The Top-Five Questions to Ask when Evaluating Cloud-Based Technology for your Practice

With so much talk these days, cloud computing seems ubiquitous in the legal world. Not only are attorneys talking about it, but they're also using it consistently enough in different services that it merits a real examination of its potential benefits to your practice. You're probably already using it and may not even realize it. Have you ever accessed a file from Dropbox? Or backed up your mobile documents or pictures to iCloud?

The notion of cloud computing isn't as abstract as it may seem. Simply put, cloud computing is the use of computing resources in a remote location. This means your information isn't saved locally to your office PC. Rather, it's sitting in "the cloud" and stored on remote servers allowing you to practice and manage your law firm from anywhere. Cloud computing frees you from your office so you can respond to clients anywhere from the local Starbucks to the beaches of Maui. Before you jump into making any major cloud computing decisions for your law firm, let's tackle the questions you should ask before converting.

QUESTION #1: Is My Information Secure in the Cloud?

The security of your information -- and your clients' information - is a very real concern. Any lawyer worth his or her salt makes this concern a priority when moving any information to the cloud.

Cloud providers take this concern seriously as well and can put you at ease with the security measures available. In fact, many more security measures are available through the cloud than the lock to your file cabinet, key to your office and buckle on your briefcase. As both a cloud user and lawyer, you have higher standards to abide by and ethical decisions to consider. After all, you're not just concerned about your information, but you are responsible for maintaining confidentiality for your clients' information as well. As cloud computing has gained momentum in the legal industry, both the American Bar Association and state ethics committees have recognized it as a "new normal," but will continue to stress to lawyers to ensure adequate due diligence is done on the front end to sustain proper security.

In many cases, cloud-based platforms encrypt communications across the Internet and provide reliable data backups. Encryption protects your data while being transmitted and stored for the sole purpose of preventing unauthorized viewers. There are different levels of encryption from simple password encryption to military grade cryptography. Most major cloud platforms use encryption protocols (either TLS or SSL) that are reliable and proven industry standards. Data backup can also be done various ways, depending on your cloud provider. It's important to understand the frequency and scope of the backups and the locations of the backup servers.

QUESTION #2: Will I Have Control Over My Information if it's in the Cloud?

It depends on how you look at it.

If you go down the paperless route and verify that security measures can be met, some would say you've actually gained control in that you know exactly who has access to your data versus the reams of sensitive paperwork in your briefcase or in your files. However, if you live and breathe by hard copies and find a sense of security in having that close by, ceding control to the cloud can be difficult to do.

Fortunately, you have options. When making the decision to leave behind the paper trails, your IT provider will talk to you about:

  • Self-hosted storage;
  • Co-location storage; or
  • Cloud-based storage.
  1. Self-Hosted Storage: Self-hosted storage still follows the principles of cloud computing in that you can essentially work from anywhere, but the servers remain in-house. Therefore, you control the storage. For some, this provides a sense of security while still leveraging the benefits of the cloud. However, just because you can self-store doesn't always mean you should. When you take on this responsibility, you take on the risk of something going wrong - from being robbed to a natural disaster-related server outage.
  2. Co-Location Storage: Co-location stores the information on servers you own that reside in someone else's data center. The benefit here is that you own and control the servers and that hardware resides in a data center that provides robust physical security, excellent connectivity and power redundancy. It is usually not practical for businesses to implement biometric controls to limit access to their equipment, deploy multiple Internet connections for redundancy and keep generators around for power outages. Co-location is a middle ground between keeping servers on premise and putting everything out in the public cloud.
  3. Cloud-Based Storage: Cloud-based storage is often the least expensive and can be the most secure. The economics are simple. Your data resides in a shared environment and service providers are able to leverage economies of scale and pass along the savings. The reason these multi-tenant environments are often the most secure is twofold. First, market demands require that cloud providers manage security closely. Security failures are usually highly publicized and providers lose customers when it happens. Secondly, because cloud providers are focused on providing a specific service they can have dedicated personnel who manage security. Most private companies do not have the resources to do penetration testing on their networks like dedicated service providers.

QUESTION #3: Is Moving My Data to the Cloud Expensive?

One reason why cloud computing has been gaining popularity over the years is because it's actually inexpensive. When you think about the money and time you've spent purchasing software, updating software, funding hardware, troubleshooting and onboarding new associates, the impact to your bottom line is alarming. When you move your law firm to the cloud, onboarding new hires becomes a click of a button. There are no new software licenses or hardware to buy to accommodate the new employees. These efficiencies make your people more productive and reduce overhead - putting more dollars back in your practice.

Additionally, cloud computing costs are often subscription-based or pay-as-you-go, so there's no surprise in what you're paying. You pay per user and those costs can also vary by role (e.g. paralegal vs. lawyer vs. legal secretary).

QUESTION #4: Is the Cloud Just a Trend?

The cloud is as much a trend as the Internet. It's not leaving anytime soon. Beginning with AOL in the early '90s to the recent explosion of mobile devices, cloud computing is only gaining more momentum. In the legal industry, it has recently gained popularity as it's proven to increase productivity, create efficiencies and increase your bottom line. With the ability to access client contacts, case details, time keeping, billing, calendars and email from anywhere in the world, there's little reason to question how the cloud can help your firm. In fact, you can't afford not to if you want to stay competitive.

QUESTION #5: Is Cloud Computing Right for Every Law Firm?

No. While many legal organizations are moving to the cloud, it doesn't necessarily mean it is right for your firm -- at least not right now. There are real benefits to cloud computing. However, regulatory requirements such as HIPAA or state privacy laws may influence how high profile or sensitive data should be stored in the cloud. If this applies to your firm, that doesn't mean you can't reap cloud computing benefits. Storing your calendars, contacts and email in the cloud is one way to boost productivity while still complying with regulatory requirements.

Cloud computing offers numerous benefits to forward-thinking attorneys and law firms that adopt it. To ensure you that you completely understand the ramifications of it, find a technology partner that works hand-in-hand with law firms to help you identify the lay of the land and make sense of the complexities.