Cloud computing is not exactly new. It has been on the radar of efficiency and cost-minded businesses of all sizes for some time, but law firms have been slower to jump on board, largely because of privacy and security concerns. However, several newer cloud computing options address these issues, and many firms are concluding that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Pinning it Down
One reason for some attorneys’ reluctance to adopt this technology is that they do not clearly understand what moving to the cloud means. Cloud computing, also known as “software as a service” (SaaS), involves using a network of remote third-party servers hosted online to store, manage and process data. Rather than relying on your own computers’ hard drives or a local server, you share remote computer resources — including software and storage. The technology basically does away with pricey contracts and per-user licensing fees. Cloud customers usually pay a monthly subscription fee or are billed based on actual usage, and service providers roll out updates and patches on an ongoing basis at no additional charge.
The Sunny Side
In addition to low upfront and ongoing costs, advantages of cloud computing include:
- Scalability, meaning you can scale up when you need more storage or data capacity and scale back when you need less;
- Built-in redundancy, which means that service providers have multiple servers and can back up data continuously;
- Fewer compatibility issues among hardware, software and operating systems; and
- The ability of attorneys and other users to access data and programs from anywhere, at any time.
Furthermore, because everything is done at offsite data centers, you never have to work around visiting technology consultants and their demands. You might even be able to reduce your own IT staff.
The most significant prospective downsides relate to privacy and security. Due to ethical obligations, these areas merit your firm’s close attention. Your firm cannot possibly have as much control over a cloud system as it would of its own infrastructure. However, cloud computing features — such as firewalls, tight authorization restrictions, and encryption and filters to protect your sensitive data — can provide valuable peace of mind. Many providers have more robust security than a single law firm could ever afford to put in place. In addition, cloud services typically offer disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities. Due diligence will help ensure that your vendor is providing the most up-to-date features and newest defenses against threats. When you sign a service contract with a provider, make sure you address privacy and security issues. This includes compliance with all applicable legal standards and security protocols and indemnity and liability provisions. One other detail: Check with your state’s bar association to see if it has issued an opinion regarding the use of cloud computing by attorneys. According to the American Bar Association, every state that has issued such an opinion permits cloud use, but some have specific requirements your firm may need to satisfy.
The Sky is the Limit
Cloud computing sounds like it offers the moon and stars, but your firm must exercise caution before adopting it. Thoroughly research service options, review any service agreement closely and take the steps necessary to comply with applicable state bar ethics opinions. Finally, be prepared to handle client inquiries about how your use of cloud computing will affect them and the confidentiality of their files.