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Data Forecast: Partly Cloudy

By Donna Mallard | Apr. 2, 2015
News

Law Office Management

Apr. 2, 2015

Data Forecast: Partly Cloudy

As data proliferates at law firms, attorneys must find safe storage, either on the cloud, in the office, or in a hybrid solution.

John H. Conway is on round three in the battle to safely store the digital records of his family law practice in Sunnyvale, known as the Law Office of John H. Conway.

First, he had a consultant come to his office to install and maintain a dedicated file server and a tape-backup system. That seemed perfect, until the day Conway discovered by chance that the tape had ejected and nothing was being backed up. A second IT guy Conway hired recommended cloud-based storage and set that up, but that consultant then went out of business.

Now, Conway is pretty sure he has found a foolproof solution, suggested by a buddy over drinks. It's called Transporter, a small, affordable storage device that can hold up to 24 terabytes of data, like a USB drive on steroids. With the new device sitting on his desk, Conway can literally oversee his digital storage-and ensure that it's working. But Transporter also comes with cloud-based traffic-management software that lets Conway create secure remote connections and access files when he's away from the office.

Safe storage is a bit like phone service-not sexy, but essential-and it should be part of every firm's file-management strategy. Conway's story illustrates two challenges for lawyers regarding storage. First, they-and not just their IT staff-must take responsibility for the security of their clients' data. And even though choosing storage solutions can seem removed from their core competencies and interests, lawyers can't get away with blithely scattering their data across the cloud and then setting aggressive schedules for deleting it, as other professionals might. Second, there are more choices for storage than ever. That's in part a response to the continuing growth of "big data"-extremely large data sets that are hard to tame but can be generated even by a solo practitioner.

On Site or In the Cloud?

The first step in figuring out how to store digital files is, as ever, deciding whether to own or to rent. That is, you can maintain file servers on your premises-in your own data center-or you can pay a cloud service to store data remotely. Many enterprises are opting for remote storage, but "law firms have been slower to adopt the cloud," says Brian Ruthruff, operations manager for Innovative Computing Systems in San Francisco, which provides IT products and services. Larger and older law firms, especially, are sticking with their own servers, he says.

It's a lot easier to document compliance with confidentiality and security requirements (see California State Bar Rule 3-100, for example) when digital files are stored on servers located safely within the law firm's firewall and managed by its staff. However, there is a significant disadvantage: cost. The resources it takes to procure and manage that infrastructure are expensive, and the firm has to keep buying more as it accumulates data.

With cloud storage, employees can access stored information any time, from anywhere, using any device with an Internet connection. On-site storage technologies were "designed for the workplace of 15 years ago-[with] no mobile phones and most workers working out of an office instead of distributed," says Jim Sherhart, vice president of marketing for Connected Data, the Santa Clara company that makes the Transporter. "The challenge is how to give users productivity with access to data sharing and automatic sync."

Cloud Types

In choosing where to stash the firm's accumulated files, research, and other data, it's important to distinguish among several forms of cloud storage.

Public cloud-storage services may rent space on servers at their own locations, or they may manage files stored on third-party data centers such as Amazon's. They are usually inexpensive and easy to access. Big-name cloud services like Dropbox or Box typically maintain tight security for the physical premises and the data. Though some services have experienced hacking and breaches in recent years, public cloud services may be more secure than a firm's on-premises storage. But the law is unclear about when third parties are bound by a law firm's confidentiality agreements with its clients.

Private clouds store files on servers owned and maintained by the law firm, either behind the firm's firewall or in an outside data center. But smooth performance of these systems is key, according to Ruthruff. If there's a lag to log in or load files, employees may go rogue and turn away from these systems to use public cloud services.

Virtual private clouds use public-storage infrastructure, but employees access it via a secure, virtual private network, or VPN.

The Hybrid Approach

Gateways that provide access to both a private cloud and a public cloud are increasingly popular. These services combine the advantages of on-premises storage and cloud storage, allowing the firm to keep its data protected while also letting employees access it anytime, from anywhere. These gateways also provide off-site data backup.

"The benefit of cloud storage is that it's way more than you could do in-house," says Andres Hernandez, owner of Wingman LegalTech, a San Diego-based IT services company that provides law firms with tech consulting services.

A firm's choice may depend on whom it consults-and what the consultant is selling. But it seems likely that sooner or later law firms will follow other businesses to the cloud: Of the enterprises polled by IDG in 2014, 87 percent were already using the cloud, or planned to start this year.

No matter which strategy a firm uses, attorneys can't just "set it and forget it." Formal Opinion 2010-179 from the California Bar's Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct says that before using a particular technology, an attorney must evaluate the level of security it offers, the availability of security measures, and its limits on third-party access. Thus, says Hernandez regarding security, "There are good reasons to be skeptical."

Susan Kuchinskas covers business, technology, and the business of technology for publications that include Scientific American, Portada, and Telematics Update.

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Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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