It was the introduction of modern collaboration software in the early 2000s that changed everything. Although costly and complex, collaboration platforms such as Microsoft’s SharePoint nevertheless facilitated sharing and collaboration via firm intranets and extranets, thus ushering in the next stage of digital collaboration—at least for larger law firms with the means to purchase and maintain servers to run these software solutions.
But it wasn’t until cloud computing arrived on the scene a few years later that affordable web-based document creation and collaboration software became available for law firms of all sizes, not just mega-firms with deep pockets. This newfound format of cloud-based document creation, storage, and collaboration includes many benefits, not the least of which is convenience. And the added appeal of instantaneous data backup offers lawyers always-sought-after peace of mind.
As Carolyn Elefant, a solo attorney in Washington, D.C., explains in her 2008 book Solo by Choice, the benefits of online collaboration are tremendous: “Collaboration tools are critical for solo and small firm lawyers because they offer an opportunity to build teams and ramp up or down depending upon the project. When I bring in a new lawyer to collaborate on an existing project, all I have to do is click a button to give him or her access to the files for that given case.”
Of course, as discussed at the end of this article, these benefits mean nothing if the security provided by the cloud computing provider is insufficient, so it is imperative to conduct due diligence whenever you consider using a cloud computing service.
From E-Mailed Docs to Collaboration Platforms
For years now, lawyers have relied on e-mail to share documents and collaborate with clients and colleagues. Unfortunately, e-mail is less than ideal when it comes to collaboration. It’s unsecure, clunky, and inefficient. When documents are e-mailed back and forth, it can be difficult to keep track of the different document versions, and links in the chain of the e-mail conversation are often lost or accidentally deleted.
That’s why lawyers began to seek out software alternatives at the turn of the century. As was the ruling paradigm at the time, this software was “premise-based”—it ran on computer hard drives and servers located on-site at the law firm offices.
One popular premise-based collaboration software program traditionally used by lawyers is Microsoft’s SharePoint (microsoft.com). Ben M. Schorr, the chief executive officer and chief technologist at Roland Schorr & Tower, an information technology consultancy based in Arizona, with offices in Oregon and Hawaii, explains the underlying premise of the program: “SharePoint is designed as a collaboration platform. It is used to share documents, project information and more, including contacts, calendar/schedules, and resource management.”
SharePoint can be cost prohibitive for smaller law firms, but according to Schorr, when used in conjunction with Office 365, Microsoft’s cloud-based office suite, SharePoint becomes more accessible and practical for solo and small firms:
Office 365 and hosted SharePoint are really appealing to small firms for whom deploying their own servers to provide that functionality is cost-prohibitive. It’s certainly not “one-size fits all,” but for small to mid-sized firms especially, or firms that are geographically dispersed, Office 365 can be an excellent solution. The tricky bit is that SharePoint customization isn’t especially user friendly—which means that firms often need to have SharePoint expertise in-house or retain an outside expert to get it set up for them.
So, for some law firms, using more traditional collaboration solutions such as SharePoint in conjunction with Office 365 is a viable option. But there are plenty of other alternatives, many of which are more affordable, flexible, and mobile.
Sharing and Collaborating on the Go
According to the American Bar Association’s 2013 Legal Technology Survey, many lawyers are sold on the benefits of cloud computing. In fact, the survey results indicate that lawyers are increasingly embracing web-based computing and the percentage of lawyers using cloud computing in their law practices has increased markedly every year. Some 16 percent of lawyers used cloud computing in their law practices in 2011, 21 percent were doing so in 2012, and a full 31 percent—nearly one third of all lawyers—utilized cloud computing services in 2013. For solos and small firm lawyers, that percentage increased to 40 percent.
Lawyers’ experimentation with the cloud often begins by testing the waters with web-based collaboration platforms designed for consumers or small businesses such as Dropbox (dropbox.com), Box (box.com), or Google Apps (google.com/apps), rather than platforms designed for the legal field. General-purpose consumer platforms are ideal for sharing and collaborating on documents, although some lawyers refrain from using them for confidential client information owing to security concerns.
For example, Dropbox reported a security breach in 2011 that occurred when it inadvertently published code on its website that allowed virtually anyone access to Dropbox accounts. Since then, Dropbox has taken steps to increase security.
Dropbox, Box, and Google Apps remain popular with lawyers owing to their ease of use and affordability. Jeffrey Taylor, an attorney in Oklahoma City, is one such lawyer. He often uses Google Apps in his law practice, especially when collaborating with other lawyers:
I don’t generally collaborate with clients on Google Apps, except I may occasionally send a document for review. However, I frequently collaborate with colleagues on pleadings or motions using Google Apps because of the real-time editing. I also love the easy-to-use joint calendaring between Apps users and other Gmail users. It works amazingly well and is similar to Exchange but without the cost and difficulty of maintaining an Exchange server.
And it’s not just lawyers—judges are using cloud computing and mobile devices to collaborate, too. A few months ago, I attended an appellate law CLE during which Federal Second Circuit Judge Richard C. Wesley extolled the many benefits of iPads. He explained that during oral arguments, judges access Westlaw right from their iPads and use their iPads to read PDFs of hyperlinked briefs.
