Remote access for your law firm
Today’s attorneys are working around the clock, no matter where they are. For your firm to remain competitive, you have to provide great remote access options. There are several to choose from, but the right answer is not always obvious. It often ends up being a combination of two or more tools.
Since many remote access options are very insecure, one of the biggest things to consider is security. Two-factor authentication can and should be used with any of the technologies mentioned in this article.
VPNs have been around since the late 1990s but have been continuously improved upon and made more secure. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and it has a few different uses; in this case, it is used to connect your computer back to the firm’s network and act as if it is plugged in directly to the office. This is a great solution for remotely accessing files with firm laptops, but not every application runs well over VPN (practice management is a common issue). Although it is possible to use with user’s personal devices, this is not a good security practice due to the level of access VPN provides. Basic VPN technology is included with Windows, but more advanced options are available from other companies (often the firewall provider).
Remote Desktop is another long-standing option. This is a Microsoft Windows technology that presents you with a full desktop environment, as if you were sitting in front of whichever remote computer you’re logged in to. There are two main ways to use remote desktop: either by connecting to your office computer or to a terminal server. If using a terminal server (renamed to remote desktop server in newer versions of Windows Server), you are provided with a separate virtual desktop environment from other users, but you’re given a common set of applications and shared performance.
Remote desktops should always be hidden behind either a VPN or a remote desktop gateway. A remote desktop gateway is a server that acts as a passthrough and allows authenticated users to securely connect to any allowed computer in the network without directly exposing everything to the outside internet.
Citrix is an advanced remote connection software that sits on top of remote desktop. Citrix uses the resources of a terminal server to project an application (or multiple applications) onto a user’s computer. This way, the applications are running securely in the firm’s network, but they behave as if they are running locally on the user’s computer. The big downsides to Citrix are its cost (compared to other solutions mentioned in this article) and level of complexity.
As previously mentioned, a combination of these technologies is often the best approach for a firm; luckily, they’re all reasonably compatible so you are not usually restricted to just one or two options. When evaluating, it is recommended to roll out a pilot program and let a few staff and attorneys test real world usage. You may encounter issues where certain firm applications run too slowly to use over VPN, or possibly that an application cannot be made to work properly in Citrix. Proper planning, including testing and user training, is key to any firm technology changes.