Exclusive: Where is the legal sector heading with cloud? Debunking the hype

Macfarlanes’ CIO Andrew Powell unpacks cloud adoption from a law firm IT perspective, including debunking much of the hype. With quotes from many of the biggest names in the industry and the results of a survey of 100 large law firms ranging in turnover from £18m to £1.8bn.


A couple of months ago I was speaking with Macfarlanes’ chief information officer Andrew Powell about the prevailing wisdom that all law firms now need to put all their data in the cloud, and the gap between what is so easily written, and the day-to-day experiences of IT directors and CIOs. ‘It would be great if you could write about your experiences and debunk some of the hype,’ I said. Little did I realise that Powell had already invited firms in the US, US and Europe to take part in research around cloud adoption across a range of core law firm applications. The ensuing report is a valuable and insightful report on the benefits, downsides and realities of the cloud, all from the perspective of the decision makers still trying to navigate this huge technological and cultural shift. It includes the results of Powell’s research, which garnered 100 responses from firms ranging in turnover from £18m to £1.8bn.


Cloud means many things but for the purposes of this report, Powell settles on the NIST definitions, which are included. While there are many benefits of moving law firm IT services to the cloud, what makes the decision so difficult is the integration challenges – moving part of the firm’s application stack can best testing, and SaaS services may not offer the same reporting options or customisations. Existing integrations built in-house over decades often aren’t all needed, and Powell observes that “modern APIs are likely more secure that whatever was cobbled together onsite, but the fact remains that there is still some change to deal with.”


In the wake of the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, what’s interesting is Powell’s reflections on the environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations of cloud computing – can moving your data off premises help a firm to reduce carbon emissions? “A firm may be able to reduce energy consumption and air conditioning in its facilities by moving services away from on-premise and IaaS to SaaS cloud services, taking advantage of efficiencies brought about by a scale of operations that cannot be achieved by one firm alone. But if a firm keeps all its infrastructure running to support other applications whilst also taking on SaaS services, there is an overall increase in consumption and emissions, however efficient the SaaS vendor. There may well be potential benefits in this area, but a holistic approach is needed that incorporates minimising data storage and decommissioning old infrastructure,” says Powell.


In terms of where the legal sector is heading with cloud, Powell’s survey is fascinating. It shows that whereas over 70% of firms’ document management systems were on premises pre-pandemic, by next year that figure will be 35%.


When it comes to practice management systems, pre-pandemic over 80% were on premises, while next year that figure will be just over 50%.


But perhaps the most dramatic change is around email, and specifically exchange online. Pre-pandemic, over 70% of firms’ emails were on-premises. That figure is now less than 10%.


To see all the survey results click here


The report contains quotes and observations from all of those listed below (in the order they appear):

Nathan Hayes, IT director, Osborne Clarke

Andy Brown, CTO, Mobliciti

Jim McKenna, CIO at Fenwick

Karen Jacks, CTO at Bird and Bird

Matt Watts, chief technology evangelist at NetApp

Peter Bauer, CEO at Mimecast

Neil Araujo, CEO and co-founder at iManage


This is certainly not a cloud-denial report and McKenna sums the finding up by describing the shift from ‘if’ firms move to the cloud to ‘when’ they move.


However, there are multiple challenges, which it does no-one any favours to gloss over, and which we must continue to acknowledge and address head on.