Ironically, or perhaps coincidentally, twice this week I discussed the possibility of using Google Drive (or Dropbox) as the primary method for storing and sharing files. Both of the questions came from lawyers looking to move their law practices to the cloud.
This isn’t the first time I’ve discussed cloud document storage. In this post, I discussed how to share documents in Google Drive. That kind of hinted at using the cloud as your primary method of storing and sharing documents. And once before, here, I dedicated time to tablet document organization. I even dabbled with syncing files. But I don’t believe I’ve ever fully discussed the possibility of how a lawyer can operate always from the cloud.
Disclaimer: some of the discussions below are hypocritical, they’re my theory more than my actual practice right now. However, any recommendations or affirmations are my beliefs. Secondly, I’m also assuming that you’ve decided against using cloud case management software, which generally has a built-in method for storing and sharing data and documents. Cloud case management is my first choice preference for managing client information.
Should you move your files to the cloud?
Please get your stakes, pitch forks, and torches ready, because I’m officially taking the position that lawyers can and should move client files, even confidential ones, to cloud providers like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive. Yes, go ahead and use the cloud to store your data.
Okay, that comes with some caveats, most importantly whether your state permits cloud file storage and whether your client consents.
First, I think every law firm needs to add a consent clause to their client fee agreements that discloses their use of cloud storage and mobile devices. Similarly, you should “sell” your use of cloud storage and mobile devices just as much as your “sell” your client into accepting the 33% contingency fee agreement. Your client should understand the risks and benefits of your firm’s use of cloud storage.
I can’t state how important it is for your to understand and appreciate the terms of service. Remember, personal use (i.e. a free Dropbox account) may not carry the same terms or protections as a business use account. Always use business accounts for the storage of business documents or information. You should never use a personal account to store client files in the cloud.
Part of your investigation should also involve deciding how you’ll protect confidential documents, such as client information sheets or medical records. The easiest way is to use end-to-end encryption services, such as Viivo, or rely on the provider’s built-in encryption — two is always better than one. Thankfully, we know that Google Drive, Dropbox, Spideroak, OneDrive, and Bitcasa each feature end-to-end encryption for files stored or transferred across their servers.
This means that files are encrypted the minute they begin uploading to the system. The files remain encrypted as long as they’re hosted by the provider. Of course, most providers hold the encryption key, so whether the information’s fully protected is debated regularly. For me, I weigh that risk against the provider’s reputation of leaking sensitive information.
I believe that your diligent investigation of the provider will meet your ethical obligations under Rule 1.6. Rule 1.6 requires reasonable efforts, which includes investigations and security measures.
The benefits of cloud storage
Once you’ve settled on the adequacy of the cloud provider, you’ll also understand some of the benefits of working in the cloud.
Perhaps my favorite benefit is the fact that I know most cloud providers are working hard to protect my data. Google gave us an example of its efforts, but other providers incorporate similar standards. These protections generally include regular backups, system updates, and security. I’m pretty sure that most small and solo firms would fail in these due diligence areas. And a failure in this area also means a failure in your ethical obligations to protect client information.
Revamp your thoughts about servers
One of the trouble spots for lawyers is our concept of “servers.” In order to understand and work in the cloud, lawyers need to rethink how we store documents and files. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we abandon everything you know.
Most law offices use a “server” to store and share documents (some firms call this shared folder “WPDOCS.”) Small or solo firms usually use a single desktop with a shared drive or folder. Large firms generally have a full-fledged file storage server. My firm, for example, uses a dedicated desktop system with a shared network folder. All firm members access common client and firm folders from their desktops. These types of setups generally don’t allow for the remote access of files or programs without RDP, VPN, or remote desktop programs.
Cloud document storage is similar, but the cloud location needs to become the primary stepping point, rather than the shared folder system. Remember, cloud storage is essentially the desktop computer sitting in a remote location in someone else’s much larger data center.
The bonus of cloud systems is that the create a centralized location to store and share information.
Setting up your cloud server
Your first consideration in document/data domination is to decide who at your firm will have primary document storage responsibility. For solos, the simple answer is the solo’s account will host all of the client files. For small, mid, or large firms, you should consider creating a specific “data” user account, just in case the first owner leaves the firm. You might even opt to use a senior partner as the source. Google for Work makes this setup process slightly easier since you can create group sites to share resources.
Note: if you’re already lost — and it’s not my poor explanation — you should consider hiring a consultant to set up your systems.
When you’ve determined what user holds the “share power,” you can begin transferring data to the folder. Each of the cloud providers also includes a desktop component application. This sets up a local folder on your desktop that allows a direct connection to your hosted storage.
Creating the local folder enables you to drag and drop files directly to your cloud. The files get queued for upload.
