Backup strategies for solo or small firm lawyers

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It’s a new year and it is time to make good on that resolution to strengthen your law firm’s backup strategy (or to get one started)!

How to get your back-up plan in order, in case of a hard drive failure, theft or fire, is one of the most important things a solo attorney and small law firm can do — especially once you go paperless. Then it is all just bits. And you do not want them to go away. Fortunately, it is much easier to copy bits than it is paper documents, allowing you to have multiple up to date and versioned copies in multiple locations.

Goals of a successful backup strategy:

  • Automatic. You already know that if something is a hassle, it is not going to get done. You want something that works in the background whether you remember to use it or not.
  • Multiple locations. One of the worst backup strategies is to have your backup sitting next to your computer. You want to make sure you have offsite back-up. And having a backup in a completely different regions is even better.
  • Multiple copies. One backup is good, but several are better. You never know when a perfect storm will hit and take out your one backup.or
  • Multiple services. If something happens with your backup provider, even a temporary problem with connectivity, you could be left out in the cold. It is a good idea to put your eggs in several different baskets just in case.

Great, you say. You could read pabulum like this on any number of law blogs. So let me give you a quick and dirty guide to backing up. Some of this is Mac specific, but I am including PC alternatives for the Morlocks among you ;)

Automatic local backup

You want at least one layer that continuously runs in the background and just takes care of things for you. One of the easiest backup solutions is to use Time Machine (on the Mac) or Windows Home Server (on PC).

On the Apple side, Time Machine is built in service which automatically backs up your data to an external hard drive. Not only is the data backed up, you also have versioning. So, if you need to go back to a prior version of document (say… from last week, before the temp trashed your files), you can get those old versions back!


The system automatically backs up your files whenever a drive your designate as your Time Machine is plugged in. You can use any external drive for this. However, you still need to remember to plug the drive in.

An easier way is to plug a drive (or a Drobo) into an Airport Extreme wi-fi hub. Or just pick up a Time Capsule (which is a wi-fi hub with a built in hard drive). Whenever your computer is on the same wi-fi network as the Time Machine drive, your system will back up automatically.

There is a caveat though. Would I trust a Time Machine as my only layer of backup? Absolutely not! While I have not had problems lately, I have personally experienced instances of the back up not working or becoming corrupted. Why do I still use it? Because it is automatic, local and a layer of my backup strategy. There is no reason to avoid it when it may be the fastest and easiest way to get to my data.

On the PC side, a Windows Home Server appliance does the same thing, automatically keeping your data backed up.

NewImageWhile you can build your own box and install Windows Home Server on it. It is a lot easier to buy a Windows Home Server appliance. There are a number of different models.

Of course there are some differences between the Mac and PC options. However, the main thing is that they automatically back up your data.

Full disk image

The automatic back up section above dealt with protecting your data: your documents, PDF records, etc. However, if your system dies or is stolen, your data is only part of what you need to get back. There is also all applications and settings, not to mention the operating system that need to be re-installed.

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It is so much easier to have a full system image of your main computer. A system image is a snapshot of all the data on your computer at a particular point in time. If you make an image on Saturday, and your system crashes on Wednesday, you can restore your computer exactly as it was as of the Saturday image.

What about all the data from Sunday through Wednesday? That’s the next layer of the backup. The benefit of a a full disk image gets you back up and running with a clone of your system as quickly as possible.

On the Mac side, I recommend SuperDuper! (yes the exclamation point is in the name). There is a free version, but pay the $28 to get the version which lets you set unattended backups.


If you want a totally free solutions (ya cheap skate!) take a look at Carbon Copy Cloner.


On the PC side, Windows 7 comes with a Backup and Restore utility. You can watch a video at the link or read Paul Thurrott’s walk through on how to get an image running on the SuperSite for Windows.

Sync to back up machines

One of the easiest and more underused back up strategies is to just have a back up machine. You don’t have to have two top of the line machines. Even an older system (from a few upgrades back) can often be used in a pinch. Remember: it’s better to have a slow machine with all your data on it, than no machine at all!

