The 2021 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report will be important historically because it gives us the first look at how lawyers responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Spoiler alert: we did not see anything like the movement to the cloud we expected in 2020. In fact, the 2021 results might be interpreted as another example of lawyers being late arrivals to technologies widely in use in other professions and businesses.
Nonetheless, we still expect the practice of law to be much more cloud-intensive in the near future than it is now, with courts and clients driving many of the changes. Do you think Zoom meetings, online court hearings, and other forms of online collaboration tools will really go away after what we’ve seen in the pandemic?
The Cloud: Background
What is the cloud? The terms “cloud” and “cloud computing” are now familiar to most lawyers, but it’s good to set out the basics because there can still be some confusion about definitions and acronyms. In the enterprise IT world, you will find public, private, and hybrid clouds, and many flavors of “as a service”: software (SaaS), infrastructure (IaaS), and platform (PaaS), to name the three most common.
The 2021 Survey focused on the basic concept of a “web-based software service or solution,” including Software as a Service (SaaS). In practical terms, you can understand cloud computing as software or services that can be accessed and used over the internet using a browser (or, commonly now, a mobile app), where the software itself is not installed locally on the computer being used by the lawyer accessing the service. Your data are also processed and stored on remote servers rather than on local computers and hard drives. Cloud applications are also referred to as “web services” or “hosted services.”
Cloud services might be hosted by a third party (most commonly, Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure platforms) or, more commonly in the legal profession, by a provider running its services on Amazon, Microsoft, or another cloud platform. It’s also possible, though unlikely, that a law firm could host and provide its own private cloud services.
The cloud approach has become quite popular in the business world (e.g., Salesforce.com, BaseCamp, Microsoft 365, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, LinkedIn, and Slack) and for individuals (e.g., Dropbox, Gmail, Evernote, Netflix, Facebook, and more). There are also a growing number of legal-specific cloud services, such as Clio, Rocket Matter, NetDocuments, Practice Panther, MyCase, and many more.
Many people also use cloud applications daily in their personal lives, from Gmail to Dropbox to Netflix to Zoom to Facetime and Facebook. According to a report by Skyhigh Networks, the average number of cloud applications used by each employee in large business enterprises has been estimated at 36 apps.
In the legal profession, it’s still a much different story. Legal is a lagging industry in cloud use. That said, it is still surprising that even in 2021 the reported use of cloud computing in law practice stayed flat or even declined—despite the pandemic and all the news coverage about Zoom meetings and working from home. This result is difficult to comprehend, let alone explain.
However, that’s not even the biggest story. In 2021, the poor cybersecurity approaches lawyers are taking to the use of cloud applications actually worsened and continued to be the key takeaway from the 2021 Survey. It’s difficult to reconcile the ethical duty of technology competence with the reported behaviors of lawyers.
The results again show lawyers still using the cloud much less than the rest of the business world, and probably much less than most individuals. The 2021 Survey reports that cloud usage increased only by 1% (up to 60% from 59% in 2020). Those saying they don’t use any cloud services dropped slightly—from 28% to 25%. The “don’t know” category increased slightly to 15%. Small and medium-sized firms report the highest use—roughly 65%. Large firms are just slightly behind in reported use. Reported use by solos stayed at 52%.
The 2021 Survey highlights a major concern that, while lawyers talk the talk about security concerns in cloud computing, to a shocking degree they do not walk the walk. The poor results in the cybersecurity category should be a major concern for the legal profession. If you take only one thing from this TechReport to add to your 2021 technology agenda, it should be to up your game on cloud security, for your sake and, even more so, for the sake of your clients.
The key cloud computing benefits have remained constant over the years. Lawyers and law firms see the cloud as a fast and scalable way to use advanced legal technology tools without the need for a substantial upfront capital investment in hardware, software, and support services. Cloud services are generally made available in the form of a “subscription,” with a periodic fee (typically monthly or annually) per user.
A popular example of a cloud service is Dropbox, a cloud service for file storage and sharing, which 62% of lawyers reported that they are already using. That makes Dropbox the most commonly-used cloud service for lawyers by a considerable margin. In fact, nearly five times as many respondents used Dropbox as the most popular legal-specific cloud tool.
Despite the unexpectedly slow growth in 2021, cloud computing appears to be moving toward becoming a standard approach in legal technology, albeit more slowly than many expected. As you will note from some of the detailed survey results, there still appear to be some fundamental misunderstandings by respondents as to what cloud services are. And, yes, the 62% number for Dropbox is higher than the 60% of respondents who say they use the cloud at all, which illustrates that point.