A short primer on folders
Before we begin upload all of your files, I feel it’s prudent to briefly discuss cloud folder structure. If you already have a system in play — i.e. you’re uploading current and former clients — I suggest you use the same structure, but perhaps abandon any first level folder names, like WPDOCS. Simply use “clients” or whatever name you use to differentiate folders. Here’s the spoiler: folder naming, as opposed to file naming, isn’t really that important. Folder naming helps with organization, but the powerful search features in most cloud storage make naming irrelevant if you’ve properly named your files.
However, lawyers love organization (sometimes) so here’s my suggestion for naming files and folders, if you’re just getting started.
I believe you should keep file names as descriptive as possible. Most systems can handle a large number of characters for names, so maximize their efficiency. I like using descriptive names because they’re easy to search and easy to determine what the file is. Here’s a general overview:
Correspondence: ddmmyyyy Letter to Mr. X regarding the fact he failed to pay according to the contract terms
I like using ddmmyyyy because I can see when the document was created, followed by a description of the document’s contents
Pleadings: Motion for Summary Judgment
I name the pleading as it is; you could consider adding a date for filing.
The key points in my naming theory is that the file is easy to find and you can easily determine the contents from the file name. Otherwise, exact file names don’t matter.
I care less about folder names, except I do believe they’re important to make information more accessible. If you’re using your current system, keep the folder names for convenience. If you’re setting up a new system, the consider that folders serve the important purpose of organizing similarly situated bits of information. Thus, most attorneys follow the following (or similar) naming pattern to organize their folders:
Office files > CLIENTS > [individual matter type; e.g. Litigation] > Client name/file number > [individualized sub folders]
So your client folder might look something like this:
I tend to organize any sub-folders based on Client’s name (Last Name, First Name). And within each client’s folder I’ll generally have the following sub-folders to further organize the separate documents.
Remember, your individual client sub-folders are simply to help organize your files, so name them whatever you want, but make sure you’re consistent.
Drag, drop, and share
With your baseline established for naming and ultimate responsibility, you’re ready to start transferring documents to the cloud. I seriously recommend you install the local folder extension on your desktop machine. This will help make transferring information much more convenient. (I’m showing Google Drive, but the functions are exactly the same for Dropbox, Bitcasa, and others. Also, remember to purchase the provider’s business grade product.)
If you’re moving files from a local machine (desktop/network server) then you’ll simply drag and drop the folders you want to move. I suggest you copy and paste your client folder into your cloud folder.
You’ll see your desktop machine begin moving the files, and they’ll also queue for upload to the cloud. Expect the upload to take a very long time if you’re transferring a lot of information. You can check on the sync status by hovering over the cloud icons in the status bar.
I also suggest that you perform this transfer when nobody will use the system. Although the programs will recognize and transfer all files in the folder, they won’t go back and recognize items changed after they’re transferred to the cloud.
Assuming your transfer functions properly, you should see all of your client files under your client folder.
It’s a little difficult to verify that everything transferred, so you’ll just have to have a little faith, or go through each folder and compare them. I just use a little faith. Note too, if you’re using Google Drive you might need to adjust the sync settings and tell Google which folders you want to appear.
You’ll find the sync options and other account information by right clicking the Drive icon and selecting Preferences. Play around with your settings to see what works. And remember, the more folders/files you sync, the more storage you’ll need.
Once your files and folders get uploaded, it’s time to start sharing with your peers. Obviously, if you’re a solo attorney, you can stop now because you’re finished.
Sharing files is easy to set up by right clicking on your folder, selecting Google Drive, and Sharing from the menu. You can enter your colleagues’ names or email addresses, copy the link, or click the Advanced button to enable different sharing features.
I like the Advanced features because you can give more specification on the share settings. This includes automatically turning on shares for people in your organization.
I suggest sharing the folder so “People at [your organization] can find and access.” This is a feature available for Google for Work users.
Now your staff can look in the Incoming folder on the web or in the preferences panel to find the shared client folder. Instead of leaving the clients folder in their incoming folder, your staff can drag and drop the folder to their main page.
Onward and upward, and some parting thoughts, theories, and possibilities
From this point forward, I suggest that you work from the cloud folder, rather than your old shared network. You may want to periodically back up your cloud data using a standard backup program, or even “update” your old files by copying and pasting the folder.
If you’re like me, you also have office management files — forms, old briefs, etc. — that coincide with new client documents. Depending on how much information you want to transfer, you should move those to the cloud also using the same method.
Theoretically, if you’re using a desktop-based practice management program with document management, you could direct the program to your cloud folder to save and associate documents. I haven’t personally tested this method, but I know at least one person who uses this procedure.
Moving your files to the cloud will help free up firm resources, boost collaboration and productivity, and enable you to become more mobile minded. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know below.