This month, we look at Cloud Computing for law firms. Also known as Software as a Service (SaaS), Cloud Computing has many advantages along with certain disadvantages. This article will guide you through the definition of Cloud Computing and help you understand how SaaS can help your firm meet client needs in a rapidly changing tech environment.
What is Cloud Computing?
Cloud computing is a rather vague term that covers several concepts. Within the scope of legal technology, it most often refers to Software-as-a-Service (“SaaS”). Cloud Computing/"Software as a Service" (SaaS) is a software distribution model in which certain applications are hosted by a vendor or service provider and made available to customers over a network, typically the Internet. Hosted Exchange (hosted e-mail) is a very common example of an SaaS computing model.
Cloud computing may also be defined as the maintenance of a cloud-based workspace that provides you the flexibility to work from anywhere, on any web-enabled device while also ensuring that all of your users have access to the most up-to-date version of the software you need. You simply connect via a secure internet connection from anywhere you are within an internet connection. Applications run just like they would on your desktop computer.
Advantages of Cloud Computing/SaaS
Cloud Computing providers stress that there is little or no upfront cost to using their cloud based system. Thus, there are no servers to purchase and setup, there are no extra equipment to buy and maintain. All you need is high speed internet access and a computer. Usually there is nothing to install on your computer, you simply browse to the website and log in.
The driving factor behind firms seeking to move to a SaaS model for software is the idea that anyone with the proper credentials can log into the system from anywhere there is a high speed internet connection. While this is a fantastic capability, SaaS is not the only way you can have anywhere/anytime access to your software and data.
Cloud Computing is operating system agnostic. Most, if not all, SaaS solutions will work on a Windows or Mac operating system, work on Apple and Google tablets, and most will even run from your smart phone. Monthly fees usually include tech support and regular updates.
Cloud Computing services also provide backup of the data they host. Keep in mind it is your data. You should ask if you can back up your data into a format that other programs can read. Be wary of any company that says "no."
Disadvantages of Cloud Computing/SaaS
If your internet connection goes down or is not reliable, you will not have a connection to your SaaS system. As time progresses, internet connection disruptions are becoming more rare.
Many SaaS providers may have servers outside the U.S. You could be vulnerable to international political strife or laws of another nation governing access to your software and data.
While it may be an advantage to shift data backup responsiblities to your SaaS provider (because law firms are notoriously bad at backups), there is the risk that your SaaS provider is NOT backing up data, or is not doing it properly.
Your SaaS provider could go out of business. If they shut their doors and deny you access to your data in a format you can export from their system and import into another system, you are in a world of hurt.
The same problem can occur if you decide to switch SaaS providers or dump SaaS altogether. How do you get your data back? Can you get it back in a format that is useful to you?
SaaS services usually have fewer features, little customization, and less integration with other software than do their traditional locally-installed counterparts. For example, SaaS-based practice management, on average, offers less than 50% of the features of their client/server counterparts. Fortunately, SaaS services are maturing quickly.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is cost over time. SaaS software is more expensive in the long run. Because you NEVER STOP PAYING for SaaS software, over several years, SaaS based software will end up costing more over the life of your use of the platform. Think of an analogy of buying a home with a mortgage. You have a down payment, make your mortgage payment and eventually, you own the home outright. Take that same home, live in it for the same length of time as a tenant. At the time the mortgage is paid off, the owner lives relatively payment free, the tenant, must continue to pay to live in the home.
The cost of SaaS based solutions are lower in the first year or two. However, that changes as time goes on. It is also important to point out that some SaaS providers put a cap on the amount of space your firm can use on their solution, may, in fact have some upfront costs and always requires a robust internet connection.
On the flip side, for traditional software, you must consider the cost of maintaining your own server, conversion expenses (if you’re converting from another system), and training.
SaaS simply costs more in the long run. That concern must be balanced against the idea that (a) you can always budget for the expense rather precisely and (b) you don’t have to maintain anything on site other than a solid internet connection.
Our Conclusions on SaaS
SaaS really does have its place in the current state of technology and depending on your firm's needs, budget and interests, SaaS may be right for you. For example, we frequently recommend SAAS solutions for:
1. OFF SITE BACKUP – backing up your data to a secure off site server, "in the cloud", is often wise to ensure that you can access critical data (a) from anywhere, and (b) in the event that traditional backup methods fail or the hardware becomes compromised;
2. HOSTED (E-MAIL) EXCHANGE – it has become quite popular to employ a SAAS based solution provider to host your Microsoft Exchange server for email. The major difference with this type of solution provider is that your OUTLOOK® database is also local on your computer, such that should the SAAS based exchange host become inaccessible, there is a file on your computer that has all of the downloaded email and attachments;
3. OFFICE 365 and GOOGLE DOCS - We’ve virtually arrived at the threshold where the only way you are able to procure a word processing suite will be to subscribe to their SAAS solution. Keep a watchful eye on where companies like Microsoft, Adobe and Google go as we approach the year 2020.
Register for our FREE September 22 WEBINAR on Cloud Computing/SaaS and learn more about Cloud Servers and Workspaces, Virtual Machines, and the challenges of "Going Virtual."
- Steven J. Best, Esq.
Steven J. Best is a an attorney and a founding partner of the Affinity Consulting Group. With an educational background in law, accounting and economics, Steve consults with law firms throughout the United States on law office software as well as sophisticated practice management and document management issues. Steve is a graduate of Rutgers University (B.A.) and Emory University School of Law (J.D.). He is a member of the Florida and Georgia Bars and is also a certified consultant/trainer, maintaining certifications in many law office software products including time/billing/accounting, practice management, document management, PDF production, document assembly and paperless office packages. Steve also is a frequent speaker at many CLE programs throughout the US and Canada. Steve was the chair of the 2016 ABA TechShow planning board, and is an active member of the ABA's Law Practice Management Division.