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Virtual Office Technology: What Solos and Small Firms Need to Know

Michael Brennan

Technological evolution can be hard to keep up with, especially for lawyers accustomed to a more traditional way of doing business. Terms such as “the cloud,” “SaaS,” and “virtualization” may seem more compatible with the language in which computer engineers speak, but, as a lawyer, incorporating these concepts into your practice enables you to become more responsive to evolving client demographics. Attorneys can increase efficiency, accessibility, and convenience by seeking to understand these technological concepts, assessing their usefulness, and weighing the burdens, risks, and rewards of their incorporation into existing practices. Appropriate virtual solutions can reduce redundancy and costs while decreasing significant risks, such as the potential for data loss or inadvertent breach of client confidentiality.

The idea of virtualization may seem daunting. But by understanding the terminology, the risks, and the solutions on the market to alleviate these risks, you can make informed decisions about areas of your practice that may be made more efficient by virtualizing them.

Understanding the Terminology of Virtualization

At its core, virtualization is just the inclusion of existing technological tools into an existing practice. Just like the rise of personal computers as a replacement for dedicated word processors in the 1990s or the increased popularity of cell phones over landlines in the 2000s, virtualized solutions have evolved from traditional ways of doing business. A general understanding of the current technological language is necessary for you to make informed decisions on how to virtualize your firm.

The Cloud

The most common method of virtualizing a law firm starts with moving some law firm functions to the cloud. The cloud refers to an interconnected network of servers, systems, and hard drives that enables you to store and access data from multiple devices and locations. Although it may sound like an obscure concept to unfamiliar attorneys, the cloud has become a hot topic for law firms looking to stay on the forefront of technology.

Numerous applications and programs exist that enable you to access your data online in specific ways and for specific purposes. For example, common practice management platforms, such as MyCase and Clio, are cloud-based applications that enable you to manage your firm’s entire presence in the cloud without the need for owned, on-premises, physical servers. Instead of accessing software parked on your personal computer or device, you use personalized login credentials to access an environment that is hosted on remote third-party servers accessed through the Internet.

Sounds confusing? Think about something you already use: your personal e-mail account—whether Gmail, Yahoo, or AOL. To access your e-mail, you log in to your account through the Internet to a network of central remote servers where your messages are stored securely for your access, rather than by opening a software program on your computer. This is a cloud-based application.

A common feature among most cloud applications and storage platforms is that the physical servers that house your data are owned and managed by someone else. Whether you use Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Drive, iCloud, or Dropbox, when you send data to the cloud, it will reside on servers owned and operated by a third party. For example, if you uploaded a draft of a contract to your Dropbox account and share it with your client by e-mailing the client a secure link to access the contract, the client is not logging in to view the file on your computer. Instead, the client is accessing the remote server where the draft contract is stored by Dropbox. Provided you and the client have Internet access, you can access this document anytime from anywhere from any smartphone, computer, or other device.

Virtual Law Office

After grasping the concept of the cloud, the next step is understanding how it applies to the practice of law. The “virtual law office” can take several different forms. At one end of the spectrum are law firms that may still have physical office spaces for client meetings but use a cloud-based practice management platform for central business functions. At the other end are law firms that are completely virtual. These firms incorporate multiple virtual functions and solutions into their operations—from practice management, to client videoconferencing, to web-based telephone service, to remote cloud data and document storage. Together, these solutions permit attorneys to work from anywhere at any time with little more than a laptop and Internet access.

My firm is entirely virtual. Depending on where I am on a given day, I work from a home office, coffee shop, library, or private club space, with no more than my laptop, smartphone, and Internet. I manage client matters and communications through MyCase, which lets me exchange electronic messages with my clients in a secure space, store and collaborate on document drafts, track my time, and send invoices. I use cloud-based videoconferencing solutions, such as UberConference or Zoom videoconferencing, to consult with clients who want (virtual) face-to-face meetings, and I use my cell phone for the rest. I use MyCase’s calendaring feature to ensure I don’t miss important meetings or deadlines, and I sync it with my iPhone’s iCal calendar so that I can access it even when I’m not online. I create a backup of all data and files through MyCase’s document management feature and create a second backup on a personal cloud device called a Transporter, which is physically located in my living room but accessible anywhere I have Internet access through secure login.

The virtualization of your firm will not be identical to mine. But, by seeing what a 100 percent virtual law office looks like, you can get a sense of the areas where your firm may benefit from virtualization.

