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December 2000
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On The Road

A Ticking Laptop Time Bomb?

Editor's note: With apologies, or should we say, admiration, to Jack Kerouac, Law Technology News is pleased to launch On the Road -- a new column on mobile lawyering by LTN Editorial Advisory Board member Ross Kodner.

by Ross Kodner

IT NEVER CEASES to amaze me. I regularly talk to lawyers who tell me how their firms apply effort that borders on religious zeal to the process of backing up the information on their PC networks.

A Ticking Laptop Time Bomb? They proudly describe the Rolls-Royce level quality of their tape backup hardware -- rip-snorting $5,000 high-capacity DLT drives with the Ferrari of data backup software. They describe, in minute detail, all the precautions they take, including using 30, yep, count 'em, 30 backup tapes. They labor to explain the alternating daily backup process they combine with an archival monthly backup session, storing these plasticized data vaults in an off-site fireproof safe deposit box the size of a Toyota. And they're still not finished. Over the second Evian at lunch they outline, step-by-step, how they have a monitored "test restore" process where two people check each other's backup work so that they don't suffer a live-ware failure.

It's impressive. Really very impressive. I tell them that. Then I ask, "So how do you backup your laptop when you're away from the office?"

Silence. Dead, palpable silence as thick and dreadful as an IRS audit file.

A light green pallor washes over their faces as their eyes widen and their pupils dilate. "Um . . . laptop backup? Um . . . er . . ."

Law firm professionals who are fanatics about backing up office servers often roam courthouse hallways with ticking time bombs: laptops with irreplaceable client work product and critical firm administrative information, ready to self-immolate. The gamut of risks to mobile information is nearly endless. Consider some of these unsettling possibilities:

  • Theft: Several years ago the U.S. Small Business Administration estimated that nearly 240,000 laptops were stolen in the U.S. alone each year.

  • Fragility: Laptops may be "ruggedized," but they're hardly unbreakable. If you're not particularly fortunate, all it might take is a 4-inch drop to an unyielding desktop to test one of the most basic laws of physics -- that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

  • Viruses: They're everywhere. New viruses proliferate daily, with the potential to sneak past even the latest and completely updated anti-virus checkers, chewing up bits of client data faster than a gas-powered Weedeater can transform your crabgrass into a green cloud of dust.

  • Children: Your progeny (regardless of age) and your laptop are not compatible. At all. Whether keyboard-aimed mashed carrots from your 10-month-old, or your 16-year-old's "helpful" clean-up of the hard drive to make room for the latest 4 GB death match fragfest game, it's all a very, very bad thing.

  • Windows: Enough said. Sometimes it just dies. Kaput. Finito. And no one, including its creator, always knows why.

So what does the roving lawyer do to protect laptop data? What can the law firm or legal department administrator do? Actually, the range of options is nearly endless. Let's explore some of the options, and then run through some "best practices" that will ensure that no client or firm data is ever at anything that could be described as unmanageable risk.

1. Deciding what needs to be backed up.

It's impossible to address the mechanics of mobile backups without first knowing what to back up. A modern legal professional's laptop is a complex digital soup of legal software applications, highly configured Windows systems, communication setups to connect to the 'Net and to the office's servers, PC fax products, and of course, scads of yet-to-be synchronized billable time entries and scores of documents and other client data.

Back it all up or just some of it? Just the data? Which data? Just the documents? What about all the custom configuration changes and tweaks to every program from WordPerfect to Word to CaseMap to Summation to the mobile copy of TimeMatters? What about all those invaluable Netscape bookmarks and Internet Explorer favorites, culled from countless hours of surfing? What about all the Windows Dial-Up Networking connections for every metropolis with more than 50,000 citizens on four different continents? What about incremental backups -- backing up only the files that changed since the time of the last backup?

The answer is "yes" to all the above except an incremental backup approach. Everything on a laptop needs to be preserved: all the programs with layers of custom configuration, settings and macros as well as all the data. The best way to do this is a full backup of the laptop hard drive. Period. A full backup should be performed at least monthly, more often if there are any new programs added or updates installed. Then a regular process of backing and protecting data files of all types is essential.

Incremental backups should never, ever be done -- not under any circumstances, and no matter who tells you it may be fine. Think about this question for a moment -- why do we backup? Certainly not because it's fun to do. We backup only so we can restore our systems when the chips are down. So if there is anything you might do in your backup process that can in any way affect the ability to restore your data, stop it right now!

