Law firms are increasingly embracing the internet as a way of
accessing a variety of popular legal applications
says Dominic Cullis,
Chairman of the Legal Software Suppliers Association (LSSA).
  But what are the benefits – and drawbacks –
of this kind of technology?

 

The concept of
deploying software over the internet has grabbed the attention of the legal
sector.  Increasingly, law firms
are adopting this internet-centric model to offload the burden of server
maintenance and data backup, whilst expanding access to their IT systems. While
some firms might remain sceptical of this new technology and question a
third-party's ability to safeguard client data, members of the Legal Software
Suppliers Association (LSSA) remain confident in their software's ability to
keep data safe, secure and accessible.

 

To understand what web-based software is, it's useful to see how it differs from traditional
software deployment models. Some firms may have heard web-based software
described as Software as a Service (SaaS) but there is still some confusion over
how these web-based models differ from a traditional IT system.

 

In fact, the
difference is clear. With
traditional off-the-shelf software packages, the software is
normally installed on a server, and then on each computer in the office. The
server hardware is located in the firm's own office and is accessed on the PCs
used by solicitors and their staff. Typically, the software is purchased up
front, although there may be an annual support fee to cover upgrades and
customer support services. With this model, each
application needs to be separately installed on each user's PC. Any upgrade to
the application would therefore also require an upgrade to the software on each
user workstation, adding to support costs and potentially harming productivity.

 

With the SaaS model,
however, data is typically secured at a central location, and then monitored by
IT staff that handle routine back-ups, upgrades, modifications, installations
and necessary maintenance. As such, the security and maintenance is often far
superior to what a law firm could implement in its own office. Not only that,
but using SaaS in this way also means that there is no need for the firm to buy
expensive server hardware.

 

Osprey.TM, the software
produced by LSSA member Pracctice, is a web-based software package
designed  specifically for law
firms. Pracctice originally released Osprey.TM
at the London Legal IT exhibition back in February 2004. As such, Osprey.TM  was the first full function, purely internet-based PMS
to be released to the UK legal market.
“Without a doubt, web-based software can provide a low cost, future-proof tool for law firms that
will deliver huge returns on a small investment, and  therefore provide considerable savings,” says Matthew
Lancaster, Marketing Director for Osprey.TM.
With this model, the
firm will typically pay a monthly subscription fee to use the service, rather
than purchase the software up front.

 

“The traditional
advantages of web-based applications are geared around ease and consistency of
access, and negating the requirement for firms to have their own in-house IT
infrastructure
,” agrees Darren Gower, marketing manager at
LSSA member Eclipse Legal Systems.
Eclipse Legal Systems has a SaaS offering which
provides the full functionality of its 'traditional' installed solution. Data can be hosted by the client, or by
Eclipse, whichever is preferable.

 

Pinpoint Interactive, from
LSSA member Quill, offers another example of legal software that can
be accessed from an ordinary web browser.  Pinpoint provides a true web-browser based, hosted application to assist with practices' financial and
document management needs. In addition, and perhaps most importantly,
Quill also offers the legal cashier to drive it, which means that firms don’t
have to recruit, train or retain a legal cashier of their own.

 

“With Pinpoint
Interactive, we wanted to develop a totally mobile, zero deployment, zero cost
application  and solution for our
clients,” says Quill's Andrew Sherwin. Being “lean and mean”,
Pinpoint Interactive can be accessed from any web enabled PC, whether Windows,
Mac or Linux, using almost any internet browser from Microsoft Internet Explorer,
Firefox, Safari or Mozilla and now even Google Chrome.”

 

With purely web-based software,
neither data nor the applications are kept on the actual PC, so solicitors
don't have to install anything to use it. As a result, there is no need to
worry about installation going wrong. At the same time, there can't be
incompatibilities between the application and the PC's operating system,
because the software doesn't actually run on the PC's operating system.

 

LSSA member IRIS is another
company that has embraced this vision of “your data anywhere, anytime”. IRIS
offers its clients two alternative delivery mechanisms: traditional software
installed within the practice or software hosted on IRIS' own servers. IRIS
recently signed its 1000th hosted customer, and offers hosted solutions for
both solicitors and barristers. “Web-based software
has clear business benefits for firms: there is no need to worry about
maintaining local IT infrastructure and applying upgrades, so there are cost
savings in both staff time and materials costs,” says Paul
Heritage-Redpath, Product Manager, IRIS. 
“In addition, the new version of the Law Society’s Lexcel quality
standard mandates a business continuity plan, and web-based software has
obvious advantages if premises become inaccessible.”

 

Disaster recovery plans are
important to all industries, but particularly the legal sector,  and Web-based software caters for this
need very well. As all client data is stored “server side”, business continuity
and disaster recovery play a big part in making the software especially
attractive to law firms. 

 

In addition, the ability to
update and maintain web-based applications without having to distribute and
install software on potentially thousands of individual PCs is yet another key
reason for their popularity.  Likewise,
Web-based applications require little or no disk space on the user's own PC (or
the firm's server), and will often upgrade automatically when new features
become available.  This added
flexibility has further knock-on benefits for law firms in terms of the
software's reliability, according to Matthew Lancaster.

 

“With web-based
applications,
upgrades only have to be tested in the one environment
where they would run (in the data centres), and do not have to be
distributed,” he explains. “Upgrades are instantaneous, can be applied much more easily, and
are produced much more frequently as a result of the greatly reduced testing
period. We offer both hosted and
self-hosted services, yet 99.9% of our customers choose our hosted services.”

