Epona’s senior consultant Keith Vallely considers the value of Microsoft 365; some of the key points to consider in moving to a single platform; what Teams can do for your organisation, and what the next steps are.

For most modern law firms and corporate legal departments, access to critical information can determine the success or failure of a project or a matter.  The relevant information regarding a case needs to be available to the key knowledge workers on the matter, whether they are at home, on the road, or in the office.  It also needs to be easy to access, and totally secure.  And it would be great if the worker could access those files from any device, computer desktop or mobile.  Law firms face tough security requirements by way of their chosen profession, as well as from compliance laws and security standards driven by their clients. Law firms also need to be more cognizant of their technology expenses as profitability during challenging times such as these can turn quickly. Many institutions, including law firms, are finding that overlapping technology spending is no longer a luxury worth affording.  Microsoft 365 has crystallized these challenges by making it easier to choose a single platform to resolve all these challenging issues, and lower technology infrastructure costs at the same time.  Firms are finding it harder to justify the spend, and more difficult to maintain and support multiple tech solutions for interrelated tech functionality.  Law Firms are now starting to realize that the cloud as an infrastructure solution, especially as provided by Microsoft is the future.  The question for most firms is no longer if they will utilize Microsoft 365, but how much of it will they utilize?

The First Step – Microsoft Exchange (Email)

In 2017, when Office 365 was exploding, and the largest corporations were moving in en masse to it, law firms took a more conservative ‘wait and see’ attitude towards the platform.  By 2018, the debates surrounding the security of the Microsoft Cloud had given way to the rush of firms dumping ‘in house’ Microsoft Exchange servers for Microsoft 365 Exchange Online.  The benefits were immediate and immense.  No more hard drives that are filled up, no more updates, no more expensive hardware, and finally, no more IT maintenance.  Less work, less cost, and more reliability without any change to how users work, was the value proposition.  Nearly every firm we talk to has Exchange Online now.  I cannot recall the last time I spoke to a firm that did not. What this means is that the fundamental big picture question of dloud based security in general had been answered.  The cloud was secure.  And henceforth, the issue of Cloud Security was in the rear-view mirror because once your email is in the cloud, so are your documents, as most documents are now emailed.

The Second Step – Intune

Larger firms have used VDI (Virtual Desktops) for ages.  Smaller firms have had the desire, but not the ability, or the means.  What does having a Virtual Desktop mean?  It means that the Firm or the Enterprise can fully control ‘what’ software is installed on each user’s computer.  It also means that IT has centralized control over security, software updates, usernames/passwords, and more.  Lastly, it means that Firm IT can simply ‘end’ a computer or laptop if it is breached or stolen, since the hard drives are encrypted, the security is maintained.  When Microsoft 365 offered Intune, the adoption rate was slow.  But now, firms of all sizes (the very large to the small) are now taking advantage of Intune, as they can have centralized control over nearly every aspect of their user’s computers, including what software is installed, what mobile device apps are deployed, and the integrations and other functionally useful apps.  All of this can be done from a single Microsoft 365 user interface.  The utilization of Intune being seen across the industry is eye-opening.  It is especially critical during COVID-19 times when individual users are using remote network connections from home. And, the risk of data loss or capture from external threats has increased due to the fact that not everyone has an IT security team at their home. The implication of this is a 20 user firm can now deploy a cost effective, standardized, and unified desktop with world-class, billion dollar grade security for a fraction of the cost that AMLAW 100 firms paid to deploy back in the early 00’s.  And for the large firms, having a single location where all the desktop elements can be controlled has lowered costs, and increased reliability of the security models for the firm.

The Third Step – Teams

At the 2019 ILTA Conference, the most attended sessions were the Office 365 tracks.  Granted, it is anecdotal, but from an interested observer’s perspective [mine], users of Microsoft 365 were now starting to drive their firm’s innovation.  From the questions asked of the speakers, to the comments made by attendees, instead of the traditional “IT or Management” dictates of new tech solutions being rolled out, end-users were simply clicking buttons for apps in the App Launcher of Microsoft 365. This was creating anxiety for IT.  While simultaneously, the firm’s end-users were generating new collaboration and work models organically, utilizing the capabilities that the Microsoft Teams application provides.  What started as a cool idea, with lots of powerful uses, was now over running the firm IT departments.

