the Microsoft Exchange server; and
2) A rich e-mail experience with full universal keyword search and the ability to open and view all standard Microsoft Office attachments and Adobe Acrobat PDF documents.
The iPhone works particularly well in the Heritage infrastructure because we’ve standardized on Microsoft Exchange, and the device includes full Exchange ActiveSync for live push calendar, contact, and e-mail synchronization without the need for the separate BES infrastructure required to accomplish the same thing with Blackberry devices. With the voice activation features on the new 3GS model, dialing client numbers from the road is as straightforward as pressing the headset button and speaking the client name. The iPhone also includes native support for all of the standard Microsoft Office file formats, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and the popular Adobe Acrobat PDF document format. And when full hosted desktop access is required for system Administrators and power users, an Application called WinAdmin (available for download through the App Store) provides an excellent solution that works very well with the iPhone multitouch interface. Another time saver is the TomTom application, which turns the iPhone into a GPS navigation system that’s equally as capable as a dedicated GPS navigation unit. The navigation app will guide you to client meetings in even the most remote corners of town with just a few touches of the screen, and is fully integrated with the phone contact database, which remains constantly synchronized with Exchange.
Some will continue to bemoan the lack of a physical keyboard on the iPhone as compared to all Blackberry models (with the exception of the Storm). We agree to a point, but believe that text entry is much improved with the 3.1 software, particularly after a bit of practice on the snappy 3GS when used in the landscape (wide) orientation.
Security rightfully gets a lot of play in the context of remote access, particularly in the legal IT community. In this regard, the hosted desktop model comes out ahead on a number fronts. Because no firm or client data is stored locally on the PC used to access the hosted desktop, security requirements reduce to ensuring that the connection between the server and the access PC benefit from strong encryption. The RDP protocol used by Microsoft Terminal Services for remote desktop access uses the 128-bit RC4 encryption algorithm, the same algorithm used by SSL for HTTPS and WEP for wireless (without suffering from the same vulnerabilities well documented in the case of WEP). Of course, data center security must be considered along with strict secure password policies on the server side.
Consider that without full hard disk encryption, laptops in the traditional IT deployment model pose a significant risk when lost or stolen, because firm data is available to the thief indefinitely. Further, no work is possible the moment the laptop is lost, stolen, or breaks. Compare those limitations to the hosted desktop model, where a new generic laptop can be purchased on the road or shipped overnight from the head office without requiring any configuration.
In the case of the smartphone, the risk of theft or loss are higher because the device downloads contacts, e-mail, and other firm data. This vulnerability has been discussed extensively in the industry press, with some articles targeting the iPhone in particular. With the 3GS and software release 3.0, these concerns have largely been addressed; the device now leverages hardware accelerated 256-bit AES encryption to secure all phone data on the fly, and completes a remote wipe command issued from the Exchange Server instantaneously. Server side ActiveSync polices should be configured to enforce the use of a non-trivial password on the iPhone, preventing thieves from gaining access to any data should the device end up stolen.
One of the admitted limitations of the hosted desktop IT model in the virtual firm is the strict requirement for high speed broadband internet access at all times. In spite of the fact 2.5 and 3G wireless data coverage is now approaching 90% in some countries, there are still some places out of reach. While some will argue that no access is a sign you should simply pack up the laptop and catch up with your reading on Amazon’s kindle, the Sony Reader, or the Barnes and Noble Nook (the electronic book is another great device for the mobile lawyer), there are others who demand the ability to get work done from places like an airplane on a cross country flight. Although not currently deployed in the Heritage infrastructure, there are VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) technologies available which allow lawyers to take whole copies of their hosted desktops offline. Those desktop copies are then available on the laptop for a working session, and then automatically resynchronized with the centrally hosted desktop once the laptop is reconnected to broadband. If a basic review of e-mail is all that is required while flying, the smartphone is always a viable option.
The Role of Browser Based SaaS Solutions
Some would argue that emerging browser based SaaS offerings such as Clio from the Canadian company Themis Solutions offer the same benefits to the traveling lawyer as the ‘heavier’ DaaS (hosted desktop) architecture described in this paper. SaaS based offerings certainly come with some benefits – such as access from literally any browser and cost effective monthly subscriptions – however there are several limitations. One is that, in spite of significant continuous innovation in browser technologies, they simply are not yet able to faithfully reproduce the full desktop experience. Another is that offerings from several vendors must be combined to deliver all of the elements required to enable a typical lawyer; one SaaS application for practice management, a potentially separate application for hosted e-mail, and others for various specialized functions. The moment more than one SaaS application is required, data sharing between them becomes challenging. So do managing multiple user accounts and login credentials. Solutions are emerging to address these challenges and enable the seamless integration of SaaS offerings from multiple complementary vendors, but are still a long way from the level of maturity required to match established desktop offerings.
The most effective way to leverage SaaS offerings in the hosted desktop model is to access them from a web browser running on the hosted desktop itself. This offers the best of both worlds, combining the integration and maturity of the standard desktop with the best browser based SaaS applications.
Whether lawyers and staff are working from their home offices or a small coffee shop on the road, cloud hosted virtual desktops enable the full productivity experience from practically any PC connected over broadband. The proliferation of 3G grade wireless data access makes access possible from almost anywhere. Security, IT management burden, and consistency of experience all benefit in the model. Together with a smartphone for e-mail, calendaring, contact management, document review, and telephony, the combination is difficult to match – even when compared with emerging browser based SaaS offerings, which can be always be accessed through a browser on the hosted desktop as required.