Cloud services like Dropbox
may be revolutionizing the way law firms store data. Using this technology, members of even the smallest firm can enjoy instant access to every electronic file - from a second office or on the road, and by laptop or tablet. But global access is just the beginning. Cloud storage and synchronization can provide bulletproof data handling that a paperless law firm can depend on.
To illustrate the power of this technology, let's imagine that a five-attorney law firm with offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles needs to synchronize its file servers so employees in both offices can work on the same client files. Our firm also needs to sync its attorneys' laptops or iPads with the firm's files. And it wants to back up all this data off site.
The firm takes the plunge by choosing a cloud storage provider (more on that process later), opening a 1 terabyte business-level account, and installing the service's proprietary software on its San Francisco file server, its Los Angeles server, and on firm members' portable devices. Next, it synchronizes its servers. To reduce the volume of data that portable devices must synchronize, the firm then sorts its files by responsible attorney and syncs each portable device with only the folders its user needs.
That's it: Both of the firm's offices are now completely synchronized, and all the portable devices are automatically updated whenever they have Internet access. (The firm did not need to install the sync software on each workstation, because those access files from the local server in each office.)
Now, let's simulate a problem. Assume the L.A. office loses its Internet connection for a day. The L.A. staffers work off the local file server, so most work continues uninterrupted. And as soon as Internet access is restored, the files in L.A. are synced with versions outside the office.
In another scenario, the San Francisco file server melts down (but Internet service is OK). Staffers could install the synchronizing software on individual workstations and sync them with the L.A. server. Or, they could access everything through the cloud service provider's website and temporarily do without a local file server - it's all online.
What if files are accidentally deleted? Some sync services offer an "undelete" feature, which can recover a single file - or thousands, in the case of hacking. Another feature available from some providers is versioning, which lets you recover earlier iterations of a document when it turns out you've over-edited and deprived it of all meaning.
As for choosing a service provider, you'll need to determine which offers the features that meet your firm's specific needs. Let's say one of the file servers you use is not a computer but a network-attached storage (NAS) appliance by Netgear
. That narrows your choices to two: Dropbox
. Or, if privacy precautions or secure folder-level permissions are required, the only choice is Egnyte.
The type of mobile devices in use may also drive your choice - for instance, Box
has an app for BlackBerrys, but Egnyte does not.
stands out for simplicity, and it offers undelete and versioning functions. It runs on Amazon
's robust S3 infrastructure, which promises availability 99.99 percent of the time and is designed to sustain the concurrent loss of data in two facilities. Dropbox lacks locked folder-level permissions, which would limit who can access specific folders.
is similar, but it lets you limit access to individual files and folders and stores data about who has read what and when. Egnyte has HIPAA-compliant encryption and can be used on NAS devices or integrated with Active Directory, Microsoft's system for limiting network access.
, initially aimed at the enterprise market, differs from Egnyte in three main ways: It adds both Web-based document management and places for sharing documents (it calls them deal rooms). And its software will not run on NAS devices.
- Google Drive
is based on Google Docs, which excels in helping users share and handle Web-based documents and is notable for allowing two or more people in different places to work in the same document at the same time and see one another's changes in real time.
- Microsoft SkyDrive
provides Web apps for Office applications and integrates with Windows 8.1.
from Apple, similar to SkyDrive, is good for the all-Apple office.
Most of these services have one annoying shortcoming: All files and folders you want to sync must be in a specific folder on your computer or device. If you want to sync documents wherever they happen to be, there are two options:
also offers folder-level permissions like Egnyte and is the only service with remote wiping (for when a device is lost or stolen); and
from LogMeIn is good for lawyers who want to keep their data out of the cloud. It allows users to sync computers directly, but this means taking responsibility for your own backup.
No matter which service you choose, a potential pitfall of cloud storage is that anyone anywhere in the world who gets hold of your user name and password might be able get at all of your files by going to, say, Dropbox.com and entering the information. One precaution is to use two-step authentication - which requires the user to enter a code received by text message, in addition to the user name and password. This feature is built into Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, SkyDrive, and iCloud. Egnyte's small-business plans do not offer two-step authentication, and enterprise customers must pay extra for it. Cubby sends the additional code by email, which could be a problem if your computer has been hacked or stolen.
Another security threat arises when employees sync using a home computer, which could be compromised by viruses or give family members access to confidential files. To address this risk, you might want to compartmentalize users' access to files. Box and Egnyte both offer strong user-, group-, and folder-level permissions and integration with Active Directory
. In fact, when properly configured, cloud storage services may increase overall security by enabling restoration of data after a malicious attack.
Most services charge $10 to $20 per month per device. (Remember, there's no charge for workstations in the office because they're connected to the local file server.)
So how did we ever survive without synchronized cloud storage? We used clunky synchronization software, flash drives, VPNs (virtual private network connections to the office network), and remote desktop programs. Now that smoother, more elegant technology is ready for lawyers to take advantage of, we just have to be careful with its power.
Adam G. Slote is a principal in Slote, Links & Boreman in San Francisco.