Cloud at a tipping point

Microsoft has at last put its shoulder behind the cloud computing movement with the recent beta release of Office365. It joins the heavyweight Google in this fast growing market. Cloud computing is here to stay.

In this article we put forward three compelling reasons why law firms should be taking the cloud seriously: saving money, improving collaboration and the emergence of cloud enterprise applications specific to the legal market.

Despite these compelling reasons, law firms are still nervous about going cloud.  Concerns about compliance, security and integration are barriers to adoption. However, providers such as Google are actively targeting these issues and the barriers are slowly coming down, pointing to a pending IT revolution, poised at the tipping point.

Reason #1: save money while improving email

Email is without doubt an essential business tool, encompassing email messaging, calendaring and personal contact management.  Providing a fast, accessible, safe and user friendly email service is arguably the most important task of any law firm’s IT department.  This is not as easily done as it might seem; lots of time, money and sleep is lost by CIOs delivering a seamless email experience to their users.  Let’s look at two very different approaches to providing this service, through two fictional case studies – TradFirm and Cloudy & Partners.

TradFirm’s sprawling email ecosystem

TradFirm established itself in the early 00s and now has 30 partners and 60 support staff, across two cities.  TradFirm is typical of many law firms when it comes to email, using on-site servers which it keeps in a data room at their head office.  Over the years, TradFirm’s IT team has diligently added new services and infrastructure to support them, with full funding from the partnership.

  • The email server machines are replaced every three years; they need to be, with the increasing amount of data and traffic they need to manage.  In addition to hardware upgrades, the server software is upgraded too, itself a significant project.
  • Each computer has Outlook installed, which employees use for managing email.  They’re using Outlook 2003 and are planning to upgrade to 2010 but have not managed to do this yet.
  • For remote access, IT provides Web Access (hosted on another server) and access via VPN; but users must use the company laptop – other PCs are not supported.
  • The amount of data they manage for email is best kept on a Storage Area Network. This is a large storage device which provides the best level of performance and redundancy.  They are expensive and require specialist skills to maintain.
  • As 90% of email traffic is junk, they subscribe to a spam filter service which removes suspect email.  This is an annual subscription, paid on a per user basis.
  • Senior lawyers have started to use their own smartphones and iPads, demanding the ability to use them to access their corporate data; forcing IT to install a separate server to provide this.
  • In the event of a disaster – fire, flood, etc – email data is backed up each night (by a separate backup server) and stored elsewhere by a specialist storage company, which comes each day to collect tapes.  There is a monthly fee for this service, plus they pay rental space for a special remote site which can be activated in the event of a disaster.
  • As well as disaster recovery, they also have strict SLA’s agreed with the partnership. Email must be available for 98% of the time month by month.  IT met the challenge by “clustering”, which means providing two servers instead of one. If one dies, the other takes over.  This doubles the number of servers IT manages to provide email.

Figure 1: TradFirm needs to keep many servers patched to keep email running smoothly. Image © Google.

TradFirm’s IT department maintain a lot of hardware in the background to support email.  As well as the specialist software, each server has an operating system which must be maintained – regular software updates (or patching) takes a considerable amount of time each month and causes frequent service disruption, scheduled for out of business hours.
Despite the complexity, the email service performs excellently and is well maintained but like other similar sized organisations it costs hundreds of dollars per user to deliver it.

Cloudy & Partners aim to shake the market

Late last year, 25 partners from various law firms defected from where they were and started their own practice, Cloudy & Partners.  They’re based across 5 cities with support of 30 permanent staff. They chose to outsource some business processes such as recruitment and bookkeeping.  Cloudy & Partners considers itself a “disruptive” law firm aiming to provide fixed price or lower-cost legal services to clients. A strategic focus is to drive value from all their non-billing departments to keep their overheads down.
The IT Manager looked at providing an email service in the same way as TradFirm but her budget was simply not big enough. Realising the firm needed to investigate other options, she eventually chose to 
Go Google.

Google provides an email service via ‘the cloud’ as part of the Google Apps suite.  For a fixed fee per user per year ($50 USD), Cloudy & Partner’s corporate emails are stored on Google’s servers and accessed over the Internet (or via Outlook).  
  • They were able to import data the partners brought with them – a collection of Outlook PSTs, Lotus Notes email files, contact lists and documents.
  • The IT team does not need to manage any email infrastructure – no backups, no spam filters, no clustering, no storage and no mobile servers – all of these email ‘add-ons’ are included.  
  • Users can access their corporate data using an internet browser (such as Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox) from the office, at home, or on secondment at a client. No VPN is required, just a connection online.
  • The firm can enable a “bring your own technology” policy – any mobile device, PC or Mac, are all supported

Reason #2: new, better ways to collaborate

Attachments = copies, extra work and wasted time

Lindsey works in Business Development at TradFirm and has been tasked with creating a proposal for a valued client.  She puts together the first draft and sends it to the two partners who manage the client relationship, as well as two support staff. They get the document as an attachment and are asked to provide comment.  Three of the four make edits and send it back.  

Lindsey has to combine the three edits in Word – not an easy task.  On sending the revised version 2 of the proposal, the partner who failed to reply to the first email has questions about the differences between the two versions and Lindsey feels frustrated at having to firstly combine the edits and now having to check many versions to find out which revision happened when and by whom.