What can Microsoft Teams do for your organization or law firm?  The single most loved feature set for users is the notion of a “Team” having “all” the work product (Documents, Tasks, Video Calls, and Chat) in one place.  With chat also being searchable and persistent (it doesn’t delete itself), added to the massive increase in collaboration, while reducing email, the old-style way of collaborating. Once COVID-19 arrived, Teams adoption skyrocketed.  I recall reading a blog post from Microsoft in May of 2020 stating they had hosted three (3) billion “video” call minutes in a single day.

Getting back to ILTACON 2019, with a myriad of questions being asked of the speakers, one IT Director leaned over to me and said: “This is the classic case of the not seeing the forest for the trees.”  I turned my head sideways like a dog does when he sees something that is perplexing.  What my colleague was pointing out was that Teams is built-on top of SharePoint.  Large firms that have let Microsoft Teams expand throughout their enterprise are now grappling with the fact that lawyers are using the easy to use, built into Teams, SharePoint document storage to save matter related information in Microsoft 365. This is in lieu of going out of their way to store them in what is becoming another data silo of unintegrated software, a/k/a, the legacy document management system. Microsoft probably already knew this would happen, but the fact that large and small firms are now seeing the value of Teams, and are investing more heavily into that solution. This will eventually mean they will want their documents in the same place as they are already working.  In other words, the next big step is coming, and the end-users are driving it.

Take the Next Step

The rush to Microsoft 365 started with reducing costs by getting rid of the local Exchange Server. Then IT realized they could get a much better handle on every machine in the enterprise, and control the mobile apps, security, and their data by using Intune.  This led to lawyers and knowledge workers discovering new, useful capabilities within Microsoft 365 that aided in their productivity and required little to no training on its use or deployment. Microsoft Teams is the most popular of the Microsoft Apps that end-users are using without being prompted or pushed into.  Other popular Microsoft Apps that are being adopted on a large scale by end-user driven adoption are the Planner (soon to be renamed “Tasks”) and Todo apps.  With Todo, users can flag an email in Outlook, and it will become a task item in Todo, which can be renamed and assigned to others.  Cross-platform, native integration is happening within the entire Microsoft spectrum of Apps.  The rush to Microsoft 365 is real, and the number of firms adopting these solutions is unprecedented.

And yet, the rush is only just getting started.  The next obvious step is integrating Teams usage with true Legal Document Management solutions built right into the law firm’s Microsoft 365 Tenant.  Why?  Firm’s IT are now seeing documents being stored in Teams (SharePoint), or the lawyers “Personal” [for Business] OneDrive’s (ostensibly SharePoint), or worse, back on the desktop since users are spending most of their time in Teams.  Emails are still stored in Exchange, but now legal professionals want their emails, their chats, and their documents, each accessed in different Microsoft Applications, integrated into one dashboard-like experience.

Companies like Epona have risen to meet that demand and fill in the gaps between a native Microsoft environment, and one designed to work as a Document Management System.  Epona has developed full on Legal DMS solutions (as well as Enterprise DMS Solutions) that integrate natively with Teams and are built on SharePoint, giving firms a way to take even more advantage of their investments in Microsoft 365.

As of today, firms can use their tenant to deploy a Legal DMS that includes Records Management, Litigation Hold, Workflows, Intranets and Extranets, AI/Machine Learning for Automatic Document Metadata profiling, predictive email filing, automatic OCRing of PDFs, and have the entire DMS for a fraction of the cost of the old legacy systems, all under the same roof of Microsoft 365.  In the 4th Quarter of 2020, large and midsized firms can utilize Microsoft 365 SharePoint Syntex to have the system “read” their documents, find the correct words in the document, and using the learned machine process to automagically apply metadata properties to the documents with no profiling required by a user.  Corporate Legal departments can utilize Microsoft Power Automate (Workflow) to create contract execution processes, as well as Microsoft 365 Business Information to deploy fully capable, flexible, and custom Contract Management systems. 

The next step begins by storing all your documents in your Microsoft 365 tenant, and then creating dashboards, or AI/Machine Learning/Business Information models to make your firm or business even more productive.  Microsoft has leveled the playing field and simplified the process for deploying World Class, Enterprise Grade IT Solutions. It has done this while also lowering the costs for law firms and businesses, both large and small.  We are merely at the beginning of this next wave of capabilities, and they are being deployed by firms of all sizes as well as by Fortune 500 companies. The only question that remains is will your firm be the last to adopt the future, or amongst the leaders?

Keith Vallely has been with Epona since 2011, when he joined as director of sales. Established in 1993, Epona is a leading software consulting and productions company operating out of Rotterdam, Düsseldorf and New York.

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