Technology

Probate & Property Magazine, Magazine, November/December 2009, Volume 23, Number 6

Technology | Probate

Technology—Probate Editor: Richard Julien, Richard Julien Law Corporation, 404 Bella Vista Avenue, Belvedere, CA 94920, rj-aba@julien.com. Guest Editor: Jason E. Havens, 4481 Legendary Drive, Suite 204, Destin, FL 32541, jason@trustestatelaw.net.

Technology—Probate provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the probate and estate planning areas. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Remote Access Prelude

Serendipity : the facility or an instance of making fortunate or desirable discoveries by accident.

Being a sole practitioner, I do not have an IT department (I do have a grandson, as those of you know who read my March/April Technology—Probate column on dual monitors). Although only 15% of RPTE members are solos (and 36% are in firms of five or less), 36% of American lawyers are solos (and 63% in firms of five or less). So perhaps my latest experience will be of benefit.

The Perfect Storm

Up until the recent arrival of my tethered BlackBerry Bold, Julien Ranch had no Internet access (still slow), so I did not re-address remote access after I closed my city office eight years ago. Instead I used the Addias Network with a Western Digital 500 GB USB Passport for my Ranch laptop and desktop and just e-mailed to be a road warrior. But my computers and in-house Intranet started to suffer from clutter and old age. I hired an IT consultant to (1) make my office’s five computers (two desktops and three laptops) server-oriented, (2) clear up my e-mail problems at an unmentionable service provider, and (3) then go to Intermedia for MS Enterprise e-mail instead of my local computer.

One should upgrade a computer’s BIOS, reformat the hard drives (especially the master disks), and reinstall software (primarily to unclutter the Windows Registry) every year. Such an annual upgrade for just one computer is a 15-to-20 hour job—Disk Defragmenter alone takes several hours. But that job requires only one to two hours of actual attention from an IT consultant, with the rest just waiting for the computer to chug along.

My Epiphany

My IT consultant installed LogMeIn to service my machines remotely while he did other things. LogMeIn is an eye-opener. Install a 660-volt irrigation pump (which requires three transformers on telephone poles), and, all of a sudden, you notice three transformer poles everywhere when you never noticed them before. Such became the tenor of my Internet discussions about remote access using LogMeIn vs. GoToMyPC and others.

My research indicates Microsoft’s Windows solutions are too unstable and insecure and (like PC Anywhere) have encryption and dynamic IP problems. Because of its lower costs with equal and sometimes better functions, LogMeIn (www.logmein.com) is the winner over GoToMyPC (www.gotomypc.com ). See Will Geer, The Remote Access Royal Rumble , available at www.jdhacker.com/page/4, for an excellent comparison among LogMeIn, GoToMyPC, and NTRConnect. For an unanticipated benefit with LogMeIn, see Joshua Alstorm, How I Defeated Adoraburglar , available at www.newsweek.com/id/195408.

Turning to Guru Havens

Knowing he has spent immeasurable amounts of time looking into the current best practices on remote access, I turned to my predecessor, Jason Havens, for his insights. Fortunately, he agreed to provide what follows, which discusses remote access and much more.

Remote Access Revisited
By Jason E. Havens

In the July/August 2007 Technology—Probate column, I outlined various applications and services for backing up data and also remotely accessing it. That column focused on the “darker” side of remote computing, namely how to survive a disaster when displaced from the main office. This column, on balance, focuses on the “sunny” side of remote access, including access issues involved in integrating satellite offices.

Amazon/JungleDisk

In addition to the services mentioned in my column two years ago, you should consider other services that had not matured at that point. One such service is Amazon’s online data service, often called “cloud” computing and officially known in Amazon’s case as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). The way that I tap into this amazing, virtually unlimited service is via JungleDisk (www.jungledisk.com), a multi-platform application that merely connects the user to Amazon’s cloud via a secure connection on a Linux-, Macintosh-, or Windows-based computer. Unlike some other services, the user owns the storage space leased from Amazon. JungleDisk simply serves as the secure conduit between Amazon and you.

In my view, the Amazon/JungleDisk approach is superior for several reasons. First, as noted, the user leases and pays Amazon directly for use of the server space, which is astoundingly affordable. Second, Amazon’s own backup policies probably rival—or at least equal—any law firm’s in the world. Third, Amazon’s servers are likely as, or more, secure than any law office’s servers. To maximize security, consider encrypting the files that are stored on Amazon’s space via JungleDisk, which goes beyond the encrypted tunnel that transfers and receives data between Amazon and the user.

At this point, the Amazon/JungleDisk service focuses primarily on remote backup. It can be used as primary data storage and even as a mapped drive (or, in the Apple and Linux realm, a mounted disk). The major drawback to this alternative approach, in my estimate, is that Amazon cloud data currently cannot be easily synchronized with other disks, such as a hard drive or an external drive. The user is truly “looking” at the data as stored in the Amazon cloud and cannot see it when offline or if (horror of horrors) Amazon should fail for any reason. JungleDisk is working on synchronization, on which I am keeping an interested eye. I am testing DropBox (www.dropbox.com), which does allow synchronization and seems to work well.

Julien Comment : OR if your Internet connection should go down. Users of AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, among others, know that experience. Therefore, synchronization and on-site backup are essential—a 500 GB Western Digital USB Passport costs $129 at Costco. I too am actively looking at synchronization.

Apple MobileMe

Other solutions include Apple’s MobileMe service (www.me.com), which certainly costs more than Amazon/JungleDisk but offers more features, including synchronization of multiple devices, such as an iPhone, MacBook or MacBook Pro, and/or a Mac Pro or Xserve server. iDisk is MobileMe’s data storage service. Indeed, contacts, calendars, and even photos can be synchronized using this powerful service. Microsoft devotees can configure and use the MobileMe service with the Apple MobileMe application for the Windows platform.

