When I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation as a law schooler in the mid-’90s, I was always fascinated by the advanced technologies used in the series. There were so many that interested me, ranging from touch-screen and voice interface computers to transporters and replicators. All of the tools and systems dreamed up by the show’s writers seemed so futuristic to me, and I never expected that many of them would become available in my lifetime.
And yet, amazingly enough, in 2019, many of those tools are commonplace. While I’m still waiting for the transporter app to arrive in the App Store, many other core Star Trek concepts have now become reality, including voice and touch screen computer interfaces, replicators (i.e. 3D printing), tricorders and communicators (i.e. smartphones), the Universal Translator (i.e. smartphone apps) and, last but certainly not least, videoconferencing capabilities.
Of those technologies, videoconferencing is one of the many that offers lots of potential for lawyers. Videoconferencing has many applications in law firms and can be used for, among other things, client meetings, lawyer conferences and out-of-town depositions.
Nowadays, lawyers have a plethora of options when it comes to videoconferencing, ranging from bare-bones free tools to more costly, and yet still affordable, choices that include a vast array of features designed to streamline the videoconferencing experience.
Ethical and security issues
Of course, because you’ll likely be discussing confidential information when using videoconferencing, it’s important to understand that the videoconferencing tools discussed below are partially or fully cloud-based and thus data will be processed by—and possibly stored on—software housed on servers owned by a third party. As such, because you will be entrusting your law firm’s data to a third party, you have an ethical obligation to thoroughly vet the technology provider that will be hosting and storing your data.
Also of note is that the nature of the information that will be shared using videoconferencing will necessarily dictate the levels of security that you will need in place. For ethical guidance in that regard, you need look no further than ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 477, which was handed down in May 2017 and provides advice on secure client communication. In that opinion, the Ethics Committee concluded that unencrypted communications may not always be sufficient for client communications. Accordingly, the committee determined that lawyers must assess the sensitivity of the information to be shared on a case-by-case basis and then choose the most appropriate and sufficiently secure method of communicating and collaborating.
Note that the key to ensuring secure voice communication is to use VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), which is the underlying technology of all the tools that will be discussed below. But it’s important to understand the difference between VOIP technology that uses transport encryption (which is used by Skype, Google Hangouts and many other common tools)—which prevents eavesdroppers, but not the providers from listening in—and end-to-end encryption, which prevents all types of eavesdropping. If you’re like most lawyers, you will likely conclude that end-to-end encryption is not needed for most of your communications, but if you happen to be handling a case that involves particularly sensitive information or believe that there’s a risk that a governmental agency, for example, might attempt to obtain access to your communications, then end-to-end encryption might be necessary.
Standard transport encryption videoconferencing
For many lawyers, the transport encryption method will be sufficient. Here are two of the more popular options that offer this more typical security method.
Many of you may already have access to videoconferencing but may not know it, like the tools built into Gmail. With Gmail, you’re able to conduct videoconferencing with up to 10 other Gmail users using Google Hangouts. There’s no cost to download this email plugin, and it allows you to launch videoconferences right from your Gmail account on your computer or mobile device.
Similarly, if your firm uses Slack for internal communications, it also includes free, built-in videoconferencing capabilities.
End-to-end encryption videoconferencing
If you determine that end-to-end encryption is necessary for a single matter or for all of your firm’s video communications, then you have a few options.
First, there are two of the most well-known enterprise videoconferencing tools: WebEx and GoToMeeting. Both are very robust, include a host of features, provide a number of different pricing levels depending on your firm’s needs and offer end-to-end encryption. This type of encryption is built-in to GoToMeeting, and with Webex, the site administrator must enable it. GoToMeeting starts at $14/month (billed annually), and Webex starts at $13.50/month.
If your firm uses Outlook for email via Office 365 for Business Professionals, Skype for Business is included at no additional cost, allows video meetings with up to 250 people, and meetings can be recorded. You can learn more about it, along with information regarding how to install Skype for Business onto your computer here. Skype does offer end-to-end encryption, but you need to enable it at the start of each video call as explained here.
Another similar and very affordable option to consider is Zoom. Zoom is free for up to 100 participants. More robust features for more users are also available, starting at $14.99/month/host. Zoom offers end-to-end encryption as an option that can be set for each account or user level. Note that if you happen to use a Mac computer, you may want to hold off on Zoom for now. A security loophole that could compromise Mac computers was exposed in early July, so until it’s patched, you’re better off avoiding Zoom.
Two other popular secure messaging mobile tools are Signal and WhatsApp. Both are free, and thus don’t have very robust feature sets, but nevertheless provide secure, end-to-end encryption for videoconferences. In my experience, both also sometimes have connectivity issues for videoconferencing—and this is a perfect reminder that when it comes to technology, you get what you pay for.
Signal is available as a desktop app and offers a mobile app for iOS or Android devices. WhatsApp also offers desktop and mobile apps (iOS, Android, and Windows Phone) and includes one-on-one and group conferencing features. Note that just last month, WhatsApp, which is now owned by Facebook, revealed that it had fixed a vulnerability in its app that could have allowed hackers to implant malicious code on users’ phones. This news is a perfect example of why it’s so important to research providers before choosing any technology tool for your law firm.
Finally, a legal-specific option that offers end-to-end encryption is also available: Legaler. Legaler, a company based in the U.K., offers a free option that permits multiparty meetings and more robust feature sets that permit the recording of meetings and other features. Legaler’s prices start at $19/month.
So no matter your firm’s needs, there’s sure to be a videoconferencing option that fits the bill. The key is to carefully research both the tool and the provider before committing. Ensure that you fully understand the features, encryption method(s) and pricing scheme. Once you’ve done so you’ll be well on your way to hosting face-to-face video meetings and conferences in true Star Trek style!
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York, attorney, author, journalist and the legal technology evangelist at MyCase, legal practice management software for small firms. She is the nationally recognized author of Cloud Computing for Lawyers and is co-author of Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, both published by the American Bar Association. She also is co-author of Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for ABAJournal.com, Above the Law and the Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. Follow her on Twitter @nikiblack, or she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.