Work on the document together, not your own copy of it

Meanwhile, over at Cloudy & Partners, they need to quickly create job descriptions for a bunch of paralegals they are urgently recruiting to work on a large litigation case.  The matter partner’s PA, Alison, creates a draft job description using Google Docs. When she has finished, she shares it with the partner.  

After editing, the partner shares the document further – opening it to the billing solicitor and the head of litigation support.  Each of these make edits, even at the same time (see the screenshot).


Figure 2: Realtime collaboration in Google Docs

While everyone is editing this, Alison is briefing Jeff, the recruiter at the external recruitment company.  As soon as the document is finished, Alison can share the job description with him even though he is not Cloudy & Partners employee.  Jeff is also able to view the complete document history to see who changed what and when, giving him an idea of the evolution of the key skills he should be looking for when interviewing candidates.

Alison also sets up a Google spreadsheet, sharing with Jeff and the group. This is where they’ll keep track of applicants and their relative statuses.  They use one spreadsheet, centrally stored in the cloud, securely shared inside and outside of Cloudy & Partners and which everyone can update as the recruitment process happens.

Even more collaboration apps included with the cloud

The IT department at Cloudy & Partners has a suite of applications which they can call upon to tackle problems that their lawyers bring to them:

  • “We need to communicate better when working from home and with colleagues interstate” – instant messaging, voice and video chat, through Google Talk
  • “The client wants a central store of matter information where we can upload documents, share a calendar and create task lists” – create a website easily using Google Sites
  • “Where can I store these CLE training videos?” – try Google Video for Business
  • “We’re thinking of opening an office in Singapore. What will the cost be to provide email and how quick can you set it up?” – the cost of computers plus $50 USD per user, per year; if we really tried, this can be set up in one day.

For TradFirm to tackle the same issues, they will undoubtedly need to buy more hardware and/or software, embark on a full IT project, or outsource just that particular slice of functionality to a third party; certainly costing more than $50 USD per user.

Reason #3: A growing enterprise app store

Google enables software companies to create their own applications which interact with Cloudy & Partners’ data.  Clio and Rocket Matter are two examples of this, specifically targeted at the Legal sector – practice management software which hooks into corporate data stored with Google.

There are highly effective CRM, finance and HR applications available too, all provided on the same cost basis – an annual user fee – with no hardware or data on site for the Cloudy & Partners IT team to manage. As more and more businesses Go Google (over 3,000 sign up each day), software providers will be increasingly attracted to develop for the platform, meaning firms will be able to find software which fits their needs closely.

Barriers to law firm cloud adoption

TradFirm, whilst recognising the benefits of cloud, chooses to remain firmly on premises, citing these issues:

  • Existing system integration – TradFirm uses a document management system, voicemail delivery in email and digital dictation software – all of which interact with Outlook and send/receive/store email. Integrating these with a cloud provider like Google would be an expensive task in terms of change management and dollars.  
  • Security concerns –  How safe is our data, who owns it and how can we be certain that nobody else can access our intellectual property?  
  • Loss of control – If TradFirm’s email servers start performing badly or drop out of service, there is something that they can do about it, instantly.  With the cloud model, you are at the whim of the provider with the only respite being to log service calls.
  • Australian Privacy Law.  Recent changes mean that all Australian organisations transferring personal information overseas must ensure that this information is given the same protection as that provided under Australia’s privacy framework.  TradFirm does not want to risk being held liable for a cloud provider’s negligence or incompetence, should data be compromised in an offshore data centre.

Are these barriers enough to stem the tide?

Google provides answers to the security and data ownership concerns here, on its security and privacy pages.  Google operates a 99.9% SLA, with severe financial penalties for them should they miss this target – 2009 and 2010 uptime was 99.91% and 99.98% respectively.  Performance problems have not surfaced despite over 3 million businesses using the service for their corporate email.

Google Apps and now Office365  are changing the IT industry.  Just as you don’t keep a water tank in your garage for that moment when you need a bath, why should your firm maintain processing and storage capacity for 2,000 users when you only need to serve 150?  IT services are becoming a utility, just like water. Turn the tap, there’s your email account. The barriers to moving cloud reflect nervousness, rather than fact – ‘what if’ rather than ‘because’.  We’re all waiting for one or two more high profile case studies before we follow.  Firms that go first will realise savings year upon year of more than 40% on the cost of providing email.  They would also improve collaboration within the firm and between their clients and suppliers – strengthening relationships.   Are you ready to fly to the cloud?

About the author

Tony Brooks is a Google Apps deployment specialist, with over 8 years Legal technology experience.  He is the owner of Feynbrook, a new company offering cloud consulting services for law firms, businesses and nonprofits.

 Further reading

Bradford & Barthel Press Release, ILTA Innovation Award 2010 for Google Apps deployment – link Socialmind blog post – “Cloud storage and privacy – the dark side of the silver lining” – link “Google Apps & Microsoft Exchange 2007 – Total Cost of Ownership Analysis (Radicati Group, Inc) – link How Google Apps improves productivity – “Measuring the Total Economic Impact of Google Apps”, Forrester – link Google Enterprise Blog – Getting Gmail to 99.99% – link