When new clients sign up at Rob Hyndman's technology law practice, there's the usual paperwork, but no paper to fill it out on.
Instead of standard intake forms – names, addresses, contact info, agreements, disclaimers – Mr. Hyndman turned to Wufoo, a service that allowed him to create interactive forms for his website.
"Instead of having a clerk sit on the phone and take all this information down from the client, the client simply bangs out the form, and all of my systems are updated automatically," Mr. Hyndman says.
But Wufoo does more than just collect information: Like many cloud services, it's designed to share that information with other web services. At Mr. Hyndman's practice, the intake form first guides clients through the terms and conditions of engagement, then it sends their contact information to FreshBooks, his cloud-based billing application, then MailChimp, his mailing-list manager, which sends out notices for clients as well as a general newsletter.
Wufoo automatically adds the new client's e-mail address to a whitelist in Google Apps, yet another cloud service, so that the spam filter doesn't catch them. And finally, it sends their contact info to his computer's address book, which syncs through Apple's iCloud to his various devices.
"You dramatically reduce the need for administrative support, and for many lawyers that's a key part of the overhead right there," Mr. Hyndman says. "You can let the people who help you focus on a more value-added task that they enjoy doing more."
Mr. Hyndman is both a technology lawyer – he helps startups and big firms with the legalities of doing business – and a tech evangelist. He's one of the co-founders of the influential Mesh conference. With technology tied so closely to his brand, he says his clients aren't fazed by his tech-forwardness – at any rate, new clients have to sign off on his use of cloud services in the course of doing business, and Mr. Hyndman says nobody has ever balked.
Online services that can help law practices do business are multiplying, both in the form of generic tools such as the ones Mr. Hyndman uses, as well as a growing field of online suites that are custom-built for lawyers.
But the broader law establishment is only starting to get its head around the concept of moving practices into the cloud. Confidentiality and reliability are a lawyer's obligation, and online services introduce a whole new set of variables to the privacy equation: Where is the data stored? Who can see it? How private is it?
Graham Stuart, an account executive at Clio, a Vancouver-based vendor of practice-management software with more than 10,000 clients – most of them American – says its sales team doesn't even reach out to Canadian lawyers because of the legal establishment's resistance to the idea of cloud services.
That reluctant view, however, is evolving.
"The bulk of the profession was extremely cautious, if not completely unwilling to seriously consider cloud solutions," says Dan Pinnington, vice-president of claims prevention at the Lawyers' Professional Indemnity Co. (LawPro), the organization that insures lawyers in Ontario. "Two, three years later, if they're not mainstream, they're close to being mainstream. We're all doing things in the cloud, and most people might not even realize it. If you're using Gmail, you're in the cloud."
(In fact, Mr. Pinnington notes, the most common privacy woes lawyers face comes not from cloud services, but from sensitive e-mails going astray when an e-mail program auto-completes an address to go someplace other than the sender intended.)
If rigging together a constellation of cheap or free services, the way Mr. Hyndman has done, seems too labour-intensive, a crop of cloud-based legal-practice-management services are starting to make inroads on the desktop software that lawyers have used for years. Clio, for instance, offers everything from document management, calendars and scheduling, and a client portal, all on a subscription basis that starts at $49 a month.
It comes with the usual benefits of a cloud service: No IT to maintain, no upgrades to install, and perhaps most importantly – access to your data on any device, from any location.
Amicus Attorney, a mainstay of the desktop practice-management world, will be reincarnated in a cloud-based edition called Amicus Cloud in the fall (the product is just entering a beta test now). Like its desktop predecessor, the software acts as a soup-to-nuts office manager, keeping track of schedules, appointments, deadlines, client information, billings, and many specialized legal tasks, such as automatically drawing up deeds based on client information.
Through a subsidiary, the same firm also sells a cloud-based tool called Credenza Pro, which transforms Microsoft Outlook into a robust law-oriented scheduling and organizational tool.
Ron Collins, the founder and CEO of Gown and Gavel, the Bay Street software firm that's developed Amicus for nearly 20 years, sees the potential of the cloud, but he warns that lawyers need to be vigilant in scrutinizing both the terms and conditions of cloud services, and the infrastructure they use.
"There's always a danger of interception of your data when it's in the cloud. Security and reliability are the two big issues," Mr. Collins says. "If your server goes down, where am I? An awful lot of law societies in Canada and state bar associations in the U.S. have been reviewing this issue."
Amicus Cloud, for instance, uses Microsoft's infrastructure to host its service, which offers a degree of physical assurance.
Pursuing these same questions, the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) commissioned a full report to guide its members, and its recommendations reflected a growing (if slightly non-committal) consensus in North America's legal establishment: Cloud services can be useful tools for lawyers, but lawyers need to assume full responsibility for protecting client privilege and confidentiality.
"It's a matter of doing your due diligence and coming up with all of the comfort that your client's personal info is protected to a reasonable standard … and that you'll be able fulfill any reporting or investigation obligations that may come up with respect to your regulator," says Doug Munro, a lawyer with the LSBC who worked on the report.
That means asking the right questions before signing up to a cloud service, and the LSBC's report contains a detailed list of points lawyers should cover.
Among them: Are the servers physically secure? Is the company solvent and credible? Who owns and has access to the data, according to the terms and conditions of the service? While the likes of the U.S. Patriot Act can give law enforcement access to stored data, some providers encrypt data both in transit and upon arrival at the web service. That way, even if the service's owners – or anyone else – peeked at the data, all they would see is an unintelligible jumble, unless they had the password to unscramble it.
For Mr. Hyndman, these concerns are easily overblown. In his practice, being an early adopter of web services is a competitive advantage. Using modern tools doesn't just save him money, it offers a degree of credibility with his tech-savvy clients.
"I think that the opportunity to drive the cost of legal services down through these technologies is profound, and we need to get on it or somebody else is going to get on it first," he says. "Admittedly, it's easier for me because my clients are geeks and they understand it."
Here, Mr. Hyndman pauses for a moment.
"But increasingly, everybody's a geek."
Special to The Globe and Mail
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