Cloud computing is often portrayed as an online-only world that enables a high degree of collaboration for lawyers. Here’s a reality check. That is not how many, perhaps most, lawyers practice and that perspective can fog some of the possibilities of blending your office technology with cloud-based systems. While software-as-a-service (SaaS) is a significant offering in the cloud world, with some strong companies dedicated to providing legal practice management applications, there are a number of other opportunities that require less dramatic changes to your practice.
One of the significant benefits to cloud computing is that it enables an as well as mentality to replace the older instead of philosophy. It means you can, in some cases, have your cake and eat it too. More importantly, it means you can continue to use what works for you and complement it with cloud resources.
Most law firm technology revolves around the Microsoft Office suite, with Microsoft Word as a foundational element used by 96% of lawyers responding to the 2011 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report (p. II-55). Lawyers can continue to rely on that central tool and layer cloud computing on top of it so that additional opportunities are available but don’t require a leap out into space.
One of the easiest steps is to start using cloud-based storage. This is infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), as opposed to its software cousin. The U.S. National Institute for Standards and Technology is working on some definitions of IAAS, SAAS, among others, fortunately. While the focus of this sort of resource is often on the collaborative aspects – a file that is stored in the cloud can be shared with others authorized to access it – there are more fundamental benefits. What about a backup of your information? What about a business continuity option? File storage sites can scale to the size of your organization’s staff and amount of data. They enable local storage as well as online backup, mobile access. There’s no need to leap into outer space.
Once you designate the folders on your local computers that need to be synchronized to the remote file storage site, you can go back to working the way you have in the past. If you store your files in your My Documents folder and designate that to be synchronized up to the storage site, you can continue to save your files as you have in the past. Commonly discussed options include Dropbox.com, Sugarsync.com, and Box.net. Online backup companies are starting to offer similar services, including Mozy.com and Carbonite.com. If the online file storage system does not meet your encryption needs, you can look at supplemental tools like Truecrypt.org or Getsecretsync.com.
You do not need to make any other change to your practice. As with other backup regimens, you need to be sure that your data is actually being synchronized properly. You can do that verification by accessing the Web site for your file storage and accessing a file. I do this periodically with a recently created file to make sure that something isn’t inhibiting the synchronization process.
But you do not need to start using Dropbox or whatever storage site for any other purpose. It merely provides you with options to continue your work in other ways. If you do not want to do those things, you can continue to work on, and save your files to, your local computer, with the benefit of having a second copy stored in the cloud in case you need it.
Other frequently touted resources are collaborative sites like Google Docs. The software-as-a-service word processor is often held up as an instead of option to using your local word processor. The online word processor, whether Google’s or Microsoft’s free Office Web apps, is not equivalent to your local word processor. Additionally, most lawyers do not work in a way that enables regular use of the collaborative benefits of these technologies, whether they should or not.
Again, Microsoft Word can anchor you to your local environment while you use the cloud as well. Microsoft now offers its own file synchronization option, called Live Mesh and available to Microsoft Windows Vista and Windows 7 users. When you save files to your local hard drive, Live Mesh will upload them to a free 5 GB storage account. You can actually store up to 25 GB of content in your Live.com account but only 5 GB is synchronized. Like a Dropbox account, it gives you an option to support your business continuity plan.
Files are saved to the same place they were before, staff do not need to be retrained. However, if you need remote access to a file, you now have that option. If you want to get a document started with the stripped down Microsoft Word Web app, you can do so. Then, when you return to the office, you can open that document in your full version of Word and finish it off.
Similarly, you can blend Microsoft Word on your local machine and Google Docs in the cloud. This can be a preferable alternative if you are already using Google’s Mail or other Google services. Google’s Cloud Connect sits behind Microsoft Office and synchronizes your local files up to the Google Docs site. You can either keep them in their native format (Microsoft Word, for example) or have them converted into Google Docs. This is great for PDFs too, since Google Docs will OCR them as they are synchronized. Google offers less free space for storage than Microsoft but you can buy more.
Just as with Microsoft’s service, there is no need to learn the Google Docs editor or to share your documents with others, although it can be a great way to collaborate with others in your firm or practice. You continue to save your files in the same place you always have, on your local machine, and create a mirror of those files online. The benefit is having the local copy as well as your online copy. You can then choose how, and if, you use each one in your practice.
Cloud computing is a way to expand what you are able to do in your practice, to give yourself more flexibility and to practice in different ways. This doesn’t mean you have to make significant changes to how you practice before you get the benefit of some of the advantages.