“Times have changed” is an understatement when it comes to practicing law and the introduction of cloud computing. It wasn’t long ago that law firms still had “war rooms” stacked with banker boxes filled with client documents. Fast forward to 2016, and the documents that used to be stored in those boxes are not in the office – not even in electronic format. Now, they are in “the cloud.”
Talking about the cloud used to be a bit of a joke in the last law firm I worked. The younger lawyers would tease the more experienced lawyers about everything being “in the cloud,” knowing full well that the intangibility of the concept made them uncomfortable. Likely because no one wanted to admit that they weren’t quite sure what the cloud was – or where it was, for that matter.
So let’s dispel any mystery: Cloud computing, broadly defined, is a category of software and services delivered over the Internet rather than installed locally on a user’s computer. One of those services is data storage. Another is litigation document management. More recently, the concept of software as a service has been introduced, known as SaaS. The number of services and software is simply too long to list.
When you really think about it, cloud computing isn’t new to lawyers. Law firms have used cloud computing applications such as Lexis and Westlaw, and stored documents in the cloud to support litigation document review, for many years.
What is new about cloud computing is how it has now expanded to include a multitude of legal applications (software) delivered over the Internet. In this blog post, I’ll touch on both the benefits and considerations of cloud technology for law firms.
The lure of cloud computing includes:
- Low upfront costs
- Easy mobile access
- Simple setup and configuration
- Built-in disaster preparedness
First Things First: Ethical Considerations
It’s important to remember that cloud computing places client data on remote servers outside of the law firm’s direct control. That is one reason the American Bar Association and state bar associations issue ethical opinions on this topic. Cloud computing is allowed in California and the standard is to use “reasonable care.”
Specific requirements and recommendations include:
- Evaluate the nature of the technology, available security precautions, and limitations on third-party access.
- Consult an expert if lawyer’s technology expertise is lacking.
- Weigh the sensitivity of the data, the impact of disclosure on the client, the urgency of the situation, and the client’s instructions.
For further clarity, read the Formal Opinion No. 2010-179 issued by the State Bar of California Standing Committee on Professional Responsibility and Conduct.
The ABA offers a guide showing the ethics standards for cloud computing in each state, as well as cloud computing opinions.
Software as a Service (SaaS)
In recent years, a new software model has emerged: SaaS. SaaS is distinguished from traditional software in several ways. Rather than purchasing software and having it installed on your computer or the firm’s servers, SaaS is accessed via a web browser over the Internet. Data is stored in the vendor’s data facility rather than on the firm’s computers or servers. Upgrades and updates, both major and minor, are rolled out continuously. A big difference is that SaaS is usually sold on a subscription model, meaning that users pay a monthly fee rather than purchasing a license upfront, and paying annual maintenance costs.
One of the biggest game changers is Microsoft Office, which moved from a licensed model to Office 365, which is a subscription. Office 365 users have access to their Office components on their desktops, laptops, via a web-browser and on their mobile devices. The flexibility and mobility is impressive.
Advantages of Cloud Computing
Cloud computing offers so many advantages that it is difficult to resist the temptation. SaaS maintenance is usually included in the offering, so there may be no need to worry about keeping up with updates, as they are installed automatically. The services are accessible from anywhere, a feature of great interest to attorneys who work long hours and may take advantage of the remote access capabilities. Altogether, cloud computing requires less in-house expertise and capability and less infrastructure, which may result in significant savings.
Another great feature is that cloud computing services are often sold by per-user subscriptions, making it easy to scale your use of specific software up or down depending on your firm’s needs. You can also easily increase the amount of data stored in the cloud as your needs increase.
Cloud computing may also provide increased stability and security. Reputable cloud providers usually employ the most up-to-date, sophisticated security measures. Their experienced, adequately trained staff excels at implementing security measures that take into account the current trends. They have access to sophisticated tools to monitor unauthorized access to the systems or manage permissions. These entities also have the ability to put in place sophisticated disaster recovery and business continuity features that are likely to be more powerful and effective than those that a small or lean law practice could implement.
Remember, however, that entrusting data to cloud providers is not without danger. For instance, a large cloud provider that is known for servicing prestigious customers might also be the target of cyber-attacks aimed at them. Attorneys need to be sure that their ethical obligations are met by the provider’s security policies.
Make sure to train your own staff and professionals who will use cloud services and products, and obtain their written agreement to comply with your firm’s security measures and those that are recommended by the cloud provider such as the use of strong, complex passwords.
There is no doubt that cloud computing is here to stay and that gradually companies will move most of their data to the cloud. However, switching the physical custody of client data to a third-party does not relieve a law firm from its legal and ethical obligations to protect the data and ensure adequate security, confidentiality and integrity.
Reach out to Terrapin Technology Group to discuss the pros and cons of using cloud services in your organization’s environment.