Faulkner's Practical Web Strategies for Attorneys, Are You Ready for the Web-Based Office?

Example Scenario

You have worked for a large firm for many years and you have made the decision to either go solo or start a small firm. You were used to having access to all your information via an Intranet, file server, and your desktop. You could practice law and let the IT department worry about when the printer jammed or if you got a virus. Now that you are solo, you are the one that has to deal with all those problems as well as practice law.

It is no secret that one of the largest concerns for new and existing solo lawyers has to do with building an infrastructure for your new firm. Specifically, technology related concerns impact this group the most; computers, office software, security, back-up, billing software, case management, etc. The options are either to invest in all the technology yourself and spend a lot of time, money, and energy keeping all the systems running properly, troubleshooting problems, and performing regular maintenance, or outsource all of this overhead for someone else to manage on your behalf. However, you became a solo to practice law, not troubleshoot technology applications each day.

Alternatives to the two scenarios above do exist. You can invest in Web-based tools to take some of the burden off of you, and let someone else worry about the back-up, security, and maintenance. The benefits allow you to practice law and have fewer worries about issues that may come up regarding the technology itself. The downside is that if your Internet connection goes out, you cannot do much. Even worse is if the hosting company that you are using has severe problems, your data may be lost forever. I'll cover some of the tools that are available for you to explore as well as raise concerns of relying on such Web-based services for your daily work.

Tools Available

There are many office and support tools available in Web-based formats that can lessen your office overhead.

Google's Products

Google continues to roll-out new web-based office applications that are worth reviewing. The company started with an email client called Gmail and through acquisitions and their own development teams, have expanded their offerings to include office applications. Currently Google provides the following:

Google Docs and Google Calendar offer collaborative functions, allowing them to be shared others. Both services are free. Google also has a version of their office tools in a complete package that is fee based.

Google offers a small business package (Standard Package is free, Premier Package is $50 per year per user) includes:

  • A customizable Start Page
  • Google Docs and Spreadsheets
  • Page Creator (basic webpage with a WYSIWYG editor)
  • Gmail account
  • Google Talk (IM/VOIP)
  • Google Calendar
  • Control Panel to manage accounts and your domain
  • Help and support
  • Extensible APIs to integrate with other third party software

This can be a very powerful combination of tools for solos and small firms who are looking to reduce overhead and IT support for basic office functions.

ZoHo' Products

ZoHo is a brand of AdventNet, a software company. Their free and for pay services offer a wide range of options for solos and small firms who are looking to reduce IT overhead. Like Google, their Web-hosted tools provide a lot of functionality, but not a full suite such as Microsoft Office. Currently Zoho has the following product offerings:

  • Writer
  • Sheet
  • Show
  • Calendar and Email
  • Project
  • CRM
  • Planner
  • Wiki
  • Chat
  • Notebook (private beta)
  • Mail (private beta)

Tom Mighell recently wrote about the benefits and differences between Google and ZoHo's products vs. Microsoft Office in the March issue of Law Practice Magazine. One of the biggest drawbacks of using these services has to do with back-up. Tom reports that neither Google nor ZoHo offer bulk back-up to another source. You must download each file individually to your local computer prior to transfer to another data back-up location.

37Signals' Products

While being able to replicate what a Microsoft Office Suite might offer is important for solos and small firms, there are other tools that will help manage your office. 37Signals based in Chicago, offers a variety of Web-based tools that address needs such as project management (or case management if you want to think if it in that perspective) and Client Relationship Management. Known for producing simple to use tools that offer many features but are not overwhelming, 37Signals products include:

  • Highrise (CRM - Customer Relationship Management)
  • Basecamp (Project Management)

37Signals' products also offer many other opportunities as each of their products have APIs (application programming interface), which allow for other software to interact with theirs. A great example is their Basecamp product. This project management tool allows you to collaborate with others on a project by setting tasks, milestones with reminders, and file management for that project. If you purchase their comprehensive package of services it will even do time tracking. One feature Basecamp does not offer is billing or invoicing. That's where FreshBooks comes in. They use the Basecamp API to allow their web-based billing and invoice software to interact with Basecamp to allow you to create invoices for each project. Of course you would need a FreshBooks account to make this happen, but having those two applications talk to each other makes sending out bills and invoices seamless.

Concerns for Lawyers

As the new generation of Web-based services and software arrives, lawyers will always have concerns. Do you reduce your overhead costs by outsourcing these tools or do you manage all of them yourself? If you do take a serious look at using Web-based tools, then privacy, data security, and copyright of content will be issues with which you will have to deal. This is particularly important if you plan to use "free" versions. Catherine Sanders Reach, Director of the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center, recently wrote on the group's Site-tation site about the cost of free resources. Ms. Reach stated "…attorney's must give thought to the potential repercussions of relying on free technology for mission-critical functions." And she is correct. If for some reason your free web-based email service is down and clients can't contact you efficiently, that certainly impacts business.

Ultimately, you have to be comfortable with the due diligence you perform in backing up your data, understanding what you are really giving up by using free services, and evaluating how these factors impact your clients and their respective matters.

What Does the Total Package Lack?

At this time I think there are several hurdles that must be overcome before any lawyer or business professional can truly use web-based tools to manage essential office tasks.

Simple single sign-on: Of all the online tools that I use, test, and experiment with, one of the nice things about the Google products is that I don't have to re-login to use each application. Single sign-on is important for users who use multiple web-based applications from the same vendor. Of course if you decide to pick different products from different vendors this may always be an issue. OpenID may solve this problem (a universal unique identifier many web-based companies are adopting for access).

Access to third party back-up sources: Data security is always going to be on the mind of any lawyer or small business owner. This means that if you want to ship your data off to a third party security/storage center you need to be able to have the ability to do this at any time.

Smartphone access/integration: The world is quickly becoming more mobile. The expectation to have access to all your information at any given time is also becoming more mainstream. If you worked at a larger firm, what was your required response time? I understand some firms require their lawyers' response to clients must be within 2 hours of receipt. Web-based products need to have the ability to integrate with Smartphones (Treo, BlackBerry, Q, BlackJack, etc.) to allow lawyers access to their contacts, documents, and email directly from their mobile device.

Central Start Center: Finally what would be very desirable is the ability to have a central start center which you can log-in when you get to work, have a portal that gives you access to all these applications as well as the ability to pull in other information like local news, custom search, and maybe even sports scores. Applications like iGoogle (now their name-brand for their personalized page) and NetVibes help do this, but these sites still have limitations, although they are improving continuously.

Ultimately, you can become relatively efficient with current Web-based applications. For the "office" applications, you need to be diligent in using the Web-app as an application, not as a storage facility. If you are finished writing or collaborating on a document, export it out to save in some other location. This does not mean you cannot re-import it and work on it again, but you should think of these as applications only as a tool, not as a complete, final solution.

By using Web-based applications, you can reduce the overhead dedicated to operating your office. Be diligent in checking the terms of use and privacy statements of all "free" applications. Be cautious of using vendors who are still small and have the potential to fold at any given moment (namely anything in "beta"). You do not want to lose your data forever because the lights go out in Silicon Valley. Finally, use the tools you feel most comfortable using. If you are a WordPerfect or Microsoft Word pro and use special features, equivalent Web-based applications will not serve your needs. Be smart about the tools you use and you will find the benefits and efficiencies come with those decisions.

What concerns you most about web-based office solutions replacing traditional desktop applications? Let me know at fred@frederickfaulkner.com.