Volume 17, Number 8
December 2000

ASPs for Law Firms? Just Hold on a Minute!

By Ross Kodner and Sheryn Bruehl

Are ASPs (application service providers) a viable option for law firms who want to use the application functions they provide? Our experience in speaking to audiences all over the country is that lawyers as a whole are not particularly technologically aware. For the most part, they are just managing to churn out the work, and that's about all they have time to do. The good news is that they are venturing out to legal technology CLE programs and learning, but do we think these folks will make the leap in the next year or two to web-based open standards systems and toss out their internal Windows networks and local apps? It's hard to say.

Lawyers are typically slow to embrace new technology, particularly if they do not fully understand it. But, then again, they may very well be tempted by the "we do all the work" promise ASPs offer of not having to worry about technical details. Unfortunately, however, very few legal practitioners will ask the right questions, or even have enough techno.savvy to recognize the issues they should be concerned about. For instance:

  • What happens if the ASP's servers go down and you don't have access to your applications and/or data? Or worse yet, if your ASP damages or loses your data? What responsibility does the ASP assume, and how will they assist and/or compensate you?
  • How will you work if your Internet connection is down for any reason? What happens if you can't or don't pay your bill (or if they mistakenly think you didn't)?
  • What happens if you want to change services? If you switch from one provider to another, will they give you your data? Will it be in a format that you can easily use elsewhere? How long will it take to get it?
  • What about client security and confidentiality? How can you know that your data is not being "mined" for information or kept in a manner that is not secure? How can you be sure that the ASP is properly backing up your data?

Unfortunately, most of the early entries into the ASP market have tended to answer those specific questions with generalities like "Not a problem," "We're completely secure," "We've got the confidentiality part covered." That is just not enough of an answer when your livelihood, professional reputation, and ethical responsibilities are on the line. The ASP concept has some merit, and may just be "the wave of the future," but until a standard develops that can deliver 100 percent satisfactory answers to the above questions, it might very well be malpractice to jump on this particular bandwagon, even if other businesses and industries start doing it.

Keep in mind that the ASP concept is not new. It is simply a high-tech variation of a trend that has come into and gone out of fashion in the corporate world over and over again: outsourcing and service bureaus, neither of which ever managed to have any sticking power. Business people, IT staff, and lawyers, in particular, are simply not willing to give up control of their empires to other people, whose interests and priorities may not necessarily be the same. What is actually more likely to happen (and, in fact, is beginning to happen even now) is that larger firms will become their own ASPs-building IT centers to securely deliver the firm's entire application set and data storage facilities over open standard Internet connections. Smaller firms will seek out web-enabled applications that allow them to take advantage of now-commonplace high-speed Internet access to work from remote locations.

In the meantime, the ASP topic remains a hot one. Law firms are grappling with the promise of reduced cost and hassle, versus dependence on a third party for technology and data access. Regardless of what ASPs promise, it is unlikely that the average lawyer will actually save much money on hardware (or even software), given that some programs will simply not be available on an ASP basis, and that the data mirroring and backup necessary to provide fault tolerance and redundancy will necessitate fully powered machines.

So are ASPs ready for prime-time? Almost. If ASPs can provide supportable answers to the questions posed above, they would seem to show great promise. Better funded companies with more completely thought out approaches, such as West with their WestWorks project and Elite.com, have the potential to offer products that meet and even exceed expectations. But if the questions aren't satisfactorily answered, ASPs will get their own byte from the legal community...right in their ASPs.

Ross Kodner is president and founder of MicroLaw, Inc., a Milwaukee-based legal technology consultancy and turnkey legal automation system provider. He chairs the ABA Law Practice Management Section's Computer & Technology Division and serves on the ABA TECHSHOW executive planning board. He is a member of the editorial board of Technology & Practice Guide. Sheryn Bruehl (sbruehl@compuserve.com) is a managing partner in the Norman, Oklahoma, firm of Bruehl & Chapman, P.C. where she practices worker's compensation law. She administers an eight-computer network for four attorneys and two support staff. She is an active member of the ABA Law Practice Management Section and is the vice-chair of its Computer & Technology Division.

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