Computer Counselor - December 1999
Online Tools for Lawyers Continue to Improve and Multiply
Important data can now be stored, accessed, and updated online anywhere, anytime
By Daryl Teshima
Daryl Teshima is a practice systems attorney for Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Law is practiced everywhere these days-from the comforts of a home office to the cramped confines of a hotel room three time zones away. Unfortunately for traveling attorneys, information critical to a law practice, such as appointments, e-mail, address book, to-do list, and word processing files, often remain stuck on the hard drive of the computer at the office.
Many lawyers utilize remote computing software, such as pcAnywhere and LapLink, to access their office PCs. These programs allow a laptop or home computer to connect from anywhere in the world, but they have limitations. One is that the computer at the office must be left on and connected to a phone line or the Internet. Another is that both machines must have a copy of the software correctly configured before a connection can be made. Finally, if the office computer crashes, no further remote sessions are possible until it has been restarted and reset.
Fortunately for legal road warriors everywhere, several innovative companies are working on products to let users securely store and access critical files and information on the Internet. There are some tremendous advantages to this approach. First, there is no specialized software to install. All users need to access the information is an Internet connection and the ability to use a Web browser. Second, many of these services offer limited groupware capabilities, such as group calendars and file sharing. In many respects, these sites can serve as a bargain intranet for the firm and extranet for clients. Lastly, most of these Web-based services are currently free. The "hidden" cost is that users pay for these services by viewing banner advertisements.
Another hidden cost is the risk associated with storing mission-critical data on the Net. As with most Internet-based applications, security with these data files is a paramount concern. Most of these services acknowledge this concern by giving users the ability to encrypt online sessions and data stored on the account, but the only truly secure solution may be to use expensive and cumbersome encryption software to protect the data. The other significant hidden cost is a reliable and speedy Internet connection. Analog modems can become a bottleneck in retrieving and accessing the stored information, and time, as every lawyer knows, is money. The advent of faster but more expensive Internet connections such as DSL and cable should alleviate this problem.
Free Web Storage
Perhaps the most common remote computing mistake is forgetting to move a needed file from the office computer to the hard drive of the laptop. This pitfall can be avoided by storing critical files on the Internet. That way, if a user forgets to move files, or if the copies on the desktop's hard drive get corrupted, the user can download copies from any computer that is connected to the Internet. X:drive (www.xdrive.com) is a Web service that gives a user up to 25 MB of password-protected storage space for free. Additional storage may be purchased. Twenty-five megabytes is not as much as a Zip disk can hold, but it is still enough to store more than 200 typical word processing files. X:drive makes file transfers easier by offering a small plug-in to Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator that adds a virtual X: drive to a system. This added drive works like a local or network hard drive. Attorneys should note, however, that the feature is available only for Windows 95 and Windows 98; a NT plug-in will be available shortly. In addition, users must have Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator version 4.0 or higher.
Besides storage, the X:drive Web site lets users encrypt files with a secure sockets layer (also know as an SSL), which scrambles all information sent via the Internet. Using a secure sockets layer (in either 40-bit or 128-bit modes), the data is stored on the X:drive servers as encrypted, unreadable gibberish. Only the password will unscramble the data. Another X:drive feature is that users can share files in designated folders. After a folder is shared, a unique Web address is created that can be e-mailed to colleagues and clients. By clicking on that address, invited users can download a copy of the files stored in that shared folder. This feature can be used to distribute public files, such as a PowerPoint presentation or a copy of a firm's newsletter.
There are other Web sites that offer similar services for other computer platforms. FreeDiskSpace (www.freediskspace.com)gives users 25 MB of storage for Macintosh, Linux, and even Palm Pilots and Windows CE devices. Another interesting alternative is @Backup (www.atbackup.com), which uses the Internet to back up critical company data. For an annual fee of $99, users can back up 100 MB of data automatically every night using @Backup's free software. (For an additional $11 per month, @Backup will send clients a quarterly copy of their data on a CD-ROM.) Besides giving users an automated off-site backup procedure, @Backup allows users access to critical firm files from any computer with an Internet connection.
