Diligent research, careful crafting of arguments and documents, and persuasive advocacy on behalf of a client are all core elements of the practice of law. But most attorneys will admit that they spend a frustrating portion of their working hours away from those duties, focused instead on the mundane but necessary business and clerical responsibilities of a working law practice. To handle these responsibilities, attorneys turn to specialized software developed for the legal industry, including software for case or practice management, time and billing, document assembly, and trial presentation.
Most legal software follows the traditional software model: attorneys purchase the software by license (individually or in bulk) and install it onto their computers via disk or download. Data created and used by the software is stored on the user's computer and often backed up to the firm's central file server. Minor updates and security patches are applied occasionally, but for the most part the software's functionality remains static. Every few years the developer will release a major revision to the software which requires a new license -- sometimes available at a reduced "upgrade" price point for existing customers.
In recent years, a new software model has emerged: Software as a Service (or "SaaS"). SaaS is distinguished from traditional software in several ways. Rather than installing the software to your computer or the firm's server, SaaS is accessed via a web browser (like Internet Explorer or FireFox) over the Internet. Data is stored in the vendor's data center rather than on the firm's computers. Upgrades and updates, both major and minor, are rolled out continuously. And perhaps most importantly, SaaS is usually sold on a subscription model, meaning that users pay a monthly fee rather than purchasing a license up front.
Is a legal SaaS solution right for you firm? Here are some of the factors you should consider when evaluating SaaS, and some specific questions you should ask SaaS vendors before signing up.
Many of the traditional legal software titles on the market have been in development for years, undergoing revision after revision as technology and attorney needs have changed. This means that traditional legal software tends to have a very wide range of features and functions, but it can also be complicated and less-than-intuitive for new users. As recent entrants into the market, most SaaS applications have been built fresh from the ground-up. As a result, they tend to have limited feature sets but more intuitive and modern user interfaces.
When looking at legal SaaS, be sure to consider these questions/issues about functionality/usability:
- Does the vendor offer a free trial period or demo to test out the interface and functionality of the product?
- If you currently use equivalent traditional software, what features do you use most frequently and are they available in the SaaS product?
- How often are new features added? Are any major new features planned?
- How open is the vendor to user feedback about changes and new features?
Service and Support
Traditional software and SaaS differ significantly on matters of customer service and technical support. To receive full technical support with traditional software, many vendors require that users purchase per-license support packages on an annual basis. Because the software is installed on the user's computers, the computer configurations, server setup, and other installed software may complicate support. In some cases, it can be difficult for users to identify which technical support to contact: the software developer, the operating system developer, the hardware vendor, or their own computer consultant.
In contrast, technical support is usually included as part of the monthly subscription cost with SaaS solutions. Because SaaS runs in a web browser, users are less likely to encounter software or hardware conflicts. Problems that do arise are likely to be on the developer's end and in most cases will effect more than one user. This provides the developer with a strong incentive to correct the issue, but also makes it difficult or impossible for the SaaS user to fix his or her own problems.
Most SaaS and traditional software vendors offer limited free training on their products, either via prepared tutorials, online webcasts, or special training sessions. More elaborate training seminars, often multi-day and/or multi-skill level, are available for some traditional software products. This may be due, in part, to the higher complexity discussed previously. Furthermore, because SaaS products are relatively new, they are less likely to have an existing base of experienced users, consultants, and trainers than one might find with older, more established legal software.
- What training options are available for users of this product?
- How many attorneys are currently using this product?
- What type of support is included with the purchase price/monthly subscription?
- Does the vendor offer (or would it be willing to negotiate) a Service Level Agreement (SLA) that guarantees a certain response time to customer service and/or technical support requests?
Access to traditional legal software is limited by hardware compatibility, operating system, and licensing. For example, a traditional case management software may only be compatible with a PC running Windows XP or later, with a certain processor speed and quantity of RAM. Because SaaS solutions are web-based, they're usually compatible across multiple platforms (Mac, PC, Linux, etc.) and browsers (Internet Explorer, FireFox, Safari, etc.). A legal SaaS solution may also be compatible with mobile devices like BlackBerrys, iPhones, and other Smartphones, whereas traditional legal software either cannot be used on mobile devices or can only be used by purchasing a separate "mobile" version of the software.
