Everyone knows what “the cloud” and “cloud computing” are, right? If you’ve ever used Gmail or Hotmail, you’ve used a cloud computing service. Cloud computing is defined by Wikipedia as “internet-based computing, whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to computers and other devices on demand, like electricity.” In other words, cloud computing allows you to access software and services online using a web browser, without having to install and run anything from your own computer.

We less commonly refer to this as Software-as-a-Service, or “SaaS”. With SaaS, nothing is downloaded onto your computer except the software needed to access data, while the data itself is hosted on a server outside the walls of your office … or “in the cloud”.

Some lawyers use cloud-based technology to conduct online legal research; others use a full slate of legal services online, such as calendaring, docket management, project management, billing, encrypted communications and file storage. More information on providers for these services can be found in the list below. Some services allow you to save your client’s information in an encrypted online environment (“the cloud”) and then you can give your client a password (in person or on the phone) to access the information. In this way, you can improve client communication while also effectively safeguarding client information.

One of the biggest concerns with cloud computing is the risk of compromising the security of our client’s information. Therefore, when you use a cloud-based product, check to make sure it’s encrypted. When you open your web browser, make sure the address bar is https:// (instead of http://) . What that means is that everything you type or view is being transferred over a Secure Sockets Layer protocol (“SSL”) and is encrypted for security. This is the same technology used when purchasing anything online using a credit card.

It is also recommended that you have a written service level agreement (SLA) in place between you (or your firm) and the cloud service provider, covering such issues as security, confidentiality, notice of requests to produce information, and notice of security breaches, to name a few.

Not all cloud-based products are developed specifically for the legal community. There may be differences in the security and service features in the SLAs provided by non-legal industry vendors, who may not understand the importance of confidentiality and security in the context of a law practice. Most cloud-based products designed specifically for legal professionals (like the ones listed on our site) have made a concerted effort to ensure that their policies and SLAs address the practical and ethical concerns of a lawyer’s practice. Nonetheless, you will have to review the SLA of any provider you use to satisfy yourself that security and confidentiality issues are addressed.

As lawyers, we have a duty to protect our client’s information – whether it is a piece of paper sitting on our desk or information stored online. Cloud computing does not change that obligation. It may, however, offer a different way of providing that protection.

In alphabetical order, here are some “cloud” services you might want to check out! [this does not constitute an endorsement on behalf on LIANS]

*Note that many of these providers charge a fee (although some have a free version or a free trial) and many are US based. You will want to read the fine print before making any choice.

Advologix PM (www.advologix.com) – AdvologixPM online practice management system includes group calendaring, docket and activity management, client management and marketing, case, project and matter management, time and billing, document management, account management, mobile access workflow, customization and Integration.

Basecamp (www.basecamphq.com) – Basecamp is one of the pioneers of online project management tools, and although they recently raised their prices, it’s still one of the easiest to master. Basecamp has all the basic features – message boards, file storage and collaboration, task lists and time tracking, and a number of project templates that can jump-start your project initiation.

Bill4Time (www.bill4time.com) – Bill4Time says it’s “more than an egg timer.” The service provider’s time and expense tracking, billing services at both hourly and flat fee rates, invoicing, trust accounting, and integration with QuickBooks.

Box.net (www.box.net) – very similar to Dropbox, Box.net is gearing itself to the business and enterprise community, with tools to manage users, security and permissions, and other features that are necessary when rolling a tool out to a larger group of employees.

Carbonite (www.carbonite.com) – Carbonite is a popular choice for online backup, and is simple to use.

Clio (http://www.clio.com) – Clio is a web-based practice management system that includes a suite of features including time tracking, billing, task scheduling, online bill payment, trust accounting, calendaring, reporting, client collaboration, document management and more. The product provides email and Google Apps integration and syncs with Outlook.

DirectLaw (www.directlaw.com) – DirectLaw provides a virtual law firm platform that includes a secure online client portal, self-service interface, encrypted attorney-client communications that are time and date stamped in threaded archives, calendaring, file storage with upload/download functions, legal invoicing, and online credit card payment for legal fees, among other features for the online delivery of legal services.

