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According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the term “stratify” means: to divide into a series of graded statuses.” That is my intention here, in trying to make sense of the ever-growing collection of Cloud-based storage options facing law practices today.

What is all this fuss about “The Cloud” in the first place? Perhaps more than anything else, the ubiquity of high-speed broadband connectivity to the Internet has created a fundamental “paradigm shift” in the way we use information technology today. This seems so self-evident as to not even be worth stating, yet many people have failed to “connect the dots” and grasp the fact that new capabilities almost inevitably lead to new – and better – ways of doing things. Remember faxing on that clunky thermal roll paper with the plastic-like sheen? Plain paper faxing brought fax technology mainstream. And of course now email has largely replaced faxing as a document sharing technology.

The second driving force in adoption of “The Cloud” is mobility. People work everywhere today, and want their tools to be accessible wherever they are. Notebooks, cell phones, and tablets, coupled with pervasive broadband connectivity, have made this feasible for almost everyone.

What is much more challenging for small law firms with few, if any, internal IT resources, is to leverage all of this connectivity and mobility so that access to documents stored in the office can be made available from anywhere. This “need” presents challenges to the small firm from both a security and a reliability perspective.

Hence the attractiveness of “The Cloud”. Someone else can now manage the storage infrastructure, provide security, disaster recovery, and multi-device connectivity, and can do it more affordably and seamlessly than any small law firm. And can comply with confidentiality requirements and satisfy other compliance-related issues that inevitably plague the handling of “sensitive” legal documents.

So, “The Cloud” can harness that connectivity and provide the desired mobility. But whose “Cloud”? And how well do these various “clouds” really deal with the important issues of connectivity, security, and disaster recovery? And what is the cost to me of using these services?

Glad you asked. Those are the questions I will be answering over the next few weeks in this blog series, as I take a look at five cloud-based document storage applications. At the conclusion of the series I will present a chart evaluating where each of these products lines up relative to various key components and features.

These five services are the Cloud storage systems that we encounter most often in our day-to-day work with law offices:

  • Dropbox
  • Box
  • Sharefile
  • Worldox Cloud GX3
  • NetDocuments

Two other popular Cloud storage options, SkyDrive and Google Drive, are not considered in this discussion, since they are both more “application-focused”, and expect users of these storage vehicles to use the specific apps to which they are most typically linked (Office365 and Google Apps, respectively).

The attractiveness of these five storage services for most attorneys and law firms lies in their promise of secure, reliable, and “accessible-from-anywhere” storage for a firm’s important client documents (and perhaps administrative documents, as well). Achieving this permits some level of device independence for the firm’s users, who can retrieve documents, as needed, via tablets and smartphones as well as notebook and desktop PC’s. Equally important, these services offer an easy and convenient way to share documents of almost any size with the firm’s clients and other professional contacts, making distribution and collaboration for critical, time-sensitive information a much less painful process.

Not all clouds are created equal, however. While each of the five vendors whose services are to be discussed here would have you believe that they can address any storage need a law firm can conceivably identify, the fact is that some services are better suited for a particular task than others. This is not to say that all of them cannot do what they advertise; in fact all five of these services can process, store, and share documents at some level. The particulars of how each performs these services, however, at what cost, and with how much flexibility and scalability, can make a huge difference to a busy law practice.

In evaluating the relative merits of each of these services, I selected six variables that encompass the critical components which any law firm interested in moving to a Cloud-based storage solution should consider. They are:

  • Security
  • Disaster Recovery
  • Collaboration Tools
  • Records Management
  • Document Mobility
  • Compliance

Security is – or should be – a completely non-negotiable item for any law firm. How these services store, share, and manage documents is critical to selecting a service. Fortunately, all of these services offer fully-encrypted document upload and download, with the expected alphabet soup of industry standards (SSL, AES-256, SSAE 16, etc.). The granularity of document security within a given service, however, does vary somewhat, and can make a difference if your storage needs require something more than “Yes/No” security settings. Especially when “synching” documents for offline storage on a local device, document security can literally become a “black hole” that can lead to disaster for the unwary (click this link for an alarming story of a Dropbox hacker penetration).

Collaboration Tools are perhaps an equally strong driving impetus for firms to consider Cloud-based storage. In this area there are some clear distinctions in how different services address collaboration. Discussions of collaboration inevitably intersect with issues of document security and access. Items of importance here include versioning, secure links to documents (login and password required at the document level), configurable access to the storage service for “non-subscribers”, and document access expiration policies.

Document mobility is perhaps the strongest driving force in moving law firms to Cloud-based storage. Where once this largely meant sharing document access across the multiple offices of a single firm, today this is as likely to mean on-the-go access to documents from tablets and smartphones. Mobility in this sense is thus important to even the smallest firm. It becomes an even stronger pull when the firm is a startup and/or has no formalized document storage protocols in place (and perhaps no servers, either!).

Disaster Recovery has become a more frequent topic of discussion in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. I would venture a guess that all five of these services have deployed “cataclysmic-level” disaster recovery schemes that are superior in scope to those in place at any but the largest law firms. Recovery from “less-than-cataclysmic” events is probably a more important consideration, however (e.g., the storage folder that gets wiped out by a staff member’s inadvertent deletion), and ease of recovery from such “mini-disasters” can be an important differentiator in evaluating competing services.

Records Management requirements (i.e., the ability to find all that stuff that you are storing in the Cloud) are directly related to the extent to which a firm goes “all in” with Cloud-based document storage. Loading two dozen documents related to a single real estate transaction hardly requires sophisticated search capabilities; loading a hundred thousand documents pertaining to several hundred separate matters is another story entirely. The ability of a given service to “scale” to meet the needs of a firm as it grows more comfortable with Cloud-based document storage can be a key differentiator, as well.

Compliance with various legal standards and ethics rulings regarding Cloud-based storage seems to be a moving target for many State Bar Associations and Judicial Review Boards. At this point I don’t believe that we have reached an across-the-board consensus on compliance for any single service, but the prevailing wisdom appears to be that all five of these services meet the basic requirements of most Boards for confidentiality and security of information. Once again, however, the nuances of compliance and confidentiality will vary from service to service (e.g., can staff at a Cloud storage provider access subscriber documents, are encryption keys in the possession of the subscriber or the service, etc.).

So, how would I “stratify” these five Cloud-based document storage services from the perspective of these six variables? Beauty contests are inherently a perilous activity, leaving far more unhappy losers than jubilant winners. My intent over the next few weeks here is not to pick winners and losers, but to point out some important “nuances” among these five products, and make a case for “appropriate usage” based on a firm’s perceived needs and interests.

Join me next week when I take a closer look at Dropbox.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will attest that I have personally used four of these five services at different points in my career, and also note that Eastern Legal Systems (or one or more of its partner firms) is certified as an implementation consultant or referral partner for most of these products.