If the term “cloud” is still cloudy to you, let’s clear it up once and for all. Forget all those IBM commercials with the braniacs defining “cloud.” I’m a software engineer and even I have no idea what they’re talking about.
Here’s a simple definition: The cloud allows users to consume computing resources that they don’t have locally in their office. You can use software without having to install it, upgrade it, or purchase or maintain hardware for it. You access your information via a web browser such as Firefox, a mobile application, a stand-alone desktop application, or all three.
The beauty of the cloud for the solo and small firm attorney is its reduced and predictable cost. Cloud applications are often free or require inexpensive recurring payments. They allow for instant disaster recovery, which is on everyone’s mind with the recent terrible season of tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires. Cloud apps also free you from hardware lock-in, allowing you to ditch PC’s for Macs and employ tablets as a mobile computing platform.
But what, specifically, can you do with the cloud? The following applications are the ones I use and the ones that can help a law firm run effectively and inexpensively. Throughout my Internet trials and tribulations, these are the survivors, the most useful and resilient software that I rely on in my everyday life.
Calendaring with Google Calendar
Calendaring is no longer the exclusive domain of Outlook. Google Calendar has become an incredible tool for the busy lawyer and is often faster and less confusing than its famous desktop counterpart.
Google Calendar allows you to drag and drop appointments to reschedule them or change their duration, just as with Outlook. E-mail invitations are easily sent and responded to by recipients. Reminders and recurring events are available. One truly remarkable feature of Google Calendar is the Quick Add: You can type in a natural language sentence such as, “Breakfast meeting with Sally at 8AM on Saturday,” and the event is created in an instant.
But the true beauty of Google Calendar is what it gains from being a cloud-based service: integration with other web applications, universal accessibility, and easy mobile setup. Google Calendar, like Outlook, allows you to subscribe to other people’s calendars. You can also subscribe to other published calendars, such as those for federal or state holidays. Moreover, you can publish your own calendar, making it available for others to view or for only yourself to view in other applications such as Outlook or iCalendar.
If you’re a smartphone user, your Google Calendar will pass information back and forth to your handheld device over the air. There’s no need to cradle your smartphone to your computer and press a sync button, and setup is as simple as providing your login credentials. Thus, there’s no need for any complex law firm IT infrastructure: You can enjoy two-way calendar synchronization within minutes.
For more information: “Google Sync for Your Phone”
Note Keeping with Evernote
Evernote is a tool that organizes snippets of information into notes and notebooks. The first time I fired up Evernote, I’ll admit, I had no idea what to do with it. However, after several people I highly respect for their creative and productive output told me they can’t live without Evernote, I gave it another whirl. And now I, too, have Evernote open constantly.
Evernote is a cloud app at its finest: There’s a pure web version, as well as one for desktops, tablets, and smartphones. A “note” at its simplest can just be some text. However, you can incorporate any kind of digital media you wish: images, screenshots, audio, video, and entire web pages. Evernote has a plug-in for web browsers that allows you to clip the entire content of websites and save them into a notebook.
On mobile devices, the Evernote app allows you to record audio or take photographs with the smartphone’s microphone and camera, then have that information posted to your account. This is invaluable on the road, where you can capture ideas when driving instead of writing things down, and take pictures of receipts and business cards.
Here’s the functionality that takes Evernote to the next level: You can perform textual searches across all of your notes. One of my favorite uses is to take pictures of our whiteboard ideas and save them in an Evernote notebook. You can actually search your own handwriting for text, a feature you have to see to truly believe. Evernote also allows the sharing of notes and notebooks for collaborative purposes.
For more information: “Live Example Demonstrations of Evernote”
Organizing Ideas with MindMeister
Have you ever faced a problem that seemed insurmountable? Or to a lesser degree, have you ever dealt with a case or client where it was hard to see how the pieces all fit together?
Mind mapping is a technique created by psychologists for getting information out of your head and creating relationships between all the bits and pieces. The idea is to create a visual cognitive map so that you can more easily work with your thoughts and ideas. Wikipedia describes mind mapping best: “A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items linked to and arranged around a central key word or idea.”
Every business day I use a tool called MindMeister, a cloud-based product with a web application and iPhone counterpart. I use it to tackle complex problems, both personal and project-related, and to brainstorm ideas with my team. MindMeister allows remote collaborators to work with you in real time to add to the map and make changes.
Because the output of your mind mapping is a pretty visual picture, you can review your thinking and ideas quickly and without reading through a pile of messy notes. My team often takes minutes during meetings with mind maps because it’s such an easy way to review information afterward. MindMeister allows you to export your maps as images, PDFs, or even hierarchical outline representations in text files.
