A common problem for law firms (and for businesses in general) that is getting increasingly more attention these days is how to share files and documents between people – such as between a lawyer and a client, or between members of a team that are not physically in the same office. (Such sharing is often described as collaboration.)

The classic approach to this – and the one most people probably think of first – is to simply email the files to whomever needs them, have them edit the files, and then email them back. This method is relatively easy and popular because most people already know how to use email.

Sharing FilesHowever, increasing privacy and data protection laws, as well as the increased risk of identity fraud (a.k.a. “identity theft”) have made many people re-think the classic approach of emailing files around.

This is because there are lots of downsides to using email to share files:

  • Sending a large number of files is cumbersome
  • Different email providers all have different limits on the maximum size of attached files
  • Email has no “security” built in – because emails are sent “in the clear” they can potentially be intercepted and read, or even modified
  • Sharing files with multiple people for collaboration (shared editing) is basically impossible
  • Some people are trained to avoid opening attachments because of past experiences with viruses
  • Some email programs (notably Microsoft Outlook) just flat-out block certain types of attached files

Part of the problem is that sending files via email is simply not what email was originally meant for. Email was originally “text only” – the ability to “attach” files to email was not originally part of the email specification. In fact, attachments were sort of “grafted” on much later – circa 1996, in fact.

Fortunately, there are better options for sharing files instead of email – and they are just as easy to use. You just need to know about them.

There are several “file sharing” websites and services available these days – precisely because of the need to share files without sending them through email. We’ve picked out two that are a good match for law firms and other small businesses: Box.net and drop.io. [UPDATE: Unfortunately, drop.io has discontinued its service after being bought out. An alternative service is Dropbox.]

(Full disclosure: we are not affiliated with these companies in any way – we have picked these two based on the merits of the services they provide.)

box.netBoth of these websites offer the same basic service: upload your file (or files) to their server (protected with a password if you wish) and then get a link you can give to other people so that they can get the file. Basically, both of these websites are acting like digital “drop boxes.”

Both websites offer a “free” service that is limited in the number of files you can save, and both offer a paid service that gives you a lot of space to store files (useful if you’re sending big files – like videos or audio transcriptions – back & forth).  drop.io

Both of these services allow you to organize the files you upload, control what access people have to them (for example, you might want to give someone only the permission to download the file, but not to re-upload it back), and set “expiration dates” for the “drops” that you create. All of these options give you incredible control over how you end up sharing files and documents with your clients and with other firms.

These services are managed via the web, so you can upload files from wherever you are. And because they are both web-based, you don’t have to worry about whether the person with whom you are trying to share files has a PC, a Mac, or whatever. If they can get on to the Internet, they can get the files.

The best parts of these services, though, are that they provide you with a simple, secure, safe, and controlled way to share documents, forms, and other files with your clients or other law firms – without exposing yourself to the potential problems that come with sending things via email. And you can do all this very easily from a web site, without needing to have an IT person come in and set it up for you – which is a real bonus in these tough economic times.

If you send documents back & forth frequently via email – especially confidential or sensitive documents – you really should check out one of these type of services. They may just end up saving you from a lot of trouble later on down the road.

Icon courtesy of the Crystal Icon Set. Box.net and drop.io logos are trademarks of their respective companies.