DocuSign (www.docusign.com) – This web-based electronic signature service offers universal document format, multiple recipients and documents per envelope, mobile device signing options (iPhone and iPad), custom storage folder structures, collaboration with third-parties to add/edit documents, user & group management, workflows and templates, transaction control, forms and data management, firm-branded envelopes, document management, and publisher storage and account management.

DropBox (www.dropbox.com) – The Dropbox program installs a simple folder on all of your computers; then just move your files into that folder, and they are nearly instantly synched to a cloud location.

CounselLink, InterAction, and Juris from LexisNexis (http://www.lexisnexis.com/business-of-law) – This web-based, secure practice management application from LexisNexis is currently in beta testing. Features include matter management, contacts, calendar and tasks, client intake, conflict of interest search, alerts and notifications, time and expense tracking and management, mobile access, and more.

HoudiniEsq (www.houdiniesq.com) – HoudiniEsq provides a suite of web-based products that include client communication, time and billing, document management, integration with email, calendaring, and more.

Legal Workspace (http://legal-workspace.com) – Legal Workspace provides a hosted desktop environment of turnkey desktop software based around Amicus Attorney and Timeslips that can be accessed over the Internet through a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connection.

Lexbe (www.lexbe.com) Lexbe has two products: Lexbe Online, a web-based litigation document management and review tool, and Lexbe E-Discovery, an e-discovery service that processes email, documents and other electronic data for legal review and delivery of discovery productions. Lexbe Online provides searchable litigation document management and case analysis support.

NetDocuments (www.netdocuments.com) – NetDocuments offers a bit more than the previous two products; it essentially allows you to create your folder structure in the cloud. All of the documents, emails, images, and other files are completely searchable online, and you can easily import email from Outlook into your account. NetDocuments also provides a Records Management function, to automate the retention periods of certain types of documents.

Onit (www.onit.com) – Onit is a project and process management tool that includes collaboration with other users, document management, task management, project planning, budgeting and estimating, integration with Outlook, status updates and more.

PBWorks (www.pbworks.com) – PBWorks started out with one of the best wiki tools in the business, and within the past few years expanded its services to other areas, including project management. The project workspaces are clean and easy to use. You can be notified when any change to documents, pages, or task status occurs. There are also activity streams that track detailed changes in project documents or task status.

RightSignature (www.rightsignature.com) – RightSignature uses encryption to ensure privacy of data. The service allows lawyers to create and use legally binding electronic signatures. Features of this service include common file format support, biometric and webcam photo authentication, document archiving and more. Forms may be filled out and signed online, as well as on iPhones and other devices.

Rocket Matter (www.rocketmatter.com) – Rocket Matter is a web-based time practice management product that includes calendaring, expense, time and task tracking, invoicing, batch billing, matter-based ledgering, phone messaging, a time-tracking timer, Skype integration, mobile access, contact management, documents and notes, tagging, reports, conflict checking and more.

TitanFile (https://www.titanfile.com/) Using TitanFile, professionals can set-up secure communication channels to share files and messages, track who where, how and when has access to the shared information, making compliance easy. Granular security control, end-to-end encryption, mobile access capabilities and comprehensive audit trails all make TitanFile the best choice for secure communication.

Worldox (www.worldox.com) – the Worldox document management system is best known for its standalone software product. Now they offer the Complete Cloud product, which provides all of the same great Worldox service, but provided as a managed service. No more software to install or upgrade, servers to purchase, and you’ll enjoy redundant network daily backups.

Zoho Projects (www.zoho.com/projects) – Over the years, Zoho has been quietly creating a fantastic set of productivity tools – document creation, calendars, notebooks, documents, CRM tools, billing and invoicing services – many of them completely free. Zoho Project is no different, except that the free version just gives you one project, with only 10MB of storage space. In addition to the project management features you’ll find in most of these tools, Zoho also offers Gantt Chart reports and an issue tracking system.