- Cybersecurity has passed the crisis point in lawyers’ use of cloud services in the COVID-19 world. The mid-pandemic survey results showed further slippage in the already lax compliance of lawyers with even the most basic cybersecurity practices. Although lawyers say that confidentiality, security, data control and ownership, ethics, vendor reputation and longevity, and other concerns weigh heavily on their minds, the employment of precautionary security measures is quite low. No more than 35% of respondents were taking any one of the specific standard cautionary cybersecurity measures listed in the 2021 Survey question on this topic. A stunning 18% of respondents (up from 11% in 2020) reported taking none of the security precautions of the types listed. Only 37% of respondents report that the adoption of cloud computing resulted in changes to internal technology or security policies. These are shocking numbers. Do you feel safe?
- Cloud usage held steady at 60% despite the pandemic. Small and medium-sized law firms led the way, followed closely by large firms.
- Lawyers continued to use popular business cloud services like Dropbox (62%), Microsoft Teams (41%), Microsoft 365 (48%), iCloud (20%), Box (11%), and Evernote (11%) at higher rates than dedicated legal cloud services. Clio and NetDocuments continue to rank as the highest among the legal-specific cloud services. The biggest gainer in 2021: Microsoft Teams. Note that Zoom did not make the rankings.
- Lawyers are becoming more familiar with cloud technologies and are attracted by anytime, anywhere access, low cost of entry, predictable monthly expenses, and robust data backup. Notably, only 27% indicate that cloud services provide the benefit of giving greater security than they can provide on their own. Compare this level of confidence to actual security practices and you will see why there are major concerns around cybersecurity efforts.
- Concerns about confidentiality/security (61%) and lack of control over data (43%) lead the “biggest concerns” list about cloud services by a wide margin. Almost 96% of lawyers rate the reputation of the vendor as important (very, 76%, and somewhat, 20%) in their decision-making process.
- The 2021 Survey results also suggest that client-focus is not a primary driving factor for lawyers using and considering the use of cloud computing. The consideration of client needs, expectations, and desires should be a key target area for innovative lawyers and firms.
- Only 10% of respondents indicated that they expected to replace an existing software tool with a cloud tool in 2021. 39% have no plan to do so and 51% don’t know.
- More than 40% of lawyers are at firms with extranets. Extranets are used primarily for firm lawyers (88%) and much less likely for clients (36%) or external collaboration (29%).
1. Cybersecurity: Past the Crisis Point?
Although lawyers report many concerns and wariness about cloud services, especially security, confidentiality, and control issues, their reported behavior about precautionary measures simply does not reflect what they express their level of concern to be. In fact, the results are shocking and reflect little, if any, positive movement in the past year or even in the past few years. The lack of effort on security is a major cause for concern in the profession. Given the growing incidence of ransomware and other cyberattacks, we should expect to hear ever more stories about security incidents at law firms over the next year.
Of the 13 standard precautionary security measures listed in the 2021 Survey, a mere 35% of the respondents employed the measure most commonly used (using secure socket layers aka SSL). The next most widely-employed precaution was making local data backups (25%, down from 25% in 2020). Given the emphasis on data privacy in 2021, the decrease to 24% from 27% in 2020 of respondents reviewing vendor privacy policies is alarming. Only 19% reviewed ethical rules and opinions on cloud computing and just 23% reported that they reviewed terms of service. Would lawyers recommend that their clients take these approaches?
The numbers only get worse from there.
Nineteen percent sought advice from peers and only 18% evaluated vendor company history, despite the stated importance of vendor reputation (96%) in selecting vendors.
At the very bottom of the results are things that lawyers should be good at. A mere 6% (down from 9%) negotiated confidentiality agreements in connection with cloud services, and, in next to last place, only a shocking 3% negotiated service legal agreements (SLAs). If security and confidentiality are lawyers’ biggest concerns about cloud computing, does this behavior make any sense?
2. Usage Numbers
However, these overall results can be confusing given answers to other questions, suggesting the possibility that actual usage might be higher than the reported usage. For example, many mobile apps are also essentially front-ends for cloud services. Many lawyers who do not think that they are using the cloud may in fact be using it every day, especially through mobile apps. Other examples include the absence of Zoom and more respondents using Dropbox (62%) than using the cloud (60%).
3. Consumer Cloud Services Much More Popular Than Dedicated Legal Products
The 2021 Survey asked respondents what cloud services they had used. Dropbox topped the list at 62%. Microsoft 365 (formerly known as Office 365) was in second place at 48%. Not surprisingly, Microsoft Teams usage more than doubled to 41% from 18% in 2020. Other consumer or small business cloud services also remained popular (notably, iCloud at 20%, Box at 11%, and Evernote at 11%). Zoom did not appear among the highest-used services.
