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Cloud Computing Benefits & Challenges For The Legal Profession

Attorneys tend to be conservative towards adopting new technology. That is understandable because they want to ensure that a change in practice won’t undermine their ethical responsibilities. Law firms often take a wait-and-see attitude to let a technology mature before adopting it themselves. Cloud computing has had plenty of time to develop and law firms should seriously consider moving at least parts of their practices to the cloud, but only after understanding what that means.

What Is Cloud Computing?

You may have researched cloud computing yourself and found confusing explanations about Software-as-a-Service or OPEX models. Just as you don’t need to understand the physics behind internal combustion to drive a car, you don’t need the technical details of virtualized infrastructures to use cloud computing. Put simply, when you use cloud computing you are running programs and storing data, but rather than using your computer’s hard drive you use the internet. The software itself, as well as your files, are stored online and your computer is merely a gateway to the application.

You may use cloud computing without realizing it. A huge number of cloud-based technologies have arisen in recent years. Businesses routinely use Google Docs to collaborate on documents, Dropbox to share files and Carbonite to backup data. Those are all cloud technologies. The term is new but cloud-type applications go back as far as the 1950s.

This technology can be considered mature, but the question remains: should you adopt cloud technology for your law office? For example, should you consider using cloud-based legal billing and trust accounting software, or stick with your dependable desktop-based tools? To answer that you need to consider the benefits and challenges of the medium.

Benefits Of Cloud Technology

It’s fairly easy to find lists of cloud technology benefits, especially if you look at cloud vendor sites. Let’s boil down those benefits and look at them specifically through the lens of the legal profession. What can cloud software do for you as an attorney?

  • Mobility – You are no longer chained to a specific computer. You can access information from anywhere you have an internet connection. This can give you a tremendous advantage in court or in a mediation session if you have access to all of your files while the opposing attorney does not.
  • Device Independence – Most cloud software is operating system independent. It doesn’t matter if you use Mac OS or Windows. Many cloud applications can even be accessed by tablets and smartphones. No more lugging that heavy laptop around!
  • Focus – Cloud software is managed by the developer, not by your practice. You no longer have to spend time on software installation and maintenances headaches. Instead, you can spend your time being a lawyer.
  • Cost Savings – The initial outlay for a piece of software can be prohibitive, especially for a small or solo practice. Cloud software costs a small monthly fee rather than a large purchase cost. In addition, you don’t need to hire dedicated IT staff or bring in outside consultants to set your software up.
  • Scalability – It can be hard to grow your practice as fast as you grow your client lists. It’s one thing to bring on attorneys and support staff, but the cost of upgrading equipment not to mention the time it takes to set things up is prohibitive. Adding new users to cloud computing is as simple as adding a new account, so the capabilities automatically grow as fast as you do.
  • Disaster Recovery – A small fire in your office could destroy your client files, even if they are on a computer. Offsite backups are slow and costly, easy to overlook, and still may not protect you against large-scale disasters. Some attorneys affected by Katrina or Sandy found they lost not only their original computers but their offsite backups on the other side of the city as well. Automatic backups and geographically remote storage mean your cloud files are automatically protected even in the largest catastrophes.
  • Sustainability – You may not think a lawyer’s office has much of a carbon footprint, but all of us need to do what we can to preserve the environment. In a study for, environmental consulting company WSP found that’s cloud computing infrastructure emitted only 5% of the carbon as onsite hardware would have.

Challenges Of Cloud Computing

Although the benefits are widespread, you need to be aware of the potential drawbacks of moving to the cloud. Only by carefully examining the liabilities and weighing them against the advantages can you decide if the cloud is right for you.

  • Ethics – Attorneys should always consider whether new technology threatens their ethical responsibilities. Many law firms have waited for their state bar associations to venture opinions before adopting the new technology. The American Bar Association has collected cloud ethics opinions of the individual states that have issued formal statements. To date, all state bar associations that have ventured an opinion have supported cloud computing in principle as long as attorneys use Reasonable Care standards.
  • Lack Of Control – Can you trust your sensitive data to a third party? Odds are you have already, whether it’s a bookkeeper who balances your ledgers or a copy center that duplicates your case notes. As with any provider, you should do your research into your cloud computing provider. Ensure they have a professional record that is worthy of your trust.
  • Data Breach – Although it may seem that putting your data on the internet is unsafe, enterprise application developer SAP SE points out that “most cloud services…employ protection and security far exceeding that of most Fortune 500 companies and government agencies”. Having said that, you should still ask what protections are in place against a breach, and what actions will be taken should a breach occur.
  • Account Hijacking – A thief doesn’t have to break in if he has a key. A disgruntled former employee could wreak havoc if his account is not immediately disabled. A clever hacker could “social engineer” a password by calling your office and claiming to be tech support for your cloud provider. Automatic login might be convenient — until your computer becomes one of the 800,000 stolen laptops a year and gives a random criminal access to your records.
  • Lack Of Access – Internet access is convenient…until you don’t have internet. If you practice in areas that don’t have reliable internet access, you might be better off with a desktop application. In addition, a Denial Of Service attack could bring down your cloud provider’s servers, and leave you with no access until they come back up.
  • Escalating Costs – Desktop software is a flat cost; cloud software costs you every month. In the short term cloud is cheaper but over time will it cost you more? What happens as your office expands? Your costs could rise precipitously as you add more users, so look over your fee agreement carefully.

Five Steps To The Cloud

Let’s assume you’ve decided that you want to move one or more aspects of your law practice to the cloud. It’s not like flipping a switch. You need to have a plan so you can minimize the disruption to your workflow and ensure you can continue to serve your clients.

Step 1: Create A Vision. Why are you going into the cloud? Hint – “Because everyone else is” is not a good answer. Understand how cloud computing will help your law firm and allow you personally to practice more effectively.

Step 2: Evaluate Challenges. Look at the challenges above and determine which ones will apply to your practice. Think about what other obstacles you will face, not the least of which being stubborn senior attorneys who don’t want to change their ways. Make a list of all the problems you foresee.

Step 3: Find Solutions. Fix the problems before they become issues. By finding and implementing solutions ahead of time, you will sail past the obstacles without slowing down. For example, implement a policy to immediately close a user’s account when someone leaves the firm to prevent unauthorized access.

Step 4: Take The Plunge. Sign up for your new cloud software and start using it. Expect a few unforeseen problems. Understand there will be a temporary slowdown as everyone gets used to the new system, but know that in the long run, you will run a leaner legal practice.

Step 5: Evaluate Your Progress. After a month or so, take a look at your practice and see how well you are doing. It’s great to have a plan, but don’t be so married to it that you ignore other problems. Know when to step back and try again, or even give up on a particular application that just doesn’t work for you. Evaluate again around three and six months, and then yearly thereafter.

Most attorneys will find that cloud-based legal practice management, document sharing, video conferencing and other applications will be a great boon to their practices. However just as you didn’t get your law degree in a day, don’t expect the conversion to the cloud to be instantaneous. Evaluate the technology, consider your needs, and create a plan. You will soon reap the benefits of this new technology.