IN THIS COLUMN, I’M HEADING UP INTO the clouds to take a look at NetDocuments. Been thinking about document and email management, remote access, collaboration or disaster recovery? If so, consider NetDocuments, whether a solo in Topeka or practicing globally in New York.
NetDocuments is not new. I became aware of it about five years ago when my previous firm was searching for a document management solution. At the time, the “clouds” of cloud computing were just gathering on the horizon. NetDocuments was a big leap for us, moving from an internal, network-based folder system to a cloud-based solution. Because of the system’s predictable cost of ownership, ease of usability, deployment and maintenance, we never looked back—or down. As the clouds amassed, NetDocuments has continued to introduce exciting new features and has kept pace with changes in how attorneys and firms work and collaborate.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE CLOUD?
At its core, NetDocuments is a software-as-a-service content management service provider. The company was founded in 1998 upon a long document management bloodline and was one of the world’s first software-as-a-service companies. Using its product requires no investment in hardware or software. The relatively affordable cost is primarily based on a per-user fee. Thus NetDocuments can deliver its rich feature set to both solos and Am Law 100 firms at a predictable price.
An initial question about any cloud-based service is whether it compromises attorney-client privilege or confidentiality. In honesty, I must disclose that I am a certified public accountant, not an attorney, and by no means an ethics guru. However, having completed considerable due diligence in selecting third-party service providers (including NetDocuments), I am reasonably confident that an attorney or firm can use it without concern. Ethics opinions on the subject require that reason, competency and care go into selecting and making arrangements with outside contractors, and that the chosen contractors understand and protect the confidentiality of the stored information. The architecture of the NetDocuments platform and the company’s service level agreement deliver a service that satisfies this requirement—at the ABA-required level and those of many jurisdictions.
Yet those of us who are accustomed to files on our desktop or local server might experience pangs of anxiety when considering the cloud. Questions of ownership, access and security immediately arise—and so they should. Let’s start with ownership. Once a document is saved to NetDocuments, it is stored in two, fully redundant world-class data centers. Even though it has left your premises, you retain complete control and ownership. NetDocuments is merely the custodian. No files can be accessed by a NetDocuments employee without your express permission. Control of documents can be set at a variety of levels, including individual, group, client, matter, folder and Workspace. Gone are the days of relying on clunky network security policies to control access to documents and their inadvertent movement, modification or deletion. If having your files exist somewhere else still makes you nervous, an additional small investment will gain you an optional on-site backup.
Next, let’s talk about access. Here I drop my professionalism and exclaim “Sweeeet!” NetDocuments truly does deliver 24/7/365 access to your documents. Their quoted service availability is 99.995 percent, excluding infrequent scheduled downtimes. With NetDocuments and a connection to the Internet, you can access documents anywhere in the world. Further, the NetDocuments interface recently moved beyond PCs and is now available to Mac users, and over the past few years the company has done a solid job providing mobile access. Users can access, view and share documents with virtually any Web-connected device. The release of native iPad and iPhone apps has enhanced the ability to edit documents using other productivity apps such as Quickoffice. Future NetDocuments releases will deliver a more embedded experience, including the ability to annotate PDFs and create native Office files.
And last, security. Recently, a very popular cloud-based file storage provider was hacked, leaving a large number of users, including me, feeling vulnerable. Yet in its 14-year history, NetDocuments has never been hacked—and it’s easy to understand why. To break through NetDocuments’ defenses, a hacker would have to maneuver through at least 10 obstacles, including dual firewalls, and successfully guess a random number between 1 and 1.6 million. Even if a hacker were successful in breaching, he or she would be bummed to find that the files had been randomized across several servers. Files are also protected as they travel to and from the data centers through SSL encryption. Employing patented technology, NetDocuments combines a document with its access controls to prevent delivery to an unauthorized user. Because of these features, users can confidently construct and segregate documents behind ethical walls.
SIMPLICITY AND CENTRICITY
NetDocuments touts that they have delivered simplicity to document management, and a brief demonstration backs up this statement. A browser, Internet connection and log-in credentials are all you need to get started. If migrating from an existing document management system or simply moving many documents from your network into NetDocuments, additional time is required for planning and execution. NetDocuments has built-in migration tools to support this process. Typically, it is custom configured to profile documents as they are saved into the repository. Documents can be profiled by client and matter number, document type, practice area, author, etc., creating a truly client-centric document management system. As documents are saved into NetDocuments, they are quickly indexed for full-text search capability.
Getting documents into NetDocuments is easy. It fully integrates with Microsoft Office applications, including Word, Excel and Outlook. Recent enhancements (with more coming), support drag-and-drop capability. A user can quickly save a file into NetDocuments by simply dragging it onto a folder, with the document adopting the profile of its new home. Finally, finding documents in NetDocuments is amazingly easy. ND Search, NetDocuments’ enterprise-class search engine, allows users to find documents quickly using profile-related search criteria or document text. Custom and frequently used searches can be saved and easily accessed from a user’s home page. Once a search is completed, the results can be analyzed by preset categories such as topics, people, company names, locations, etc.
HOME SWEET HOME
The NetDocuments home page is an extremely customizable portal into an attorney’s work. The standard home page presents users with a navigation pane, controls to upload and create new documents, a basic search bar, access to advanced search features and access to a recent documents list, including those recently opened, edited and added. Cabinets, Workspaces and folders can be explored from the navigation pane. Users can organize their home pages by creating sections and adding favorite documents, folders, saved searches, Workspaces and even links to favorite websites. When searching, results are listed in sortable order. Selecting a document in the list displays the associated profile and version information. Also presented are myriad controls to manage and share the document. Using the built-in previewer, listed documents, regardless of the type, can be quickly viewed without being downloaded.
NEVER SAY NEVER
With NetDocuments, it’s okay to say never. The service delivers unique features that the company claims will never allow the loss of a document. Through the use of a workstation-based echo folder, check-in list technology and concurrency control, users do not have to worry about their open documents being lost during power or Internet service outages, or being inadvertently overwritten by another user. Should a document suffer undesired changes, it can be recovered from 30 snapshots that exist for each day of the previous month.
NetDocuments also relieves worries of securely sharing documents. Rather than sending documents via unsecured email, users can share files through secure, built-in extranets or ShareSpaces. Coming in the next release will be the ability to email secure document links to external parties. Future enhancements to ShareSpaces are in the works.
Before delivering the verdict—which you can probably tell is going to be a thumbs up—I have to mention NetDocuments’ value to an attorney’s or firm’s disaster recovery plan. Given the ease of access, business continuity from a document perspective is easy to imagine in almost any disaster scenario.
So, if you (or your firm) want to move into a document management environment and want predictable cost, scalability, minimal time to deploy, ease of training and use, robust features and ever-improving collaboration and mobility, NetDocuments is a solid choice.