Google for lawyers: Beyond the search engine

  • January 17, 2008
  • Janet Ellen Raasch

Xerox, Rollerblades and Kleenex have become synonymous with copy machines, inline skates and tissues. Similarly, “Google” has become synonymous with “Internet search.” The verb “to Google” was officially added to mainstream dictionaries in 2006.

This makes it all the more difficult for many people to think about Google in capacities other than search. However, in recent years, Google has built upon its international network of data centers to supplement its search offerings with a wide range of online (rather than desktop) software applications.

Most significantly for lawyers and law firms, Google has introduced a package of free online enterprise software – meant to compete with Microsoft Office – called Google Apps. The suite includes Control Panel, Start Page, Page Creator, Gmail, Google Talk, Google Calendar, and Google Docs.

  • Control Panel. The Control Panel lets the Google Apps system administrator add, modify and remove user accounts, manage domain settings, add or delete services, create Web pages and customize the look of the site by adding a firm’s name and logo.

  • Start Page. The Start Page is a personalized start page that provides access to private, firm and public information – in addition to the Google Apps tools – all from one screen.

  • Page Creator. The Page Creator provides tools to create and publish Web pages using templates – which can be hosted on Google servers or some other server. It automatically creates mobile versions of the Web pages, optimized for the small-screen.

  • Gmail. Gmail enables users to send and organize email, contacts and integrated chat (instant messaging). By using distribution lists, law firms can send emails – like newsletters – to a large number of recipients concurrently.

    With Google Alerts, a user can use Gmail or another mail program to automatically search for email updates on specific topics – and have them delivered to the desktop or mobile device. A lawyer can use this tool like a clipping service – to track any online mentions of his or her name, firm name, or client or case name.

  • Google Talk. Google Talk is Google’s instant messaging service. Users can also make free voice calls around the world over the Internet as long as they have a microphone and a speaker (or combination headset) and an Internet connection.

  • Google Calendar. Google Calendar is a searchable and sharable calendar application with a simple interface. Users can control language, country, time zone, date format, time format, start day of the week, custom view, Celsius or Fahrenheit, whether to show declined events, and whether to automatically add invitations to the calendar.

  • Google Docs. Google Docs is a Web-based word processing, spreadsheet and presentation application. Files can be created within the application itself, imported through the Web interface or sent via email. Although files are saved by default to Google’s servers, they also can be saved to the user’s computer or network in a variety of formats.

What is unique about Google Docs is its ability to let others edit a document concurrently and let others view the document via a hyperlink. When a lawyer wants to let others view or edit a document, he or she can invite them to be online viewers or collaborators.

Google Apps is free for a limitless number of users and includes more than 6 GB of email storage for each account. Although Microsoft does not publish volume licensing prices for the Enterprise Edition of Office 2007, analysts estimate that they typical enterprise customer pays between $150 and $200 per employee for Office and Outlook together. Off the shelf at an office supply store, Office 2007 costs close to $500 per copy.

How does Google provide Google Apps and its other software products for free? The sites all include advertising. (Ninety-nine percent of Google’s revenue is based on advertising.) There is generally an additional cost for an ad-free product.

In 2007, Google launched Google Apps Premier Edition, which costs $50 (U.S.) per account. Users receive 25 GB of email storage for each account, no advertising, round-the-clock phone support and service-level agreements promising 99.9 per cent uptime on the server.

Google Apps is not a feature-rich as Office 2007, but it is a simple, convenient and inexpensive alternative. It has most of the features that a small or medium-sized law firm needs for efficient day-to-day operations. It is accessible anywhere, any time with an Internet connection.

By choosing an Internet rather than a desktop platform, law firms can save money on servers, maintenance and technical support staff. This is an especially attractive option for small or mid-sized law firms with minimal IT infrastructure. Because the software is hosted on the vast Google network of servers, it is updated constantly by Google.

On the downside, Google Apps in not accessible when a firm’s Internet connection is down – or when a device is outside a Wi-Fi area, like on an airplane with no Internet service. Google is currently working on a way to solve this problem.

In addition, law firms must consider the unique regulations that control the storage, transfer and privacy of their data.

When Google Apps first came out, there were significant concerns about Internet-borne privacy and security issues. In September 2007, these concerns were addressed when Google acquired Postini, an online software provider focused on the security of electronic communications – email, instant message and the Web.

Other free online software programs recently launched by Google that might be of use to lawyers and law firms in their daily operations and business development include:

  • Google Earth is an online interactive mapping program that combines Google Search with satellite imagery, maps, terrain and 3D buildings.
  • Picasa is a downloadable photo organization and editing application.
  • SketchUp is a 3D sketching program that integrates with Google Earth.
  • Translate is Google's translation service.
  • Google Desktop can be downloaded and used to perform search through all the files and folders on the hard drive of a personal computer or other computers on a network – including e-mails.
  • Blogger can be used to create and host a blog.
  • YouTube is recognized as a popular video platform. Google purchased it in 2006.
  • Reader is an RSS feed aggregator.
  • Orkut is an online social networking tool.
  • Group can be used to create issue-oriented online groups and mailing lists.
  • JotSpot can be used to create online wikis. It was acquired by Google in 2007.

Many experts believe that it is only a matter of time before all software will be delivered over the Internet instead of on the desktop. Google gives us a good idea what this platform will look like – and which issues law firms will need to consider before making the switch.

Janet Ellen Raasch is a writer and ghostwriter who works closely with lawyers, law firms and other professional services providers – to help them achieve name recognition and new business through publication of articles and books for print and rich content for the Internet. She can be reached at (303) 399-5041 or