By Cynthia Sharp, JD, LLM

You can’t control a natural disaster, but you can control how you prepare. Consider today’s legal practice management systems that make it easy to store and manage files, client information, and everything else that’s critical to running your practice, securely in the cloud. This technology is affordable and accessible. (In fact, it’s easy to get a free trial.) However, if you avoid it, it could be argued that you didn’t take reasonable precautions to protect your clients in the event of a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence. Meaning, you could end up violating one or more rules of professional conduct like:

  • Model Rule 1.1 which addresses competence. Comment 8 has been adopted by a majority of the states and, in essence, it requires lawyers to stay on top of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology.
  • Model Rule 1.3 which addresses diligence. It states that, regardless of direct opposition, obstruction or personal inconvenience, you’re going to take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to serve your client.
  • Model Rule 1.15 which addresses safekeeping of client property. While it mostly addresses money, this rule does note that property other than funds should be appropriately safeguarded. This could include the critical information that is included in legal files.
    Model Rule 1.6 which addresses confidentiality, says that a lawyer shall make reasonable effort to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of client information. If you store your confidential files to a secure cloud-based practice management system and send clients originals for safekeeping, you should be meeting this standard.
  • Model Rule 1.18 which addresses duties to prospective clients. If you met with potential clients a week before your law firm floats away and you haven’t stored their contact information and the outcome of these meetings in the cloud, you won’t have documentation of their status. You’ll be left open to a complaint from a client who mistakenly assumed you were representing them, unless you have proof otherwise.

Then there’s the resolution adopted by the American Bar Association House of Delegates which urges lawyers to “regularly assess their practice environment to identify and address risks that arise from any natural or manmade disaster that may compromise their ability to diligently and competently protect their clients’ interests, and maintain the security of their clients’ property.”

By using cloud-based law practice management to support your day-to-day operations, it could be argued that you have made reasonable effort to comply with this resolution while mitigating the issues posed by the ethics rules I’ve outlined above.

Find out all the benefits of cloud-based practice management in  Cloud Computing for Small Law Firms.

About the author
Cynthia Sharp is a business development strategist and veteran attorney who helps motivate attorneys to generate more revenue for their law firms through her coaching business, The Sharper Lawyer.

If you feel like you’re working harder than ever, but it’s not showing up in your revenue, you’re not alone.

According to the 2017 Report on the State of the Legal Market, by the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute and The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center, the average billable hours worked by all lawyers has declined from 134 hours per month in 2007 to 122 hours per month through late 2016. For lawyers charging $250 per hour, that equals $30,500 in lost revenue annually.

Don’t remedy this by tacking another hour or three to the end of your work day – that comes at too high of a price. Instead, make improvements to how you manage your firm. You need to have the right processes and tools in place to improve your effectiveness and efficiency.  If you are feeling underwater or like you spend too much time at the office, this How to Manage a Small Law Firm whitepaper shares three tips to get you back on track and feel like a real lawyer again.

Cloud Computing for Lawyers

Many solo and small law firms are turning to cloud computing to get ahead, accomplish more at less cost and meet client demands.  The foundation of many small law firms is built with cloud-based legal practice management software.

Building a Case for Law Practice Management, a Blue Hill Research study, found that attorneys saved up to 8 hours of non-billable work a month with practice management and in smaller firms this time savings resulted in a 100% conversion to billable time.

According to the 2017 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report about half of law firms report having a practice management solution. However, the majority report that the solution is Microsoft Outlook.  A true cloud based law practice management solution, like Firm Central, offers many more benefits (these are a few highlights, not an inclusive list):

  • MobilityAt the courthouse and need to reference a file?  Receive an urgent client question and you aren’t at the office?  No problem.  Cloud-based practice management provides mobile access your client and matter information anytime, anywhere so you have what you need even when you aren’t in the office.
  • Matter Management: Save time and headaches by organizing all of your matter information in one location.  Easily manage deadlines, tasks, client files and documents and improve collaboration within the firm from a centralized, secure interface.
  • Automated time and billing: Improve the way you track your time and take the chaos out of month end billing.  Automatically track every billable minute with built in timers, even from a smartphone, and easily generate and send detailed invoices, or run financials.
  • Secure client communicationSafeguard your firm data and confidential client data by communicating with clients through a built in secure, encrypted client portal.  Exchange messages, documents, forms and other matter details with clients through the client portal and keep them organized in their centralized matter file.

Gain Productivity, Give More Value

Are you ready to make up for lagging productivity and still have a life? Are you ready to outshine the competition by providing clients more value in less time? Are you ready to drive more revenues? Then you owe it to yourself to at least explore integrated cloud-based practice management solutions.  This ROI calculator can help you understand how much value you can get by investing in efficiency at your firm.

If you still aren’t convinced, discover more benefits of cloud computing and the daily workflow efficiencies it provides small law firms in this whitepaper: Cloud Computing for Small Law Firms.

The Department of Homeland Security has designated October as National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Their goal: to emphasize the critical importance of cyber security while providing resources to stay safe online, and recover faster from an attack.

