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Lawyers and The Cloud: 5 Things to Consider

(Part I in a continuing series on adoption of cloud-based services by law firms.)

You hear about it everywhere. All of your tech-savvy friends talk about it with giddy excitement. Your office manager is constantly urging you to employ it in your practice. Your younger associates split time between telling you how great it would be and grumbling about the fact that you don’t have it.

Yes, I’m talking about “The Cloud.” A few years ago, you may have initially thought I was talking about a comic book villain. Not anymore. We all know what “The Cloud” is, or at least we know it’s related to computers… And the Internet…

Okay, we AT LEAST know that it is used in business, and that over 30% of attorneys reported using some type of cloud-based service in a recent ABA survey. Any responsible business owner should always be open to adopting new systems or practices that can increase profitability and long-term stability. So you’ve decided to investigate what The Cloud can do for your firm. However, here are 5 Things to Consider before you move your practice to The Cloud:

1) Has your state bar issued an ethics opinion on the use of cloud-based computing services?

Quite a few attorneys have skipped right past the step of making sure that any practice management software complies with their state’s ethics rules. After all, a cloud-based document storage system for my practice is no different than using Microsoft Word, right?

Wrong. Use of cloud-based systems for any part of your law practice puts client information under the control of a third-party. Even though some would suggest that allowing a third-party to store data online is exactly the same as a document storage facility storing closed files, make sure you know the rules. While most states have not created specific provisions for cloud-based systems, here is a sampling of a few that do exist:

  • Knowledge of how cloud-based provider handles storage/security of data (Alabama)
  • Ensure unfettered access to the data when needed (Iowa, New Hampshire)
  • Re-negotiate form contracts to ensure compliance with all ethical requirements (North Carolina)

The ABA has a helpful (although I do not believe it is entirely up-to-date) list of states that have adopted ethics rules specific to cloud-based services.

2) What benefits are you seeking from your cloud-based system?

Asked another way: “What problem are you trying to solve?” Are you looking solely to reduce costs? Would you like 24/7 access to all of your case files and documents? Is mobility a crucial feature, or just a perk? Do you want all of your data on the cloud, or is it really only essential as emergency backup?

There are thousands of cloud-based services on the market. Cloud-based services include practice and case management, document management/storage, time and billing, accounting, eDiscovery, and more. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you are almost destined to get lost, which likely leads to one of two outcomes: 1) you select the one that seems easiest without obtaining complete information or investigate other options, or 2) frustrated by the experience, you throw your hands up and refuse to consider any options.

3) Regarding the problems you’re seeking to solve, what is your current situation?

To many attorneys, this step might seem a little pointless. “I know my system, especially since I’ve shown I know enough about it that I want to change it!” Well, you probably don’t. Before investigating your options for a cloud-based solution to the problems you have identified, you need to have a complete grasp of what your office currently uses to deal with that same issue.

Why, you ask? Because any cloud-based service providers are going to need to know in order to properly guide you in your selection of the best service. Before going out and researching the individual services, make sure to know as much as you can about how you handle that information currently, such as:

  • Do you currently require passwords for access to data, and if so, how strong are they?
  • Do you encrypt your data? All of it? Some of it?
  • What software do you currently use? Is it a one-time purchased license or a subscription service?
  • Do you utilize third-party IT support? What kind of cloud-based services do they include within their service contract?
  • What tools do you currently have available (laptops, tablets, servers) that you would like to make sure your cloud-based service takes full advantage of?

By making sure that you have the most current information regarding your existing systems, you dramatically reduce any potential problems that may arise out of confusion between you and your vendors.

4) Is your law firm’s Internet connection and network sufficient for your planned use of cloud-based systems?

Most of us no longer worry about whether we have enough bandwidth and coverage to handle our needs. In the age of high-speed internet, the primary concern is usually with your internet provider, rather than with the package you’ve signed up for. However, by opting for any type of cloud-based system, you will need a strong, consistent internet connection that allows you to upload and download a considerable amount of data. You will also need to be able to access that internet connection effectively from your office.

Are you looking past 24/7 and remote access to a more “paperless” system that you can access with your tablet? Well, then you’re going to need to make sure you have adequate WiFi coverage anywhere in your office. (Trust me, you don’t want to know what your mobile internet bill would be after a month of constantly uploading and downloading your case files from the cloud. USE WIFI WHEREVER YOU CAN!) Additionally, wireless networks are inevitably less secure than a physical ethernet connection. Have you determined how secure your WiFi network is?

Exactly what your bandwidth and coverage needs will be depends entirely on your firm and how extensively you rely on cloud-based services. (I will address the issues of how to get the best bandwidth and coverage, respectively, in future posts.)

5) Do your clients approve?

This one is not necessarily a requirement (whether you have to inform your clients about cloud-based services varies – some do not require disclosure, some require disclosure of the most sensitive information, some highly encourage disclosure, but do not absolutely require it, where the issue has even been addressed).However, in my opinion, if your clients consider putting their data in the cloud a deal-breaker, maybe you should too.

Ultimately…

… cloud-based solutions are available in all shapes and sizes, from basic document storage for your smartphone, all the way to full law firm management. Utilizing the cloud for your law practice can save you money and increase your firm’s accessibility and efficiency. On the other hand, utilizing the cloud ineffectively or improperly may place your client’s confidential information at risk, fail to address your firm’s problems, and result in filing of an ethics complaint. The BEST way to make sure you get the most out of your cloud-based services is to start the process with the right information. Answer these 5 questions before you buy, and you’ll be in great shape.

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