Office 365: Big-Firm Function, Small-Firm Budget

Volume 40 Number 2


About the Author

Catherine Sanders Reach is the director of Law Practice Management and Technology for the Chicago Bar Association, where she provides education, training and consulting services. Previously she was the director of the ABA’s Legal Technology Resource Center (LTRC). 

Law Practice Magazine | March/April 2014 | The ABA TECHSHOW 2014 IssueLawyers have used Microsoft (MS) Office, including Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook, for many years. While there are plenty of choices for productivity suites, Microsoft’s new Office 365 adds some intriguing options, including online collaboration, subscription-based pricing, lightweight browser-based editing tools and online file storage. Solo and small firms may have the most to gain because Office 365 adds functionality formerly only found in server-based applications such as Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint and Lync.

There are some major benefits to this new model. Added functionality is certainly one of them. Helping firms stay up to date with current versions of the MS Office suite is another. Unlike “pure cloud,” this hybrid approach of installed software and cloud collaboration/access addresses many law firms’ concerns about ownership versus access to firm data, backing up cloud-only applications and what happens in the case of a loss of access to the Internet.


One can still purchase the MS Office suite as traditional downloaded software or pre-installed on a new computer. However, purchasing the Office suite without Office 365 is slightly more expensive and restricted to a single PC. Office 365 adds significant additional options with the myriad of plans available through the platform.

While Office 365 has versions for home use, the real strength for law firms is the Office 365 business plans. With Office 365 Small Business, subscribers—up to 25 users—get access to the Office Web applications, including online file sharing, Web conferencing, “business class” hosted email and a public website. At $5 per user per month (or $60 per user per year), this option works well for small firms that already have current (i.e., Office 2010 or 2013) software suites and want to add cloud functionality.

In some cases, a firm may have good reasons not to move to the latest (i.e., 2013) version of Office. To keep all the integrated functionality between Adobe Acrobat and Office, the versions must be kept in sync. For instance, the Save to PDF function for Outlook folders is broken by upgrading to Office 2013 and neglecting to upgrade Adobe Acrobat to version 11 as well. Some plug-ins and customizations in Office 2010 may also be disabled by upgrading to Office 2013. However, Outlook 2007 users will find some of the functionality with the hosted email limited, so the best option is to use at least Outlook 2010. For firms still using Microsoft’s XP operating system, keep in mind that support ends in April 2014 and Office 2013 will not run on it.

The next Office 365 subscription option is the Small Business Premium plan, also for 25 users or less. This plan adds the installed desktop version of Microsoft Office for up to five Windows PCs or Macs per user, and includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, Access and Lync. It also includes all the online functionality of the Small Business plan plus Office Mobile for iPhone and Android and site mailboxes for project-specific email and documents. This option costs $15 per user per month (or $150 per user per year). The Small Business and Small Business Premium plans can be combined, so if there are users in the office who are lagging behind with older versions of the Office suite, or if there are users who need the multiple installations of the Office suite, the plans can be mixed and matched to meet the needs of the firm.

For larger firms or more extensive needs, there is Office 365 Midsize Business, which accommodates up to 300 users. This plan requires an annual commitment of $15 per user per month and adds Active Directory integration plus InfoPath to the Small Business Premium plan. The Office 365 Midsize Business plan cannot be combined with the Small Business plans. Both the Small Business Premium and Midsize Business plans offer free 30-day trials.

For larger firms, other options provide combinations of IT infrastructure, support, distribution and deployment for Office suite upgrades. These plans include Office 365 ProPlus and the Enterprise options. Office 365 Enterprise plans are flexible and allow combinations of the Office 365 Enterprise E1, E3 and E4 plans; the Office 365 Enterprise K1 plan (for kiosk workers); and the full range of stand-alone offers (e.g., Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Lync Online).

What about Macs? Purchasers of the Office 365 Small Business Premium plan can choose to install Office 2011 for Mac running on Mac OS X 10.6 or later. The Office 365 Small Business plan will work with Outlook 2011 and 2008 for Mac. The collaboration features are all available through any browser; however, some functionality in the Team Site (SharePoint) online is visible only in Internet Explorer. In Windows, the IE Tab extension for Chrome or Firefox remedies that, but the IE Tab is not currently available for Chrome for Mac.

