May 2012 | What's Happening in the Cloud?
Office 365 for Lawyers
Cloud computing is a hot topic in every boardroom and technology conference (like ABA TECHSHOW) right now. Firms are asking how they can (and if they should) take advantage of this wave of new old technologies to drive efficiencies and cut costs. People write entire books on cloud computing and I don’t have that many pages to work with here so I’m going to focus on telling you about one particular cloud service that folks ask me about just about every day.
Microsoft’s Office 365
Office 365 is Microsoft’s foray into the cloud computing market for companies of all sizes all the way down to the true solo and it’s an interesting proposition for small to mid-sized law firms in particular. Microsoft is offering firms hosted Exchange server (their premier e-mail and groupware product) as well as hosted SharePoint (their document management and collaboration platform) and Microsoft Lync (their corporate instant messenger product) all at very attractive price points. Let’s take a quick look at each of those offerings and why you might want to consider them.
Microsoft Exchange Server
Most of the Fortune 500 (and most of the Am Law 100) uses Exchange as their e-mail and groupware system but deploying Exchange for a small firm can be a little bit daunting and expensive. Having the option to use Exchange in a hosted environment, for a small monthly fee, can make the power of Exchange accessible to firms for whom it’s not practical to spend thousands to have their own Exchange server on-premises.
Exchange brings not only enterprise-class e-mail, but also the ability to have and share calendars, contacts, tasks and more. In addition to being the preferred server for Microsoft Outlook, Exchange offers a good built-in web client that lets you access your mailbox via a web browser from any machine with an Internet connection. Additionally virtually every mobile device (iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.) supports Exchange natively so syncing your mailbox (and calendar and contacts) among multiple computers or devices is effortless.
Office 365 offers 25GB mailboxes by default (that’s pretty big) and some of the higher-end plans also include firm-wide archiving and other features that support eDiscovery.
SharePoint is a platform for creating document libraries and simple databases (called “Lists”) that you can share with your other users or even use in an Extranet to share with clients. You can create multiple document libraries or just create multiple folders within a single document library (or both) and upload documents there from your system. You can upload any kind of file or document and if you upload Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote files you’ll find that you can also view and edit those files in the browser thanks to SharePoint’s included Office Web Apps.
Your document libraries can be secured so that only certain members of your firm can access them, you can set libraries to be read-only for certain users and you can even invite outside parties (like clients or co-counsel) to participate in one or more of your libraries for collaboration purposes.
SharePoint has a default document library format and you can tweak and customize that if you like. For example, our main document library has an added field for “Client Name” (the client the document pertains to) and SharePoint validates that field so the user is forced to enter a client name when they save the document. That prevents users from getting sloppy in saving documents to our management system and omitting the client name…which is very helpful in finding and organizing our documents.
You can also create lists in SharePoint which are handy for a variety of tasks. We have a contacts list in SharePoint which contains all of our firm contacts (several thousand) all of which can be accessed in Outlook. We also have a shared firm calendar in SharePoint which lets us post holidays, meetings and important company events for everybody in the firm. SharePoint comes with a number of templates for common lists, but you can always create your own if you like.
A lot of companies are embracing Instant Messaging instead of (or as a supplement to) e-mail these days. Lync gives you a lot of features that companies want, like security and auditing, without bogging it down too much with consumer features like games or ads. If typing isn’t really your thing you can use Lync to initiate a voice conversation too – without having to pick up a phone (or pay phone charges). We often use Lync to talk to folks in one of our other offices scattered across the U.S. If we’re feeling particularly visual we can even click a button to turn on video and make our chat “face to face” so to speak.
Lync also adds a lot of great features for collaboration - you can share your screen or run a PowerPoint presentation to one or many other attendees. We use Lync a couple of times a month to conduct internal training sessions for our team. They can be at their own desk and view the slides or even life demonstrations on screen. We have full audio capability so they can hear the presenter and ask questions – even discuss what they’re seeing amongst themselves if they like. And yes, they can record the session too if you allow them to.
At the end of a Lync text chat, Lync will save a transcript of the text in Outlook for you so you can easily reference it later.
So What Does That Cost?
Microsoft has a variety of pricing plans for Office 365 but really only two that most law firms will want to consider.
The Small Firm
For a firm with 8 users just looking for an economical solution Microsoft’s P-1 plan can be a good choice. It’s just $6 per user per month. Like all of the Office 365 plans it offers 25GB of e-mail space plus a base of 10GB of SharePoint space plus an additional 500MB per user. It also includes Lync.
If you want Office 365 but you’re still using Microsoft Office XP (like a lot of firms) you might find the E-3 plan attractive. In addition to everything you get in the P-1 plan you also get 5 licenses per seat of Microsoft Office 2010 Professional Plus (Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, OneNote, etc.). Note that I said “5 licenses per seat”. That means that for every seat of Office 365 you purchase you can install Office 365 on up to FIVE devices for that user. Desktop, laptop, home computer, etc. Next time you buy a new PC…no need to pay Dell or HP to pre-load Microsoft Office on it, your Office 365 subscription has that covered. The E-3 plan also comes with advanced e-mail archiving features and a few other nice little bits that you may or may not care about. The cost of the E-3 plan is $20 per user, per month. If you consider that the P-1 plan is $6 per user, per month, you’re really paying $14 per month to get Microsoft Office 2010 – which is an awfully good deal if you were considering upgrading anyhow.
AND…this plan includes software assurance, which means that when the next version of Microsoft Office ships (within the next year) you’ll automatically get that for free too.
So now you know what it is and what it costs, should everybody run right out and get Office 365? Well, probably not. Don’t get me wrong, for a lot of firms it’s a very good solution. But there’s no such thing as “one size fits all” and there may be firms for whom Office 365 actually ISN’T a good fit. If you’re concerned about putting critical and often confidential firm data in the Cloud then you’re probably going to want to stay with an on-premises solution. If you have really poor Internet connectivity you might be understandably reluctant to become largely dependent upon that poor connectivity to deliver your business data. If you have an existing Exchange server that is serving you well it might not be the time to switch away from it.
But…if you’re one of many firms that has limped along with consumer-grade e-mail services and is ready to step up to the features and power of an enterprise-class system or if your existing servers are reaching end-of-life and you’re faced with a possible large bill to upgrade or replace them then you probably should at least consider Microsoft’s Office 365 product. They offer free 30-day trials with no obligation.
Ben M. Schorr is a technologist and Chief Executive Officer for Roland Schorr & Tower a professional consulting firm headquartered in Honolulu, Hawaii with offices in Los Angeles and Arizona. He is also the author of several books and articles on technology including “The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Outlook”, “The Lawyer’s Guide to Microsoft Word” and “OneNote in One Hour for Lawyers”. He’s been a Microsoft MVP for more than 15 years and involved with management and technology for more than 20. In his free time he’s an Ironman triathlete and a high school football coach. He currently lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with his wife Carrie.