Cloud Computing

ABA TECHREPORT 2014

Dennis Kennedy is an information technology lawyer and legal technology expert based in St. Louis, MO. He writes the monthly technology column for the ABA Journal, co-authored the books LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers, Facebook in One Hour for Lawyers and The Lawyer's Guide to Collaboration Tools: Smart Ways to Work Together, and co-hosts the highly-regarded legal technology podcast, The Kennedy-Mighell Report. His blog, DennisKennedy.Blog, is a well-known legal technology resource.

“Cloud computing” remained one of the hottest topics in legal technology in 2014. Although definitions of the “cloud” and “cloud computing” can still be as elusive as the clouds in the sky, the 2014 Legal Technology Survey Report focused on the basic concept of “cloud computing” as “a web-based software service or solution,” including Software as a Service (SaaS). In simple terms, cloud computing refers to software or services that can be accessed and used over the Internet via a browser (or mobile app) where the software itself is not installed on the computer being used by the lawyer accessing the service.

Cloud computing, despite some important reservations by lawyers, has become increasingly popular among lawyers and law firms looking to use advanced legal technology tools without the need for a substantial initial capital investment in hardware, software, and installation and support services. Cloud services are generally made available in the form of a “subscription,” with a periodic fee (typically monthly) per user. A popular example of a cloud service is Dropbox, a cloud service for file storage and sharing. Many traditional software providers are also moving to cloud models, joining a large number of companies that have focused solely on the cloud.

In the last five years or so, the cloud approach has become quite popular in the corporate world (e.g., Salesforce.com) and for personal usage (e.g., Dropbox, Google Docs, iCloud and Evernote). There are also now a good number of legal-specific cloud services (e.g., Clio, Rocket Matter, Bill4Time, and many others). The 2014 Legal Technology Survey Report results show lawyers cautiously following the widespread trend of movement to cloud services for business and personal reasons by the Internet population at large.

The past year does not reflect the level of growth seen in the previous year, but it shows that cloud computing has become a standard approach in legal technology. Even with reports of security and performance events, cloud usage stayed stable and strong.

Survey Highlights

Use of cloud services stabilized at roughly 30% of respondents, essentially the same as in 2013, with solos and small firms continuing to lead the way.

Despite some wariness, lawyers continued to use popular consumer cloud services, with use of Dropbox reported by nearly 60% of respondents.

Confidentiality, security, data control and ownership, ethics, vendor reputation and longevity, and other concerns weigh heavily on the minds of lawyers, yet the employment of precautionary measures is quite low, with no more than 40% of respondents actually taking any one of the standard cautionary measures listed in the Survey. Since that is a decrease from the 2013 numbers, it raises serious concerns about the approaches lawyers are taking for cloud services. A shocking 22% reported taking no precautions of the types listed.

The results indicate that lawyers are becoming more familiar with cloud technologies and are attracted by anytime, anywhere access, low cost of entry and predictable monthly expenses.

Confidentiality and security have moved to the top of the worry list and lawyers rate the reputation of the vendor as the most important factor in their decision-making process. There was a noticeable increase in concern about the subscription model as compared to ownership of software.

Lawyers who use cloud services show a growing willingness to continue using cloud services (78%, up from 70%), and those who do not indicate a “maybe someday” attitude toward cloud services.

1. Usage for Law-related Tasks

The percentage of the 2014 Survey participants answering “yes” to the basic question of whether they had used web-based software services or solutions held steady at 30%. In 2013, in contrast, the “yes” answer had jumped by 50% (from 20% to 30%). Only 13% answered that they “don’t know.” Solos (35%) and small firms of 2– 9 lawyers (35%) continued to lead the way in usage.

Although newer lawyers (both those with less than 10 years of experience and those with 10–19 years of experience) are leading the movement to cloud services, more experienced lawyers have essentially caught up with newer lawyers. A possible explanation for this increase by more experienced lawyers might be the departure of experienced lawyers from large firms to start small or solo practices. In these cases, cloud services give these lawyers an easy and affordable way to duplicate the level of technology they had at the large firm they left.

Cloud usage in the United States is highest in the West and the Midwest, although there is not a great deal of difference among regions.

By practice area, corporate (37.3%), commercial (37.2%), real estate (36%) and family law (35.7%) are the top practice areas for cloud use. There was some movement in different practice areas last year. For example, intellectual property practitioners reported 42% cloud usage in 2013, but that number dropped to 33% in 2014. Given the significance of electronic discovery and the availability of cloud-based electronic discovery services, it is somewhat surprising that there is only a 28.5% usage in litigation practices. The lowest cloud adoption rates are in general practice (civil) (22.7%), employment/labor (25.9%) and litigation (28.5%).

By age groups, it is no surprise that lawyers under 50 have the highest adoption rate (32%), but it might surprise that the adoption rate is essentially the same as that of lawyers in the 50–59 years old category.

2. Consumer Cloud Services Remain Popular

The 2014 Survey asked respondents what cloud providers they had used and Dropbox, the well-known online file storage service, once again topped the list at 59%. Since Dropbox use soared from 4% to 58% from 2012 to 2013, the 59% number, while still impressive, reflects the theme of stabilization in 2014. Other consumer cloud services also remained popular, despite a lot of discussion about encryption and other security concerns in the press.

Other consumer cloud services with significant usage included Google Docs (40%), iCloud (29%) and Evernote (19%), all at roughly the same percentages as in 2013.

