This article originally featured in the February issue of Managing for Success.
The legal sector is clearly sceptical about cloud services – only 15 per cent of law firms currently use the technology. But, says Nigel Wright, the rest are missing out on real benefits to their business, people and clients
Cloud is one of those buzzwords that often dominates technology discussions today. Simply put, it’s a catch-all term for computer services and data storage via the web. So far, it has not been adopted by much of the sector – recent research by the Legal Support Network revealed that only 15% of UK law firms currently use hosted cloud services – but if you think that means cloud is not something that your law firm doesn’t need to worry about, think again. The same research found that, by 2018, the figure will rise to close to 90%. The question is: will you be one of the 90% operating with greater flexibility, reduced capital outlay and improved data security, or one of the 10% left behind?
Transferring to the cloud may seem like a big step, but it could bring real business benefits for your firm. I outline some of the key advantages below.
The cloud is, in essence, pay-on-demand IT. This means you can pay for what you use, and scale up or down when you need to, to meet changing business and market needs. Much of the cloud-based technology enjoyed by larger firms is just as accessible for smaller firms on a cost per-user, per-month basis.
The cloud is a great example of IT becoming a profit centre rather than a cost centre, as it enables firms to save on storage space costs (because documents can be stored digitally in the cloud, for easy access from anywhere), dedicate more time to clients (allowing staff to work securely outside of the office reduces downtime and speeds up client response) and retain staff (on which, more later). Cloud solutions also help alleviate some of the burden on internal IT staff, enabling them to spend more time on activities that add value to the business. Cloud also includes all your server hardware and Microsoft licensing, so you can avoid the high unpredictable financial costs associated with hardware and software upgrades.
Secure data and built-in business continuity
Few firms could risk the costs associated with business outage: a law firm with 50 fee-earners, charging £150 per hour on a five-hour fee-charging day would lose £187,500 if it suffered a five-day downtime. But disasters can and do strike when you least expect them.
How would your firm cope if a junior member of your IT team deleted your virtual server? How would you respond to an air-conditioning unit leaking into your office and damaging your IT equipment? What would you do if a computer virus wiped out records or rendered your IT useless?
This is where cloud really brings benefits: a firm can return to the point in time before the disaster struck, and be up and running within a matter of hours, thus minimising downtime and ensuring business continuity. The only requirement for a speedy return to business as usual is for staff members to have access to the internet and an internet-enabled device. If the circumstances dictate it, staff can work remotely, accessing, working on and saving files in real time.
Business continuity is also a regulatory issue: the SRA Code of Conduct includes a requirement for law firms to provide a duty of care to clients, with a proven business continuity plan in place that outlines how they will continue to trade should the worst happen.
Data security and protection is a top priority for law firms, and a solid, proven and tested disaster recovery service forms part of the process of securing data. Breaches can warrant hefty fines, create distrust and taint reputations. Increasingly, corporate clients are asking law firms to demonstrate the effectiveness of their data security and disaster recovery plans, fully aware of the reputational issues that a breach could bring in the 24/7 culture of which we’re all now part. Cloud brings this benefit and reassurance as standard.
Agile working and staff retention
Agile working has become a key differentiator for firms seeking to provide the best client service and win the war for talent. The benefits are clear to both firms and employees, and, most importantly, clients see the difference, as they benefit from improved service levels and are able to access legal services when and how they need them. We recently held an event attended by representatives of 20 UK law firms – including managing partners, finance directors, chief executives and heads of IT – and all unanimously agreed that an agile workforce, where staff do not require office space, enables imaginative use of skilled people, and results in more time dedicated to generating revenue than to travelling.
Flexible and agile working can only be offered where reliable IT systems exist. The cloud enables staff to work from anywhere, anytime and on any device. By transferring to cloud computing and providing staff with an internet-enabled device, employees logging on to the internet will be instantly connected back to the office system, and able to safely and securely access and update files in real time. This makes a particularly significant difference to fee-earners who travel as part of their job, optimising their downtime, maximising their profitability and enabling their firm to offer clients on-site support, consultancy and round-the-clock service. As employees have become more accustomed to using technology outside of work, in their own time, it is also important that firms match, or exceed, their employees’ expectations for technology use when they’re at work.
