Legal matters: how law firms have turned to cloud

It's been renowned as a slow-moving sector when it comes to technology but legal firms are increasingly turning to cloud

What did lawyers do before the Egyptians invented papyrus? Did they consult precedent carved in blocks of stone, call on judgements etched in rock? If stone was good enough for God and his laws, why not? In fact, the earliest “lawyers” as we might think of them were orators in Ancient Greece who spoke on behalf of their “friends” and weren’t allowed to get a fee for doing so.

Still, all that talking has helped to generate an awful lot of paperwork over the years and it’s the written words and the information they contain that are prompting changes to the way the legal profession conducts itself in a world that is becoming increasingly digital and moving to what could be defined as the “post-paper” age.

Given the preponderance of documentation in their business, one area of focus for legal firms looking at cloud-based computing, has been on how it can be used to  improve ways of storing and sharing information. Paul Caris, CIO at Eversheds, says that although the use of the cloud is not widespread among legal firms, most of those that have started using it are deploying it as a data repository “allowing lawyers and employees access to information wherever they are”.

Removing the need to pay for expensive hardware in favour of cloud storage, dramatically reduces the cost of storing documents and applications. “When you consider the sheer volume of information that lawyers create and rely on for the day-to-day running of the firm, the benefits are obvious,” Caris states. But there are areas that need to be addressed, especially for legal firms where much of the information they create is privileged, such as who has access to the information stored in the cloud and how it can be protected in the event of an eDiscovery request.

Removing the need to pay for hardware in favour of cloud storage, dramatically reduces the cost of storing documents 

Susan Hall, partner and IT expert at Cobbetts, identifies confidentiality as one of the biggest hazards legal firms face when contemplating adopting cloud computing solutions. “Law firms each have thousands of confidential documents that should not be stored externally,” she says. Using a cloud-based solution brings an external provider into the lawyer/client relationship and threatens to undermine the concept of ‘privilege’.

She also raises concerns over where data is being stored by cloud providers, an issue that is of grave concern to firms in the legal sector. Hall says there is a place for cloud solutions but for applications that do not require client data such as using external payroll providers. In her view, “the primary factor driving almost all outsourcing to cloud computing providers is cost. There is a huge cost benefit for firms that decide to use it. For small businesses, especially, cloud computing can give them access to technology they could only dream of buying themselves”.

Mike Burton, head of IT at Cripps Harries Hall, agrees that “cost of ownership is a strong driving force “for legal firms looking at cloud computing, as is the the convenience of passing the burden of backups, assuring business continuity and the persistent growth of information storage needs on to a third party. And he concurs with Hall that law firms are very cautious when it comes to confidential client information, adding that they may be bound by client agreement not to share the information with any third parties in any form, encrypted or not.

Burton also identifies a requirement for systems integration by joining various document management, practice management and case management services together. “If these are not all within the same cloud service or it is not possible to join the various cloud services together securely and with good performance results then a technical handicap exists,” he says.

The cloud service has to be secure: “Is the supplier of a cloud service trustworthy? Are the systems secure? What would happen should a disgruntled employee attempt to cause trouble?” The other concern, which is not uncommon to other sectors, and “the question that causes most to pause is: What is my exit strategy when I wish to switch cloud suppliers?”

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