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Managed Service Providers: Not Just Another TLA (Three-Letter Acronym)

Stanley Louissaint

I think we can agree that technology has changed many facets of our lives, but there are two schools of thought on the nature of this shift: some believe the changes are great, and others think they are terrible.

Regardless of how you feel, technology is a part of us. Your law practice is not shielded from any of these changes. Yet, there is some good news. You have access to managed service providers (MSPs) that will take the burden of technology away from you. I want to walk you through some business challenges, educate you about what an MSP can do for your practice, and give you some tips on how to pick the right provider for you.

Running a business is tough, and most of you can attest to that. Business owners are always trying to maximize the return on any investment they make. Yes, I said business owners. You, a practicing attorney, are indeed a business owner. Often I meet attorneys who do not view themselves as business owners. I wholeheartedly disagree with this sentiment. As an attorney, you are faced with the same challenges as every other business owner. One of the biggest challenges that we all face is time.

Time is a resource of which there is never enough, nor can we get it back when lost. For you, the phrase “time is money” couldn’t be more true. More often than not, your income has a direct relationship to time. Before you even mention it, I understand that there are practices built on billing matters through either flat-fee or contingency-based agreements. Yet, even in these instances, time cannot be overlooked as a factor that determines how many cases you can work on at once and, therefore, how much income you can generate.

Why do I bring all this up? The more time you spend working on client matters, the more money you make. Conversely, the less time you spend working on client matters, the less money you make. What does this all mean when it comes to technology at your law firm? Stop wasting time playing IT director or computer service technician.

The Birth of the MSP

That was a harsh delivery, but I know no better way to deliver the truth to you. As a seasoned veteran in IT, I have seen my industry go through many shifts to better serve you and your firm. The most relevant change for you is the advent of the MSP.

MSPs have moved to the forefront of taking care of the technology needs of businesses, including law offices. As computer service technicians, we have been historically reactive in how we dealt with clients and their issues. We were fixing issues that were brought to our attention—but not preventing or avoiding them. When something broke or stopped working, you, the client, called us and we responded to resolve that specific issue. As an industry, we have realized that this is not an efficient way to do things nor is it beneficial to the client.

Additionally, we also realized that most problems that our clients experienced were, indeed, preventable. In an effort to provide clients with a higher level of reliability, satisfaction, and peace of mind, the MSP was born.

Proactive Services

Imagine that: preventable problems. You need to be aware that there is a basic set of services that your MSP of choice needs to provide you. These services should be 24/7 monitoring, anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-spam, backup, system patching, and updating.

Lack of maintenance is one of the top reasons why systems fail. I’ve witnessed firsthand how most businesses purchased that brand-new, shiny server, programed it, stuck it in a closet, and closed the door; nobody looked at it again until the users reported a major issue. Your IT technicians rarely called you, but waited for you to call them. Thankfully, the situation is different today. Your MSP’s service model includes proactive and preventive care for all your systems.

That server, as well as your workstations, each get an agent loaded onto them. MSPs use those agents to constantly monitor your devices and offer a basic set of services. Everything from free/used disk capacity to CPU/processor usage gets monitored 24/7. When there is an issue, your MSP is notified and alerted to resolve the error.

This is a new level of insight into your systems that was not previously readily available. Capacity planning also becomes a manageable task that is fact based as well. Is your firm outgrowing your current server? Is there a particular application that is hogging all its resources? Are you running out of disk space? Your MSP will not only know the answers to these questions but be able to provide you with the reporting to prove it.

However, monitoring is not the only benefit that MSPs offer. They also provide your systems with automatic security and patch updates. This falls into the technology maintenance category that I previously mentioned. Such maintenance services keep you protected from software vulnerabilities, minimize security vulnerabilities of your systems, and, ultimately, improve the performance of those systems.

So, if you haven’t noticed it yet, an MSP’s goal is to minimize uncertainty, which ultimately allows you to have greater uptime. The more uptime you have, the more work you can do. And, of course, the more work you can do, the more money you can make.

Security Assistance

A big pain point for many businesses today is security. Hacking has been around since the advent of the computer, but, in the early days, feeling good about taking over a system was all the motivation a hacker needed. Unfortunately, today a self-esteem boost is no longer sufficient incentive. There is money to be made, and your firm is a target. You are not exempt or magically protected from attacks. Data is valuable, and there is a dollar amount attached to each medical record, Social Security number, bank account, and credit card detail. Depending on what area of law you practice, you may have a ton of this type of data in your possession.

There is a cost associated with any breach that your firm may face. You will suffer loss of revenue, but more importantly loss of trust from your valued clients. Your MSP can offer security services to keep you protected, including firewall services, anti-virus, anti-spam, and proactive security monitoring. Some MSPs and specialty IT services firms may provide managed security service as a separate area of practice.

Whether you are hiring an MSP for basic monitoring or managed security, you are shifting IT responsibility to that MSP.

