Christopher Young of Pinnacle explores the benefits of the cloud, the challenges it can present and why law firms should consider storing data within the cloud.
A few years ago, a law firm would typically have a huge cupboard in the office filled with its servers, from which it would run its data and software. However, the cloud has freed modern law firms from the confines of the cupboard and opened up a range of opportunities (see Know how “Cloud computing: the legal profession starts to reap the benefits“). Broadly speaking, there are now two different cloud options that a law firm can choose from:
- To store its data in the cloud but still maintain its own software
- To move fully to the cloud and work with a service provider who manages both the data and the software. This option is growing far more popular
As more software providers encourage law firms to take a full leap into the cloud by offering software as a service, it will be important for firms to weigh up the pros and cons of each option and consider what will work best for today, tomorrow and far into the future.
Benefits of the cloud
A complete move to the cloud means that the firm will no longer be managing its own infrastructure, so there will be a whole series of skill sets that the firm either no longer needs or can outsource, saving both money and time. In addition, the firm will experience capital savings because it is no longer responsible for buying and maintaining its own equipment.
It also means that the firm is no longer responsible for updating the server, databases and software. This is a real win for law firms, especially as many have software that is years behind because improvement projects have taken priority over housekeeping. By moving to the cloud, firms automatically upgrade their entire system, and hand over responsibility for future upgrades to their software provider. Many people also argue that the cloud is actually more secure, because cloud service providers have dedicated security teams. In addition, firms may have the ability to scale, or decrease their service, in accordance with the changing needs of their organisation.
There are a number of things for firms to consider before moving everything into the hands of a cloud provider. Many law firms previously had people who were trained in database querying, typically through structured query language (SQL). But this skill set is becoming less relevant, particularly for firms using the cloud. Instead, to keep up to date, law firms need to have people with integration, application programming interface (API), data reconciliation and data management skill sets. Training, testing and communications skills will also be needed in greater numbers because there will be more system changes as new features and functions are provided as part of the regular releases and upgrades.
Before moving to the cloud, the firm could dictate when the right time was to upgrade, but after moving to the cloud, the cloud provider will decide when the upgrade is going to happen. Firms will need to adapt their business in order to accommodate this.
Usually, a firm will be given a few days or weeks to become familiar with the upgrade in a test environment, understand how to fix any issues it may cause with its own development team, communicate any problems to the cloud provider and know how to navigate it and communicate this with its users before it goes live in the production environment. For this to happen within the short time frame provided, the firm needs to be equipped with resources to test the upgrades and develop the necessary communications quickly. These rapidly deployed changes allow organisations with the right mindset to develop their agility.
Historically, when law firms looked after their software on-premise, anything relating to the database could be queried, usually through SQL, and the firm’s employees could get an answer to any question by accessing data. With the cloud, in most products, employees do not have direct access to the database. Instead, they get access to an API, which is effectively a predefined query that the cloud provider thinks they might want to ask.
As the cloud provider has lots of customers, they will not want one question from a law firm to slow down everyone else using the product. So instead, they limit the amount of data that a firm can get back in one go, in a method known as paging. This can be a challenge, especially if there is lots of data. For example, a law firm with 12 million records may receive data back in chunks of 500 records at a time. Firms will need to consider the implications of this in relation to, for example, reporting.
Switching cloud provider
The big question for most law firms is how to get on a cloud, but rarely do they consider how they would move from one provider to another in the future. One approach is to have a product that keeps a copy of all of the firm’s data in its own cloud environment, so if the firm decides to move, it does not need to pull any data from its current cloud provider.
It is important to consider this because a firm’s current provider might be what it needs right now, but the market can change very quickly. The market leader of the future may be another provider, and the firm cannot access its data easily and its current cloud provider has the firm’s valuable data, this will cause a huge problem. This is particular important when it comes to an acquisition situation, where two companies are using separate products. If the firm stores a copy of its own data, it can make any changes quickly and easily, and any switches will be less painful for everyone involved.
Committing to the cloud
There is a lot for law firms to consider when looking at moving completely to a cloud provider and receiving software as a service. What is right for a small firm is not always right for a big firm. However, the key questions that a firm needs to answer before committing to the cloud are:
- What new skills will be needed to manage the cloud
- The best way for the firm to switch cloud providers
- What level of control the firm wants to retain over its data
- How to use cloud migrations to illustrate a change in organisational agility