The Google-friendly lawyer

  • April 17, 2014
  • Luigi Benetton

More lawyers are looking to the internet giant's business tools for opportunities to lower their office expenses and increase their productivity.

SaaS (software-as-a-service) continues to grow, allowing tasks that once had to be done using desktop software – from accessing important data to document drafting to file management – to be done by visiting an SaaS application’s site.

Leading the charge is an internet powerhouse that has made its mark in so many areas of the web; an SaaS that is attracting increasing numbers of lawyers. To understand why, it helps to understand how Google differs from most SaaS providers. First, the sheer variety of services on Google’s virtual shelves dwarfs that of its competitors. In fact, lawyers could conceivably run their practices using only Google products.

Those services tie into one another easily. Many are either free or very competitively priced, thanks to both funding flowing from Google’s dominance of the online advertising market and Google’s sustained drive to create the Next Big Thing on the web.

It’s also impossible to tar Google with one of the worst fears people associate with SaaS – that the vendor will go bankrupt and disappear, taking client data with it. “That isn’t very likely with Google,” says Mark Rosch, vice president of CLE provider Internet for Lawyers, Inc. Rosch co-authored, with Carole A. Levitt, Google for Lawyers: Essential Search Tips and Productivity Tools, a publication of the American Bar Association due out in June 2010.

Rosch is clearly bullish on the book’s topic. “Many law firms have incorporated Google products into their practices,” he says.

One of those firms is the Law Office of David Benowitz in Washington, D.C., which pays for licences for Google’s productivity suite (including mail, calendars, word processing, spreadsheets and other applications) at a per-user, per-annum cost of $50.00. “It’s such a pleasure to have everybody work collaboratively, and not be tied to software licence fees,” says Seth Price, a partner in the firm.

Google's free applications provide another option. Dara Strickland, who practises with one other lawyer in a St. Louis, MO law firm, says, "For the applications we use now, we pay nothing," says Strickland. "That's as cost-effective as it gets.”

The only difference between the paid and free applications, explains Rosch, is the additional storage space for documents and access to tech support.

Another selling point is that many of the applications run well on mobile phones, a fact not lost on Strickland. She and her partner travel frequently, and Strickland claims that their firm "exists" on Google applications “because they keep up with us.”

“We use Google Chat to talk about our cases,” she explains. “There are times I don't have the privacy I need to make a phone call, but I can get and send information with GChat on my cell phone.”

Convenience, low cost attracting new users

Google offers yet more advantages: lawyers can access their information and software from any computer in or out of the office; Google handles all updates; services keep pace with a firm’s growth; and with a little tech savvy, lawyers can take their data offline using, for instance, Outlook to handle email, calendars, contacts and tasks that reside in Google.

“Google offers us more resources than an ordinary small firm would have,” adds Kim Perez, a Georgia-based lawyer.

Whether Google fits a given law practice depends on whether the pros outweigh the cons. For instance, given the relative dearth of features in Google Docs, few lawyers admit to finalizing documents online. Instead, they export documents to Microsoft Office to polish them.

But Google users like Price believe that Docs' narrower range of features makes it easier to learn and use. “As a techie, I’m probably a B-, and my partners are even worse,” he admits. “For us, less is sometimes more.”

Perez kept notes on a 2009 arbitration case in Docs. “I used it to create notes and thoughts. I could share them with my client in real time, and he could make notes on them,” she recalls. “We collaborated much more easily than if we used an Excel spreadsheet or Word document.”

Sceptics say concerns over the security of client data make SaaS offerings in general unfit for use in the legal industry. How well-founded are those worries? “Lawyers need to decide how comfortable they are with storing information at third-party locations,” Rosch says. Their decision process should also take into account applicable rules or ethics opinions in the jurisdiction(s) where they practise, he adds. (The North Carolina State Bar, for example, recently released a proposed formal ethics opinion regarding the use of SaaS in a law office, accompanied by a list of 23 questions for its members to consider and ask of SaaS providers before choosing one).

Reports of attacks on Google systems, for now, don’t appear to faze its most devoted users. “Google has an excellent reputation for keeping their servers secure, and when looking at other methods of transmission lawyers commonly use offline (fax, mail, leaving documents with a secretary, clerk, or assistant), using Google looks pretty secure,” says Strickland. “As my partner says, it would be easier to steal personal information about our clients by physically breaking into our office than by trying to hack Google.”

Competition against practice-management suites may be the ultimate test of Google’s value to lawyers. While at first glance its suite of office tools is no match for specialized legal-business software, the costs and complexity of those options may encourage lawyers to look for alternatives.

Strickland and Price represent the type of lawyer most likely to be open to SaaS: the solo or and small-firm practitioner who can’t afford in-house IT services. Throw in moderate amounts of tech-savvy, throw out any loyalty to traditional tools, add a willingness to experiment, and you have a prospective Google-friendly lawyer.

Traditional business software publishers don't appear too worried about Google – yet. “Resistance to change is the real issue,” Perez says. “People don’t use it, so they don’t know what it’s about.”

Luigi Benetton is a freelance writer based in Toronto. His website is