And mobile devices? Any mobile device with a high-speed cellular or Wi-Fi connection to the Internet and a good Web browser can connect to Office 365. Office Web Apps work on most major mobile operating systems (i.e., Android, iOS, BlackBerry or Windows Mobile) and allow users to view Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote files. The Office 365 Small Business Premium plan provides Office Mobile for iPhones and Android so that users have the ability to view, edit and save Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Office Mobile is pre-installed on Windows phones and tablets. The Mobile OneNote app is available on Windows Phone 8, iPhone, iPad and Android phones. Hosted Exchange, which is part of the subscription plan for Small Business plans and higher, allows users to seamlessly view, search and create email, contacts and calendars on the phone’s email/contact/calendar apps, then synchronize them with the installed Outlook and the Web-based Outlook Web Access.


With any portion of a firm’s confidential client information hosted on a third-party server, you must ask a number of questions of the service provider. Because files, emails, Web conferences and other information are stored on Microsoft servers, subscribers should acquaint themselves with Microsoft’s terms of service, privacy policy and security measures.

Information about Office 365 security and privacy can be found at the Office 365 Trust Center ( The extensive information on this site applies to Office 365 Small Business plans and higher. Some key facts from the security overview include the following: that the service meets requirements specified by ISO 27001, EU model clauses, HIPAA BAA and FISMA; users own and retain all rights to the hosted data; users can view a map of where the data resides; there is limited access by Microsoft database administrators; and users can access a Law Enforcement Requests Report. While certain Microsoft employees have limited access to user data to provide the service, the data is encrypted in rest and in transit. Data is backed up and is completely portable for the subscriber to download at any time.

When an account is terminated, information stored online on Microsoft servers will be available to the administrator for 90 days. However, the data will be available in a “limited” function, so the data should be saved to another location before cancellation. If a firm simply ceases to pay or cancels a subscription to a Small Business Premium plan or other service that includes locally installed software, the software itself will go into read-only mode after 90 days. To re-enable the software to functional mode, the options include renewing the subscription or paying for a perpetual license.


One of the most intriguing aspects of the new Office 365 is the integration of tools that allow a firm to take advantage of collaboration and sharing with people inside and outside the firm. Before Office 365, this type of functionality was available to firms via server applications such as Lync, Exchange and SharePoint, which involved significant expense and IT support.

While the traditional Office suite made it possible to share documents via a network or email, the new Office 365 expands those options to create a more collaborative environment. For instance, a user can create a Word document and then save it to the online Team Site to share with co-workers or outside counsel, enabled by SharePoint Document Workspace. Online “lite” browser apps allow users to simultaneously or asynchronously edit a document, even if one of the other parties doesn’t have Word. With aspects of functionality similar to Box, Dropbox and Google Drive, a major benefit of Office 365 document collaboration includes granular usage rights for specific users. If a firm document template with complex formatting is used to create a new document, the formatting will not be altered by opening it from different devices and via different methods in Office 365.


Many law offices use Outlook. However, without the MS Exchange Server, the truly useful group features of the program are lost. The good news for small law firms and even solos is that they can take advantage of Exchange Server without all the expense and hassle by subscribing to Office 365 with MS Hosted Exchange. These users will receive the same benefits that the bigger firms get with onsite Microsoft Exchange servers.

In addition to group functions such as shared calendars and contacts, delegation and appointments, the Exchange Server functionality also provides Outlook to any user on the Web via Outlook Web Access, plus features like ActiveSync (remote wipe, security policies, PIN lock for mobile devices), POP and IMAP protocols for other accounts, antispam and antivirus, bigger mailboxes, retention settings and permissions for end users, and lots of add-ons and integration with business applications.


Microsoft bought two beloved (and mostly free) Web-based collaboration tools and has been incorporating them into Office 365. Skype, the familiar video chat service, now works with Lync Web conferencing in the Small Business offerings to let subscribers link to Skype users for instant messaging, contacts and audio calls. Yammer, a social media platform for those who share the same domain, is being rolled out in the Enterprise versions of Office 365, with plans for more extensive availability to other plans in the future.


Microsoft faces strong competition both in the cloud from Google, with its Google Drive and Google Apps for Business, and on-premise with office suites such as OpenOffice. This marriage of services and software makes the new offering intriguing, especially for small law offices that lack dedicated IT support or infrastructure. With Office 365, Microsoft blends online services for communications, document creation, sharing, file storage, mobile access and teamwork with its desktop office suite. What remains to be seen is where this hybrid fits into the mix of other software and services commonly used by law offices. There has been a strong integration between the on-premise Exchange Server and Office suite components in the past with many legal-specific products. Similarly, newer legal software-as-a-service models have made use of available connections with products including Box, Dropbox and Evernote. How the new Office 365 fits in, and how fast that happens, will have an effect on its adoption by law firms. For firms with no significant integration concerns, Office 365 makes sense.


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