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September 29, 2016
Unless you’ve been living under an ice bank in Antarctica (and perhaps even if you have), you’ve already heard about cloud computing, or “the cloud”. You might have even wondered if the cloud has anything to offer your law firm. In short, yes. In long, there are some things to know to make sure you choose the right cloud service provider, given that the bulk of data that lawyers need to store “in the cloud” is confidential and quite sensitive. Let’s start with a general primer to familiarize you with what cloud computing is, and then we’ll discuss how you can choose a cloud service provider and how to make sure that your relationship with the provider is profitable, ethical, and above all, legal.
The Law Firm’s Guide to Understanding the Cloud
Ask three people what the cloud is, and you’re likely to get five different answers. In reality, the cloud is simply a storage solution for data and applications. Sure, there are more technical answers involving terms like “virtualization” and “hypervisors”, but for all practical purposes, the cloud usually refers to a service provider that offers storage and/or software that is hosted on the provider’s own machines.
The Law Firm’s Guide to Understanding Cloud Service Providers
Which brings us to the primary reason most people turn to the cloud. It’s by far much cheaper and easier than trying to run your own IT department and data center. The very smallest law firms can get by okay with just some computers. But as the firm grows and adds employees (called “users” in the IT world), it will soon be necessary to beef up your IT operations. For example, you’ll need a network and servers to hold your collective body of data. You’ll also need a means to back up all that data, as well as a team of tech geeks to install, manage, maintain, and troubleshoot all that equipment. This is the makings of a data center, which is not just expensive, it’s incredibly consuming of time and resources. Most attorneys prefer less tech geek stuff and more legal work. Legal work pays the bills; IT work simply creates bills.
Enter the cloud service provider. Cloud services allow law firms to transfer and store the firms’ growing body of data at the provider’s data center. They assume the costs of the servers, personnel, power bills (which are substantial in a data center), maintenance, repairs, and even security of the data. Since they lease many such data stores to many different customers like your law firm, they can do it far cheaper than you can for yourself. Plus, they’re IT pros, which you aren’t, meaning they likely do it a lot better, too.
Cloud Storage & SaaS
There is another kind of cloud service besides simple data storage. You can also get software products that are based in the cloud. If your law firm uses Windows 10, Office 365, or a product like Salesforce, you already understand how this works. With cloud-based or SaaS systems, the software and all the related data is kept with the cloud service provider. Your users access it via a user ID and their login credentials. Most cloud software offers mobile accessibility, giving you and your employees the ability to use the software even if you’re out of the office.
Software products that are based in the cloud are often called SaaS, or “Software as a Service”. This is to differentiate it from on-premises software. You probably remember when someone came to your law firm the first time to install a big, new software package, such as a new Windows operating system or maybe a system like law practice management software. The process was lengthy, and likely required a bit of troubleshooting before all the users/employees were able to use it like they were supposed to be able to.
The Benefits of Cloud Service Providers & Cloud-Based Software
SaaS or cloud-based software doesn’t require all that installation. Users simply receive their login privileges, log on, and begin using the software. Generally, these SaaS solutions are quite intuitive and require little training. In cases where training and support is necessary, most cloud vendors provide that, too. Just be sure to find out if training and support is part of your regular service or if additional charges should be expected.
Cloud software or SaaS requires no hefty fee up front, like on-premises software does, and is usually listed on law firm ledgers as an opex or operational expense, instead of the typical capex or capital expense like large, expensive on-premises software. This makes the cloud ideal for startups and smaller law firms, because they don’t have to take out loans or cough up lots of cash up front to get great software that allows them to be competitive with other firms.
Cloud Service Providers & Disaster Preparedness
Another tremendous advantage of cloud storage, as well as cloud-based software systems, is disaster preparedness. You’ll also hear these referred to within the industry as disaster recovery or DR. Most people think that the only thing to disaster recovery is a good data backup plan, but a backup alone isn’t sufficient to keep your law firm afloat in the event of a serious disaster.
Law firms are susceptible to the same kinds of disasters any business would be: a data breach, natural disaster, acts of terror, etc. Any one of these can damage software systems, not just the data. Most can also damage or demolish primary systems, aka, the computers you use to do business.
Law firms who entrust their data and software to a cloud service provider can literally lose all their computers, and even their entire office, and simply walk into new facilities, crank up brand new computers, and resume operations just where they left off. Any files, papers, books, etc. that weren’t in the cloud would be your only potential worries. Everything you had entrusted to the cloud would be there waiting for you. Now that’s disaster preparedness!
Backups are time-consuming and resource intensive. With a cloud service provider, all that is taken care of for you. Plus, you don’t have to worry about your backups being taken out by the same event that damages your primary systems, because it’s all in a completely different location. If a tornado or earthquake hits your facilities, your backups are safely tucked away elsewhere with your cloud service provider.
A Word About Ethics, Legality & the Cloud
Every state bar has its own opinion regarding the use of the cloud. There are no laws against storing legal data or running legal software applications in the cloud. This is a critical issue, and legislative debates are ongoing in Washington D.C. as well as all 50 states. The primary thing to remember is security. Partner only with a cloud service provider that you are convinced is both dedicated to providing good security for their customers’ data and capable of doing so.
But be aware, the cloud service provider is likely not the weakest link in your security armor. You are. It’s far more likely that one of the employees/users at your firm will let an intruder in and lead to data compromise than your cloud service provider will. Take precautions in-house, including the use of up-to-date antivirus software. Also, train your employees on how to spot suspicious websites and emails. Those are the two most common points of ingress for intruders. It’s also a good idea to peek at cyber security blogs or IT news once in awhile to get an idea of what new and horrific things hackers are coming up with, so that you can keep you, your workers, and your law firm protected.
How to Choose a Cloud Service Provider for Your Law Firm
Begin the selection process for a cloud service provider as you would when looking for any other vendor or partner relationship. Make a case for the product(s) you need and conduct a cost-benefit analysis. Then make a list of the features you most need, would like to have, and don’t want or don’t need at all. From there, research various cloud vendors to see which ones meet your criteria. What is their security record? What kind of customer satisfaction rating do they have?
Check sources outside their own website. You don’t post testimonials on your website from the clients who left mad at you, and neither will they. Look for outside sources for reviews, including consumer review sites and magazines and websites like Yelp and others that allow customers to post their own ratings and reviews.
Next, find out about their availability. This tells you how much downtime the cloud service provider experiences. Most reputable cloud services work toward the goal of 99.999% uptime, also called the five 9’s. Each vendor will have their own SLA, or Service Level Agreement. Here is where you’ll find their promises to their customers and what recourse you have if they fail to meet those promises. For instance, if they’re down a whole day one month, do you get a credit for that downtime?
Finally, find out what services and support they offer. If you have questions, can you get help 24/7 or only Monday through Friday between the hours of 9 and 5? Is that help included in your monthly charges, or is it extra? Do they charge by the hour? Is there a minimum charge? Know these answers before contracting with a cloud service provider.
The cloud is convenient, safe, and affordable. Is your law firm ready to take it to the cloud?
What else can a cloud vendor do for your law firm? They can actually serve as the sum total of your IT department. Learn how when you download the whitepaper: Managed IT Services For Small Businesses. It’s your free gift from TOSS C3.
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