Legal-specific cloud services have not reached the same levels of popularity as consumer services. Clio continues to be the most popular legal cloud service named by respondents (13%), followed by NetDocuments (10%), and MyCase (4%). These numbers are roughly the same as in 2020. These results might reflect both the difficulties lawyers and others have with determining what exactly is a cloud service and the increased number of legal cloud service providers, especially in the case management category. Note that services that many would consider “cloud”—WestLaw, LexisNexis, FastCase, to name a few—do not show up in the results, except possibly as small components of the “Other” category (17%).
4. Client Portals and Extranets
Largely missing in action in the results were clients and client concerns. Extranets are probably the classic example of a secure cloud tool that can help clients and help collaboration on projects with external parties. A primary example of an extranet would be a client portal like the patient portals that have become so common for health care providers.
Here are a few numbers to consider: 42% of firms have extranets, 37% do not, and 21% don’t know. The results show that 88% of firms allow access to their lawyers and 65% to their staff. Access to clients, who potentially benefit the most from extranets, was only provided by 36%. Collaboration for “friendly” outsiders was permitted by 21%. On the other hand, 42% of respondents report that they have accessed extranets of their clients.
Firms primarily either use Microsoft SharePoint (42%) or a custom solution (37%).
5. Cloud Benefits
There was not a lot of change in perceptions of the benefits of cloud computing shown in the 2021 Survey. Anywhere, anytime access is reported as the biggest benefit of cloud computing for lawyers. Low cost of entry and predictable monthly expenses are also highly rated benefits. Other economic benefits, such as eliminating IT and software management requirements and quick start-up times are also seen as important benefits by almost half of the respondents. Only 27% of lawyers see “better security than I can provide in-office” as a benefit of cloud computing—a striking number, especially to anyone familiar with data center security procedures as compared to standard security practices in law firms.
6. Biggest Lawyer Concerns
Lawyers continued to express reservations and concerns about the cloud. When current cloud users were asked to identify their biggest concerns, they cited “confidentiality/security concerns” (61%, down from 62% in 2020) and concerns about a lack of control over data (43%, down from 46%). Concerns about losing control over updates (27%) and vendor longevity (23%) were other significant concerns. Only 8% (down from 12% in 2020) reported that client concerns about lawyers using the cloud were an issue.
There were similar concerns among those lawyers who have yet to try the cloud. When asked a question about the concerns that had prevented them from adopting the cloud, 52% cited confidentiality/security concerns, 48% cited the loss of control over data, and 20% cited lack of control over software upgrades. “Unfamiliarity with the technology,” was listed by 40%. The changes from 2020 were not significant.
7. Name and Reputation of Cloud Vendor
Ninety-six percent of respondents using cloud services considered the name and reputation of the cloud vendor as either very important (76%) or somewhat important (20%) to their decision. However, only 18% of respondents reported that they evaluated the vendor’s history and only 19% sought out peer advice/experiences in connection with the vendor. This area is definitely one in which lawyers can improve their due diligence efforts.
8. Replacing Existing Tools with Cloud Services
Even though interest in cloud services is high, the interest does not seem to translate into substantial action at this point, at least in terms of replacing existing software tools. Only 10% of respondents indicated that they expected to replace an existing software tool with a cloud tool in 2021, even with what we’ve learned during the pandemic. Lawyers might be looking to the cloud only for new tools or to supplement existing tools. They also might not be thinking of mobile apps as cloud tools.
The 2021 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report shows that, for a majority of lawyers and firms, cloud services are now part of the IT equation. Overall, reported growth in cloud use stayed relatively flat even in the face of a pandemic and many lawyers working from home. However, the continuing lack of actual attention to confidentiality, security, and due diligence issues remains a serious and disturbing concern, especially with the growth ransomware and other cyberattacks. The results on security procedures will continue to fuel client concerns about their outside law firms making adequate efforts on cybersecurity, and the numbers indicate that they should be worried.
There is much that law firm IT departments and technology committees, legal technology vendors and consultants, corporate law departments, clients, and all legal professionals interested in the adoption of technology by lawyers can learn from these results. They give us much to think about and some indications where firms might want to move their technology strategies in the coming year and beyond. Cloud cybersecurity must be at the top of the list of questions for clients to ask their law firms. The most disappointing result of the 2021 Survey? You can’t even tell from the numbers that a pandemic was happening.
This report was written using the data from the "Law Office Technology" volume of the 2021 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report.