YourABA: November 2013
YourABA November 2013 Masthead

Choosing between the cloud, desktop
or hybrid solutions

Many lawyers have struggled with whether to join the cloud. The "anytime, anywhere" accessibility of the cloud is tempting, but the desktop tools that lawyers are accustomed to may be too comfortable to let go. A recent webinar hosted by the American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center explores the options that might work for your firm: desktop, cloud or a mixture of both.

"To Cloud or Not to Cloud? Get the Best of Both Worlds" was led by Ron Collins, president and founder of Amicus Attorney, which offers practice management software.

"These days it seems that everyone is talking about the cloud, wondering about how it applies to them and whether they should be going to it," Collins said. "What is it that everybody is so attracted to with the cloud? Fundamentally, it’s about mobility and flexibility with different devices that provide the simplicity of working anywhere you want on anything you want."

You may already be using one or more cloud applications. Google Apps, Gmail, Hotmail, iCloud, Office 365, Skype and Dropbox are cloud applications, he said. The question is, should you be using such applications for professional services?

The advantages of the cloud include mobility and low upfront cost, Collins said. You generally pay a small monthly fee and can cancel at any time.

"The cloud also has a big advantage in lower IT costs and hassles," he said. "There’s typically nothing to install. You just go to a site, answer a few questions, click to log in and you’re off and running. There’s also nothing to maintain. You don’t have to install updates or upgrades in any way because the cloud service provider does all of that for you on the big central server."

Also, unlimited support is standard with almost every cloud service provider, he said.

The top concern with the cloud is client security and confidentiality. "It’s the core of the debate right now about the cloud," Collins said. "As attorneys, we have an ethical duty to maintain client confidentiality, and no matter what anyone tries to tell you, it’s simply true that no data anywhere on the cloud is 100 percent secure."

The debate has come up before state bar ethics committees in the U.S. and Canada, and a number of them have issued opinions stating that lawyers can use a cloud solution but must undertake reasonable efforts to ensure confidentiality. What are reasonable efforts?

Start with the servers; some are more secure than others, Collins said. "A lot of this comes down to questions you need to be asking about any cloud solution you use," he said. "Some are small companies, and they have a little row of servers in the back room or under the programmer’s desk, and that’s where your data is stored. That’s not very secure. Others are in virtually impregnable server farms, which would take a military action for anybody to get into."

Another factor in your duty to take reasonable care: public hot spots. "Don’t use them," Collins advised. "They’re very easily hacked. And once they’re hacked, a hacker can see what’s on your screen, and the hacker has your password."

Still, there are other things you have to think about in exercising reasonable care on the cloud. For instance, do you have a right to privacy with your data? Not with Gmail, Collins said. Google has stated in court documents that no one should have an expectation of privacy when using Gmail.

Desktop solutions, on the other hand, have far fewer privacy and security issues, Collins said. "You own and control your own data," he said.

What are the other advantages of desktop? "Fundamentally, it will do more for you," Collins said. "They have larger feature sets, and each feature is deeper and richer. There’s more customizations, more integration, more automation, faster performance, no dependency on the Internet. With the cloud, if you stop paying, it stops working. With the desktop, once you’ve paid once, you don’t have to pay again. So long term, they’re less expensive."

The hybrid, or private cloud, solution can give you "the best of both worlds," Collins said. "When you’re using a hybrid cloud solution, the database is on your server in your firm — it’s not in the cloud — but you get most of the same advantages as the cloud in that you can use those other devices. The data is well-encrypted.

"The hybrid cloud looks and feels and works like a cloud application when you choose to use it through the cloud, and it has all the advantages of a desktop application and the sophistication and power underneath," he added.

So, how do you choose? "Really, there is no single right answer," Collins said. "You have to ask yourself some questions. What’s most important for your firm? You’ve seen that cloud has some advantages that desktop doesn’t and vice versa. Which matter more to you? How do you work?"

If you have a mobile practice where you’re always on the go, then the cloud may be the way to go, Collins said. If you have a practice where most of your time is spent in the office or at home, then desktop may be more practical, he advised.

"If you really want to maximize the financial return you can get out of your practice, and that matters more to you than being flexible and fast, then desktop is the way to go," Collins said.

How much customization do you need to do? If you really want to go deep, then you need a more sophisticated solution, which would be desktop, he said.

"These are questions you need to ask yourselves, and they will steer you to looking at cloud or desktop, and you can identify the vendors you want to talk to," Collins said.

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