Legal-specific cloud services do not show the same levels of popularity as the consumer services. Clio continues to be the most popular legal-specific cloud service named by respondents (16.5%), followed by RocketMatter (3.4%), My Case (1.7%) and Bill4Time (1.7%). Interestingly, these results might reflect the difficulties lawyers and others have with determining what exactly is a “cloud” service. Note that services that many would consider “cloud”—WestLaw, LexisNexis, FastCase, to name a few do not show up in the results except presumably as small components of the “Other” category (19%).

Cloud use predominantly focuses on specialized and simple tools for basic tasks like file storage and sharing and note-taking. The survey results suggest that simple, single- focused mobile apps associated with cloud services might become popular in the next year or so. The high level of use of Dropbox  in larger firms also indicates that lawyers in what are traditionally considered “locked down” IT environments are looking for other tools to accomplish tasks they have difficulty doing with traditional law firm tools—another area that deserves further exploration, especially by those firms.

3. Taking More Precautions, but Not Too Much

Although lawyers have a lot of concerns and wariness about cloud services, especially security and confidentiality issues, their reported behavior about precautionary measures simply does not reflect what they express their level of concern to be.

Of the twelve precautionary measures listed in the 2014 Survey, not a single one was used by more than 39% of respondents, a decrease from a high of 44% in 2013. The most popular precautions were local data backups (39% total, but 51% by solos), reviewing privacy policies (37%) and reviewing terms of service 32%).

Discouragingly, the modest growth in taking precautionary measures seen between 2012 and 2013 disappeared and, in some cases, went in the opposite direction. The question might be changing from whether this is an “area for improvement” to whether this is becoming an area of significant concern or even crisis. Particularly striking is the “cobbler’s children’s shoes” element of lawyers not reviewing cloud services agreements for their own usage.

4. Benefits of Cloud Computing

There was not a lot of change in the reported benefits of cloud computing shown in the 2014 Survey. Anywhere, anytime (24x7) access is the biggest perceived benefit of cloud computing for lawyers. Low cost of entry and predictable monthly expenses has continued to grow in importance as a factor. Other economic benefits, such as eliminating IT and software management requirements and quick start-up times are also seen as important benefits.

5. Biggest Concerns

While more lawyers reported using the cloud in 2014, they also reported more concerns about the technology. When current cloud users were asked to identify their biggest concerns about the cloud, they cited “confidentiality/security concerns” (71% versus 70% in 2013) and concerns about losing control of the data (68% versus 58% in 2013). Vendor longevity (35%) was another significant concern, as was the perceived lack of ethical guidance (33%). “Unfamiliarity with the technology” declined a bit (18%, down from 22% in 2013).

It’s quite interesting to compare the listed concerns of lawyers with their actual adoption of precautionary measures as discussed in Section 3.

There were similar but smaller increases in the concerns of those lawyers who have yet to try the cloud. When asked a question about the concerns that had prevented them from adopting the technology, 60% cited confidentiality/security concerns (up from 58% in 2013), 47% cited the loss of control (essentially the same as in 2013), and 23% cited a perceived lack of ethics guidance (down from 27%). “Unfamiliarity with the technology” dropped slightly to 45%, down from 47% in 2013.

6. Name and Reputation of Cloud Vendor

92% of respondents using cloud services considered the name and reputation of the cloud vendor as either very important (70%) or somewhat important (22%) to their decision. However, only 24% of respondents (down from 36% in 2013) reported that they evaluated the vendor’s history and only 26% sought out peer advice/experiences in connection with the vendor. The disconnect is quite striking and shows areas lawyers can improve their due diligence efforts.

7. Desired Features

As mentioned before, the most popular consumer cloud services according to the survey were simple file sharing and storage tools. The 2014 Survey also focused on what core functionality lawyers would require before subscribing to a practice and financial management cloud service. File sharing and storage were not at the top of the list, except to the extent that they fall under the broader functionality of document management, which was listed by 48% of respondents.

Although priorities vary by firm size and practice area, in general, the six most desired features (each earning at least 30% of the votes, with case/matter management getting 48%) listed were:

  • Centralized case/matter management
  • Document management
  • Time and billing
  • Scheduling/reporting
  • Contact management
  • Conflict checking

The Survey gathered results from both users of cloud services and non-users and, although there are not a lot of huge differences to the responses about wanted features and the like, there are some interesting shifts in emphasis that will be of interest to those who want to explore these issues further.

8. Continued Use

The 2014 Survey results indicate lawyers are definitely willing to continue using cloud services. The percentage of “yes” answers to this question increased from 70% in 2013 to 77.5% in 2014. The “no” answers decreased from 7% to 4.5%, leaving 18% in the “maybe” category. The primary reasons for “no” answers included security and confidentiality concerns, previous bad experience, adequacy of current software, cost, and lack of perceived need.

9. Future Use

To the question whether non-cloud users will use a cloud service in the next year, there was a resounding “maybe, but probably not.” 35% said “maybe” (a drop from 40% in 2013) and 42% said “no” (a decline from 46%).  These results reflect the wariness lawyers have about cloud services, but also the growing sense that cloud services are an option they should at least be considering.

Conclusions

The 2014 Legal Technology Survey Report indicates that, for a significant number of lawyers and firms, cloud services are part of the IT equation, but also shows that the adoption rates have slowed, raising the question whether we seeing a pause or a plateau. The strong interest in consumer cloud services and the lack of actual attention to confidentiality, security and due diligence issues continue to be surprises, and the latter, a significant concern. Law firm IT departments and technology committees, legal technology vendors and consultants, and all legal professionals interested in the adoption of technology, especially cloud services, by lawyers can learn from these results and the trends they show and use the results to help them plan for the changes likely to come.

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This article is sponsored by Abacus Data Systems.

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