There are a number of services which synchronize your data among different computers: Dropbox, SugarSync, SpiderOak. Of course, these services also keep a copy on the web (which can be another layer in your backup strategy). If you are concerned about trusting a third party service, just add SecretSync Boxcryptor.

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Personally, I have two laptops. They are not identical images. I simply keep the data (files, records, etc) automatically synchronized between them. All the data is synchronized as of the last save.

If one machine died or was stolen, I can simply pick up the next machine and keep working. All the data is automatically kept current. So, moving to a different computer is a simple as picking up a second phone line in your house and continuing a conversation. Everything is there and current.

Actually, I also synchronize the data to two other machines which are always in separate locations. These are cheapy boxes and all they do is just keep a synced copy of my information. Why do I do this? Because nothing beats a local copy if you have to restore data. If you keep a copy in the cloud (the next layer of your backup strategy), it may take you days or weeks to pull down all those files. Ask yourself, how long would it take to download 20gb or 50gb?

I have had hard drive failures. When it happens, I switch to a back up machine and order a replacement drive. When it arrives, I restore from the image backup. This puts the system, apps, setting and old version of files onto the new drive. This takes a couple of hours. Then I enable the synchronization with the online service. Since the service has newer versions of the files than the ones on the image. Any changes since the image get automatically updated on my machine, and I have a completely up to date version of all the files. This takes care of the problem of having a full image of my hard drive on Saturday and the drive dying on Wednesday.

If you can afford to have a second machine, a sync service is still an important layer of your back up strategy. While you will not be able to pick up a back up machine and keep working, you can still hit a local Best Buy, Costco, or Sams to pick up a drive or overnight a replacement drive from Newegg or Amazon. Replace the bad drive, restore from your image, and again let the sync service bring your files up to date as of the last save.

Yes, it is that crazy amazing, and you should be doing this!

Cloud backup

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Despite already having the data in the cloud through a sync service, I recommend also using  separate cloud provider for redundancy. I am talking about something like Crashplan or Carbonite. Both services have Mac & PC versions. I can choose from having everything on my system backed up to just certain files and directories. I use Crashplan which also offers free backup in their software to another computer (which is a nifty feature).

You may think, “Ugh! Another cost!” But, this really is a very cheap!  I bought 4 years of backup upfront for $139. That’s $2.91 a month. Sally Struthers will admit that less than the price of a cup of coffee!

You may wonder why I don’t mentions Amazon’s S3 with something like JungleDisk. I previously used S3 with JungleDisk as the front end and it was just too expensive.

Backup Review

Automatic local backup at your home or office: TimeMachine or Windows Home Server.

Full disk image (in case of hard drive failure): SuperDuper! / Carbon Copy Cloner (Mac) or Windows 7 Back up and Restore (PC)

Sync Service (to get you up to date as of the last saved version): Dropbox (with SecretSync), SugarSync, SpiderOak.

Cloud based backup: Crashplan.

There you go: four layers of backup and all automatic. Well, imaging may require you to plug in a usb cable if you use a laptop, but even here you can set it up to be automatic over your network if you are technically savvy enough.

Does this make you bulletproof? Of course not. But, how many copies of paper files did you keep? Did you keep any offsite copies? How about in geographically diverse areas? Probably none! You just locked the single copy of a file in a filing cabinet or file room.

Are these the only solutions? No! There are lots of different way a small firm (and a solo attorney) can protect him/herself. It isn’t that hard. Just get to it and get your data backed up!

What are you using? What do you like, what do you hate. Leave a comment describing your back up strategy.

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    Expertise and experience in the field will guarantee a successful resolution for your case. When selecting a lawyer, you should also consider whether he/she has a good past track record.

  • Max at

    Great info on backing up and excellent tip on using a separate cloud provider for redundancy.  Definitely a life saver for small firm lawyers.

    I am actually a student working on a project at Ridacto, which uses artificial intelligence to help attorneys draft bulletproof contracts. We’re also working on some collaboration technology to move contract revision to the cloud which would also act as a form of backup.  Thanks once again for the insights.