Thoughts on construction law from Christopher G. Hill, Virginia construction lawyer, LEED AP, mediator, and member of the Virginia Legal Elite in Construction Law

Cloud Computing for Small and Mid-sized Law Firms

Kriss Wilson, Superior Document ServicesFor this week’s Guest Post Friday here at Musings, we welcome a long time friend, Kriss Wilson. Kriss is a co-founder and serves as President of both Superior Document Services and Compiled Services. He has extensive experience, assisting clients in the management of their E-Discovery process through all facets of the EDRM model.. Because of his experience, Kriss thoroughly understands the complex and time sensitive issues that lawyers, corporations, governments and their Information Technology departments face when handling electronic discovery, regulatory investigations, and governmental requests. He currently serves on the board of ARMA, and VCU’s Industrial Advisory Board.

More and more law firms are seeing the advantages of cloud computing over traditional law firm practice management infrastructure. The advantages of cloud computing include reduced costs, easy maintenance, re-provisioning of resources, with an end result of increased profits and productivity. In its simplest definition Cloud computing enables users to store files and software remotely, rather than on a hard drive or server at their office.

Cloud computing means that staff can access the files and data that they need even when they’re working remotely and/or outside office hours As long as an attorney, paralegal or even a client can get on the Internet, work product can be accessed from home, on the road, from clients’ offices or even from a smart phone such as a BlackBerry or iPhone. Staff can also work collaboratively on files and documents, even when they’re not physically together. Documents can simultaneously be viewed and edited from multiple locations.

The greatest economic advantage of this technology is that there is the reduced cost of hardware and software. Data centers allow for cost sharing arrangements across a subscription-based operating model. Light users of software are able to select the pay-per-use plans and those heavy users select the flat-rate price plans. Less hardware can mean less IT staff and without a doubt means less physical hardware to maintain. Cloud computing uses less physical resources. With an outsourced cloud, you don’t need to keep server, storage, network, and virtualization experts on staff full time. You get economy of scale of those expert resources through your cloud provider.

Law firms are increasingly using client portals where clients can directly pay their bills online, schedule their appointments and discuss issues with their attorneys. Lawyers can provide updates on the status of the cases, provide legal information and news and share documents as well as archive information. Another worthy consideration for utilization of cloud computing is the prevention of data loss or drive failure that might occur in their own law offices.

The fact is many attorneys may have beenusing cloud computing without realizing it., Everyday examples include web-based email like Gmail and Hotmail, communication tools like Skype, video sites like YouTube and Vimeo and music-sharing sites such as SoundCloud. One can define cloud computing as a pay-per-use model for enabling on-demand access to reliable and configurable resources that can be quickly provisioned and released – with minimal consumer involvement in terms of management. You pay only for the resources you use. You need not set up the infrastructure or buy the software. Lawyers who use cloud computing share computer resources offsite. The data is accessed via the Internet using a web browser. For lawyers who are constantly on the go, whether it is in the office, at court, traveling or in meetings, cloud computing allows them to have access to their information via their desktops, laptops, and their mobile devices.

There are three service models for cloud computing: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), (examples are Amazon, Rackspace and EC2), Platform as a service (PaaS) which involves the delivery of operating and other associated services over the Internet. One example is Salesforce.com and Software as a Service (Saas)which is a software distribution model where the applications are hosted by a vendor or service provider. An example is gmail.com.

Cloud computing is not completely new to attorneys since lawyers have already used online legal research applications such as Westlaw, LexisNexis and CaseFinder, as well as web-based email (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail). Some of the new law practice management systems including: Advologix PM (www.advologix.com), Clio (www.goclio.com), DirectLaw (www.directlaw.com), Firm Manager (www.myfirmmanager.com), LawRd, (www.lawrd.com), Dialawg, (www.dialawg.com). Some available document management systems include: DropBox, (www.dropbox.com), Box.net,(www.box.net), NetDocuments (www.netdocuments.com) and Worldox (www.worldox.com). There are data backup services including: Mozy, i365, Steel Mountain, Carbonite (www.carbonite.com). There are secure document and information exchange services and digital dictation services. There are billing/time keeping services such as Bill4Time and Chrometa.

Of course I would be remiss to not address some of the major concerns to lawyers in deciding whether or not to use cloud computing include the security of their data including privacy and ethical issues. Lawyers have an ethical obligation to act competently to safeguard the information and take reasonable precautions to prevent their clients’ information for coming into the hands of unintended recipients. However I am of the opinion that Cloud based security is no different than hardware based security – proper security precautions eliminate most risks. Risks adherent to cloud computing are no different than risks faced by everyday computer activity. There could be Internet facilitated breaches due to malware and hackers. Lawyers must exercise due diligence to investigate the vendor’s security measures. Some other issues to consider include the instability of programs that are relatively new such as Google docs. Some questions to ask include: Will there be any interruptions in service and what are the consequences? What happens when the systems are upgraded? What happens when data is lost or becomes temporally inaccessible? A glitch can allow unauthorized access to the documents. What happens if the law firm wants to terminate its agreement? Will the documents be purged or just deleted?

While there are a number of issues for companies to bear in mind, and cloud computing may not be ideal for every small to midsized law firm, it can be an extremely cost-effective and beneficial way for firms to store data and access software – so it’s well worth considering and researching in more depth. Because of the scalability of cloud computing, it’s easy for firms to start small and try certain applications out to see how it works for them and their business before gradually expanding their use.

As always, Kriss and I welcome your comments below. Please subscribe to keep up with this and other Guest Post Fridays at Construction Law Musings.

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