July 01, 2018 Start-up Tech Your Law Firm Really Needs

Cloud vs. In-House Infrastructure

By Forrest Blair

There’s a lot to think about when you’re first setting up a new law office. One of the most important of these considerations is which type of information technology (IT) infrastructure will your new law firm need? You’ll find there are three options:

  1. Traditional IT infrastructure, where you buy, set up, manage, and maintain your own collection of desktop computers, mobile devices, servers, printers, and software in-house.
  2. Full cloud solution, where you use a network of remote servers to digitally store and access your network, applications, and data over the Internet; in this model, a third-party cloud services provider takes care of the vast majority of your IT needs for you, including setting up and managing all your IT in the cloud and providing ongoing technical support and maintenance, typically on a monthly subscription basis.
  3. Hybrid solution, where you have a mix of in-house IT systems and cloud solutions.

Important Factors to Consider in Choosing a Solution

Which option you’ll choose will typically boil down to several factors:

Your short- and long-term business needs, goals, and plans. How long do you plan to own your new law office? Do you plan to stay a small law office or eventually grow your business and hire more people? In other words, how much flexibility and scalability does your IT infrastructure need? Another important issue to keep in mind: Industry powerhouses such as Microsoft, Dell, and others have all made it clear that the future is services via the Internet instead of traditional hardware products. As a result, many of these companies have already switched to providing solutions and services via the web instead of creating traditional hardware and software products.

Your financial resources as well as the total cost of ownership. How much money do you have up front to buy new computer hardware and software, servers, scanners, printers, etc.? Also, how much money will you have over time to upgrade and replace all your equipment? If you’re like most law firms, you should plan on having to replace your server every two or three years, which can tax your available cash. Furthermore, how much additional office space will you need to rent or buy to house all your IT equipment (for a server room/closet), and store all your documents and data?

Your IT experience (and/or willingness to learn). While most medium and large law firms have enough money to maintain their own IT department in-house, the reality is that most small law firms and solos don’t. Therefore, if you’re planning to open a small law office, just know you’ll either need to: (1) have previous IT experience or be willing to learn how to set up, manage, and maintain all your law firm’s IT equipment yourself; (2) find and hire an IT consultant to help you with everything; or (3) outsource all your IT to a third party.

Your time available to spend on ongoing IT and maintenance issues. Anytime you’re dealing with IT systems, there’s always ongoing work to do—for instance, manually downloading, installing, and updating new software on individual computers or servers; setting up a computer and network access for each new employee you hire; performing IT checkups and installing software patches; handling technical support issues such as password resets or recovering lost files; regularly backing up documents and data; dealing with network downtime and troubleshooting issues; proactively monitoring and protecting your network from any potential security threats, etc. If you’re comfortable spending a substantial amount of time each week and month on these type of tasks, great. If not, you may need to hire a consultant or outsource your IT to a third party.

Your percentage of work to be done remotely. Most law firm employees still do most of their work in the office. But the ABA TECHREPORT 2017 found lawyers are increasingly practicing law outside a traditional office—either at home (77 percent), while traveling (33 percent), from a client or opposing counsel’s office (20 percent), or at court (around 12 percent). Because so many law firm employees are working on the go and are also now using a variety of different devices (e.g., PCs, smartphones, tablets, etc.) to get their jobs done, you also need to think about what type of IT infrastructure you need to put in place to support mobile workers.

Your method of accessing the firm’s network, applications, and files when working remotely. If you have a traditional IT infrastructure, you’ll either need to use a virtual private network or terminal service to access your computer desktop, applications, and files whenever you’re working outside the office. Or, if you simply want to connect with and use another computer in a different location as though you’re sitting in front of it, you can use a remote desktop solution. By comparison, in a cloud environment, a cloud services provider will set you up with a virtual workspace in the cloud. Once this workspace is set up, you’ll be able to access all your applications, e-mail, and files in the cloud via the Internet anytime, anywhere, and on any device. And all your law firm’s applications will appear as though they’re installed locally. All these are important items to consider because, as any lawyer who’s tried to access a law firm’s network or legal software applications remotely will tell you, there can be multiple access, performance, bandwidth, and data bottleneck issues if you don’t have the right solution.

Your comfort with being responsible for all your own security and compliance. Some law firm owners with traditional IT infrastructures are more comfortable than others in being responsible for securing confidential client data and applications and ensuring their firm is complying with legal requirements such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Payment Card Industry (PCI) standards, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) standards, and so on. Often, a third-party cloud provider will oversee all your security and compliance for you.

Your comfort with preparing for and responding to security audits on your own. More and more law firms are being audited by banks and other institutions with whom they exchange financial and HIPAA-compliant information. These audits can be both complex and time consuming for law firm owners to deal with on their own. However, because some cloud service providers have their own data centers and IT experts on staff, they can often handle the entire audit and certification process for you, if needed.

The Advantages of Each Option

Below are some of the biggest advantages of using each system.

Cloud infrastructure:

  • Manages and maintains all your IT and provides all needed technical support.
  • Eliminates up-front hardware costs; systems are more cost-effective and scalable than a traditional IT infrastructure, allowing for more predictable IT budgeting and spending.
  • Allows you and your employees to securely work and access software applications, documents, and data anytime, anywhere, and on any device with Internet access.
  • Increases law firm profitability and productivity as it allows you to focus on practicing law instead of managing IT.
  • Automatically backs up and syncs documents and data.
  • Enables you to efficiently and securely connect to and exchange documents and data with other third-party cloud systems.
  • Provides disaster recovery solutions needed to protect against flood, fire, theft, data loss, and other risks.

In-house infrastructure

  • Retains ownership and maintenance of your IT equipment on-site/in-house.
  • Enables you to have direct physical control over your applications, data, and security.
  • Eliminates the need for an Internet connection to access your documents and data whenever you’re working in your office.
  • Allows you to store sensitive health care or financial data only on-site, but can make compliance complicated.
  • Allows use of a private WAN connection to a private data center rather than using the Internet to access a public cloud (this can be preferable if you frequently work in countries that heavily restrict Internet access to certain content).
  • Preserves the option of opening remote offices in countries where Internet access and/or bandwidth constraints are an issue at the last mile.

Conclusion

If you’re planning to start a small law firm or go out on your own as a solo, you have several options when selecting an IT infrastructure. Which option you choose—whether to set up your own IT infrastructure in-house or outsource your IT to a third party over the cloud—will ultimately depend on your new law firm’s goals and needs, as well as your own skill set and comfort level.

Forrest Blair

Forrest Blair is chief executive officer of AirDesk Legal (airdesklegal.com), a cloud provider offering a full suite of cloud services for law firms, ranging from hosted applications and hosted e-mail to virtual servers, document storage and collaboration, and more. He has held a variety of executive-level positions at corporations throughout the country and has served as a technical innovator and entrepreneur guiding technology start-ups.