Through Thick to Thin

“Let me have men about me that are fat, sleek-headed men and, such as sleep o’nights. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much, such men are dangerous.”

The coming thing in technology is “thin clients.” Bill Gates is worried that Microsoft will be left behind, and his hungry competitors
are legion, all of them investing like crazy in thin.

This might not be such a good thing for lawyers, having nothing to do with whether the wallets of the clients who come in the door are fat or lean. A thin client is a piece of technology — an application — that takes up little room on your computer and is opposed to a fat client, the best examples of which are perhaps Microsoft Office applications, often disparaged as “bloatware.”
Why would such things not be good for lawyers? The answer, it seems to me, has nothing to do with the size of the program — law firms are, or should be, as parsimonious as the next person when it comes to technology. The problem lies in the fact that thin clients are increasingly web applications.

These live on someone else’s server, and therein lies the rub. No amount of promises about secure access could persuade a law firm to allow its word processing or presentation preparation or spreadsheet construction to take place on a  machine outside the control of the firm. Surely.

Yet think of search technology, which is definitely thin client. Google can, and does, I believe, track your searches; I’d bet a pretty picture could be painted of law firm activity by examining a passel of its searches. Won’t happen? Probably not, if only because great big Google doesn’t care about (comparatively) little old you LLP.  but how much unlikelihood is enough? What about Westlaw/eCarswell? Lexis? Saved searches, alerts, emailed results etc. all reside on or emanate from their machines. Anything can be hacked. Safe enough for folk music, as the saying might go? Evidently we think so, but I wonder exactly how much thinking about this has been done by law societies or most practicing professionals.

Now there are thin clients that allow us to do word processing on someone else’s machine, or store files there, or make free phone calls and hold video conferences with the other side of the world via technology that lives outside the firm’s precincts. I’m typing this in a browser using a web application called gOFFICE that lets me have the advantages of a basic word processor for free. I use Google’s gmail to archive some of my mail and I’m experimenting with using my 2-gig free disk space there as a handy place to store files (as attachments). I can collaborate on documents with anyone I choose via Writely, and store the resulting pdf (created for free in gOFFICE) in Box, which will notify you via RSS that the thing is in a new version.

I’m free to use free (and thin) because I’m bound by no confidentiality requirements. But lawyers will have to shun this development, holus bolus. Won’t they? It might be hard to stand against what is going to be a real tide, I suspect, especially if you’re a small struggling firm and every penny counts, or if you’re young and into technology and the latest things. Cost aside, think of the convenience: your files available everywhere anytime, available through a small device on the back of the airplane seat as small as your Black Berry (which is completely secure, isn’t it?)… When Google finally presents its total office environment, it will be easy for some to say, “I use Google to search, why not use them to do X, Y or Z?”

Legal researchers have led the way to thin clients. It might be sensible for them, then, to lead the way into a broader and deeper discussion of the security concerns surrounding this development.

ADDENDUM: Within five minutes of posting this, I checked my feed reader, where Inter Alia‘s links for the day pointed to Time Tracker: A Personal Time Management Application. Free, thin client web-based, and blogged by a legal research blogger. You see?

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