When the Cloud Is Down

Law firms have adopted many “cloud” or SaaS (software as a Service) products for practice and case management, document storage, online backup, their office suite and more. NC State Bar Council 2011 Formal Opinion 6 outlines considerations law firms should make when evaluating cloud products. While the opinion does not set forth specific security requirements, it does recommend that lawyers who use SaaS products consider how they can retrieve data stored by the cloud provider, whether the firm discontinues the service, the service is inoperable or becomes insolvent. So, how do you backup the cloud?

Understanding how to mitigate the risks of losing data stored by a cloud provider starts with asking the right questions before you begin doing business with them. The Law Society of British Columbia published a useful cloud computing checklist most recently updated in May 2017.  However, what are some practical things a law firm can have in place if the cloud goes down?

Office Suites

Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar are all available in an offline mode.  To set up Docs offline go to the settings in Google Docs and click the link at the bottom to “set up Docs offline.” You can set up offline docs locally, though you will have read-only access to Google docs, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. For Microsoft Office or other document formats you uploaded to Google Docs, you will still be able to edit them if you have Office software installed. Offline access to Google docs/mail, etc. only works in the Chrome browser. Google recommends that you do not use this option for shared computers, since the files will be available to anyone who has access to those computers. Google Apps administrators can use the Chrome browser for Business MSI to push out offline capabilities to the entire office.

Office 365, the subscription based Microsoft Office suite makes it easy to set up bi-directional sync in OneDrive for Outlook and Word (plus PowerPoint and Excel). Your contacts and emails can be local to a machine on Outlook if the cloud is down.

There are tools like Backupify that backup G-Suite and Office 365. For files that are synced to the cloud, business class online backup services like Crashplan, BackBlaze, Carbonite and MozyPro maintain a copy of your files on multiple devices, software, servers and more.

Online file storage and sync services like Dropbox keep a local copy of your file, unless you take steps to remove it.  Apple’s iCloud, similar to Dropbox, maintains a cloud copy of your Apple content and a local copy.

Email

Google’s Gmail has made news in the past couple of years by “losing” users’ e-mail — often years’ worth. While these outages have primarily affected the free Gmail service, even access to the paid Google Apps has occasionally been lost. More egregiously, in 2008 Charter Communications (an ISP) accidently deleted 14,000 customers e-mail accounts — and all the e-mail messages in them. For lawyers who are using the free Gmail, or other webmail services, as their primary e-mail tool for client communications, one must ask, “How are you backing that up?”

With Gmail, there are a number of options.

You can run Gmail Offline Chrome App to maintain a local copy of Gmail. This is a pretty useful option, letting you choose which folders you want to maintain locally. Look in Gmail Settings under “offline” to set this up.

Another option is to set up IMAP, which synchronizes your Gmail to a downloaded e-mail client (like the free and multi-OS compatible Thunderbird or open source Zimbra) to keep on your server or hard drive. (Which you do back up, don’t you?)

Or you can set up POP to keep a copy of your e-mail local, but with no synchronization.

There is an extension for Thunderbird to integrate with most major webmail providers like Yahoo or AOL and Zimbra also has built-in aggregation. For other web-based e-mail services, including those provided by your ISP, you can hunt around for instructions or FAQs to see what your options are for creating a local backup.

To backup email in MS Outlook if you are using hosted Exchange make sure the provider keeps a backup copy.  There is no easy way to archive a folder full of emails in MS Outlook within the product.  If you want to save emails from a stand-alone installation of MS Outlook you can save each email as HTML or text file, or all the folders as a .pst file. However, products Adobe Acrobat DC and Nuance Power PDF have an Outlook plugin that lets you quickly and easily create a sortable, searchable PDF archive of email messages.  You can select a folder, and right (alternate) click to create a PDF portfolio of all the email messages in the folder, which can be searched, sorted, and extracted.  Email attachments are also saved in the PDF as well.  For management of closed matters, simple ediscovery, and archiving this is a really great feature.

Other Cloud Applications

Tools like Evernote also make having a local copy of your data easy and available. A lightweight software version resides on the desktop, syncing with the cloud version and your apps. Offline or online you have access to all the information stored in Evernote.

Whether you’re creating documents and email in the cloud and maintaining a local copy, or generating content on your desktop and syncing to the cloud, offline access for the “simple” tools is pretty straightforward. What about offline access to more complex applications, like legal document management or practice management? In most cases there is not a complete replication of the software and data locally. For now, many lawyers still have a few offline options.

Some practice management applications like MyCase, Clio and Rocket Matter have various sync capabilities with Office 365 and G-Suite. Since Google and Microsoft makes these services available offline, you can access some of the stored data like emails and files, though not the entire database. In all three cases the representatives for these products were enthusiastic that offline access was in the development calendar. Clio does offer a data escrow service for some plans so that a copy of your Clio database is backed up on Amazon Web Services.

While traditional document management software like Worldox now offers a web accessible version (Worldox/Web Mobile), the files are still available on the local server. Native SaaS document management provider NetDocuments offers to set up a local version of the NetDocuments repository, so that users can have access offline. This is the local document server, which is an add-on for an additional fee.

Conclusion

Needless to say, the above is not comprehensive, but rather it provides a taste of some of the options. Check with your favorite cloud providers to see if and how you can access information offline and maintain a local copy. As we see business adoption of the cloud mature, we will likely see a rise in the number of offline options to address not only the concern for when Internet access is slow or impossible, but also for business continuity. In addition to needing  a copy of your cloud data, sometimes you just don’t have access to the Internet. Whether you’re traveling in a plane, or in a remote (or sometimes not so remote) area that has no WiFi, 3G or 4G coverage, or simply because your cable or T1 line is down due to weather or some other outage, on occasion you will have some forced downtime because you can’t access your cloud-based documents, send emails, or pull up a client’s contact information from a cloud-based provider. In fact, it is likely to happen.

Catherine Sanders Reach is the Director of the North Carolina Center for Practice Management. NCBA members, click here to learn more about how the Center for Practice Management can help you. NCBA CPM: Practice Smart.