For more information: “How to Use Mind Maps in a Law Office”
Synchronized File Storage with Dropbox
How great would it be if you could access all of your files on any device you have, even on your aunt’s iMac over the holidays when you suddenly need to look up one of your briefs? Dropbox solves this problem. It’s a cloud-based file storage service that keeps all your documents synchronized across tablets, smartphones, and personal computers.
Here’s how Dropbox works: You designate a folder on your computer as your Dropbox folder. Dropbox then uploads all of your files to their cloud servers and stores them under encryption. You can then register other computers, smartphones, or mobile devices to the same Dropbox account and all of the folders and files on your initial machine will be replicated to the additional machines. Any time you make a change to a file, the file is updated across all of your Dropbox machines.
Some attorneys have concerns about using Dropbox because the key required to unencrypt files on the server is maintained by Dropbox, meaning they could theoretically decrypt your information at will. As of this writing, I know of no instance of Dropbox decrypting a user’s file and compromising information as a result. Furthermore, my personal perspective as a cloud software architect is that it’s essential for Dropbox to store the key: If the key (which is a kind of password) were instead maintained by the user, and if the user lost the key, then the files would be encrypted until the sun eventually swells up and destroys the earth or the apocalypse occurs, whichever comes first.
For more information: “A Quick Tour of DropBox”
Practice Management and Time and Billing with Rocket Matter
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a founding partner of Rocket Matter, a cloud-based practice management and time and billing program. I hesitate to write about my own product, but because it’s relevant as a crucial piece of cloud-based software for law firms, there’s no way around it. I do, however, feel compelled to mention similar online products in our space, including Harvest, Freshbooks, Clio, Houdini Esq., Firm Manager, and MyCase.
Rocket Matter and products like it help law firms track their matters, cases, billable information, and invoicing online. Practice management software has been around for a long time, most famously via Time Matters, Tabs3, and Amicus Attorney, but these programs are limited to Windows systems and require costly expertise to set up. Not so with the web-based alternatives.
At its core, Rocket Matter is a series of dashboards for matters, clients, contacts, billable information, and documents, using search and contextual links to facilitate data navigation. It synchronizes with Google Calendar and Dropbox, allowing law firms to quickly access all of their information in one place. Because of its web-based nature, legal professionals can keep tabs of everything going on in their practice on smartphones, tablets, and personal computers. Up-front costs are also drastically reduced over traditional legal software because no hardware and consultants are required for the configuration, and additional users can be added easily.
For more information: Rocket Matter products page
Phone Systems with Skype and Phone.com
If you haven’t used Internet-based telephony service Skype in a while, you’ll be amazed at the high quality of the phone calls. For small offices, Skype should definitely be considered as an office communication tool, both among your staff as well as outbound and inbound calling.
Skype users can purchase online numbers ($18 for three months) that allow normal phones to call them. When someone dials your Skype online number, the Skype application inside your computer starts ringing, and you click a button to answer the call. Calling other Skype users is free, but calling outbound requires a fee. Three dollars a month buys unlimited calling to the U.S. and Canada, and credit can be purchased for international calls.
USB headsets improve Skype audio considerably and can be purchased inexpensively. Microsoft’s LifeChat LX-3000 headset retails for $19.99 on Amazon.com and works with Macs and PCs.
Videoconferencing, instant messaging, document transmission, and screen sharing are available among Skype users, making it an essential tool for distance collaboration.
An additional way to power your office telephony is to sign up with Phone.com or similar products, known as virtual PBX systems. Phone.com allows you to register a 1-800 number. You can register extensions that will forward calls to individual office workers, including cell phone lines or Skype online numbers. In my case, if you call 1-888-432-1529 and hit extension 103, Phone.com will forward that call to my Skype online number. Phone.com provides the scheduling of automated messages (e.g., to inform people if the firm is closed) and phone queues different company departments.
Faxing, Travel, and More
Cloud-based applications not only replace most desktop applications, but they can also eliminate hardware purchases and upgrade concerns. For example, using Internet-based faxing services such as eFax and MyFax eliminates the need for a fax machine. These services provide a simple desktop application in which you type the recipient’s fax number, attach a PDF, and click “send.”
Likewise, TripIt is an invaluable tool for the frequently traveling lawyer. TripIt allows you to forward any travel confirmation e-mails from hotels, car rentals, or airlines to email@example.com (you first need to register your e-mail address). The service will automatically build your entire itinerary in one place. TripIt’s mobile app is key when looking for airline confirmation codes at the boarding pass kiosk, and the Google Maps directions that TripIt automatically generates from the airport to your hotel help make sure you know where you’re going in your rental.
Now That the Cloud Is Clear
The attorney resources available in the cloud allow solos and small firms to be more efficient and productive. Once you start adopting cloud services, you’ll find their value irresistible.