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Nobody ever thinks a data loss is going to happen to them. But it can, and likely will, happen to you, if you practice long enough — and, sometimes, even if you don’t.
Inside of the first two years of my first career as a practicing lawyer, my firm experienced a significant data loss involving a burrito, an ex-Navy man and some questionable plumbing that extended all the way to a medical office with which we shared a building. (I’ll let your mind take you the rest of the way there.)
But that was a decade ago — several lifetimes in terms of technology — and the data management landscape for law firms is now qualitatively different. Back then, we ran all paper files and had a typewriter in the office. The best we could do was to buy some really badass file cabinets and, when we had overflow, hope to hell that the managing partner’s basement didn’t flood.
In 2014, the deluge consists of new technology applications for data security, with a hot release seemingly coming out every day. But when it comes to data backup, there are still some core strategies that resonate.
The essential component of data backup is redundancy. In the simplest terms, you keep an extra file of your “stuff” somewhere, just in case you lose the primary file.
Back in the day, if you wanted to make an extra file, you were making a copy … no, literally, that’s what you did: You stood at a printer and made a physical copy. (I know, right?) Now there are so many levels of redundancy available the trouble is in keeping track of where your stuff is:
So there is a high-percentage chance that you have multiples of information housed across these units of storage. It’s clear, then, that most of us have the redundancy part of this thing down, even if we’re still catching up to the organizational side of the equation.
Certainly, though, before you select a backup protocol, you’ll want to know what to point it at — where, exactly, your files to be backed up are stored. And that’s why it stills makes sense to centralize your file repositories, such that (by way of example) all documents would be on your server — and all your emails would be archived, and your calendar would be reproduced through your practice management system. In that case, you’ll know that your backup requirements are attached to your document drive and your practice management platform. Of course, for additional levels of redundancy you can still store files on a cloud drive, or on a thumbdrive, especially for shorter intervals. Even if you have a system with multiple layers, though, you’ll want a core vault that contains all essential items.
Ever see the TV show “Revolution”? (That’s good, because it’s horrible.) The show predicts a future in which we’re all forcibly removed from the electrical grid. Yeah, we’re all screwed if that happens; instead of for its current accepted use as a fashion statement, you’ll be applying your bow tie to strangle squirrels to eat. But, even short of a global disaster of that scale, isn’t an extended power or Internet outage intensely annoying for a connected person to navigate? That’s one reason it still makes sense to store a local copy of files, and to manage a local, physical backup in addition to a cloud backup. If an outage can occur for you, it can certainly occur for your storage provider.
Cloud storage turns the former dynamic on its head: Instead of looking for a backup to a local copy, the cloud user wonders how to maintain a local backup for cloud-based data. Fortunately, electronic storage is relatively cheap, and encryptable. So, whether it’s a DVD or a thumbdrive or a hard drive, you’ll want a physical device in your possession, or close to it, from which to restore, if you can’t get to a cloud backup. (Remove the backup device from the vicinity of the computer it’s backing up, though; if there’s a physical disaster that befalls your computer, you’d not want your backup device in close proximity.)
Certainly, a physical backup is not a perfect solution, and it’s corruptible. At root, though, every backup is physical — even those cloud services you depend on are, at base, attached to physical servers somewhere, albeit with more protections associated than you could afford. The ultimate frailty of backup regimes means that the safer bet is to have at least two in place at all times.
So, in addition to your physical drive, you’ll also want to subscribe to a cloud-based backup tool, like Mozy, Carbonite, (“Now, with real carbon!“), Backblaze or something of that ilk. These online, incremental systems can back up your entire file structure at an initial pass, and will then add new, or update changed, items to your backup server. You can point these applications to back up your entire device(s), or point to specific drives. Of more recent vintage, and increasing in popularity, are combination devices, like Space Monkey, CrashPlan and MyCloud, that provide a physical back-up drive with a cloud link. But, while it’s convenient to acquire a device that offers a physical backup with cloud components, it doesn’t obviate the need for a second backup, either local or cloud. The primary reason for implementing a second protocol is in case the first solution fails, if the provider goes out of business or otherwise disintegrates.
Remember, redundancy is the watchword. Remember, effective redundancy is the watchphrase. And here are a few more points to remember:
Vetting. It’s clear that you’ve got to be careful about vetting an online backup provider — and not only because the business backing it may fail. You may become wary of a particular provider for reasons ranging from a poor record respecting confidentiality or security, to a lack of usability, to unreliable customer service. Although not specific to backup providers, I have previously written on methods for vetting cloud services, including questions to ask before you engage their services. As with any software product, it makes sense to use a trial period before deciding to make the purchase.
Testing. You’ve settled your backup protocol. It’s on and running, mostly of its own accord. Now you just sit back, link your fingers behind you as a headrest and put your feet up on the desk, confident that any potential disaster that may befall you will be averted. Well, not quite. The first time you test your backup should not be when you most need it: when there has been an unexpected data loss. You should test your backups on a regularly recurring basis. Save something inconsequential, then delete it, and try to get it back. If you can do it in repose, you can do it in a crisis.
Restoring (Transferring). If you test your backups and they work, you can be relatively sure that you can get your files back when you need them. But, you have a lot of files, and, if you’re repopulating them all at once (even outside of a crisis situation, you may want to load files on a new device), that is not going to be an instant gratification sort of endeavor. So, you’ll want to implement a restoration plan of some kind as well. Most online providers will allow you to select which files, or drives, you’d like to restore first. Likely you’ll require access to some files in a more pressing matter, while you may not need others for several months. Others may only be archive files that you’ll never touch again. It makes sense, then, to stagger your restore along those lines, or some others of your own invention.
Disposition. One of the benefits of data backup relates to the archival function, which I’ve alluded to just above. Most lawyers are extremely reticent to dispose of their files, even though they can. And that’s an understatement — I mean, you never know when you’ll be sued for malpractice on a case you’re working on now in 2046, so yeah. In the past, to store all those paper files ad infinitum was a real back-breaker, both cost- and space-wise. You would have shelled out quite a number of shekels to hire a storage provider, or rededicated your garage from vehicle repository to filing station. But now, even if you destroy all of the paper, you can still maintain an electronic version of the entirety of all your files, for probably as long as you want, given the low cost and the lack of a requirement for physical space. Electronic storage is the packrat attorney’s wet dream, even if most of them don’t realize it.
You may not take all of my suggestions, and certainly that’s fine. But, no matter what you do, apply some measure of backup to your law firm data — because, to paraphrase the great John Donne: “Never send to know for whom the burrito tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Jared Correia is Assistant Director and Senior Law Practice Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program. Prior to joining LOMAP, he was the Publications Attorney for the Massachusetts Bar Association. Before that, he worked as a private practice lawyer. Jared is the author of Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers. He writes on practice management topics for Attorney at Work here, and for the LOMAP blog here. Follow @jaredcorreia.
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