What are the business benefits of being fully in the cloud?
If you are looking at cloud-based software for your law firm, you have no doubt researched and found many options and providers for managing your law firm in the cloud. But how can you be sure the systems you are considering are fully cloud-based? (And does it really matter?)
The word “cloud” can be used loosely by some software providers. Combined with lots of images of clouds, web-screens, laptops and wi-fi – you could easily assume the software you are considering is a fully cloud-based solution. However, not all cloud providers are the same.
Some “cloud” providers simply host your local on-premise server for you and allow you to access it via Terminal Services (aka Citrix). Others provide a “Hybrid-Cloud” or “Smart Client” solution where you still need to install Windows software to use the application.
A true cloud application is accessible to users through any browser on any device (Mac, PC, iPad, Android tabled, etc) from any location without requiring any browser plugins or local software to be installed.
Ask providers to be crystal clear about whether they are truly in the cloud or not so you can make informed comparisons and understand the real benefits to your business.
Why is being fully in the cloud important?
Stay in Step with Microsoft Office 365®
If, like most lawyers, you spend a lot of time in Microsoft Office, you need a system that can stay in step with Microsoft’s cloud strategy. Think about your typical day: the calendar sets the daily schedule, communications are mostly done by email and the output of nearly all legal work ends up in documents. Microsoft Office handles all this with Outlook providing email, calendar and contacts and Word providing document drafting. Your practice management system should integrate well with Office and Outlook so that everything you do works across systems. But unless your practice management system is fully cloud-based, it won’t stay integrated for long.
This is because Microsoft’s strategic direction has clearly shifted to the cloud with Office Online. By adopting Office 365, lawyers and staff automatically stay up to date with the latest versions of Outlook and Word and can use the online versions of those applications. With that in mind, in order to stay in step with these Microsoft products, you need a practice management system that is already in the cloud and integrated with Microsoft Office 365 Online.
Attracting Legal Talent and Staff
Most law firms will say that their people are their most valuable asset. Whether you are a smaller firm thinking about succession planning or a growing firm that needs to build your team, attracting and retaining talent is crucial. Younger lawyers and staff have grown up being online and using mobile devices - they expect to be able to access work and information systems online, via mobile devices or by using any wi-fi enabled device. The concept of having to use a designated Windows machine with special software installed is alien to younger generations. They want to work for progressive firms, with up-to-date technology and the efficiency of having remote access.
The upkeep for on-premise solutions - both the Annual Maintenance Plan and hardware upgrades and maintenance — can end up costing more than cloud-based practice management systems. Cloud-based solutions generally offer a predictable and relatively low monthly cost.
Fully cloud-based practice management systems keep your firm future-ready by routinely updating their technology. This ensures law firms are compatible with the latest versions of Microsoft Office 365 and all the other online tools lawyers use. It also means that as new features are developed and rolled out, your firm automatically receives them, rather than having to schedule a designated “upgrade” with associated downtime. There shouldn’t be any business disruption required to stay on the most up-to-date technology.
Security and automatic backups
With on-premise or “Hybrid-Cloud” systems, you (hopefully) routinely back up your computer's data to a nearby external hard drive or server. The risk is that your PC, local backup drive or server could be lost to theft, cyber-crime, flood, fire or natural disaster. With a fully cloud-based system, your data and information are automatically backed up to an offsite repository that never goes offline and is available from anywhere, preventing catastrophe.
Sometimes people feel that if the data is saved nearby, it is more secure. In reality, data saved to the cloud is usually much more secure than on a local server because reputable providers will have bank-grade data encryption and regular independent security audits in place to prevent unauthorized access or alteration.
10 Questions to Ask Cloud-Based Legal Tech Providers
Once you are sure the system you are looking at is truly in the cloud, how do you assess which system is best for your firm? Each firm will have different criteria – we have highlighted some key questions to help you decide:
1. Can I customize the system to suit my firm?
Every firm has its own ways of working and a certain amount of mandated practice, regulatory or court related processes. Ideally, the cloud-based system you choose will allow for customization and process modification to suit the needs of your firm and areas of practice.
You will notice that many cloud systems aimed at solos and small firms tend to have limited customization capabilities. If you are migrating from another system that has been customized over the years, you will need a cloud-based system that accommodates these customizations and can migrate your firm across to the new system without loss of data. Make sure that the custom fields map from your old system to your new one through custom data collections. With this in mind, you should look at cloud systems that provide a high level of customization for complex or unique processes or for larger firms with multiple practices.
2. Can the system automate my work and administrative processes?
Process automation is the key to creating efficiency at your firm. Look for cloud-based providers that have a mix of built-in and customized workflows to underpin automation. Many providers talk about workflow. Workflow defines the steps, tasks and timing of any process to automate how things are done at your firm. When workflows are set up to your specification, you can collect information, assign tasks, track progress, get updates, update clients automatically and make sure everything is done and checked off before moving to the next step. Beware of providers that simply label set system process “workflows”. Ask providers to explain what they mean by workflow.
3. Does the system have equivalent features?
Every firm has favorite features or tools you can’t live without or don’t want to lose when you migrate to the cloud. And why should you have to? Some cloud systems have very limited features, so always identify your must-have features and only consider cloud systems with equivalent features.
4. Does the system integrate with Office 365?
Microsoft uses a newer and different technology for integrating applications to Office 365. If you want a seamless integration between your cloud practice management system and Microsoft Office then you need to select a provider that has a true “cloud-to-cloud” integration with Office 365.
5. Does the system include advanced document automation (or document assembly)?
Repeat entry and copy /paste processes are a thing of the past – they waste time and carry significant error risks. Look for cloud systems with a robust document automation capability. This will allow you to bring client and matter information into precedents, forms and other templates. Ask providers if you can merge an unlimited number of custom data fields. How do they handle pronouns? Do they also have constructs like repeat blocks (to dynamically create tables), and conditional logic to allow you to selectively substitute text and clauses in your documents?
6. How will the provider convert my data into the new system?
Ideally find a cloud-based system that has a purpose-built conversion tool to automatically transfer your current data into the new system. Without this you may be in for a long and expensive manual migration with the risk of human error and data loss.
7. Does the system have the option to include general ledger accounting?
If you’re going through all the trouble to change practice management systems, it’s a really good time to also update your accounting system. If the cloud provider has a general ledger accounting module, this will give you one system for your practice management, billing and accounting. No need for something like PC Law. Alternatively, look for cloud-to-cloud integrations with accounting products built to integrate with multiple providers.
8. Can I download my data and documents whenever I want?
When you move to the cloud your data and documents are no longer stored on your local server. Choose a cloud provider that allows you to download a full backup of all your data and documents whenever you want. Other than simple peace of mind, this allows you to move to a new software provider in the future if you wish to.
9. Can I download my data to use in other reporting tools?
Look for cloud providers that allow you to periodically download a local copy of your data for custom reporting, dashboards and data visualization using tools like Microsoft Power BI.
10. Most importantly: Do you like using it?
Once you are happy that you have found the cloud-based providers most suited to your firm, the best assessment of any system comes from trying it out so you can see how your data would look and how the system works. Ask the cloud providers you are considering for a demo or a free trial. See if you like using it and if you can imagine using it everyday. And remember – if they are truly in the cloud, they should be able to give you access without installing any software and simply by logging in through a browser of your choice!