The way we interact with and use computers changes constantly - technology growth is exponential in today’s world. Yet certain industries are hesitant to adopt new technology en masse, unconvinced of its ability to work well within the structured framework of their daily activities. This usually stems from a lack of knowledge of exactly what the technology is and how it would be beneficial, and concern for potential security risks in moving away from current systems. One of these disconnects is cloud computing and the practice of law.
When the idea of cloud computing was first introduced it seemed like either a mystery or a gimmick. It’s easy to make fun of the idea of the “cloud” and, in retrospect, maybe it isn’t the best name for the way we accomplish computing now. Still, the name has stuck, and it’s probably not going to change.
So, what is the cloud?
PC Magazine’s Encyclopedia has a useful definition:
A communications network. The word “cloud” often refers to the Internet, and more precisely to some datacenter full of servers that is connected to the Internet. However, the term “cloud computing” refers to the software and services that have enabled the Internet cloud to become so prominent in everyday life.
Thus the cloud simply means the infrastructure that allows us to perform so many activities via the Internet. A perfect example is webmail - Gmail, Yahoo!, etc. All of these are cloud services. I cannot think of a single person I know who does not rely on webmail for essential communications. Indeed, if webmail were cut off, we would have to make a serious adjustment to our lives and businesses. Another key part of the cloud is storage - Dropbox and Google Drive, for example. Before these tools were available, opening a file on another computer meant emailing it to yourself or copying it to a thumb drive. Now, the same file is already available on the other computer as soon as it’s connected to the cloud storage service.
To understand the benefit of the cloud, consider how difficult it would be to move email and storage off of the cloud but still retain the benefits of the cloud. For both tasks, you would need a dedicated computer - a server - connected to the internet at all times that maintained an email database and a file system. You would be responsible for maintenance, security, and backups. These tasks would be time-consuming and difficult, and few of us have the expertise to handle them properly.
Compare that with the cloud as we know it today: we do not have to buy or maintain extra computers to handle our email accounts or file collaboration. Instead, we entrust these tasks to companies whose business model depends on doing them properly. And our cloud services work really well. They almost never go down and they are very secure.
The same considerations apply to practicing law in the cloud. In reality, most lawyers already do a substantial amount of work in the cloud via legal research tools. Westlaw’s and Lexis’s legal research tools are quintessential cloud services. The whole point of these tools is that you do not have to have a database of every judicial opinion on your own computer or server and a powerful search engine to search it. Instead, lawyers essentially rent access to Lexis and Westlaw’s databases on a monthly or annual basis and thus outsource the cost of maintaining the database and its search technology. Lawyers have already widely accepted and adopted basic forms of cloud computing like webmail, research tools, and document storage. Yet, however comfortable they are with these forms of cloud computing in their practice, many lawyers still hesitate to utilize other cloud-based services that could transform their practice.
Some of that stems from a lack of knowledge of what is available. There are many different types of cloud-based software available and each is uniquely useful as a component law office technology (we explore some options our post on Essential Law Office Technology).1 Legal Research, Webmail, and Document Storage & Collaboration services are the most commonly used cloud based services - Westlaw, DropBox, Google Mail, Google Drive - these are all cloud based software systems that ease the research and collaboration process within your firm, with your clients, and in dealing with vendors and opposed parties. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software allows for tracking your clients from first contact as a prospect through becoming a client. SalesForce, one of the most popular CRM programs, was one of the pioneers of cloud computing and Software as a Service (Saas) - now there are many options, either standalone like SalesForce or Pipedrive, or as part of a package, like with CaseFleet. Video Conferencing and Voice-Over-IP (VOIP) Phone Service through cloud-based services allow for meetings and depositions to take place over video conference rather than in person, saving time and money. Products like Quickbooks and LawPay allow for cloud-based accounting and payment processing for your firm, reducing cost and making the business side of the practice that much easier. There are also more and more Discovery tools available online, as well as a plethora of tools designed specifically for Law Office Practice Management. There are many different options for streamlining your practice by moving aspects of it to the cloud, yet many lawyers seem apprehensive to do so. What’s stopping them?
The biggest hurdle facing professionals interested in moving more aspects of their practice to the cloud seems to be security concerns. Here, the name “cloud” does a great disservice by implying that it only loosely contains whatever is stored in it. Clouds are transparent and immaterial. Security infrastructure should be impenetrable and sturdy. In fact, the connotations of the cloud with regard to security are way off the mark. Properly configured and managed cloud infrastructure is usually far superior to private server-based solutions.2 The only advantage of a private server in this respect is that it is a smaller target than a cloud service with a large collection of data. But even if cloud services are a bigger target, using them is like living behind the walls of a fortified city in comparison with living in a tent on the frontier. So, unless you have a dedicated team maintaining and patching your server, you are likely to be more secure on cloud infrastructure. Combined with the convenience, power, and availability of cloud-based tools, the choice should be an easy one. In most cases, cloud-based platforms represent the most secure law office software available.
It’s hard to overstate the benefits of a practice in the cloud. First, your data is available whenever and wherever you need it - as long as you have an internet connection and web browser, you can log in and access your key firm data. Second, you don’t need to patch and maintain downloaded software or a private database - all of that is handled for you by professionals whose careers depend your the security and availability of your data. Third, your tools can (and should) be upgraded almost continuously as developers release new features and improvements. Fourth, collaboration with team members is facilitated by the Internet - no need to email documents back and forth or share handwritten notes because comments and changes are tracked for you in one location.
Practicing in the cloud is where the industry is headed. Adopting the technology now and being ahead of the curve gives firms an advantage and helps them better serve their clients. Better security, lower overhead, stronger collaboration - the cloud offers it all.
1 For more detailed information on the technology available for lawyers and how to best utilize them for your practice, see our post “The Essentials of Legal Technology”
2 Quite a bit has been written on the increased security of cloud-based vendors over maintaining your own server. David Linthicum's piece goes into it in detail: http://searchcloudcomputing.techtarget.com/opinion/Clouds-are-more-secure-than-traditional-IT-systems-and-heres-why, as does Gilad Parann-Nissany’s: http://www.porticor.com/2013/11/public-cloud-security/ and David Gewirtz’s: http://www.zdnet.com/article/security-implications-of-public-vs-private-clouds/