SaaS also has the advantage of not being limited to a single installation as is often the case with traditional software. Thus, an attorney subscribing to a legal SaaS solution could use the web-based interface from his or her home, office, or any other location with internet access without having to purchase additional licenses for each computer. In other words, access is tied to the individual (and more specifically his or her login ID and password) rather than to the computer. This can be particularly useful for business continuity purposes, as an attorney driven from their office by natural or manmade disaster can be back working as soon as a web-enabled computer is available.
That said, the "internet" component of SaaS software leads to a significant drawback: because the software is accessed via the web, an attorney who is without internet access for any reason will not be able to access his or her legal software. Some vendors offer the ability to "sync" some data to a local computer (e.g. an address book, calendar, etc.) but this provides only limited functionality.
Some questions/issues to consider with regard to availability/access:
- How often do I need to access my legal software outside of the office?
- Is the SaaS compatible with my preferred platform/device/web browser?
- Do I work in an area that's prone to disaster or other business continuity threats?
- Do I have reliable access to the Internet from work? From home? On the road?
- Does the provider offer (or would it be willing to negotiate) a Service Level Agreement (SLA) that guarantees a certain level of service (e.g. uptime, accessibility, etc.)?
- Are any relevant guarantees or disclaimers of liability included in the provider's Terms of Service (TOS)?
Another fundamental difference between SaaS and traditional legal software is that SaaS solutions store the user's data -- such as documents, contacts, notes, billing information, and more -- on remote servers rather than on the user's own computer. Given that one of an attorney's foremost duties is to safeguard client confidentiality, attorneys are understandably wary about placing client files on a vendor's servers. Indeed, the issue extends beyond just confidentiality: attorneys must be sure that the files will be secure from destruction or degradation (whether from system failure, natural disaster, or dissolution of the vendor's business), and they must be able to retrieve the data in a form that's usable outside of the vendor's product.
On the other hand, a legitimate argument can be made that files stored on the vendor's servers are more secure than those located on a typical attorney's PC, as the vendors often employ elaborate security measures and multiple redundant backups in their data centers.
Some questions/issues to consider with regard to ethics/security:
- How does the vendor safeguard the privacy/confidentiality of stored data?
- How often is the user's data backed up? Does the vendor backup data in multiple data centers in different geographic locations to safeguard against natural disaster?
- What is the history of the vendor? Where do they derive their funding? How stable are they financially?
- Can I get my data "off" their servers for my own offline use/backup? If I decide to cancel my subscription to the software, will I get my data? Is data supplied in a non-proprietary format that is compatible with other software?
- Does the vendor's Terms of Service or Service Level Agreement address confidentiality and security? If not, would the vendor be willing to sign a confidentiality agreement in keeping with your professional responsibilities?
Cost is one of the more controversial issues when comparing SaaS and traditional software. Traditional legal software is typically sold by individual license, meaning that an attorney must purchase a license up front for each attorney or other user within the firm. Incidental costs related to the software -- such as necessary database licenses, improved hardware, or consultant time for installation/setup -- can add significantly to the up front cost of the software. Once purchased, however, future costs are minimal (outside of support hours for consultants or IT staff) until the attorney decides to upgrade the software to the latest version or to replace it with a different product entirely.
With SaaS, on the other hand, cost is based on a subscription model. Rather than paying a large sum up front, the attorney agrees to pay a relatively modest amount every month. The monthly cost is usually based on the number of users, sometimes with tiered pricing for staff or for larger numbers of users. Because the technical requirements are minimal and installation is unnecessary, SaaS users are less likely to have to invest in new hardware or consultant time to get a new SaaS solution set up.
Over time, the cost of the two options is be more difficult to assess. While traditional software may require a substantial up front investment, the monthly charges for SaaS solutions can eventually surpass that up front cost. SaaS solutions, however, are upgraded continually, meaning that while a traditional software requires an expensive per-license upgrade fee every few of years to get the latest features, SaaS solutions are always up-to-date and new features are accessible as soon as they're released.
Some cost questions/issues to consider:
- What are the monthly costs for the SaaS option, and are discounted rates available for non-lawyer employees like paralegals, legal assistants, and law clerks?
- Does the vendor require a contractual agreement to maintain service for a certain amount of time (e.g. 12 months, 24 months)?
- How does the cost of the SaaS solution compare over a two or three year period to the cost of a comparable traditional software license?
- What's the pricing history of the SaaS solution? How often are monthly rates increased?
- Are there any incidental costs for the SaaS solution, like data backup or support?