General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

JUNE 2010

Vol. 9, No. 2

Columns

 

SitesForSoreEyes
Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud

The weather today in the average solo practitioner’s office? Partly cloudy, and likely to keep to getting cloudier as time goes by. Cloud computing, that is.

Let’s start with a short explanation of what cloud computing is. I promise to keep it short and only make your eyes roll back in your head slightly.

Cloud computing, or software-as-a-service (SaaS) as it is often referred to, is a type of software that a user does not install onto her computer but instead that is accessed through a web browser. There is, I believe, a technical distinction that can be drawn between cloud computing and software-as-a-service, but it’s the kind of thing only 11th-level nerd wizard dungeon master technogeeks care about; for our purposes, let’s just assume the terms are interchangeable.

SaaS (the term I will use to refer to this type of software for the remainder of this article because it is short and easier to type, and I have already fulfilled my quota of obligatory cloud-based puns) has come on to the legal technology scene like gangbusters, and when one reviews the business case for SaaS, it is easy to see why.

These are the facts and they are not in dispute (I stole that line from Kevin Bacon in A Few Good Men; if I could have figured out how to shoehorn “did you order the Code Red?” in here, you can bet I would have):

  • SaaS products do not require the purchase of hardware (other than a computer, modem and other basics necessary to connect to the Internet)
  • SaaS products do not generally require customers to upgrade by purchasing newer versions; instead, the SaaS vendors continually (theoretically) upgrade their products incrementally
  • SaaS products are accessible anywhere a lawyer has a web browser and Internet access
  • SaaS products tend to be paid for in an ongoing, monthly subscription fee for continued access to the product, rather than up-front purchase
  • SaaS products usually include the storage of data as part of the service

Life is not all roses and Firefox add-ons in SaaS-land, though. Because SaaS products usually involve the storage of the attorney-user’s data (which, as we know, is really our clients’ data, per most of our Rules of Professional Conduct), the SaaS model, for all of its many positives, also contains a possible snag vis a vis our ethical obligations as attorneys.

Most of us are charged via our Rules of Professional Conduct to maintain the confidentiality and safekeeping of our clients’ data and other property. Because, in using SaaS products, the underlying client data is stored off-site and outside the lawyer’s office, it creates an issue that state bar ethics committees are beginning to tackle: namely, is the use of SaaS products by an attorney ethical? My home state, North Carolina, is considering this issue right now. Only Arizona has weighed in so far (allowing the use of SaaS), so it is worth bearing this ethical dimension in mind.

By now, you may be justifiably wondering 1) where are the sites in this Sites for Sore Eyes column, and 2) when are Courtney Kennaday and Jim Calloway coming back?

Well, I can’t help you with the latter, but as to the former, here come the sites.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a compelling business case to be made for using SaaS. It reduces up-front costs for hardware, it reduces the need for or reliance on outside IT support, it provides anywhere-anytime accessibility—in short, it lets lawyers be lawyers. After all, if we wanted to be tech geeks, we could have saved ourselves the time and money of going to law school to learn practical things like the Hairy Hand case. But I digress . . .

Here are several different places in your law practice where great SaaS options exist along with a few vendors worth checking out:

Telephone and Fax

Practice Management Software

Document Management and Productivity

Time & Billing/Accounting

There are many more great SaaS options than I can fit in the space of one column and the field is bursting with new entrants every day. Doubtless, SaaS is not the right fit for every law office. Some lawyers will never feel comfortable with their clients’ data being hosted off-site or may feel that they can assemble a better system out of disparate products, either on their own or with the help of an excellent legal technologist (and there are some great ones out there, by the way).

One size most definitely does not need to fit all here. But for a certain kind of lawyer, the kind who wants to keep up technologically, who wants some of the bells and whistles of expensive software suites without the up-front costs or the constant updating, patching and maintenance needs—for this kind of lawyer, there are SaaS solutions that bear a close evaluation.

And if SaaS is not your cup of tea, all I can say in my very best Jagger impersonation (which is awful, by the way):

“Don’t hang around ‘cause two’s a crowd/On my cloud, baby.”

Erik Mazzone is the director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association. When he is not butchering the lyrics to Rolling Stones’ songs, he can be reached through his blog at LawPracticeMatters.com.

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