Now, more than ever, lawyers should take heed. Law firms have become are becoming prime targets for hackers because of the confidential, and often controversial, information they deal with daily.  Cyber crime through ransomware has become more common in small law firms and hackers typically demand payment via bitcoin because the currency is hard to trace.

Consider what happened in May, 2016 to a 10-lawyer Rhode Island law firm. A lawyer in the firm clicked on an email attachment which released a ransomware virus that disabled the firm’s computer network for three months. Staffers were rendered “essentially unproductive,” according to a lawsuit filed against their insurance provider claiming $700,000 in lost billings. The firm also had to pay $25,000 to the hackers to release documents.

These breaches aren’t isolated incidents, according to the ABA 2016 Legal Technology Survey Report. It notes that more than one in 10 firms has experienced a data breach; that jumps to one in four for firms with at least 500 attorneys. Even more alarming is that about half of all firms have dealt with a virus or malware infection that could potentially decrease billable hours, damage files, and increase IT expenses.

According to the same ABA study few solo and small law firms are taking the appropriate steps to encrypt confidential data.  Sending unencrypted emails or storing unencrypted files sends an open invitation to hackers.

  • Only 19.7% of solo firms encrypt emails and only 32.1% encrypt files.
  • 9% of firms with two to nine attorneys encrypt emails and 32.2% encrypt files.

New ABA Ethics Mandate for Secure Client Communication

It’s no wonder that, this May, the ABA’s Committee on Ethics and Legal Responsibility issued Formal Opinion 477. It states, in essence, that if you communicate with clients via email, store any client data on a server, or transmit client documents, you need to exercise reasonable effort to make sure this information isn’t hacked. If you don’t, you’re breaching legal ethics.

Here’s the conundrum: What the ABA didn’t outline is precisely what is considered a reasonable effort in securing electronic communication. Instead, they said lawyers need to consider, for every communication:

  • How sensitive the information is
  • The likelihood of disclosure without safeguards
  • The cost of using additional safeguards
  • The difficulty of implementing these safeguards
  • How much these safeguards adversely affect the lawyer’s ability to represent clients, such as making devices or software excessively difficult to use

But who really has time to analyze each and every communication to determine and implement the level of cyber security it requires?

An All-in-One Solution

The most efficient way to keep yourself covered, your information secure, and your reputation intact is to look to security solutions that are automatically provided through leading cloud-based law practice management systems that offer same stringent security as global financial institutions. You can rest assured knowing that your client and matter information is well protected in transit and in storage, without having to vet and compensate cyber security experts on your own.  These systems also provide a secure client portal allowing you to electronically communicate and collaborate with clients in a secure environment rather than through unencrypted email.

Of course, not all practice management solutions are created equal, especially when it comes to cloud security. Here are three questions you need to ask when you’re evaluating vendors:

  • Are you SOC 2 Type II certified, and what other certifications do you have?
  • What is your encryption for my data in both transport and storage?
  • How often do you back up data?

Find out why these questions are very important, and find out what else you should be asking, by taking a couple of minutes to peruse this cyber security checklist.

Remember, if you think it’s too expensive to enlist the cyber protocols which a secure practice management system automatically provides, consider the price of even a single breach.

Small-firm lawyers are increasingly likely to use cloud-based services, but they remain concerned concerned about the security and confidentiality of their data in the cloud, according to a survey released today by LexisNexis Firm Manager.

LexisBenefitsCloud
Mobility was the top-cited benefit of the cloud. (Click to enlarge.)

The survey — conducted in December of lawyers in firms of no more than 20 lawyers — found that 39.4% of small-firm lawyers are already using the cloud for legal-related work. That is roughly in accord with the most recent ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, which found that 31% of lawyers overall were using the cloud, but that between 36 and 40% of solo and small-firm lawyers were using it.

Even so, a slight majority of small-firm lawyers, 50.2%, said that they are more likely to consider using a cloud service in 2014. When asked if their law firm was more likely to use a cloud service in 2014, the percentage who said “more likely” jumped to 72.4%.

As other surveys have indicated. concerns about security and confidentiality remain the greatest barrier to cloud adoption among small-firm lawyers. Even though security was the top-ranked barrier, the survey nonetheless found that 41% of small-firm lawyers believe that the cloud is secure and only 9% say it is unsecure. Roughly 36% fell in the middle — saying they were unsure whether it is secure.

Notably, when asked why they believe the cloud is not secure, a significant number of respondents cited fear of access by the government or the NSA. They also cited fear of hackers and rogue employees of the cloud vendor.

Other top barriers to using the cloud, the survey found, were:

  • Ethical concerns.
  • Uncertainty of stored data location.
  • Data ownership.
  • Cost to switch services.

Of small-firm lawyers who say they are already using the cloud, the most common purpose is for document storage and management (60%). Other common uses were:

  • Backup and disaster recovery (56.4%).
  • Email (53.6%).
  • File sharing (46.4%).
  • Practice management (23%).

Thirty-nine percent of small-firm lawyers believe that cloud-based tools will overtake premises-based applications within 3-5 years. Just 15% believe this will happen within three years.

The full survey report is available at the LexisNexis Business of Law Blog.