Portable Rolodex and Calendar
For some critical daily information-e-mail, calendar, and address book-data storage does not make sense. Calendar data is usually decipherable only when used with its parent personal information manager (PIM) application (Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Organizer, Palm's Desktop or Symantec's Act). Simply downloading a calendar and address file will not readily give the user a contact's cell phone number or tell what appointments are scheduled for the day. Web-based organizers are convenient and free solutions to this problem. These sites provide an alternative to traditional PIMs and contact managers by allowing users to access information anywhere and anytime. Many of the organizer Web sites also go beyond basic PIM functions by adding groupware capabilities. Best of all, these sites can either be maintained manually (information is changed by accessing the Web site) or automatically (information is synchronized with the office PIM). In many respects, these Web organizers can create a virtual desktop that can be used on any Internet-connected computer.
On the Bandwagon
Great convenience and low prices have made Web-based organizers appear all over the information superhighway. At last count, there were more than 20 such sites, including Microsoft-owned Jump (www.jump.com), Yahoo's My Calendar, and America Online's When.com. Although most of these sites are functional, the most promising online organizer is Visto (www.visto.com). This free, password-protected service replicates many of the features found in most PIMs, including a calendar (with interchangeable day, week, and month views), address book, and to-do list. The information is presented in Web format, so users can view, add, delete, and modify information by clicking the appropriate button or link. For example, to schedule a meeting, simply click the desired start time on the calendar. A Web page appears on which users can set the meeting parameters, including length, location, subject, agenda, and even a meeting invitation that is sent via e-mail to all invitees.
Besides basic PIM functions, Visto also gives users 15 MB of free storage space. Like other Internet storage sites, Visto lets users create a shared folder on its server that others can access with a password. In addition to downloading and uploading files, guests may use Visto to view the site's weekly calendar. If more group functionality is needed, Visto lets other Visto members create groups. Besides a shared group calendar and files, groups can create a member directory and hold threaded online discussions. For small firms that are not networked or if attorneys working together are scattered in different offices, Visto's sharing capabilities can serve as a low-cost intranet. It can even serve as a rudimentary extranet to allow clients to view their case calendar, participate in strategy discussions, and view case files.
Where Visto really shines is in its ability to import and synchronize existing PIM data. Using a free synchronization assistant developed by Puma Intellisync (the same company that developed the synchronization tools for many popular portable digital assistants, such as 3Com's PalmPilot), Visto users can automatically keep the data stored on their site up-to-date. This data not only includes calendars, contacts, browser bookmarks, and to-do lists but also hard drive folders where users keep their current files and e-mail in-box. Best of all, this synchronization process requires no manual intervention and can be scheduled at intervals ranging from once a day to every 15 minutes. Unfortunately, Visto currently only supports the more popular PIMs, including Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Organizer, or the Palm Desktop. Visto will hopefully expand its list to include legal-specific organizers such as Amicus Attorney, Time Matters, and Abacus Law.
Users of one of the supported PIMs can really leverage the information stored on Visto. When away from the office, users can view their calendars, retrieve files, and obtain a client's phone number by connecting to the Internet and browsing to their password-protected site. Users can also access the Visto Web site to synchronize data and files at two different locations, thus solving the common and difficult problem of synchronizing the calendar and Rolodex information stored at work and home. Visto solves this problem by acting as an information middleman, making home and office data files identical with the push of a button.
Despite the many benefits of Visto, there are some drawbacks. Every Visto page features banner advertisements, which keeps the price right but may not impress clients. Speed is likewise dependent on a user's Internet connection, which is prone to busy signals and dropped connections. Although Visto uses a secure sockets layer, users have to remember to log on using this secured, slower method. Finally, no matter what security precautions Visto takes, there is an inherently greater risk in using the Internet instead of an office computer to store sensitive and critical data.
The obvious benefits offered by Web organizers and Internet storage give law firms another reason for connecting to the Net. Web organizers also may soon be credited as providing another step toward leveling the playing field between large and small firms. As Internet security and speed concerns are overcome, a typical lawyer's next office may not be in a downtown high rise but instead entirely in cyberspace.