The Google-friendly lawyer

More lawyers are looking to the internet giant’s business tools for opportunities to lower their office expenses and increase their productivity.

originally published in CBA PracticeLink

SaaS (software-as-a-service) continues to grow, allowing tasks that once had to be done using desktop software – from accessing important data to document drafting to file management – to be done by visiting an SaaS application’s site.

Leading the charge is Google, Inc., an internet powerhouse that has made its mark in many areas of the web and attracts increasing numbers of lawyers.

To understand why, it helps to understand how Google differs from most SaaS providers. First, the sheer variety of services on Google’s virtual shelves dwarfs that of its competitors. In fact, lawyers could conceivably run their practices using only Google products.

Those services tie into one another easily. Many are either free or very competitively priced, thanks to both funding flowing from Google’s dominance of the online advertising market and Google’s sustained drive to create the Next Big Thing on the web.

It’s also impossible to tar Google with one of the worst fears people associate with SaaS – that the vendor will go bankrupt and disappear, taking client data with it. “That isn’t very likely with Google,” says Mark Rosch, vice president of CLE provider Internet for Lawyers, Inc. Rosch co-authored, with Carole A. Levitt, Google for Lawyers: Essential Search Tips and Productivity Tools, a publication of the American Bar Association due out in June 2010.

Rosch is clearly bullish on the book’s topic. “Many law firms have incorporated Google products into their practices,” he says.

“Competition against practice-management suites may be the ultimate test of Google’s value to lawyers.”

One of those firms is the Law Office of David Benowitz in Washington, D.C., which pays for licences for Google’s productivity suite (including mail, calendars, word processing, spreadsheets and other applications) at a per-user, per-annum cost of $50.00. “It’s such a pleasure to have everybody work collaboratively, and not be tied to software licence fees,” says Seth Price, a partner in the firm.

Google’s free applications provide another option. Dara Strickland, who practises with one other lawyer in a St. Louis, MO law firm, says, “For the applications we use now, we pay nothing,” says Strickland. “That’s as cost-effective as it gets.”

The only difference between the paid and free applications, explains Rosch, is the additional storage space for documents and access to tech support.

Another selling point is that many of the applications run well on mobile
phones, a fact not lost on Strickland. She and her partner travel frequently, and Strickland claims that their firm “exists” on Google applications “because they keep up with us.”

“We use Google Chat to talk about our cases,” she explains. “There are times I don’t have the privacy I need to make a phone call, but I can get and send information with GChat on my cell phone.”

Convenience, low cost attracting new users

Google offers yet more advantages: lawyers can access their information and software from any computer in or out of the office; Google handles all updates; services keep pace with a firm’s growth; and with a little tech savvy, lawyers can take their data offline using, for instance, Outlook to handle email, calendars, contacts and tasks that reside in Google.

“Google offers us more resources than an ordinary small firm would have,” adds Kim Perez, a Georgia-based lawyer.

Whether Google fits a given law practice depends on whether the pros outweigh the cons. For instance, given the relative dearth of features in Google Docs, few lawyers admit to finalizing documents online. Instead, they export documents to Microsoft Office to polish them.

But Google users like Price believe that Docs’ narrower range of features makes it easier to learn and use. “As a techie, I’m probably a B-, and my partners are even worse,” he admits. “For us, less is sometimes more.”

Perez kept notes on a 2009 arbitration case in Docs. “I used it to create notes and thoughts. I could share them with my client in real time, and he could make notes on them,” she recalls. “We collaborated much more easily than if we used an Excel spreadsheet or Word document.”

Sceptics say concerns over the security of client data make SaaS offerings in general unfit for use in the legal industry. How well-founded are those worries? “Lawyers need to decide how comfortable they are with storing information at third-party locations,” Rosch says. Their decision process should also take into account applicable rules or ethics opinions in the jurisdiction(s) where they practise, he adds. (The North Carolina State Bar, for example, recently released a proposed formal ethics opinion regarding the use of SaaS in a law office, accompanied by a list of 23 questions for its members to consider and ask of SaaS providers before choosing one).