I should note here that I have become a stronger Apple supporter because of its networking hardware, which also taps the power of MobileMe. I have used numerous other leading networking hardware, and no other noncommercial hardware compares in my view to Apple’s AirPort line of routers in terms of simplicity, functionality, and value. The AirPort utility also comes in Mac or Windows flavors and now affords remote access to a networked drive via MobileMe (configured using the utility).

Julien Comment : PC vs. Mac—Ouch! By comparison, the Democrats and Republicans are having a collaborative love affair.

Google Apps

My firm still uses the Premier version of Google Apps (www.google.com/apps) to host its domain-based e-mail, which includes file storage on Google’s servers. The firm’s lawyers are thrilled with custom Gmail, which, because the firm account is configured to archive, serves as backup for e-mail and attachments. In this way, a user can not only access Gmail through whatever e-mail agent/application desired (whether Microsoft Outlook, Eudora, Apple Mail, or another choice), but Gmail also provides the option of accessing and powerfully searching up-to-date e-mail via any Internet browser or mobile smartphone when he or she is traveling or the firm’s server (or other computer(s)) goes down. Gmail’s mobile functionality essentially eliminates the need to use “push” e-mail software such as Microsoft’s Exchange Server, ActiveSync, Good Link, or Blackberry, because, if the user takes advantage of Gmail’s IMAP functionality (discussed in previous editions of this column), his or her e-mail is always synchronized.

What the firm has not yet adopted are Google Apps’s storage capabilities. A user can upload data to Google’s servers and access or change it via Google Docs, which includes a word processing application, a spreadsheet application, and a presentation application. I am impressed with this suite of office applications, which is clearly a competitor to Microsoft’s flagship Office suite of applications and even the free OpenOffice suite. In fact, Google Docs can convert a file to portable document format (PDF) online without the need of an additional application. Even so, I am still hesitant to put confidential documents on Google’s servers. I confess that I do not always secure the PDF files that I send via e-mail, which are obviously vulnerable as they sit within the firm’s corporate version of Gmail. Nevertheless, I need a bit more comfort before uploading client documents to this service.

LogMeIn

The firm formerly relied on Windows Small Business Server, as discussed in an earlier column, for remote access, but it switched to LogMeIn (www.logmein.com) because it was more secure, more stable, and because it can be accessed via any browser on any common operating system platform. The initial monthly LogMeIn subscription is affordable based on the firm’s review of competing services and depends on the number of computers supported. The firm pays an annual fee of $60 per LogMeIn Pro computer for a total of four computers and then uses the free version for computers that only need remote access without additional capabilities such as file sharing. The firm, however, is seriously considering the small business package (five computers at $240 per year total).

LogMeIn required no additional installation costs other than the minimal time it took to initially establish and configure the software. The firm was able to recoup those costs in just one month by saving on commuting costs/time and increasing billable hours. Virtually no training was involved. I merely created sub-accounts for each staff member and instructed them to use the LogMeIn web site. They could access the computer(s) assigned to them as soon as they logged into the system.

8x8

The last remote technology that I want to mention is the voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) telephone system and service provided by 8x8, Inc. (formerly Packet8, www.8x8.com). The firm has used this system for only a few weeks, but the lawyer users do not know how they functioned without it. Previously, the firm had subscribed to a national cable company’s VoIP service, using a modem that attaches to a traditional analog telephone system with several extensions. This system, which the firm used for years, included wireless handsets but still required traditional telephone wires to connect the telephone lines from the cable modem to the firm’s system.

In contrast, the 8x8 system connects directly to an Internet modem and an Apple AirPort Extreme router, www.apple.com/airportextreme, just like a computer or any other Internet-capable device that uses the larger cables known as Ethernet or Category 5 (CAT-5) cables. The 8x8 system has a sophisticated yet user-friendly control panel—completely Internet-based—that allows the user to configure the main telephone number and as many extensions as the subscription requires. Then the user simply “plugs and plays” each VoIP telephone to any router—not only the firm’s primary office’s network, but literally any modem in the world that will assign an address to a VoIP telephone and does not block the typical transmissions that would be allowed through any modem/router.

The firm can now directly tie remote staff to the office, page them within the telephone system, and transfer calls to and from remote users as if they were using a traditional hard-wired telephone system (through a traditional private branch exchange (PBX) system). The 8x8 system includes a “find me, follow me” feature that allows the user to forward calls to a cellular/mobile telephone and decide whether to take an incoming call or retain the caller in an office-based voice mail system if the user declines to take the call. Other features are too numerous to mention but are worth exploring if you are interested in these capabilities.

The cost per subscribed user is more affordable than the firm’s cable VoIP lines and includes the VoIP telephone unit. I know that Office Depot sells one of the 8x8 telephones and believe that the American Bar Association discount would apply. The firm opted for a more sophisticated unit that included a wireless handset for the main office, which I believe is only available directly through 8x8. The 8x8-based telephone system is definitely one of the best additions to the office in terms of technology.

Conclusion

Remote access via various services and tools has given my firm excellent flexibility to securely connect with all of the firm’s computers, laptops, and servers from any location. The ability to turn around documents faster—because our team can work on them anytime—has resulted in a substantial boost in employee productivity without the typical in-house information technology (IT) overhead. Having effective and innovative technology like LogMeIn and an 8x8 VoIP telephone system also gives the firm an advantage in attracting new talent. I hope that these suggestions help your office and practice as well.

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