Moving to the cloud isn’t a new discussion anymore, but many lawyers still have reservations about turning to SaaS (Software as a Service) or Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings to support their businesses and serve their clients. This article looks at the benefits and attendant risks of moving to the cloud.
First, some definitions. A cluster of essentially interchangeable terms are used to describe “cloud” offerings: SaaS (Software as a Service) or Platform as a Service (PaaS), web-based software, web services, hosted software. At its most basic level, a colloquial definition of cloud services involves the software or service, and the data on which it relies, not being installed on the device through which the user accesses the service – instead, the software/data is “hosted” on a remote server (owned and controlled by the service provider) and accessed via the internet using either a browser or an app. The U.S.-based National Institute of Standards and Technology Definition of Cloud Computing stipulates that cloud computing features five characteristics, each of which also speaks to the potential benefits of cloud computing: on-demand, self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity (i.e., program features and resources can be scaled by the customer depending on their needs at a given point in time) and measured service (i.e., usage can be measured, monitored and controlled). The opposite of cloud computing should be apparent: software that is hosted and maintained locally (or “internally”) and which does not require (or, potentially, permit) internet access. If you’ve got Microsoft Word loaded on that dusty old desktop in the back office that no one really uses, that’s not cloud computing. If you’re sitting in a café, using your iPhone to review the edits that someone else made to a document on Google Docs, that’s cloud computing.
Both clients and lawyers generally appear to be moving more decisively into actively using the cloud. The American Bar Association’s TECHREPORT 2019 reports that 58% of U.S. lawyers are using some sort of cloud service in their practice. That increased usage among lawyers likely reflects an increased level of comfort – which itself reflects both the ubiquity of cloud services in consumer contexts (Netflix, anyone?) and the increased number of cloud-based offerings available to the legal industry. The first step in determining whether to move toward a more cloud-based operation is to assess the extent to which you’re already there.
At the highest level of abstraction, moving to the cloud can provide a strategic advantage by comparison with locally-hosted options (and especially paper-based solutions): lower cost, more efficient operations, more client-responsive service delivery, and a generally improved ability to respond to competitive pressures. Your client intake process and invoicing systems offer ready examples. Instead of having the client fill out a Word document (or, worse, a paper one) that then gets emailed and manually reviewed by your assistant, imagine a web-based program, available 24 hours a day, which the client can fill in at their convenience. If that sounds enticing, check out Lexicata. Are you tired of generating, mailing and chasing paper invoices? Cast your eyes no farther than LawPay.
At a more granular level, the following benefits of cloud services can be highlighted:
- predictable operating costs – payment for cloud services is usually in the form of annual or monthly subscription fees, which is preferable to potentially large up-front capital costs for software development, hardware and on-going maintenance and updating costs often entailed with bespoke software solutions
- leverage and levelling – for the price of the subscription fee, a lawyer can access the technology and security expertise of the cloud provider – which is almost always going to be cheaper than trying to develop and maintain that same expertise in-house; think of it this way: cloud services not only give a sole practitioner access to technology the lawyer likely could not procure on their own, but they have access to the same technology that a global behemoth firm can get for the same price
- productive remote access – similar to how TV streaming services allow you to watch what you want from where you want, cloud services mean you have fully effectual access to firm resources from anywhere with an internet connection, enabling enhanced responsiveness to clients – a properly optimized suite of cloud services mean that not only can you respond to your client’s email while you’re on the train home, you could attach the relevant document from your document management system, and seamlessly track the time spent for docketing purposes
- flexible access to data and metrics – if a client calls you and requests an update on time and costs incurred to date, can you answer the question with just a few clicks on your tablet while you’re on the phone with them… or does getting an answer require multiple internal emails and phone calls? Cloud services can facilitate the former
- enhanced collaboration – you are not the only person who can access the cloud service, meaning that your clients and even opposing counsel can co-actively be accessing and working on the same documents, tracking changes and resolving issues in real time
- improved disaster recovery and business continuity – when calamity strikes and your office operations are compromised, having access to cloud services means an enhanced ability to continue regular operations during, and despite, any misfortune
A move to the cloud also comes with inevitable risks:
- loss of control – an irreducible element of the cloud is that users are outsourcing the location and provision of their digital assets and operations to a third party provider, a factor which undergirds the remaining risks
- exposure means exposure – by relying on a third party provider, their risks become risks to your data and you, which could include hackers, supply chain issues, market demand fluctuations, and even simple operational failures on their part; the accessibility of APIs means that they attract attention from a wider variety of bad actors
- lock-in – the flipside of the advantage of shedding development and hosting costs is that you become tied to a particular cloud vendor – how portable is your data if you want to switch providers?
- regulatory risks – determining whether the use of a cloud provider is consistent with your obligations to your clients and your law society can be tricky; some providers have worked with select Canadian law societies to ensure compliance, but diligence in this regard is important, particularly as answering the question of where your data is being stored is required in order to make assessments regarding exposure to government subpoena and other threats to confidentiality
Any risks associated with moving to the cloud should not be understated, but neither should they be exaggerated – nor should they be assessed in isolation from the potential benefits. As the market for lawyer-focused cloud services matures, some of the risks appear to be diminishing as providers scramble to meet the needs and tolerances of law firms. Lawyers and clients alike can benefit from a lawyer’s use of cloud-base