 

So, is SaaS right for your
firm?  The short answer is:  it depends.

 

“Law firms are far
from homogenous, so it is difficult to generalise,” says Heritage-Redpath. “There may be some firms with a cultural
aversion to having their data held outside their four walls, and for this
reason IRIS offer customers the choice. Having said that, we’ve worked very hard to make our software fast to
deploy and easy to use; offering it on a hosted platform just means there are
no physical hardware issues for start-up firms to tackle, so they can open
their doors for business almost immediately.”

 

“When it comes to web-based
applications, there is a lot to consider,” adds Darren Gower.
“The security and longevity of your
provider, for a start:  who is
actually hosting your data and is this ideal?  Is there the potential for a conflict of interests? Also, making changes and amendments to
the system can be more difficult given the 'remote' nature of the source. Not only that, but if your Internet
connection drops, then the system will be totally unavailable.”

 

While the SaaS model is very
compelling, there are several reasons why a firm might not want to implement a
SaaS system.

 

“The main disadvantage
with browser based applications is the look and feel can sometimes be a little
flat compared to the interface of traditional Windows applications,” says
Andrew Sherwin.  “However, technology is moving forward in
leaps and bounds at the moment, with applications such as Microsoft Silverlight
and Adobe Air giving suppliers the ability to develop much richer user
interfaces without compromising on the core benefits of web browser
applications.”

 

Paul Heritage-Redpath qualifies that statement. “Web-based
applications provide a very different user experience to that afforded by a
rich desktop client, and attempting to replicate the desktop experience could
lead to reliance on proprietary third party extensions with the obvious risks
to future stability that poses,” he says.  “IRIS’ vision is to re-imagine the fee earner desktop
to take best advantage of the browser user interface, and ensure that our
software remains standards-based so that it can run on any platform or device
our clients choose.”

 

The need for complex customisation
can also cause problems. Because web-based systems are typically designed to
serve numerous offices from a single, centralised location, there have
traditionally been fewer options for complex customisation.

 

Last but by no means least
is the issue of security. When it
comes to internet technology, concerns in this area are common.
The Web
Application Security Consortium (WASC) has therefore been developed with the
intention of documenting how to avoid security problems in web applications,
and some software vendors will also use a web application security scanner,
which is specialised software for detecting security problems in web applications. 

 

Likewise, as the UK industry body for legal systems
developers and vendors, the LSSA recently announced that it
has revised its Code of Practice with regard to
the provision of hosted services, as well as the safety and integrity of
customers' data. 
In particular, where services are supplied by means
of a hosted service, the Code of Practice now states that all LSSA members must
take all reasonable precautions to ensure the safety and integrity of their
customers' data.

 

“If using web-based software,
it's important for the client to understand how the data is transmitted to the
host server and back again to the PC, where the hosted data is, and what
should  happen in the event of the
hosted server being unavailable,” says Quill's Andrew Sherwin.  “The minimum a client should
expect is Industry standard SSL 128bit encryption for data transfer.  We
explain to our clients that Internet security and data transfer  should be considered as a partnership
with the supplier and not simply a one way obligation from the supplier to the
practice.   As such, we advise all our clients on what we describe as
'best practice' for data transmission using Internet technologies.”

 

“Some clients still
have concerns about a third-party hosting their data, but the fact is that
suppliers
are much better placed to ensure the security of clients' data,” adds
Matthew Lancaster. “Due to the economies of scale in providing the service
for hundreds of firms, suppliers in this area have the considerable experience,
resource, expertise and funding to apply far higher levels of protection than
any individual law firm could achieve. All you need to do is consider the
amount of money spent by one law firm on its firewall, and compare that to a
supplier who is providing a hosted service for hundreds of firms.”

 

Many would argue that security is
actually enhanced by the web-based model, in that sensitive data is not being
stored on a laptop or USB drive that can easily be lost or stolen  Likewise, companies offering Web-based
applications will often be more diligent about backing up data, as they'll have
dedicated system administrators to manage the process.

 

“Security is probably
the primary concern when it comes to any kind of online services,” says
IRIS' Paul Heritage-Redpath. 
“It's important, though, to keep this in perspective – one need
only think of taking files to court, or putting them in the car to work on at
home to appreciate that the risk of data loss has always been with the
profession.”

 

Despite such concerns, the concept
of Web-based software is proving to be compelling for many law firms. After
all, most solicitors have now become accustomed to having access to their email
regardless of where they are working. And if they can see their email, why not
their diary? If they can discuss a document with their colleagues, why can't
they make changes to it? As a result, many solicitors have begun to question
the logic of having their data trapped on a stand-alone
computer somewhere.

 

“Our legal clients
like the fact that they can access the system from home, from court, or from
the office,” says Andrew Sherwin from Quill. “Plus, they don’t have
to tell us if they buy a new PC or laptop in order to get the application
reinstalled. They can simply
access our software – and their data – from a new PC straight away.”

 

As a result of this new way of
thinking, some industry experts are predicting that the whole idea of
“your computer” is disappearing, and being replaced with “your
data.” You should be able to get at your data from any computer or other
device, whether that means a personal digital assistant (PDA) or your mobile
phone.

 

“We are totally
committed to this vision, and find ourselves in a position to be able  to offer established systems and
services to legal practices,” Andrew Sherwin adds. “We firmly
believe that the way that practices interact with their suppliers, their
clients, and regulatory authorities will change in the future, and there is
little doubt in our minds the Internet will be the hub of this change.”