Incremental backups have only one attraction, and that attraction is illusory: they save time. It takes less time to perform an incremental backup because all you are protecting are the files that have changed since the last backup session. But there is nothing more exasperating (and often futile) than trying to rebuild an obliterated laptop setup by restoring little bits and pieces of the overall system from 20 or 30 incremental backup sessions. The likelihood of recreating the laptop system setup ranges from not likely to nil.

2. How to backup.

There are a variety of different approaches to laptop backup and a collection of technology tools that can be used. Examining several, we find:

  • CD-R or CD-RW drives. Commonly called "CD burners," these portable drives store laptop hard drive information onto a CD-ROM disk. Drives like the one pound Hewlett-Packard m820e 4x4x20 (meaning 4x speed in CD-R or read-only creation mode, 4x speed in CD-RW or readable/rewritable creation mode and 20x in regular read speed) or the even more svelte Archos MiniCD/RW, both hovering at the $300 price point.

    The upside is that CD-ROM disks are universally readable. The downsides are that not all data backup programs support CD-R or CD-RW drives, only 650 megabytes can be stored which doesn't allow for anything other than a partial backup on a single CD-ROM disk (and spanning across multiple disks is just plain cumbersome), and some laptops have internal DVD-ROM drives that cannot read many CD-RW disks created in readable/writable mode (which means you might not be able to restore from them unless you have a CD-RW drive with you to read the disk). Note that some laptops including models from Compaq in their Presario series and Acer have built-in CD-RW drives.

  • ZIP and Jaz drives. These now-ubiquitous removable cartridge drives from Iomega are available in portable, USB-connected versions storing between 100, 250 and 2 GB per cartridge. They run from $150 to just under $400 (the latter for a Jaz drive with an Iomega SCSI-to-USB adapter). The upside is versatility -- not only can you use these units for backup, but also for auxiliary storage. The downside, especially for the lower-capacity ZIP format is space ---how many 100 MB cartridges would your system require you to manually flip in and out to fully backup a laptop hard drive with 9 GB of accumulated digital stuff?

  • Portable hard drives. A slick option, often weighing less than a pound and powered by the laptop's PC Card slot into which its connector mates with the host PC. Companies like CMS Peripherals even offer a version that automatically creates and maintains a full system backup in real-time. This means it actually protects files as they are changed if the diminutive external drive remains attached. Ranging in capacity from 6.4 GB for under $400 to a whopping 30 GB for under $900, it's an interesting option.

  • Portable tape drives. Tape backup may seem old-fashioned but it has strong appeal. Modern tape backup units like the Onstream ADR drive in its 15 gigabyte per tape (theoretically up to 30 GB with file compression) in its portable USB-connected version.

    Fast, reliable and reasonably portable at about two pounds, this tape drive is by far the best portable backup approach. With massive capacity per individual tape, able to protect all but the very largest, data-brimming laptop hard drives, it's the method of choice. The included Echo backup software is adequate, if not thrilling.

    It is possible, however, to substitute the superb Retrospect Personal from Dantz, a favorite of Mac users for years, now available in a Windows flavor. Also Veritas' capable Backup Exec Personal software is usable as well. The drive is a very reasonable $275 in its USB version, plus the cost of tapes at about $110 for a 3-pack. A big thumbs up for this approach.

  • Web-based backup. There are a number of Web sites offering across-the-'Net backup. These include and There are also virtual hard drives available - free or low-cost storage on Web sites to which you can copy your files. These include XDrive, VVault and

    Not a bad idea as a secondary backup option, a place to store a few key files (such as that CLE presentation the night before you present, two thousand miles away from home). But these @eb services are not an option for full backup. They don't let you store nearly enough data and how will you restore the data if the laptop you connect to the Internet with is barely functional or not yet Internet-enabled? So tentatively recommended for limited "spot" backups.

  • Backup to your office network before leaving the office. If your laptop docks to your office network, back it up to your network hard drive (if you have enough available space). Then presumably the network hard drive will be fully backed up every night to tape. This still means you are at risk when you are creating original material not stored on your network, but it's better than nothing.

  • Floppy disk. Really. Just for a few key files. At 1.44 MB per disk, many mobile lawyers don't even bother to travel with our floppy drives if we have external models. If you are planning on relying on this approach for small-scale "spot backup," remember that it doesn't help if you forget to bring along a supply of blank diskettes!

The bottom line is simple. You cannot use a laptop in your law practice responsibly without providing for some method of protecting your information. So please, go out and start practicing safe mobile computing today. Don't make me say "I told you so."

Ross Kodner is president of Milwaukee-based MicroLaw Inc., and a member of the LTN Edtiorial Advisory Board.

Editor's Note
2000 Law Technology News Reader Response Awards
Year In Review: 2000

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