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Probate & Property

Nov/Dec 2023

Technology—Property - Getting Your Firm Ready to Move to the Cloud: Lessons Learned from Migrations

Seth Rowland


  • My most successful migrations involved firms who knew what they wanted to migrate to the Cloud.
  • Migration to the Cloud requires a lot of work and a lot of cooperation between you, your staff, your IT group, and your migrators.
  • You can achieve it with a well-thought-out outcome, proper planning, and proper resources.
Technology—Property - Getting Your Firm Ready to Move to the Cloud: Lessons Learned from Migrations
sutichak via Getty Images

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Technology—Property provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the real property area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

Over the past five years, I have helped hundreds of law firms and thousands of lawyers successfully move to the Cloud. They have been able to retire much of their expensive physical infrastructure (file servers, DMS servers, database servers, email servers, and tape backups) and lower their maintenance costs. They have moved their documents and data to services hosted in the Cloud, accessible on any device over the internet. In so doing, they have gained access to enterprise-level service and enterprise-level security. Software as a service (SAAS) has democratized the provision of high-quality legal software by sharing the costs of software development and maintenance across tens of thousands of users, making these services affordable for all.

SAAS vendors focus on the benefits of their offerings and the ongoing cost-savings, which are real. They often gloss over or underestimate the costs to your firm of migrating to their SAAS platform. In this article, I will share some lessons learned from helping law firms migrate to the Cloud. Some of these suggestions will lower the cost of the migration, and others will increase user satisfaction after the migration.

What Should You Migrate to the Cloud?

My most successful migrations involved firms who knew what they wanted to migrate to the Cloud, where they wanted to put it, and what they wanted to leave in place. Often, the hardest decision in moving to the Cloud is deciding what not to move to the Cloud.

You can migrate everything to the Cloud. Hosted network offerings allow you to simply upload your entire infrastructure to a data center—lock, stock, and barrel. Users will then use a remote access client like Citrix, Amazon Workspaces, or Azure Virtual Desktop to connect to their desktops. These solutions allow you to work in a cloud desktop window and do everything you can in your current local-hosted network.

Such solutions tend to be expensive and limited to the client-server software you use. You also pay for cloud storage of everything, even the things you never use. Furthermore, most virtual network solutions limit the devices you can use to access your data to your desktop or laptop computer. Though you may be able to view your desktop from an iPad, cellphone, or tablet, you would never want to work on your virtual desktop from such a device. Moreover, these solutions allow you to continue to use legacy software, which often has limited support or an end-of-life expiration date, rather than migrating to legal SAAS software.

Migrating Your Work Product Documents. Some firms have started their journey to the Cloud by moving their documents to the Cloud. Although adopting DropBox and as a solution is tempting, there are access, security, and management reasons to look for more robust document management solutions (DMS).

If you plan to move to a DMS solution or already have an on-premises DMS solution, your firm should decide what documents should be moved. I recommend limiting the documents to attorney work product and client communications. Cloud DMS systems cost more for document storage than simple storage; the management part, which includes indexing, search, robust and granular security, and user management policies not available in mere cloud storage, adds expense to the service. Because of these costs, bringing over documents from cases closed a decade ago may not make economic sense. Your firm needs to decide in advance whether to limit the documents to be migrated and, if so, what to do with documents that are not to be migrated.

Migrating Your Special Use Programs, Discovery, and Document Production. Not all documents are equal. A two-hour video is a document, but you may not need the DMS overhead to search the video because it is not a work product that will be edited. Similarly, a 100 MB .pst file (of Outlook emails) could be stored in a DMS, but it is more useful when reviewed from a Litigation Support System (LSS). There are cloud-based LSS systems like Lexbe, NextPoint, and Disco, where you can upload email files and run effective searches for document review and production. Putting those files in a cloud DMS or an unsecured file-share program is not the best way to use these files. Moreover, there are depositions, medical records, police videotapes, etc., that can take up terabytes of space on your network file server that should not be moved into a cloud-based DMS. In preparing for a migration, know what you are storing on your network and decide where you want it to go.

Migrating Your Billing System. There are many reasons to migrate your billing system. The main reason is mobility. Lawyers and staff no longer work from a single location; they are on the move. They also work on various devices, including desktops, laptops, home computers, and cell phones. If you want to capture all that time, you will want a cloud-based billing system or a web-based time entry interface. Also, if your firm has users working from multiple locations (i.e., a satellite office or offices in multiple cities), having a central location for billing data is a prime benefit of cloud-based billing systems.

