Say you are a solo and want to adopt an iPad and the cloud into your practice. Lawyerist is a great source for articles on using the iPad with Dropbox, word processing apps, and the cloud practice managment software of your choice (such as Clio, MyCase, or RocketMatter). But if you are in a small firm (4-12 attorneys) and want a few more features and the ability to tweak your setup but don’t want to mess with purchasing and upgrading servers, paying for constant IT maintenance, and budgeting thousands of dollars a year for these and other expenses, an off-the-shelf NAS (or Network Attached Storage) device is exactly what you need.

What is a Network Attached Storage device?

A NAS device resembles an external hard drive on steroids. It is a mini computer with file storage as its primary mission, but it will also run a small number of apps for things like streaming video and music files over a network. It frequently has two or more hard drives that are redundant (that is, your files exist on both drives using RAID mirroring). Also, unlike most external hard drives, NAS devices do not need to be directly connected to a computer via a USB cord. Instead, it connects to the network via Ethernet or a WiFi connection and can be placed pretty much anywhere.

For those in small firms anxious about managing a server, or simply unwilling to pay the necessary maintenance costs, a NAS device is basically a file server without the hassle. When you buy a NAS, unlike an external hard drive, you typically purchase the “box” from the manufacturer and then purchase the hard drives separately (though there are some bundle options available).

It is true that there is a learning curve to set up a NAS device but if you are comfortable with setting up a home router or an external hard drive with backup software, this should cause you little, if any, anxiety.

What’s wrong with Dropbox?

Like many tech-savvy lawyers in a small firm, I am also the de facto resident “IT guy.” When I joined my father’s firm a year and a half ago, all 15 attorneys and staff were storing their files (including QuickBooks databases and ProSeries tax files) locally on their computers’ hard drives. We desperately needed a file-storage solution that would scale up to 15 employees and provide for remote access so I could join the ranks of flexible and productive mobile lawyers.

Dropbox is an exceptional product for the solo or very small law office setup with a few staff (in fact, I use it myself for many non-office file storage needs). There are two basic reasons that an office of a dozen or more may prefer a NAS:

First, Dropbox charges almost $500 annually for an account providing 500GB of storage; on the other hand, a 1TB NAS device can be had for the same price without annual fees.

Also, it is difficult (and sometimes technically impossible) to run a server-side database program such as QuickBooks (or a tax program like ProSeries) where you would want to store the database on a networked folder for multiple persons to simultaneously access the program and its data in Dropbox. More specifically, Dropbox currently will not allow the “Dropbox folder” to be installed on a network drive or folder – preventing any office that shares files on a networked drive from operating directly from the “Dropbox folder.”

Planning to purchase the right NAS

As with any technology purchase for the office, it’s important to consider your objectives and required features. For example, after watching one attorney suffer total data loss when his laptop crashed soon after I started, I knew I wanted redundancy using a RAID system that would use two identical hard drives to store our data in case one crashed.

Here are a few important features most attorneys should consider:

  1. Secure, redundant file storage with the option for an off-site backup

  2. Ease of setup and reliability

  3. Enabling access remotely from a laptop, tablet, or phone

I spent about a week browsing Amazon, TigerDirect, and Newegg and poring over user reviews. Though there are lots of options manufactured by Buffalo, Western Digital, ZyXEL, and DLink, I think the Synology DiskStation 212+ is the best option for a small to mid-sized law office (Synology recently upgraded this model to the DiskStation 213+).

I have been using the 212+ for the last year and it works exceptionally well. You can find plenty of comprehensive reviews, but what you really need to know is that it is extremely reliable, offers many useful features like auto-shutdown during a power outage to protect data and error alerts sent to your email and mobile phone, and supports connecting to an Amazon S3 account for cheap cloud backup (I backup data for 15 users nightly for about $3 a month). Most importantly, it was a breeze to setup – I was up and running in under an hour.

The Synology is one of the most-expensive options (it is about $400), but you will be investing in a quality product and a return on that investment will far exceed the added cost. Synology offers comprehensive instructions to install the NAS on your network, but you should also use a UPS to maintain power and prevent data loss during a blackout.

This article is not a step-by-step setup guide for first-time DiskStation users. Synology does a great job providing instruction via its website and offers a web-based setup assistant. In fact, it is quite easy to create user accounts for every person in your office, set permissions to allow only certain users access to certain folders (for example, limiting access to the folder containing our QuickBooks files to the bookkeeper), and to migrate the data to the shared folders. Lastly, most of your questions will be answered on the Synology website or the user forums.

After setting up the NAS, migrating data, and setting permissions and backup settings, I decided to start tackling the goal to become a nimble mobile lawyer by using the VPN connection on our SonicWall device to access the files remotely. Oh yeah, that is as confusing as it sounds. Which is why the Synology’s built-in iPad apps are worth the higher price of the NAS.

Accessing files on the go with Synology’s apps

In order to use all of the convenient features of the iPad, I knew I had to figure out a way to access my networked files while out of the office. Dropbox makes this easy, but without it, I was left stumped. As I mentioned, I first tried using the VPN connection and an expensive file-browsing app to access the DiskStation. However, this method is complicated and requires a lot of settings manipulation on the firewall. Instead, Synology offers two great apps via both Apple and Android app stores:

  1. DS File, a browser to access your DiskStation NAS from your iPad. DS File is a simple, free, comprehensive file-browsing solution that will allow you to turn your iPad into a mobile and networked workstation.

  2. DS Cloud, an app that allows the user to sync files from the DiskStation NAS directly to their device as well as a Dropbox-like folder on their personal computer.

After downloading DS Files, setting it up is extremely simple thanks to easy-to-read instructions from Synology. There is no need to worry about complicated domain addresses or asking your IT consultant to tweak your firewall or computer settings. Instead, the DiskStation uses a feature called “QuickConnect” which, when enabled, gives each DiskStation a unique identifier (basically, a phone number for the DiskStation) that you use as the address to connect to the device from your iPad. Login to the DiskStation and enable QuickConnect and you will be browsing your files over WiFi or a cellular data connection in minutes.

With an iPad, you will be able to download PDFs from your office’s secure server while in court, a meeting, or in the airport. You can also use a program like Goodreader to annotate those PDFs and upload the annotated version back to your server without tracking which email attachment is the right version. Likewise, its a snap to download Microsoft Word drafts of pleadings and letters created by a paralegal or associate and then make changes yourself using Apple’s Pages app while on a train, having your morning coffee at home, or in the locker room between golf rounds.

Thanks to the current wave of easily-configured NAS devices, you can affordably ensure that your networked files are stored securely while also giving yourself the freedom to use an iPad to its fullest extent: accessing all of your important documents with a single application and without needing a 300 page technical manual.