The cloud: every tech company, consultant, and writer seems to think we will be doing most of our work through a web browser—or apps—in the fairly near future. I am totally on board with moving my law practice to the cloud, and I am eager to see if it is possible now.

We already have a lot of our law practice in the cloud. We use Google Apps for e-mail and calendar, Clio for managing litigation files, Basecamp for managing business files, Freshbooks for timekeeping and billing, and an assortment of other cloud-based tools. We could easily switch to QuickBooks Online for bookkeeping and accounting, too.

All our cloud software is awesome. In fact, in every case, it is better than the local software that it competes with. But the biggest piece of my law practice remains local: the client file.

Moving client files to the cloud

We do use Dropbox, but while that uses the cloud to sync, it still means we have to edit the files locally.

Since a cloud-based law practice will never be practical until we can create and manage documents—both drafts and PDFs—online, this thought exercise is mainly focused on whether it is possible—or practical—to move the client file to the cloud. Moving client files to the cloud means never having to download them, since handling files locally is impossible or impractical with an iPad, Android phone, or Chrome OS computer.

Nope, it has to work through a web browser or app, or it doesn’t work. In fact, it also has to work on a smartphone or tablet. That requirement seriously limits the options at present.

Limited options for cloud-based client file management

The promise of the cloud is that you can use it anytime, anywhere, on anything. In fact, that is not quite true. Try using Microsoft Office Live on your smartphone, and you will see what I mean (hint: you can’t do anything useful). Or (requires Flash).

In reality, there is only one possible option for moving your documents to the cloud, and that is Google Docs. It is the only option I know of that lets you create, edit, and manage documents in the cloud. Most importantly, you can upload PDFs and other image files (no audio or video, though).

Google Docs does have a crippling limitation, but there is a cure. Accounts come with only 1 GB of storage per user. But they can be upgraded quite cheaply; you get 20GB for just $5/year.

Moving client files to the cloud, hypothetically speaking

With a storage upgrade, would Google Docs work? Yes. Absolutely.

Google Docs isn’t the best editing environment. You can’t work with document styles, font choices are limited, formatting options are practically nonexistent, and working with footnotes is just, well, strange. Working with Google Docs, you get the feeling it is at the bottom of Google’s priority list.

That said, it does get the job done. We actually used Google Docs for a volunteer law clinic that I built a few years back. We drafted answers, discovery requests, responses to discovery requests, affidavits, and more. It worked just fine. Actually, the pleadings we generated looked better than most of the legal documents that I see, so Google Docs is (or was, at least—this was before the most-recent Google Docs update, which actually removed some of the features we used to create good-looking legal documents at the time) perfectly usable for legal work.

More recently, I decided to move a client file to Google Docs as an experiment. Uploading the PDFs and drafts to Google Docs was easy; the new uploader works like a charm. Conversions from ODT to the native Google Docs format wasn’t perfect, but it was presentable, and I could fairly quickly reformat the drafts to suit me.

Most importantly, I could view and edit those documents easily from my phone, which speaks well of my ability to work with them from my shiny new iPad 2 when it arrives in a week or so.

Untypical tradeoffs

All in all, trying to move client files to Google Docs has been an atypical cloud experience. In general, I prefer cloud software to local software. With Google Docs, the opposite is true. Although it has its advantages—I’ve loved working on a documents with a client in real time—it is, in general, an inferior product. And that has to change before moving a law practice to the cloud becomes a better option for most firms.

In the meantime, I like it enough that I am going to try to keep a couple of active client files exclusively in Google Docs, and see how it goes.