Comment: Can the cloud handle the unique needs of legal organisations?

It’s no secret that law firms and legal departments are looking for more agile technology solutions to help them improve the way they work. The cloud is very appealing to these firms, as cloud solutions offer rapid set-up, pay-as-you-go costs, and eliminate many IT burdens – freeing staff to focus on higher value projects rather than maintaining and patching systems.

Small-to-medium sized firms see the cloud as a way to free up IT staff to focus on improving internal business practices and serving the users instead of maintaining databases, servers, and other technology. Larger firms have similar reasons, but may approach their evaluation differently by initially testing cloud strategies in one region or practice area.

Innovations including the introduction of Microsoft Office 365 are awakening legal industry professionals to the viability of cloud-based tools. Today, cloud applications are increasingly being used in legal organisations for time and billing, HR, CRM and e-discovery, which naturally leads to the question, if cloud is so good for these applications, why not use it for managing documents, emails and other key work product? Legal firms will move to the cloud when they are confident that technology vendors can meet their requirements.

Legal work product such as documents, emails, and scanned images present several unique challenges when considering cloud management:

1.When managing work product for clients, firms must take into account the clients’ own policies for cloud security and usage to ensure that client governance standards are met. Some believe that clients must be informed when client information is moved from the firm to a third party solution.

2.Legal work product consists of larger files that introduce lags when uploaded and downloaded. An effective cloud solution for legal work product must address this or lawyers will reject it due to long upload and download delays.

3.Legal professionals typically use a variety of applications and information platforms such as matter management systems, document comparison, and time and billing systems. A cloud solution for legal work must integrate seamlessly with these specialised tools, systems, and authoring environments.

4.The system must also be completely available to mobile users. When lawyers leave the office for depositions or to meet clients, they need access to large documents from portable devices as they travel, even if they are not connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi or other means.

Best practices in cloud solutions for legal

As law firms assess new technology, they should look for solutions that reflect best practices regarding performance, flexible functionality, integration, and security. I’ll share a few thoughts on each of those concerns here.

Hybrid cloud solutions offer new flexibility

A hybrid approach provides law firms with a choice of what data is in the cloud and what is not. Law firms may have agreements with some clients to not make their data available in the cloud. This may be due to the sensitive nature of the information such as with a high profile case or a government client. Firms need the ability for that subset of data to remain on their premises even if the majority of their work product has moved to the cloud.

A modern cloud approach offers full functionality and scalable, reliable performance both online and offline. This gives professionals the ability to seamlessly work from any location.

Performance of the system should enhance the productivity of users

Legal professionals need high availability. Cloud services should be able to process billions of documents, and hardware should be architected with a highly redundant design. This level of performance and availability can be achieved using solid-state drives, wide-bandwidth firewalls, and virtual private clouds.

The system must be flexible to accommodate client and user needs

SaaS solutions must occasionally undergo maintenance. But professionals don’t want the uncertainty that they might be locked out of the system when they need to work on an important project. Legal firms should seek a technology vendor that can offer flexibility about the timing of planned outages. Vendor account teams should collaborate with users to schedule maintenance for a time that is best for them. That way, the system stays up to date but is always running when it is needed.

Integration with other systems and applications is crucial

Legal work involves specialised tools and systems including a wide variety of authoring environments. A cloud-based work product management system should integrate at the desktop with applications such as Microsoft Office, SharePoint, and Notes environments. Legal firms also need a solution to integrate with platforms such as matter management systems, document comparison, and time and billing systems.

Standards ensure data security and privacy

Law firms and their clients need to be certain that cloud vendors maintain the latest security standards for confidentiality and privacy. To address the responsibility legal firms have as they maintain stewardship over their clients’ data, cloud vendors should ensure that data centres are certified to the latest information security standards including ISO 27001 and SSAE16 SOC Type 2. Customer data should be encrypted in transit and also encrypted at rest in data centres. There should be no co-mingling of customer data. This can be ensured using virtual machines and segregated virtual private cloud systems.

Technology evolution signals an opportunity for legal

As the cloud paradigm evolves, law firms and legal departments increasingly recognise that this represents an opportunity for them to reduce IT burdens and improve internal processes. The right cloud architecture can help professionals be more effective in their work by supporting best practices regarding performance, functionality, integration, and security. Such a solution must be designed for the unique needs of legal professionals and the clients they serve by providing stability of service to handle mission-critical activities, easy access to very large files, and seamless integration with other systems and applications. If technology vendors are attentive to the needs of modern users, they can engineer cloud solutions that are ready to handle the requirements of the legal industry.

Alan Turner is director of product management at iManage. He has over 28 years of experience in product development and product strategy for complex software products and Software as a Service.