“As a managing partner, there’s a lot of responsibility on my plate,” says Joseph Tacopina, managing partner of the Law Offices of Tacopina & Seigel. “Delegating responsibility to trusted service providers is a must to keep me focused on the most important thing, client matters.”

Because of this shift in responsibility, you may have to meet an MSP’s prerequisites before the service provider will sign you on as a client. Your systems, for example, have to meet a minimum set of specifications to be fully supported. Simply put, you will not be presented an opportunity to sign an agreement if you have a six-year-old server. Over time, parts degrade and software goes obsolete. You have to stay up-to-date and make replacements according to schedule if you want an MSP to manage your network effectively. If you have dated equipment, do not be surprised if the MSP you are talking to suggests replacing that equipment before you move to the next step.

MSP Pricing Models

Before we take a look at the different MSP pricing models, I want you to think about your time. We’ve already concluded that your time is valuable, but just how valuable is it?

“The hourly rate of my MSP is less than my hourly rate, allowing me to cover the costs by working for clients instead of trying to debug my computer,” says Michael R. Magaril, of the Law Offices of Michael R. Magaril. “By working proactively with my consultant before problems arise, I also have significantly reduced the risk that my system will shut down or that my data will be lost or misappropriated, providing me with peace of mind that I would not otherwise have.”

He adds, “I have found the investment to be well worth it.”

Pricing is typically the most sensitive topic in any business dealing. I urge you not to focus so much on price, but rather the value that the MSP will provide. There are a few standard pricing models that MSPs employ. The pricing presented by the MSP will be a monthly recurring cost except for any one-time onboarding fees.

The first thing to determine is whether you want to have monitoring only, monitoring and support, or an all-inclusive agreement. These are typically the three flavors of service that MSPs offer. Let’s look at each option in greater detail.

Monitoring only. The monitoring-only option is just as it sounds. Under this plan, your MSP is watching your network 24/7. This is the lowest-cost option. However, anything that requires work to be done, whether remote or on-site, will be considered billable time according to the contract rates specified.

Monitoring and support. The next option is monitoring and support. Typically, under this option you have unlimited remote support, but any on-site work is billed at the contract rates specified. Under this approach, MSPs handle pricing on a per-device or per-user basis.

The most common pricing structure is a per-device model. Under this model you will be presented with an inventory of all your IT assets. These items typically fall into one of the following categories: servers, computers, laptops, network switches, wireless access points, and firewalls. The provider will supply you with a fixed price for each device based on these categories. Servers cost more than computers, while laptops and firewalls cost more than switches, etc.

Next is a per-user model. Did you know that an average user has three devices? Based on the per-device model, you would be paying for each device separately even though only one user utilizes them. The per-user model factors that into account. Your pricing is determined by the number of users who are accessing your systems and not by the number of devices. But wait, what happens if someone leaves or joins the company? Your MSP has tools that capture these changes in real time, and your monthly bill will reflect these changes.

All-inclusive. Lastly, we have the all-inclusive, “all-you-can-eat” (AYCE) model, which is a fee structure that gives you unlimited remote and on-site support in addition to the operations mentioned above.

In addition to monitoring and maintenance, other services may be added to your selected package, including remote backup/business continuity services, e-mail archiving, e-mail continuity, mobile device management, printer management, and/or VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) telephone service, just to mention a few.

Up to this point, I’ve really only mentioned the maintenance and support of your network. This is not all an MSP provides you, but it is all that’s covered with respect to your agreement. Any replacements, new equipment installations, or migrations are going to be considered separate projects. Nothing new falls under maintenance, and understandably so. Your MSP agreement includes discounted rates for any separate projects.

Knowing Your Business

There are some business challenges that exist in law firms that don’t exist in other businesses. You have to make sure that your MSP understands them. Has your MSP worked with other law firms? Do they understand how the loss of time affects your business, or the importance of being able to track time? How about the applications you utilize that are specific to law? And most importantly, does your MSP know how to integrate all those systems together to make sure they work as one?

Your time is valuable, and technology is a resource that should make you more effective. Wasting your time fiddling with your systems is not practical, nor is it beneficial to your practice.

“This is not a DIY situation,” says Gerald Krovatin, managing partner of Krovatin Klingeman, LLC. “The technologies move so far, so fast. I think it’s almost malpractice not to rely on an MSP to keep your firm protected.”

Give up your DIY hat and the “wait until it breaks” approach. Let a managed service provider protect you.

Stanley Louissaint is principal and founder of Fluid Designs, a New Jersey–based managed service provider offering comprehensive computer, server, and network support services for managing law firms’ computer information and technology systems. Fluid Designs keeps everything up and running through its proactive and preventive maintenance program and provides clients in the legal industry additional full-service offerings such as computer forensics, cyber investigations, e-discovery, and IT expert witness services.