Most law firms dish up technology by implementing and supporting systems in-house. They have little choice but to deal with upgrades and replacements because vendors continually displace "obsolete" older versions of applications and hardware. These upgrades are usually costly and disruptive. Certainly, some changes are warranted but much of the turmoil absorbs IT staff resources and creates little value for a firm. The advent of cloud computing and managed services is providing firms a viable alternative.
CLOUD AND MANAGED SERVICES DEFINED
In general, there are two types of cloud services. The first, often called Software as a Service, involves an application—or set of like applications—run by a third-party vendor and accessed through the Internet via a web browser. The second approach involves data that is stored or shared via a third party’s infrastructure and accessed via the Internet. Examples of this type of service (security issues aside) would be Dropbox or Apple's iCloud.
Let's focus on SaaS. With these services, firm personnel access an application(s) via the Web to perform their day-to-day work. Their work product and data is stored on the vendor’s systems. Several vendors have set up integrated application sets (suites) that include practice management, document management, time entry, and billing for law firms.
As attractive as cloud services seem, however, firm lawyers may be uncomfortable about having the firm's data completely managed and stored by an outside vendor. The use of managed services is one way to address this issue.
With managed services, the firm maintains ownership of server and data center equipment, but contracts to have the day-to-day operations and upgrades managed by a vendor. It is possible to set up these services so they mimic a cloud service—thus the term “private cloud.” There are many shades within the spectrum of managed services, with vendors owning more or less of the infrastructure and applications.
The advantages of cloud-based services are many. They include:
• Access from anywhere there are Internet connections. • Reduced need to manage IT infrastructure (servers and data storage) within your firm. • Application and hardware upgrades handled by the vendor. • Predictable (fixed) pricing—usually based on the number of users. • Reduced capital spending. • Business continuity built-in. • Good vendors provide 24/7 support.
Managed services have similar advantages. However, the level of benefits from reduced capital spending and avoidance of software and hardware upgrade hassles will depend on how much of the IT infrastructure and associated applications continues to be maintained in-house by the firm.
The other major advantage of both approaches is the potential impact on IT staff utilization. With in-house systems, as much as 75 percent of staff time is dedicated to maintenance. By moving to cloud or manage services this maintenance component can be dramatically reduced. Of course, IT staff will need to take on a bigger role managing the vendors. The change nevertheless should free up significant IT staff time for value-added services that help the firm make better use of technology, particularly in pursuit of superior client service.
These services are not a magic bullet. No contract with a cloud or managed services vendor should be entered into without the proper due diligence. Most importantly, firms need to make sure the vendor is financially sound and has a good track record, that a sufficient level of technology infrastructure and back-up is in place, and that firm data will be properly secured. It is important to “kick the tires” by testing the service thoroughly before making a commitment. Understanding how to get firm data back when the service is no longer needed is also critical.
A firm’s telecommunications network is what connects it to these services. To get best performance, a firm will need a robust network infrastructure that provides a high-speed telecommunications network connecting all your office-based systems with the cloud vendor and the Internet.
Using cloud-based applications may mean that firms will have to give up some ability to customize software and hardware for particular firm and lawyer needs. For example, the ability to customize interfaces or financial reports may be limited, or lawyers may have to live with restrictions on how quickly old documents can be retrieved. At some firms, cultural preferences will have to be considered and carefully managed.
MAKING THE TRANSITION
Transitioning from in-house-based systems to a cloud or managed services platform will require thorough planning to get the most benefit and minimize disruption. This change will not only affect how people in the firm access systems and information, but may require people to learn new systems and new ways of working. Also, significant role changes may be required for the in-house IT staff. Anticipating these changes and their impact will be an important to achieving the benefits of the systems transition and a successful project.The following steps are recommended:
1. Identify the applications and systems that will be transitioned. Determine if the target will be managed services or a move to cloud applications. 2. Clearly document your firm’s requirements for performance, availability, security, and functionality for the systems and applications that will be moved. 3. Identify and choose the service vendor or vendor(s) based on the requirements. This is typically done via a "request for proposal" process. 4. Develop a detailed transition plan for each application. Determine the human impact and develop appropriate change management, communications and training plans. 5. Run a pilot test with either a small group of people and/or a particular application. Adjust your plans based on the results of the test. Include a test of the vendor’s back-up and recovery processes. 6. Rollout to the firm.
Depending on the number of applications and the size of the firm, a transition could take from six to 18 months. Success with this type of project will depend on strong support from firm management and strong project management from the IT staff (or consultant if the skills do not exist in-house). The cost will also be highly dependent on firm size, geography and the applications and hardware involved.
Cloud and managed services hold great promise for law firms and other businesses. The potential for improving a firm’s access to technology while scaling back on the need for in-house technology infrastructure makes these service compelling. Done correctly, firms will benefit tremendously by spending more time focused on their core business of delivering outstanding service and results to clients rather than distracting technology issues far removed from that core.
Philip Wisoff is a principal at MTC Services, based in the New York Metro Area.