How I use backup to keep my paperless office secure

vista-hd2-backupAnyone who has heard me speak at a CLE or who reads this blog even occasionally knows that I preach the mantra of backup. This is especially important for lawyers, and doubly (triply? quadruply?) important for attorneys with paperless law offices. But I also practice what I preach, and I am willing to endure the criticism of the IT folks who read this blog for the greater good.

So, for the benefit of all, here is how I back up my files.


First, a note about my setup. I have a desktop/file server that I use at work. I have an unprivileged user account for my business files, and a regular user account for myself. This computer is connected to a Maxtor OneTouch external hard drive.

I have a laptop that I use everywhere else. Everything but the /boot partition is encrypted, and to get the maximum benefit of the encryption, I shut the laptop down whenever I move locations. I keep a Western Digital Passport portable external drive at home.

I use two free, open-source software tools for backup: rsync and Unison. Both are *nix-based software, although there are versions for Windows and OS X. Rsync is great for backup because you can use it to back up only files that have changed, making it very efficient. Unison syncs two sets of files so that both are identical, sort of like a two-way version of rsync (which is basically what Unison is). Both work well for backing up files over an encrypted internet connection using SSH.


I maintain at least two backups at all times, in at least two different places. In practice, I actually have eight backups of varying ages at a time, and at least one backup (usually two) is less than a day old.

  1. I back up my desktop automatically every night using rsync. This backup goes to a set of rotating backups, so there are always five days of backups available, in folders labeled for the days of the week.
  2. Whenever I work on my laptop, I start by syncing my files over the internet using Unison. This way, the copies on my desktop and laptop are rarely different by more than a day.
  3. I back up my laptop to my portable external hard drive about once a week using rsync after syncing the files using Unison. This is usually the most out-of-date copy, so it is a backup of last resort, if everything else fails.

I use my daily backups like an extended “undo” function, so I know they work. Since I can access those backups remotely, if necessary, I can restore files any time, anywhere. I like having five days of backups, plus the “last resort” backup, because if there is a problem and I don’t notice it right away, I can usually still find the file I need.


I wish I had some form of RAID on my work computer to protect against drive failure, but since there are at least four drives involved in my backup system, I am not overly worried about what I am using now.

At some point, I would like to move my business files to a standalone file server using RAID. When I do that, I will add an hourly (or more often) backup to the external drive. Then, if I did lose a drive, I would not lose more than an hour’s worth of work.

Bring on the questions and criticism!

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Avatar Joel Button says:

    OK. Can you point me to someone/someplace to get advice on backup for the Mac. I like what I’m reading about paperless, and will continue to pursue it.

  2. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    I am guessing The Mac Lawyer probably has some information in his archives.

    But to answer your question, Macs have some of the best backup software imaginable built in: Time Machine. Connect your Mac to any external drive or a compatible networked drive, and it will automatically make incremental backups with a very slick interface to let you “fly back in time” to recover documents.

    rsync is built in to OS X, though, and there is a nice version of Unison, as well, if you want to sync files between two computers.

    Just make sure you add some kind of remote backup so that if your office burns down (or is robbed, flooded, etc.), you still have a copy safe and sound somewhere else.

    And yes, go paperless. You cannot keep eight copies of your filing cabinets like you can if your files are digital!

  3. As a Mac user, I can vouch for Time Machine. Also, mobileme / dot mac has a backup program that I use for web backups of data in addition to my Time Machine backup to an external harddrive (like Sam, I want more than one backup and like the combination of hard drive imaging and data backup to the web).

    There is also a listserv I just recently discovered called “Macs in Law Offices” (MILO); it’s through google groups. Some of the attorneys on the list have recently recommended SuperDuper and Carbon Copy and additional backup options for mac. I have not checked them out yet, but plan to.

  4. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    I have to say that this weekend I decided to switch entirely to Dropbox for syncing my business files. It works on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. It’s a beautiful solution, and for $100, I am happy to pay. Unison works well, but Dropbox is a much more elegant solution.

  5. Avatar John Ryan says:

    We advocate 2 units for back up, one is always hooked up one is in my briefcase to take home. We also like acronis backup as if you have a hardware failure you can restore not only the data but all the programs updates with the push of a button. Just imagine that if you had to set up a new computer and load in all the programs first download all the updates and then install the data. the value of acronis really shines then.

  6. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    Acronis (or the free, open-source PING) is a practical necessity with Windows, since it can take all day to get everything up and running. With Ubuntu, I prefer to back up only the home directory, since it takes under an hour to reinstall Ubuntu with all the programs and settings I need to get working again.

  7. Avatar Will Geer says:

    You may want to check out the Synology DC-207+. Great alternative to a typical file server that offers RAID.

  8. Avatar Steven Bolton says:

    Very good article and very timely for me. My computer crashed last Friday. I had to hire someone to extract tons of information from my wounded hard drive, which too forever. I then hooked up another new Windows XP computer I had waiting. I recovered most of my data, but spent hours trying to find it.

    Not backing up can cost an attorney a fortune. Most of my week has been devoted to resolving issues that a good back up system could have avoided.

    Steve Bolton

  9. Avatar Julie Kiernan says:

    Timemachine is great on Mac OS X for incremental backups, but I also use SuperDuper (best $28 you can spend) for an exact clone nightly of my entire Mac mini acting as our server. You can restore in about an hour if the drive ever fails or a system upgrade leaves you with an unbootable system.

    With the decrease in costs of external drives it make it easy to partition and keep several SuperDuper clones for archive purposes. I also keep critical client files by week, month, that I manually copy to another USB drive and keep off site.

    In addition to Dropbox, is anyone use Jungle Disk with Amazon S3, or Mozy for online, offsite automated backups?

    I don’t think you can have too many backups. In particular if the drive starts acting up and you don’t realize their is data corruption for awhile.

  10. Avatar David Weidt says:

    In addition to several backups, I have been using Dropbox for about six months, which constantly syncs the office computer and the notebook Are you familiar with Dropbox and, if so, what do you think of it?

    Thanks for your great work on this site.

    David Weidt

  11. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    @David: Just look a few comments up, or search the blog for Dropbox. I like it quite a lot, as you will see.

  12. Avatar Laura L. Thatcher says:

    Thanks for the software suggestions! I have been looking for just that!

  13. Avatar Charles Jacques says:

    For iMac users wanting to go paperless you stated adobe acrobat was not absolutely necessary with a good file system and the ScanSnap 1500M. Before one starts scanning everything in sight- client data, medical records, tax receipts, etc do you have any organizational file management tips to keep scanned files simple to locate? Is using adobe acrobat 8 Pro (bundled w the ScanSnap) putting your files at risk from malware attacks and related issues involving security? After all, one of the reasons I went to the Mac was because of spending too much time & energy on “protection.”

  14. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    I don’t think I was referring to Acrobat, which you do need to manipulate PDF files and operate the ScanSnap. I don’t think you need document management software, though, unless you are in a firm with more than two or three people. See this comment on another post, which shows how I organize files.

    I can’t imagine how using Acrobat would be putting your files at risk. In order to use the ScanSnap, you have to use Acrobat.

  15. Avatar Leslie Matlaw says:

    Hello again, Aaron (via Sam). Has anyone road-tested the Speedy organization software which comes bundled with many of the Fujitsu Scansnap models through their own ( website?

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