Like the document migration decision, not all billing data is equal or relevant. Converting all historical data into a new billing system can be expensive. More often, a migration involves open invoices, work-in-progress slips, and active matters. If you don’t ask, that is often all that you get. If you want to bring over all matters (including historical and closed matters), you must ask and specify what you need to migrate to a new billing system. You will also want a summary showing the historical invoices’ value. This may not be in your general ledger but might be brought over as a document or note slip so you can review what happened before conversion. Like the documents, you must plan what you do with the data you left behind. You will need access to this data for at least a year or more.

Migrating Your Practice Management System. Many firms have large amounts of data in practice management systems that track their matters, client communications, and work notes. You will generally want to move all of this data, as it contains extensive relationship data and will be needed for conflict checks.

Prepare for the Migration

When the United States government decided to send men to the moon, NASA decided what to carry in the rockets with them. Space was at a premium; every ounce counted. NASA organized the items the astronauts would need for accessibility and use. Even today, with the modern SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, it still costs $1520/kilogram to hoist a satellite into Earth orbit.

The Cloud is not nearly as constrained as an Apollo or FalconX rocket, but the Cloud is also not an unlimited expanse. Your best results will happen if you define what you need in the Cloud and how you want it organized. This process will often involve extensive work by members of your firm (attorneys and staff) getting everything organized.

Organize Your Documents. If you ever looked inside an attorney’s “My Documents” folder, you would realize that this folder and its contents should never be uploaded to the Cloud. And yet, many users have gigabytes of disorganized data in their My Documents folder. As a firm, you need to decide how documents will be organized. Start with restructuring your files on your network file share. Most firms organize files into folders by client, with subfolders by matter. If you are moving from a file share to a DMS, look carefully at how your documents are organized and be prepared to adjust. If you only want to move active matters into the Cloud, create a folder for inactive matters and move the documents into that folder and out of the active matters folder.

Benefits of Folder Tagging. Our best success in getting documents from a file system and into a matter-based DMS has happened when firms clearly tagged the folders to indicate which client and matter the contained documents should be filed to. The tag should identify which client number and matter number is associated with that folder and must be consistent across the entire file system. If you further want to assign document types, you will also need to tag your folders to the appropriate classification. If there are documents you want excluded from the migration, tag them with DNM (Do Not Migrate).

Make Your Documents Accessible to the Migrator. Often, document security on a network is controlled by access policies based on a user’s login. If you want a migrator to move confidential documents, you must ensure that the migrator’s login can see the documents to be moved. It is impossible to move hidden documents or inaccessible documents to the Cloud. An inventory of all the unique nooks and crannies is in order.

Clean Up Your Data. If you are migrating billing or practice management data into the Cloud, now is the time to evaluate and clean up the data. This is particularly so if you plan to bring documents in and associate them with clients and matters in these systems. You must understand your client and matter lists and ensure they are clean. That means: (1) all matters must have a clearly defined single client; (2) there must be a unique matter number for each matter; (3) the client number and the matter number schema of your Cloud billing system must match the number schema of your cloud DMS system; and (4) client descriptions and matter descriptions must be brief and contain only text characters (no tabs, long dashes, slashes, or foreign non-ASCII characters).

If you bring in data from a contact management system, such as contact lists, you will save hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars by de-duplicating your contact lists. Clean up the lists; make sure email addresses are consistent. Merge duplicate contacts and confirm the addresses. Before you migrate, it is time to do this cleanup. Get rid of bad contact data, or at least put a DNM flag on the contact entry or exclude it from the migration.

Working with Migrators and Your IT Staff

Migration to the Cloud requires a lot of work and a lot of cooperation between you, your staff, your IT group, and your migrators. Some cloud vendors include migrations as part of the cost, but most charge extra or outsource the migration to certified consultants. Even when cloud vendors offer to include migration, they assume a level of data preparation for that migration. The best results are achieved when you work with a consultant to help you align your data for the migration.

Engaging Your IT Staff. You are in good shape if your IT staff recommends moving to the Cloud and leads the process. If your firm is taking the lead, be sure to inform and coordinate with your IT staff so that they know what is required of them to facilitate the process. They may reasonably feel threatened by the process of migration. Bring them into the meetings; let them attend training. They are a vital part of the team.

Firstly, they hold the keys. To do a migration, we will often connect a device to your firm’s network and establish remote access to that device. We will need login credentials and rights to do the work.

Secondly, the IT Staff is the team that attorneys and staff will call first when they have a problem. The more they understand the new Cloud software, the better the user experience.

