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Tech-savvy lawyers say cloud computing is the ‘wave of the future’

Firms waking up to the possibilities of cloud computing

Tech-savvy lawyers predict that cloud computing will become the norm in the legal community, perhaps even within the next decade.

Cloud computing means you’ve moved all of your client’s electronic data out of your office and into cyberspace — or more precisely, onto someone else’s server using the Internet. For some attorneys it might be only a backup system, but for others, the “cloud” is their sole means of data storage and case management.

Minneapolis consumer law attorney Samuel Glover, who has been blogging on law practice management issues for years, predicts that in five to 10 years, nearly everyone will have moved their data to the clouds because it’s a more efficient way to manage and access information.

“I think there’s a general consensus that we are all moving our data out of our offices and homes, off our computers and into the cloud,” he said. “The question is just how soon is that going to happen? Lawyers should know that is what’s happening.”

Nicole Black, a legal technology consultant based in Rochester, N.Y., agreed. “I’m quite certain that cloud computing is the wave of the future … not just for lawyers, but for everybody,” she said. “I think in 10 years most lawyers and law firms will be storing their data in the clouds.”

Todd Scott, vice president for risk management at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual, said that Web-based case management programs in particular have been making a splash in the legal community.

“It’s probably the fastest rising phenomenon regarding legal specific software … in a long time,” he said.

Ease and access

Perhaps the biggest draw for lawyers is the flexibility and accessibility of cloud computing. They can get to their client data anywhere they have access to the Internet.

Glover pointed out that he won’t even have to bring a laptop with him when he goes on vacation to Greece this year. With cloud computing all he needs is a coffee shop with computers and Internet access.

But some tech experts see the constant need for an Internet connection as a potential problem with cloud computing.

Legal technology consultant Wells Anderson pointed out that cloud computing companies don’t yet offer a feature that allows attorneys to continue working unplugged on a personal computer if their connection is interrupted. They need to be able to do that and then synchronize the information with the info stored in the cloud, he said. “To me that is a show stopper.”

Others see Internet access as a decreasing concern because of improvements in technology.

Scott said that attorneys used to worry about whether their dial-up connection would work, but that nowadays they can get Internet access almost anywhere and get it very quickly.

Glover noted that he has Internet access to his law office software from his phone as well as his computer. “Most of us are connected to the Internet at all times, often in multiple ways,” he said. “If one doesn’t work then another probably will.”

Also appealing to lawyers is the fact that with cloud computing, they don’t have to update or upgrade the software because it’s done at the server end.

That means the users always have the latest version of the program they are using, Scott noted.

Cloud computing may also reduce overhead.

Attorneys who use traditional case management software must pay for the hardware, pay for someone to maintain it, pay for the software, regularly upgrade the technology and pay for a yearly maintenance plan, said Glover. But with cloud computing, they simply pay a monthly fee and the rest is done for them, he added.

Experts say a legal technology product that is easy to use and requires no maintenance or upgrades has a certain appeal to many in the legal community.

“There is a sort of freedom that comes with that,” said Scott. “You don’t have to worry about whether you installed it correctly or not. I think that is very intriguing to lawyers.”

Secure and ethical

The hesitation among lawyers seems to be the perceived security and ethical issues involved in giving up their client data to another source.

But according to Minneapolis ethics attorney Eric Cooperstein, as long as proper precautions are taken it’s OK to put client information on someone else’s server.

“The lawyer’s duty is not to eliminate every possible risk. The lawyer’s duty is to take reasonable steps to protect client information,” said Cooperstein. “There should be an appropriate level of security.”

Lawyers have to ensure that attorney-client confidentiality is protected just as they would with information that’s not on the Web, said Black. “The rules aren’t any different.”

Tech experts say that includes making sure that the data is properly encrypted — 128-bit encryption is standard.

According to Anderson, while proper encryption will keep out hackers, it won’t necessarily keep out the host, and attorneys need to be aware of that. There is a way to deny the host access, but it doesn’t seem to be a feature that cloud computing companies are offering right now, he said.

Scott echoed the importance of the attorney being the only person able who can access the data. Attorneys need assurance that if someone hacks into the system all that will come up is a bunch of ones and zeros that won’t make any sense, he said.

Some technology experts say that putting client data in the clouds is even more secure than the system many attorneys, particularly small firm lawyers, have in place right now. They point out that few lawyers lock their file cabinets at night, yet hand a key over to the cleaning people when they leave.

In another example, when 240 lawyers in Iowa were displaced due to flooding two years ago, most of them were forced to destroy their paper files because they were soaked in sewage and dangerous chemicals.

Scott said that all of these lawyers are now looking for other ways to protect their client data, including moving it into the clouds, because they don’t want to dependent on paper files anymore.

“I think there is more security with cloud computing — it’s just a different way of looking at it,” he said.

Backup and continuity

Attorneys also need to ensure that the host server has its own backup system — preferably someplace across the country — in case it undergoes its own disaster.

“Make sure their disaster won’t shut you down,” said Scott.

Continuity of service is important as well. What if the host server goes out of business? What if the company is sold and access to the attorney’s information is denied, even temporarily?

First and foremost, Scott advises using a host company that has been in business for a while. “A history of stability says everything,” he said.

But the attorney’s best protection is assurance from the host that it will make the data available for the lawyer’s own backup.

According to Scott, attorneys have an obligation to do their own local backup of client data, which will ensure that they have access to it even if the host goes out of business.

Ultimately, experts say that the most important thing is to be certain that the host server is trustworthy and using all the security precautions possible.

While the use of cloud computing by lawyers is likely to continue growing, some aren’t convinced it will take over any time soon.

“It’s a good idea for lawyers to experiment a little bit with online tools and software as a service to see what it’s all about and whether it’s right for their practice,” said Cooperstein. “But it’ll be a long time before we can tell whether it’s really going to take over or not.”

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