Reports of attacks on Google systems, for now, don’t appear to faze its most devoted users. “Google has an excellent reputation for keeping their servers secure, and when looking at other methods of transmission lawyers commonly use offline (fax, mail, leaving documents with a secretary, clerk, or assistant), using Google looks pretty secure,” says Strickland. “As my partner says, it would be easier to steal personal information about our clients by physically breaking into our office than by trying to hack Google.”

Competition against practice-management suites may be the ultimate test of Google’s value to lawyers. While at first glance its suite of office tools is no match for specialized legal-business software, the costs and complexity of those options may encourage lawyers to look for alternatives.

Strickland and Price represent the type of lawyer most likely to be open to SaaS: the solo or and small-firm practitioner who can’t afford in-house IT services. Throw in moderate amounts of tech-savvy, throw out any loyalty to traditional tools, add a willingness to experiment, and you have a prospective Google-friendly lawyer.

Traditional business software publishers don’t appear too worried about Google – yet. “Resistance to change is the real issue,” Perez says. “People don’t use it, so they don’t know what it’s about.”

Google Business Tools

A quick tour of Google.com reveals an impressive array of tools ready (at least on a practical level) for use in a law practice. Here’s a quick (and definitely NOT comprehensive) list of services lawyers should check out, along with suggested uses.

Adsense

Adsense places ads on web pages that are relevant to the content on their pages. Blawgers have opportunities to make some money showing ads with their posts.

Adwords

Law firms can advertise on web pages that accept Google ads and contain material relevant to their business.

Alerts

Rather than searching for news on the same topic every day, Google lets people set up alerts for those topics. Alerts sends new finds from news media and the web at large to Alert user inboxes.

Android

Google’s entry into the smartphone market, this operating system has been licensed by established handset makers such as HTC, and ought to play nicely with Google’s services.

Blogger

Google’s blogging platform is among the most widely used on the Internet.

Books

For years, Google has been digitizing mountains of books. This makes it an attractive legal research option.

Calendar

Similar to calendars in Microsoft Outlook and other personal information managers (PIMs), Google’s version can be shared by several people, who can subscribe to Google calendars within their own installed calendar software, as it is possible to do with Microsoft Exchange. Calendars can also be published in multiple places, each of which updates when the owner updates the calendar in Google.

Contacts

Google keeps contact information online for use with Gmail and other applications.

Desktop

Desktop indexes files on a computer and makes finding specific files easier.

Docs

A word processor, spreadsheet, database, forms and drawing creation suite, complete with online storage for the files created using those tools. While it lacks the plethora of features in Microsoft Office, lawyers can use Docs to edit a given document at the same time as their collaborators. Docs imports documents from, and exports documents to, Microsoft Office.

Forms

A part of Docs, Forms helps lawyers canvas groups of people, like plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits, for specific information. Google stores answers in a Docs spreadsheet, which can be exported to Excel.

Gmail

Google lets people use this free web-based email offering to handle email from their own domains. In other words, lawyers can run “@mylawoffice.com” addresses through the Gmail engine.

News

Headlines separated into customizable sections make Google News a great way to quickly take in the day’s events. Bonus: every story in News contains links to coverage from multiple media outlets, so it’s easier to read multiple perspectives in one place.

Reader

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) lets people subscribe to specific web sites. Reader brings multiple subscriptions together in one place to create, in Google’s words, “a magazine you design.”

Scholar

Lawyers looking to reduce their legal research costs are kicking Scholar’s tires, checking for material from academic and legal journals.

Voice

Not yet available in Canada, Voice enables people to make free calls from a U.S. number to any phone number anywhere in the US and Canada. Incoming calls to a Voice number can ring multiple phones (e.g. office, mobile, home office).

Wave

Google’s reimagining of email, designed to make collaboration easier, can help lawyers reduce email volume. Warning: Wave is a product without precedent. Learn about it at completewaveguide.com. (Update: Google has decided to discontinue Wave, though many of its features will live on in other Google products.)

YouTube

Law firms post recruitment videos using online-video site YouTube. They often mash those videos into their own websites, while their presence on YouTube boosts their sites’ search engine optimization.

Aussi publié en français: Apprivoiser_Google

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