Legal matters: how law firms have turned to cloud

Gavel on a laptop keyboard
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What did lawyers do before the Egyptians invented papyrus? Did they consult precedent carved in blocks of stone, call on judgements etched in rock? If stone was good enough for God and his laws, why not? In fact, the earliest “lawyers” as we might think of them were orators in Ancient Greece who spoke on behalf of their “friends” and weren’t allowed to get a fee for doing so.

Still, all that talking has helped to generate an awful lot of paperwork over the years and it’s the written words and the information they contain that are prompting changes to the way the legal profession conducts itself in a world that is becoming increasingly digital and moving to what could be defined as the “post-paper” age.

Given the preponderance of documentation in their business, one area of focus for legal firms looking at cloud-based computing, has been on how it can be used to improve ways of storing and sharing information. Paul Caris, CIO at Eversheds, says that although the use of the cloud is not widespread among legal firms, most of those that have started using it are deploying it as a data repository “allowing lawyers and employees access to information wherever they are”.

Removing the need to pay for expensive hardware in favour of cloud storage, dramatically reduces the cost of storing documents and applications. “When you consider the sheer volume of information that lawyers create and rely on for the day-to-day running of the firm, the benefits are obvious,” Caris states. But there are areas that need to be addressed, especially for legal firms where much of the information they create is privileged, such as who has access to the information stored in the cloud and how it can be protected in the event of an eDiscovery request.

Susan Hall, partner and IT expert at Cobbetts, identifies confidentiality as one of the biggest hazards legal firms face when contemplating adopting cloud computing solutions. “Law firms each have thousands of confidential documents that should not be stored externally,” she says. Using a cloud-based solution brings an external provider into the lawyer/client relationship and threatens to undermine the concept of ‘privilege’.

She also raises concerns over where data is being stored by cloud providers, an issue that is of grave concern to firms in the legal sector. Hall says there is a place for cloud solutions but for applications that do not require client data such as using external payroll providers. In her view, “the primary factor driving almost all outsourcing to cloud computing providers is cost. There is a huge cost benefit for firms that decide to use it. For small businesses, especially, cloud computing can give them access to technology they could only dream of buying themselves”.

Mike Burton, head of IT at Cripps Harries Hall, agrees that “cost of ownership is a strong driving force “for legal firms looking at cloud computing, as is the the convenience of passing the burden of backups, assuring business continuity and the persistent growth of information storage needs on to a third party. And he concurs with Hall that law firms are very cautious when it comes to confidential client information, adding that they may be bound by client agreement not to share the information with any third parties in any form, encrypted or not.

Burton also identifies a requirement for systems integration by joining various document management, practice management and case management services together. “If these are not all within the same cloud service or it is not possible to join the various cloud services together securely and with good performance results then a technical handicap exists,” he says.

The cloud service has to be secure: “Is the supplier of a cloud service trustworthy? Are the systems secure? What would happen should a disgruntled employee attempt to cause trouble?” The other concern, which is not uncommon to other sectors, and “the question that causes most to pause is: What is my exit strategy when I wish to switch cloud suppliers?”

Juan Di Luca, eDiscovery project manager at Forensic Risk Alliance, says there are a number of industry-specific benefits that cloud computing services can provide to the legal sector. Cloud computing offers “a great way to streamline time/billing options so that law firms operating on a billable-hour base do not require their lawyers to spend a significant amount of their time entering work done for each client”, for example.

The ability to provide a secure web-based electronic signature service for clients and lawyers while storing documents online is attractive. Cloud-based case and client management services are also popular because they provide remote access to calendars, cases and client information and document management. Electronic discovery capabilities are important as well.

Ian Turner, UK country manager and vice president at IntraLinks, says the legal industry’s reliance on documents and for multiple parties to share sensitive documentation should not be a hindrance to cloud computing. Traditionally, the legal sector has “resorted to insecure paper-based means like courier, fax or more recently e-mail. These antiquated methods mean sharing documentation is slow and frequently insecure”.

He flips the security argument on its head, suggesting that cloud computing can help to manage important documentation in a fast and efficient manner and provide “granular control over access rights and editing permissions, as well as providing greater visibility and transparency over who has accessed, edited or even printed documentation; ensuring legal departments can remain compliant with data protection laws and documentation is readily accessible to the right parties”.

Turner believes too many people reduce the benefits of cloud computing to cost control. “Law is inherently a transactional business that relies on trusted collaboration. Done right, cloud computing can make law firms more efficient and more responsive to clients,” he argues. The appropriate cloud solution will address data security concerns and allow businesses to reap the efficiencies of the cloud, while providing reassurance that sensitive data is safe in transit and in storage “as businesses increasingly need to collaborate with partners and other parties.”

Collaboration is an area where cloud computing technology can provide real benefit. As Turner puts it: “Modern legal work is increasing in complexity, and requires information technology to support and facilitate the collaboration between corporate legal departments and their network of lawyers, support staff and experts. Cloud platforms offer cost-effective solutions to address these demands.”

Mobility is also becoming increasingly important for many legal firms and sparking a growing interest in the cloud capabilities of mobile devices which are prevalent within many law firms. Mark Heathcote, practice director at Xceed Group, says allowing lawyers access to business processes and information on the move can be beneficial. “Matter approval is providing significant value by reducing workflow timelines. The arrival of cloud has greatly simplified the deployment of such solutions, making the process faster, more reliable and ultimately more effective.”

Rory Tempest, business consultant at Damovo UK, says the commercialisation of UK legal services which has resulted “in the once mysterious dark art of lawyers becoming more transparent and available, as and when clients want access to it” is boosting the need for anytime/anywhere working “as the fee-earner conducts business more and more from outside of the office, on trains, in cafes or even from home; something almost unheard of a decade ago”. He predicts this will lead legal firms “to begin extending other applications such as voice and video to cloud providers, potentially increasing collaboration with federated clients”.

This point is echoed by David Angwin, EMEA vice president at Dell Wyse, who says the Clementi Review which allowed for alternative business structures for law firms outside the traditional LLP model, has led firms to look to “achieve efficiency gains through ‘virtual’ teams, home workers and shared services. We have seen an increasing interest from the legal sector in cloud client computing. This allows firms to provide their fee earners with secured access to a full corporate desktop wherever they are, enabling them to do their jobs in all locations”.

Caris at Eversheds, which has already adopted cloud technologies for eDiscovery, archiving, client portals and applications, says that by placing data and applications in the cloud “we have dramatically reduced our storage costs and can provide our lawyers working on a case with a single platform to access information anywhere in the world. It enables us to reduce our capital expenditure on hardware and provides access to flexibility and expertise that we wouldn’t normally have.”

While the consensus appears to be that the legal sector isn’t in the forefront of cloud computing adoption – Heathcote speaks of “a series of false starts”, Tempest admits “adoption isn’t as widespread as we’ve seen in other sectors” and Angwin describes cloud adoption as “probably slower than most verticals” – there is strong interest.

Nick Patience, director of product marketing and strategy at Recommind, claims to have witnessed “a vast growth in the number of law firms migrating their eDiscovery platforms to the cloud”. The ability to quickly find and retrieve information is critical to success in the legal industry, he adds. “Employing an army of paralegals to manually trawl through mountains of information all stored on the client’s servers is no longer viable given the increasing volumes of data being created and stored by businesses today. More and more firms are choosing the convenience and scalability of cloud based eDiscovery”,

It may say something about the way the world is going for the legal sector that the ten commandments may well have been written on two tablets by the finger of God, but that finger came from the cloud.