Thirdly, many cloud programs require a desktop client to be installed and configured. This client will need some configuration rules to be pushed out and will have periodic updates. Moreover, the current DMS system may need to be decommissioned, and your IT staff will know how to do it. As consultants, we can advise them on best practices, but we do not have all the keys.

Engaging Your Migrator. Not all migrators are alike. If your cloud vendor includes the migration, get references for current law firms to discuss the migration experience. Ask the vendor if any consultants helped prepare for the migration. If you are to work with a certified consultant for the migration, also get references. There is a lot of work that goes into migration; experience counts. Get a clear sense of their migration process; don’t assume anything. There are purported universal migration tools. These tools make assumptions about how your data is organized (which may not be accurate) and what data is to be migrated (which may not be what you expect or want). Several practice management systems have custom fields; the universal tools and vendor-based migrations often exclude this custom data.

Access Requirements for the Migration to the Cloud. When it comes to migration, migrators need access to the files to be migrated and access to your firm’s current billing system and practice management system. Your migrator will need local administrator rights to the hardware, login credentials for each billing program, and the back end SQL server credentials. If there is already a cloud-based billing program, your migrator will need administrator login credentials to that program so that we can set up integration between that and your new Cloud DMS.

Change Management and Managing Expectations

Moving to the Cloud is a dramatic change. It can be quite disruptive for your staff. It can bring on great anxiety, which detracts from the benefits of the change. Be prepared for some opposition. Realize that some of the responses are emotional, not fact-based, and, in time, your staff will become used to the new way of doing things.

Engage Your Staff in the Design Process. Get your staff involved in the implementation process. Solicit their feedback and adjust the design. When moving to a new platform, things will work differently. You should have the same or better functionality, but the workflow will differ. You are not paying a lot of money to do the same thing, but in the Cloud; you are hoping to improve productivity, which means doing some things differently. Your staff knows how things are currently being done and should meet with the consultants to share that information. Don’t assume the consultant knows everything. Solicit from your staff what they would like to do better. They can then take pride of ownership of these changes.

Get the Timing Right. Try to have a trial period where users can try out the software before it is put into production. Have them use the software and iron out the kinks. When you schedule the “Go Live,” don’t spring the change by fiat on attorneys and paralegals about to go to trial or on administrators trying to complete end-of-quarter bills. Understand the timing of when to do the actual migration.

Leaving Stuff Behind. If you are leaving stuff behind, get a consensus on what will be left behind. The decisions need to be made before the migration starts. Changing your mind after the migration will incur additional costs, such as a change order. Be clear about what you want with documents and with data. If you are not bringing in everything, let your team know how to access this old data. Will it be on a read-only file share? Will you retain a single-user license to your old billing system and host it on a virtual machine? These decisions must be made.

Dealing with Old Emails. Bringing over completed tasks or past calendar events in a practice management system doesn’t make sense. If you bring over open tasks, limit them to tasks for open matters and exclude the personal and repeating tasks. If your practice management system stores emails in data tables, realize there will be a conversion cost to convert those emails into usable emails, so you may decide not to bring them in.

Some Training Tips and Suggestions

You will want end-user training. Training videos are helpful, but live trainers will engage your staff and allay their fears. Spend time defining with your migrator what you expect out of training. Consider having a training session with a pilot group. You will then want to adjust how the rest of your users will be trained. Realize that with all software, there are many paths to the same result. You will want to find the paths that work best with your team.

We have found a combination of live training and a self-guided learning management system brings the greatest satisfaction and acceptance. We record the live training for anyone who misses it to review. We then direct the users to the LMS system for further self-guided exploration. In the live training, encourage questions. Five or more users had the same question for every question asked but weren’t willing to ask. Have your staff be respectful and attentive (training is not the time to check your email), but don’t be shy.

Before the Training. If introductory videos are available, encourage your staff to review them before training, lest they force the trainer to spend valuable time defining terms. When doing web-based training, work with your IT staff in the preceding days to make sure all the software and plugins work and that each user can log in to the Cloud system and work. Training class is not time to troubleshoot computer workstations; other attendees are frustrated when their time is wasted on getting others’ workstations to function properly. Make sure your IT has the workstation working correctly before the training starts.

Taking the Plunge

Each migration is unique. Moving to the Cloud is important. It is not just a hardware decision. There are significant benefits for your firm. At the same time, it is a major process change. Take the time to think about the process and what you want to accomplish for your firm. You can achieve it with a well-thought-out outcome, proper planning, and proper resources.