Guest post: Taking your financial or practice management system into the cloud – knowledge overcomes fear

Mat Jennings of Aderant debunks some of the common myths around moving your practice management system to the cloud in this step by step guide.

Many firms are currently undergoing a “tech refresh” right now, revamping their technology stacks. For law firms still using traditional on-premise desktop software, the decision to “go cloud” is no longer a question of “if” but is rather is a question of “when” and “how”. While few firms have moved their entire tech stack into the cloud, many are at least partially there. In Aderant’s most recent Business of Law and Technology Survey, payroll systems were reported as the number one cloud-based solutions at firms, with document management systems and Microsoft Office tied for second.

Aderant is seeing a radical change in interest of Expert Sierra, the cloud-based deployment of Expert, Aderant’s traditional on-premise practice management system. Today, 75% of net new financial and practice management system prospects are more interested in a cloud-based option. One year ago, only 25% of prospects were considering cloud.

However, when enthusiasm for the cloud meets reality, some firms slam on the brakes especially when it comes to replacing core technology like a financial/practice management system. According to the survey, many firms indicated the desire to move their financial/practice management to the cloud with 37% of survey respondents selecting it as the #1 technology they would like to move to the cloud, but only 17% of firms had done so. 33% said it would be a least a year until this cloud goal is met and a robust 30% said “not in the foreseeable future.” You can’t always get what you want, or can you?

So, why is there still reluctance to go cloud with financial/practice management systems if some firms are already doing it? The hesitation most likely stems from the fact that law firms have created their own unique “Frankenstein-like” technology combinations that make cloud migrations too intimidating. Some applications were bought bespoke from vendors and tailored to fit the firm’s needs. Others were built internally or by hired integrators or programmers.  Also, these individual technology solutions have been connected in a variety of ways, forming a complex labyrinth of integrations and connectors which share data, automate tasks, and advance workflows.

No firm has the same technology footprint. Like it or not, this uniqueness contributes to a firm’s identity and differentiation – part of its “secret sauce” that defines how it works with clients. If going cloud requires the firm to relinquish or compromise the technology-driven methods that its people and clients believe makes it special, then fear of change and the potential inability to deliver the value that differentiates the firm’s services become an immediate roadblock. As long as fear surrounds the choice to bring financial/practice management systems into the cloud, law firms will be reluctant to do so.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that knowledge is the antidote to fear, so it follows that law firms can overcome their fear of moving their financial/practice management systems by learning what it really will entail for their organization. “The cloud” is not a cure that solves all problems, nor is it a destroyer that causes all problems. When the firm’s leadership and IT staff gain knowledge about what going cloud for financial/practice management systems truly means for their firm, they can then overcome fear and create a realistic path forward.

Let’s explore what cloud-based financial/practice management systems will really look like by first debunking some myths and misconceptions. Vendors often make claims that cloud-based solutions take pressure off law firm IT staff and free up time to focus on other tasks. However, the goal of going cloud should not be to eliminate IT people at the firm. Going cloud still requires the IT team to ensure the security and availability of any application

In some cases, large law firms deal with 35-40 technology vendors – this presents a lot of variables for the CIO and IT team. When cloud solutions are brought into the firm, IT leadership and oversight are still needed. As with any new solution, whether cloud-based or on-premise, the firm’s IT staff investigates to identify any vulnerabilities that must be addressed before deployment. The firm will need agreements with sufficient “out” clauses to release them from obligation if the cloud vendor underdelivers.

The IT demands of going cloud reflects the evolving role of the CIO, a change which was accelerated by the pandemic’s work-from-home requirements. Over the past decade, the law firm CIO has become more of an orchestrator, focused on network connections, managing applications, and deploying business systems. Now, with fewer brick and mortar facilities and server rooms to maintain, CIOs are living in a more virtual world. Their focus has shifted to ensuring the firm is getting the most out of its technology rather than keeping the proverbial lights on.

CIOs know that the stakes are higher for the firm’s core systems including financial/practice management, document management, email and time/billing. The business cannot run without them. Planning is incredibly important for successfully taking these systems to the cloud.

For CIOs looking to move their financial/practice management system to the cloud, they can vet vendors based on the firm’s priorities. Security is typically a top concern, and the cloud, with its economies of scale, can provide much more robust security options than a law firm can access on its own. It is important to ensure any cloud vendor holds security certifications (SOC, NIST, etc.) and demonstrates the ability to scale security across multiple offices. Confidence in system security and protection takes a great deal of time, energy, and effort to establish and is hard to guarantee, making it even more important to select the most secure solution possible.

Next, look at functionality, integrations, and uptime track records which will have a direct effect on the firm’s end-users and at times clients, too. Some vendors have taken steps to more easily facilitate moving to the cloud, providing APIs, modern authentication, business continuity measures, and other streamlining assistance.

Lastly, it is important to thoroughly evaluate cloud models to determine which works best for your firm. The two main options are “lift and shift” which is a managed, hosted cloud service most often referred to as Software-as-a-Services (SaaS) or native cloud. The lift and shift approach provides the same functionality as an on-premise product provided. A lift and shift solution is often less jarring than switching over to a native cloud environment which requires more sweeping changes.

As legal IT engages in the cloud evaluation process, it will hopefully become clear that the firm can “go cloud” with their financial/practice management system without sacrificing identity and functionality. Law firms can take their own bespoke financial/practice management creations and successfully bring them to the cloud. Certainly, cloud migration takes careful planning and knowledge gathering to overcome fear and move forward, but it is a process that reaps great rewards.

Mat Jennings is director of product management at Aderant, an industry leader of business of law and practice of law technology solutions