Basics on Building Your Business ‘In The Cloud’
“Using the cloud” to practice law may sound like science fiction, but Ron Collins is willing to bet that you’re already using cloud applications such as Gmail, Hotmail, Skype or Facebook. Some of them are free, some charge a low monthly fee, but all store your data in an Internet- based service, said the president and founder of Gavel and Gown Software, which makes legal practice management software. Collins recently led the webcast “Build Your Practice in the Cloud” for the American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center.
Simply put, practicing law with a cloud-based application means using Internet-based computing, said Collins, who is also an experienced lawyer. In other words, there is an Internet service provider or data-hosting center run by someone else that is accessible from anywhere that you have Internet access. “Cloud applications are used for communication and data storage, and they’re typically made available to you as a service — meaning that all of the support and running of the application is done for you, and you pay on a monthly subscription basis,” Collins said. “Typically, cloud apps are made available to you through a browser, so all you need to use them is a PC or other computing device with a Web browser.”
So why do people bother with this service? What is in it for you to be using the cloud?
First, there is nothing really to install, Collins said. “You just log into a site, sign up and put in a few details, and you’re off and running with a cloud application instead of getting a disk, having to figure a set of install instructions, worrying about whether you put things in the right directory, and none of it is there,” he said. “You just log in and get going.”
There are a lot of advantages to cloud-based computing. First, you can use your computer anywhere, Collins said. That means not just your laptop but also your home computer, your Macintosh, your PC, or any tablet. “That portability, versatility and mobility of the cloud is probably the single greatest advantage,” he said.
Another advantage: By virtue of it being a subscription, instead of having to pay for annual upgrades, it’s periodically updated for you, Collins said. “Developers of cloud applications are always getting better,” he added. “They’re always working on them, always improving them, and you get the benefits of that work.”
Cost is another huge advantage, Collins said. “A desktop app might cost hundreds of dollars upfront to get it installed and get going,” he said. “Cloud apps typically give you a free trial, and then it’s a low monthly fee.”
Questions to ask a cloud vendor before you sign up:
- Who are they, and where are they located?
- How reliable are they?
- How much experience do they have?
- How stable is the business? Are they a startup company, or have they been around for a long time?
- What type of data encryption do they use? (Be sure you have 256 bit on all transmissions.)
- How often do they do backups for you?
- Do they have server redundancy?
- Do they have uptime guarantees? (You want 99.99 percent of data available at any time.)
- Do I get a separate database?
- How do I get my data out? (You don’t want to be locked into a system.)
- Does the vendor make any claim to my data?
- Is training available?
Source: Ron Collins, Gavel and Gown Software
Using the cloud also provides reduced IT costs and hassles, Collins said. “With a cloud application, everything is set up and done for you,” he said. “It’s current technology, so you don’t have to worry about whether it’s up to date. You don’t have to install anything — hard disks that may or may not fail. You are paying for that benefit, but it’s so worth it. There’s nothing to maintain. Backups are also done for you.”
The computer database is not only backed up for you, but it’s in a remote and very secure, protected site, Collins said. “And with the better cloud apps, it’s in two different geographic locations, so even if something horrible happens in one data center, another one would be up and running, and your business wouldn’t miss a beat,” he said.
Despite such advantages, there are disadvantages to the cloud as well.
“One of the most important things to realize is that because the cloud apps run in a browser, they have much smaller feature sets,” Collins said. “[Browsers] do less for you, and the things they do for you are more limited. You have to work around what a browser can do.
“One of the limitations is typically less customization capabilities,” he added. “When you have your own on-premise software and database, you can customize that for your firm exactly the way you want to practice law, but when you’re sharing an app over the Internet with thousands of other law firms, you can only customize much more limited aspects of it because one size almost has to fit all.”
Another important distinction is that the cloud allows fewer integrations. “Cloud applications run on a server in the cloud, and there’s nothing else on that server but those apps, and there’s nothing on your computer but your browser,” he explained. “That means if you’re using other apps on your computer that you want to share information with or integrate with, it’s very difficult for the cloud app vendor to make that happen. As a consequence, very few of them do.”
Also, cloud apps help organize you, but they will automate you less, Collins said. “They’re also slower,” he said. “You’re at the mercy of your Internet connection. You’re not going to find the same snap, snap performance in the cloud application than on the desktop.”
One advantage of cloud apps can also be a disadvantage: The cloud has a small upfront price, but you also have to keep paying, Collins said. “You buy a desktop application, and you pay once, and then if you don’t want to, you don’t have to pay again for a decade,” he said. “But with a cloud application … if you stop paying, it stops working. The consequence of which is that over time and without question, cloud applications will be more expensive to you than a desktop application. You’re paying not only for that application, you’re paying for updates, unlimited service, and you’re paying the cloud vendor to maintain it and run it for you.
“I think the extra payment is very much worth the price because I don’t want to be an IT guy,” Collins added. “I don’t want to have to maintain my own server.”
You may also want to consider an investment in cloud practice management software, Collins said. “It handles both the professional side of your practice, meaning things like client matter files, and the business side, like time and expenses, billing, collection, and it has a variety of other related tools,” he said.
To get started, go to vendor websites, read them and evaluate them for yourself, Collins advised. Most important, read the terms of service, he said. “They are wildly different between different cloud applications,” he said. “It’s really important when it comes to ethical and security concerns that you’re confident that the terms of service protect you in your legal duty.
“Most, if not all of them, offer free trials,” he added. “Take advantage.”
A list of cloud practice management vendors includes Amicus Cloud, Credenza, Rocket Matter, Advologix, HoudiniESQ, Clio, MyCase and Lexis Firm Manager, and they range in price from $25 up to $80 per user, per month.
Investigate any cloud service you use and make sure it meets ethical guidelines, Collins said. “That’s easier said than done,” he said. “We attorneys have an ethical duty to maintain our client’s confidentiality. Unfortunately, no data on the cloud is said to be 100 percent secure.
“So does that mean you can never put data in the cloud?” he asked. “No, it does not — because data isn’t perfectly secure in your office either. Some servers are more secure than others.”
One way to avoid compromising client data is to avoid so-called public “hot spots,” Collins said. Don’t use free WiFi at places such as coffee shops or hotel lobbies. “They’ve very easily hacked,” he said. “The California bar has given an opinion that says it is a breach of ethics to use a public hot spot to access highly confidential data. Simply put, don’t do it.”