Flexible working is increasingly becoming a key tool for firms looking to attract and retain talent. Offering flexibility broadens the pool of available talent, helping business growth and ultimately improving reputations and profitability. It also aids the retention of employees in line with their life changes.
No more costly office moves
Agile working can also help to manage accommodation costs, as hot-desking can be introduced to free up space used by staff who are often client-facing or who travel as part of their job. Additionally, permanent desks can be given to those teams or people who are generally office-based and require specific technology to do their job. While many larger firms have only recently announced a move to hot-desking, many smaller firms have operated in this way for a number of years, maximising technology, enabling staff and growing their firm.
If you’re convinced of the benefits of a move to the cloud, the next step is to conduct some due diligence on the key providers in the market. Before you sign on the dotted line, be sure to check that your chosen provider can answer the following questions:
- Do they use UK datacentres, and if so, are those centres certified to ISO 27001 standard (on information security management)?
- Do they understand your compliance requirements and meet or exceed them with their cloud offering?
- Does the cloud service they offer include disaster recovery and business continuity planning as standard?
- Is the cloud provider a specialist? (You’re looking for a significant number of law firm clients with available testimonials, and for the majority of the provider’s revenues to come from cloud contracts.)
- Will they meet your target service levels? (Always read the small print in their terms and conditions.)
- Do they have experience of hosting your case and practice management and other sector specific applications?
Michael McGuire, IT director of Linder Myers, also has some top tips for effective cloud implementation.
- Take time to understand your current position. Where do you want to be in the future?
- Investigate the options available – should you move in one big step or take a phased approach?
- Check and compare service level agreements, especially relating to uptime and support response times.
- Speak to other firms for testimonials and references, and speak directly to the customers of any technology partner you may shortlist.
- Get IT and board-level buy-in from the outset. IT should be seen as an enabler rather than a threat. Educate people within your firm about the need for change, how this can be achieved, and the benefits it will bring. Involve the board as advocators of change.
- Choose a vendor that can demonstrate successful cloud project management, is financially sound, and understands the legal sector, your software and is aware of the roles and responsibilities within a legal firm.
- Assume a big bang is the only approach: every firm is different, and a gradual move from on-premise to hybrid to cloud may be your preferred option. Consider different approaches to find out which works best for you.
- Forget about compliance, service level agreements and due diligence.
- Neglect security and data protection. Gain a clear explanation from the vendor of how it approaches these issues.
- Underestimate the work required on both sides. Projects can take three to four months. You need to appoint a project manager and get support from the board.
- Forget the importance of user acceptance testing.
Total Conveyancing Services (TCS) in Cheshire Oaks moved to a hosted desktop service when the firm’s new finance director, Robert Hastie, identified IT as a significant risk to the business. Legacy systems and hardware needed upgrading, and a robust business continuity plan was needed to minimise business interruption.
Rob explains: “With major high street banks and two leading estate agency firms among our key business referrers, a disaster had the potential to result in reputational damage, not only to us, but for these key clients, too. Disaster recovery became a high priority for me.”
TCS weighed up the pros and cons of outsourcing IT services versus boosting the in-house team, and the decision was made to look externally and have his firm set up on a privately hosted cloud. He found the move brought a two-fold benefit: a robust disaster recovery plan, which has helped TCS to win new contracts with major high street lenders; and increased productivity and morale among TCS staff, who are now better able to work flexibly.
“As the banks and building societies have raised the bar in terms of security, we have found that our operating system meets and exceeds their expectations, as we operate on a cloud that is compliant with the Solicitors Regulatory Authority. It’s been a real differentiator for us in terms of winning new contracts and providing banks with the stringent security they demand of their suppliers,” says Rob.
He adds: “Staff retention has been a welcome benefit, as people are able to work from home when they have a doctor’s appointment or if their children aren’t well.”
As finance director, cost is key to Rob’s role: “We just don’t have the downtime we used to have while we wait for server issues to be resolved.”