Services for cloud computing booming

On a network diagram, icons for things like phones, computers, servers and other devices often connect using straight lines. But when those devices leave the office, they connect back via a nebulous connection: a cloud. The cloud illustrates paths from devices to information that can vary depending on where a device connects, how it connects, and other considerations.

Today, services based in the cloud are attracting businesses of all kinds, law firms included. “Many of the mature cloud providers have infrastructure that is far beyond what any one organization can justify to build,” explains Scott Saundry, chief technology officer for Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP.

Cloud-based systems can offer advantages over firm-based ones other than cost. Read on for some of those advantages, plus the names of cloud applications in a variety of categories.

Notes

  • The cloud marketplace has expanded far beyond what this article can cover. A quick Google search will turn up more options in software categories that interest you.
  • Certain systems fit into several categories, but in this article they will only be mentioned once.

Practice management

Practice management systems combine various tools, like case management, knowledge management, billing, marketing and calendars, into one system where lawyers need not duplicate information.

Cloud options like Rocket Matter enable lawyers to connect with other online services like Skype, while Clio integrates with Google Apps. HoudiniESQ lets customers host the system themselves if they prefer. Other choices include Advologix, Law RD and Firm Manager by LexisNexis (publisher of The Lawyers Weekly).

Virtual law offices

Clients don’t need to interact with law firm staff to do things like pay bills, access certain documents or fill in forms. Automation of such tasks via law firm websites (and the resulting cost savings) is but one factor that attracts lawyers to virtual law office systems like Total Attorneys and DirectLaw.

Research

Lexis Research System, which is owned by LexisNexis, and WestLaw have long offered cloud-based research options. Now they’re facing competition from the respectable (and free) Google Scholar. Other well-regarded (but not free) options include Fastcase and Casemaker.

Billing and time tracking

Usage may start with these two staple needs, but certain online systems offer more advanced financial features, or integrate with other systems found online or on your computer. Check out Toronto-based Freshbooks.com, industry stalwart Intuit’s Billing Manager and Bill4Time.

Collaboration/document sharing/office productivity

They lack the features of their computer-bound competitors, but cloud-based systems like Google Docs, Microsoft Office Web Apps, Thinkfree, Zoho Office and Acrobat.com let you avoid countless emails and versions of a given document by letting all collaborators see and change it online.

Omar Ha-Redeye, student-at-law with Toronto-based Fireman Steinmetz, uses Google Docs. “They’ve made great strides with improving convertibility from different word processor documents,” he says.

Services like Google’s and Microsoft’s let people work on documents stored in the cloud using Word, Excel or PowerPoint on their computers.

If you’re interested in a document-sharing platform tailored to the needs of lawyers, check out Dialawg, ejuris, NetDocuments and Worldox.

Personal information manager (PIM: calendar, task list, contacts)

Microsoft Outlook still reigns supreme on many lawyer’s desks, but both Outlook and many of its competitors let you synchronize with cloud-based services. You can modify information online using Google Apps, Zoho Office, Yahoo and others, and have the changes synchronized automatically when you return to Outlook.

Document assembly

The cloud adds collaboration abilities to tools like WhichDraft and WiziLegal that lawyers use to speed up document creation.

Wikis

Online office productivity suites leverage the power of wikis, which are also gaining greater recognition as collaborative document creation environments. Check out services like Wikispaces, Google Sites and EditMe.com.

File backup

Any time a computer connects to the Internet, online backup services can automatically copy its contents to a provider’s servers. Services like Carbonite and Mozy encrypt files before sending them to servers where they stay encrypted.

Nicole Black, counsel to Rochester, NY-based Fiandach & Fiandach notes that Jungle Disk lets people “choose whether their data will be stored on Amazon S3 servers or Rackspace Cloud Files.”

File synchronization

This “sub-class” of file backup services enables people to synchronize a set of files across multiple computers (e.g. office and home) and view and send files using mobile devices.

Dropbox has become an instrumental tool in my firm,” says David Feld, partner at Toronto-based Feld | Kalia Barristers & Solicitors. “Wherever I am, whenever I want, I am able to view, edit and send any document from anywhere to anywhere by any means.” SugarSync offers similar features.

Large file transfer

File synchronization tools often let users send download links to files too large to travel via email, while specialized tools like Adobe SendNow and YouSendIt focus on this one task.

Email

If you’ve ever used Hotmail or similar services, you’ve used cloud-based email. Today’s services, including Gmail, Yahoo and hosted Microsoft Exchange services, enable you to keep your firm’s branding in email addresses (e.g. “name@firmdomain.com”)

Surveys

In situations like class action lawsuits, attorneys may need to ask a standard set of questions to dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of people. Rather than send an email and struggle under the deluge of replies, services like Google Forms and SurveyMonkey gather responses into more manageable formats (like spreadsheets) where it’s easier to make sense of responses.

Customer relationship management

Robust cloud applications can link to tools from other cloud services so that firms need not reenter client data to perform tasks like mailings or invoicing. Options include Salesforce.com, Zoho Office and Highrise.

Online meetings & conference calls

Tools like GoToMeeting, WebEx, Microsoft LiveMeeting and Adobe ConnectNow let you hold online meetings using video, text chat, document sharing and more.

Instant messaging

Keeping multiple IM windows open simultaneously enables people to participate in more than one informal conversation at once, provided lags between responses are acceptable.

Skype, perhaps better known for voice and video calls, features an IM client, as does Google Chat (part of the same family as Google Talk), ICQ, Microsoft Messenger and Yahoo Messenger.

Screen sharing

Sometimes you simply must show others your computer screen to effectively converse. Services like Skype and ShareItNow offer screen sharing, while CrossLoop and Mikogo let technical support professionals take control of a computer remotely.

Project management

As more lawyers treat cases like projects, tools like Zoho Projects, BaseCamp, Onit and PBWorks are gaining popularity in busy law offices.

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