Choosing the Right Software - Articles

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Posted by: Barry Kolar on May 7, 2014

File Management
Many solo and small firm attorneys do not utilize a separate file management software and simply save documents and emails to a particular folder within their computer or network.  This is more cost effective and does not require ongoing software maintenance and updates.  However, many attorneys recommend using file management software to more efficiently manage documents, emails, calendaring, timekeeping, and billing.  This can also help you implement appropriate access limitations to files, retention, backup and provide protection against inadvertent loss or alternation of files.

In response to a survey, one attorney replied, “CLIO is the first, last and only system you should use for small/solo firm.”  (CLIO, which includes integrated file management and billing platforms, has now partnered with the Tennessee Bar Association to provide a discount for TBA members.)  Other recommendations from attorneys include Time Matters, Prolaw, and Rocket Matter.

Billing/Timekeeping
If your practice involves any hourly billing, a timekeeping program is essential to keep track of billable  time spent on each matter.  Failure to maintain accurate billing records throughout the day will inevitably lead to missed billable time and lost income.  Not good!   Programs recommended by attorneys for timekeeping and/or billing include CLIO, Quickbooks, Sage 50, TimeSlips, and Tabs 3. Most programs provide a free trial to let you take them for a test drive.  Be sure to consider whether the billing program integrates well with your third-party applications (such as Outlook) and whether they include the ability to track billable hours from a smart phone or tablet.

Research
As significant benefit of your TBA membership is the inclusion of premium access to FastCase legal research.   Fastcase is a comprehensive legal research service that includes primary law from all 50 states, as well as federal coverage.   In addition, attorneys have recommended Westlaw and Lexis Nexis, which are fee- based legal research search engines.  www.scholar.google.com is a relatively new (and free) legal search engine.  If you opt for a fee-based service, be sure to get specific  information on what is included in your plan and how fees are incurred when going “off plan.” Regardless of the legal research platform you choose, take full advantage of training videos and other services provided.  Even after using the same platform for many years, attorneys will discover that their legal research service includes a previously unknown tool or ability that is very useful.  Familiarize yourself with your research service to take full advantage of it.

 

Backup/Cloud Storage
YOU MUST BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER FILES!  Everyone has heard the horror stories about files that have been irretrievably lost after a computer is lost or a network “crash.” Even the nicest computer and the best network are susceptible to data loss resulting from hardware or software failure.  The simple fact is this: disk drives fail.  The disks spin thousands of times per minute, hour after hour, and generally crash within three to five years.  Most often, they give no indication of their failure until they fail.  Data recovery from a failed system can be very costly, time consuming and most of all, not guaranteed.

Other potential dangers include accidental damage, theft, inadvertent loss and even lightning strikes, floods, and tornadoes, all of which have struck law firms in Tennessee in recent years. 

If the data has been backed up, recovery it is an annoyance that can be handled.  If the data has not been backed up, it can be catastrophic to a firm regardless of its size.  While everyone agrees that data must be backed up, some attorneys fail to follow through on the initial set up of a backup system until it is already too late.  Do not become another cautionary tale!  Set up a backup procedure from day one and follow through with it.

Thankfully, there are various backup options and in general difficulty to do so and cost have dropped dramatically over time.  External drives are fairly inexpensive and often include software to automatically back up a computer on a regular schedule with little or no input from the user.  A common method for protecting against individual disk drive failure is a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) system which employs more than one drive at a time and, in theory, provides sufficient redundancy to recover data if the original drive fails.

And while these option can help retrieve files lost due to hardware malfunctions on the host drive, they may not provide protection in the  event of a major catastrophe such as theft, fire, lightning, tornado, or flood, as you run the risk of total data loss if your backup is located in the same physical location as the host computer. 

Off site backup options include the old-school process through which a backup disk (or tape) is automatically written and then is physically removed from the office.  A more popular option is an  automatic “cloud” backup through which data is automatically saved in off-site servers maintained by a vendor.  This can be a very easy and cost effective solution; however, you must be cognizant of your ethical duty to maintain client confidentiality and protect their property, including their data files.  When trying to determine if a cloud storage/backup service is adequately secure to protect client files, a good rule of thumb is whether or not the site is HIPAA compliant.  Unless you have been living in an isolation chamber since 2003, you are aware of the privacy protections required for personal health information.  In order to qualify as HIPAA compliant, cloud storage providers must have three required safeguards. First, there are technical requirements, including a minimum of 128 bit encryption, deletion, and destruction of data provisions that must meet Department of Defense Standards. Second, there are physical requirements, including facility access controls, workstation use, and security.  Third, there are numerous administrative requirements regarding security management process, responsibilities, information access management, etc.  If a cloud storage provider is HIPAA compliant, you should feel much more confident in their ability to protect your client’s data. A sure sign of a storage provider being HIPPA compliant is their willingness to sign a Business Associate Agreement. Some cloud vendors charge extra for the compliant versions, but it is wise to opt for these features as they provide not only better protection, but better customer service. Reputable cloud services offer SOC II or ISO certification statements for review. There are many compliant clouds from Google, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and more that may come with a combined service of space, office software tools and sharing platforms that can serve as a "business accelerator"to get a small practice off the ground without needing too many tools all at once.

Note that some very widely used online “cloud” services are not HIPAA compliant. You should take all reasonable steps to ensure that your clients’ information is adequately protected.