According to Wesley, one of the greatest benefits of mobile collaboration using iPads is that no matter where he is, he’s able to access all cases and case-related documents, including briefs and exhibits. He then uses the PDF Expert app to annotate briefs and sends his notes on to his law clerks.
Web-Based Law Practice Management Platforms
Another way to share and collaborate with others online is to utilize web-based law practice management (LPM) systems. Not all LPM platforms allow this type of interaction, but a few have built-in online portals that facilitate collaboration on documents and secure communication about case-related matters.
For example, MyCase (mycase.com; I am director of business development for MyCase) is known for its robust client portal. According to Craig Greening, a Texas criminal defense attorney and MyCase customer, the portal is very popular with his clients: “My clients love MyCase. Many of them log in every day to check on their case. Because my clients know what’s going on every step of the way, they call less frequently. So, MyCase makes it easier for both me and my assistant.”
Greening explains that another benefit is the way information about a case can be made easily accessible for everyone involved:
In more complex matters, such as a murder case, I include co-counsel and investigators as contacts in a case. That way they can upload and access important documents, such as photos or autopsy reports. We can communicate about the case via MyCase. Everything is in one place, and everyone knows exactly what’s going on.
Clio (goclio.com) is another web-based LPM with a client portal. Clio utilizes a feature called “Clio Connect,” an online portal that allows clients to upload documents and communicate with their attorneys.
Clio customer Chris Vaughn-Martel, a Boston-based family law, estate planning, and civil litigation lawyer, explains how this portal benefits his law firm: “Clio Connect allows us to collaborate and share documents, communications, and bills with clients. While not all of our clients choose to collaborate online, Clio Connect allows us the flexibility to offer younger or tech-savvy clients the kind of speed and efficiency they expect.”
Ethical and Security Issues
Of course, cloud computing has its drawbacks as well as benefits. Historically, one of the main reasons lawyers have been unwilling to use web-based tools in their law practice was a lack of familiarity. Other reasons cited during the ABA’s 2011 Legal Technology Survey included confidentiality and security concerns (47 percent) and the lack of control over data (41 percent). For some lawyers, these concerns still remain, although many are now much more comfortable with the idea of web-based services, as evidenced by the increasing number of lawyers using these tools.
That being said, lawyers necessarily have an obligation to thoroughly research and vet cloud computing services and providers prior to using them in their law practices. No matter who has access to your firm’s data, you have an obligation to ensure that the same confidentiality standards that apply to physical client files are applied to digital files as well.
Lawyers have always entrusted confidential data to third parties, such as process servers, court employees, building cleaning crews, summer interns, document processing companies, external copy centers, and legal document delivery services. Absolute security has never been required in these situations, and web-based computing is no different.
Importantly, most U.S. ethics commissions have concluded that it is ethical for lawyers to use cloud computing, although the steps required to meet your ethical obligations will vary by jurisdiction. For more information on the standards adopted by the jurisdictions that have addressed this issue, see the American Bar Association’s helpful chart (tinyurl.com/733gyr8) comparing all the cloud computing ethics opinions handed down in the United States.
The New Hampshire Bar Association Board of Governors’ Ethics Committee Advisory Opinion 2012–13/4, handed down in February 2013, offers a good summary of the standard applied by most jurisdictions:
It bears repeating that a lawyer’s duty is to take reasonable steps to protect confidential client information, not to become an expert in information technology. When it comes to the use of cloud computing, the Rules of Professional Conduct do not impose a strict liability standard. As one ethics committee observed, “Such a guarantee is impossible, and a lawyer can no more guarantee against unauthorized access to electronic information than he can guarantee that a burglar will not break into his file room, or that someone will not illegally intercept his mail or steal a fax.”
One Lawyer’s Collaboration Tool Kit
So how might you integrate a variety of different online collaboration tools into your practice? We asked that question of Eugene Lee, principal of the Law Office of Eugene Lee, Los Angeles, California, and he provided the following overview:
- For my firm’s overall document management, I use NetDocuments (netdocuments.com). E-mailing a copy of a cloud-stored document is just one click away and permits simple and convenient document sharing not only with clients but also with co-counsel, staff, etc.
- I often use Google Docs (google.com/docs) to jointly work on spreadsheets with clients. This becomes important in wage and hour cases where clients often don’t always have access to Microsoft Excel, but client input is needed to review time and payroll calculations.
- In class actions, I use a WordPress blog (wordpress.org) to quickly and efficiently communicate with class members. I include a form where class members can input their claims-related information themselves and can also communicate with me through the moderated comments section.
Collaborating in the 21st Century and Beyond
Online collaboration is no longer a bold, new idea. Secure client portals are becoming increasingly common in all industries, and as a result, legal clients increasingly will expect to be able to interact and collaborate with their lawyers online.
Online collaboration benefits both attorneys and clients. Using a web-based portal, clients and attorneys can instantaneously review, comment on, and make changes to documents with just the click of a button. Clients no longer have to call the office to request a copy of a document in their file and instead can simply access the entire file at their convenience using the online portal. These platforms facilitate the sharing and editing of documents 24/7 from the convenience of either home or office.
So what are you waiting for? Carefully research the available solutions and then start collaborating and sharing with your clients online using the platform most suited to your law firm’s needs. Then reap the benefits of today’s convenient, affordable, and accessible online collaboration tools.