Florida has become the latest state to opine on the legal ethics of cloud computing. The proposed opinion follows other states that have addressed the issue in concluding that lawyers may ethically use cloud computing, provided they exercise due diligence to ensure that the cloud provider maintains adequate safeguards to protect the confidentiality and security of client information.

Under the Florida Bar rules, members of the bar are given an opportunity to comment on the opinion before it becomes final.

I have a more detailed post about the opinion at the Catalyst E-Discovery Search Blog.

Lawyers’ use of web-based software and services has grown only slightly in recent years, a new survey indicates. Growth in use of the cloud is greatest among solos and small firms and lawyers in these firms are more likely than their larger-firm counterparts to use cloud-based applications.

These are among the findings of the recently published 2012 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report. Volume II of the report covers law office technology and includes use of web-based software and services among the topics it covers.

(I previously posted about the survey’s findings on social media and on e-discovery.)

This year, 21% of lawyers reported having used cloud-based software (also referred to as Software as a Service, or SaaS). That is an increase from last year’s 16%, but little difference from the 20% in 2010 who said they’d used the cloud. Solos were most likely to use the cloud, with 29% saying they had, up from 23% in 2011. Lawyers in firms of 2-9 were next most likely to have used the cloud, with 26% saying they had, compared to 20% in 2011. Of lawyers in firms of 100 or more, just 11% said they’d used the cloud.

Of lawyers who have used the cloud, the application they are most likely to have used is Google Docs, with 46.2% saying they had used it. The next most commonly used applications were two cloud-based practice management platforms, Clio, with 12% saying they’d used it, and RocketMatter, with 5.1% having used it. Dropbox was used by 3.8%. (The survey listed applications for respondents to choose from so it may not accurately reflect the scope of cloud applications used by lawyers.)

When lawyers who use the cloud were asked why, nearly three-quarters identified the top reason as easy browser access from anywhere. Other reasons for using the cloud included 24 x 7 availability, low cost of entry and set monthly fees, elimination of IT headaches, robust data back-up and recovery, and ease of start-up.

Asked about their biggest concerns about using the cloud, 66.9% named confidentiality and security. Other top concerns were insufficient control over their data and the possibility of losing access to data.

With regard to cloud-based practice-management platforms, lawyers who had used the cloud were asked about the features and functionality they would most want. Calendering was ranked first (49.3%), followed by centralized matter management (48%), document management (43.9%), time and billing (43.2%), contact management (41.2%) and conflict checking (37.8%).

The 2012 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report consists of six volumes, covering a range of topics from technology basics to mobile lawyering. The cloud computing results are contained in Volume II, which covers law office technology. Volume II is available for purchase from the ABA for $350 (or $300 for ABA members). An abbreviated trend report on law office technology can be purchased for $55 (or $45 for ABA members).

Assembling a document from a template in Rocket Matter 2.0.

The Web-based practice management application Rocket Matter today released version 2.0 of its platform. The new version adds two notable features: document assembly and custom fields.

With this release, Rocket Matter becomes the only cloud-based practice management platform to integrate document assembly, according to Larry Port, the company’s co-founder and chief software architect.

The document assembly feature allows users to create templates for legal forms or other documents and then automatically merge client and matter data into a template to create a final document. As the user creates a document, Rocket Matter can also automatically create a billing entry.

The user creates the templates on his or her desktop, using Microsoft Word’s ability to create “merge fields.” Rocket Matter provides a guide for formatting these merge fields to work with its application. For those unfamiliar with using merge fields, Rocket Matter also provides links to guides that explain how to create and use them. As an example, to insert a client name in template, you’d use the fields: “«Client.Name»«Client.LastName»”.

Once you’ve created a template on your desktop, you upload it to Rocket Matter. As you upload it, the application checks it to ensure that you’ve properly formatted the merge fields. If there is an error, the application shows you which field contains the error. If you’ve set up all the fields properly, then the document is added to your template library, available to use for any client or matter.

Then, when you go to the dashboard for a matter within Rocket Matter, you see a new link, “Create from Template.” Click that to see a list of your available templates. Select a template and Rocket Matter automatically populates its fields with information such as party names, docket numbers, opposing counsel and the like. As it displays the final document, it shows the fields in a panel to the right. Click on any field in the panel to jump to that field in the document.

Custom Fields

With the addition of custom fields, Rocket Matter enables the user to customize these templates beyond the standard fields it already provides. Users can create an unlimited number of custom fields, both for matters and for contacts. And any custom field you create can become a merge field in a document template.

To create a custom field for a matter or contact, simply open the item. A portion of the screen is labeled “Data.” For a matter, this Data section includes the case number and county. For a contact, it includes date of birth, gender and Social Security number. Just below those data items are new horizontal columns with two headings, “Labels” and “Values.” Here is where you create a custom field. Click “add another” and simply fill in the label and value. For label, you might put “Secretary” and for value “John Jones.” You can also add custom fields when you create a new contact or matter.

As I’ve previously noted here, Rocket Matter is integrated with Dropbox, allowing you to automatically synchronize documents among Rocket Matter, your desktop and your mobile devices. More recently, the company announced its integration with Evernote. These integrations make the document assembly feature even more practical to use.