Differentiating Acronyms: SaaS, HaaS, and IaaS

As lawyers have sought to virtualize their practices by incorporating more cloud-based solutions, several acronyms have worked their way into the common vernacular. Concepts such as SaaS (software as a service), HaaS (hardware as a service), and IaaS (infrastructure as a service) have become common abbreviations for various types of cloud-based solutions. For lawyers with limited IT knowledge, the language can sound foreign. But, while there are differences between SaaS, HaaS, and IaaS, there are some uniform elements that, when understood, can greatly enhance your understanding of cloud computing and the various considerations involved in choosing appropriate solutions to virtualize your practice.

While HaaS and IaaS are helpful for lawyers looking to modernize their firms, they do little to assist you in virtualizing your firm. In today’s legal industry, SaaS is the primary delivery model driving the virtualization of law firm operations, so it is the one that is most important for attorneys to understand. SaaS applications are cloud-based software solutions that are not purchased and installed on your hard drive, but rather are licensed by paying a periodic (typically, monthly) subscription fee. Some common SaaS solutions for lawyers are the aforementioned practice management suites and document and data storage solutions, such as Dropbox, SpiderOak, and Smokeball.

When you are assessing areas for your firm’s virtualization, you will most likely be looking at SaaS solutions.

Considerations When Choosing Virtualization Solutions

While there are newer law firms that are completely virtual in all their operations, 100 percent virtualization should not be the goal of every firm. The idea is to integrate virtual solutions into your existing business model in a way that works for you. Making changes for the sake of making changes is detrimental to your business model. Overinclusion will lead to inefficiency and waste. But, properly integrated into your practice, virtual solutions offer several benefits. When choosing appropriate solutions for your firm, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of virtualizing specific law firm functions before committing to changes.

Benefits. A primary benefit of virtual solutions is that they are intuitive to learn and use, even for the least technologically inclined among us. This means that there is little need for the assistance of IT professionals for software setup, maintenance, or training. Troubleshooting can generally be handled by browsing the provider’s frequently asked questions page or reaching out to on-call remote support agents. Further, compatibility with operating systems and various devices is of little concern because applications do not require any installation onto local hardware.

Virtual solutions are also budget-friendly (or at least budget-predictable). Because applications are almost always subscription-based, you can plan expenses accordingly. Unlike traditional software, cloud applications are continually improved upon, which means that you do not need to install updates or security patches periodically as is necessary with installed software. The provider is doing all that work automatically.

One additional significant benefit of virtualized applications is that they are very scalable. Subscriptions are typically based on the number of users, so firms are only paying for the access that they need. This makes them customizable to different firm sizes and structures without necessitating any customization of the product itself.

Drawbacks. However, virtualization does come with some drawbacks that must be considered before integrating solutions into your law practice. Two significant issues that you need to consider are the level of control, access, and security you are comfortable with and the level of periodic downtime you are willing to accept.

Where in-house solutions give you complete control over your software, virtualized solutions are controlled by third-party providers. Reliance on third-party providers creates an environment where the potential for data breach or loss is not entirely under your control. Most cloud-based applications are as secure, if not more secure, than on-premises systems, but you will want to do your due diligence when choosing appropriate virtual applications for integration into your firm’s operations. It is important to consider where your data is being hosted—whether it is staying domestic or being moved abroad, potentially creating unwanted exposure to breach. Carefully review user agreements to understand the security measures third parties are taking to protect your data from loss or breach and be sure you understand the provider’s procedures for extracting your data in the event you want to terminate your subscription to an application.

Accessibility also can be problematic. Virtual applications may have occasional periods of downtime to enable providers to address system issues, update security infrastructure, or improve features. This means there may be times you will not have access to your data. Of course, access to on-premises software is limited by your ability to access your physical office, so the issue of downtime is not a new one. Providers generally give adequate notice when downtime may occur, but if you practice in a deadline-heavy area of law, you will want to ensure that you have put measures in place enabling you to access any necessary documents or data when they are needed.

Conclusion

Virtualization is a cost-effective way for practitioners to structure modern law firms that are responsive to rapidly changing client demographics as technology becomes increasingly central to daily life. By examining current law firm operations and identifying potential functions that can be virtualized without detrimentally disrupting established business practices, attorneys can create practices with maximum flexibility, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience. By identifying the potential risks of virtualization and implementing appropriate security measures, practitioners can set themselves up for success in a continually evolving world.

Michael Brennan is the founder and principal of the Virtual Attorney, which uses videoconferencing and other forms of online communication technology to provide clients with a secure, convenient, and accessible means to plan for their businesses or plan for their families. Brennan is licensed in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota and focuses his practice on estate planning, tax, business formation, regulatory, compliance, commercial transactions, and business development.