Law firms and cloud computing

Is moving to the cloud the right strategy for your law firm? Stephen Brown of Lights-On Consulting gives an insight into the complexities and benefits of cloud computing and adopting a cloud strategy, and considers the options for delivering cloud technology.

This article was first published in Solicitors Journal.

Delivering IT services is fast becoming an oxymoron. As the solutions become easier to consume, the considerations, especially in a regulated environment such as the legal sector, become increasingly complex. The complexity of ensuring that data, service level agreements and connectivity are all aligned, requires expert knowledge.

What does ‘cloud-first’ mean?

‘Cloud-first’ is when a firm has a major technology investment decision to make, or needs to buy new software or services, and the default principle will be to ‘source from the cloud, unless there is good reason not to’.

Key to the ‘cloud-first’ decision making will be agreeing structure review criterion, to evaluate potential cloud services.  Whilst not exhaustive, this will include:

  • Where will data reside, and does it comply with Solicitors Regulation Authority / Data Protection Act guidelines?
  • Is the firm comfortable with the security profile of the solution and supplier (aligned to ISO27001 and Cyber-Essential Plus accreditations)?
  • Are the operational service levels provided by the supplier fit for purpose?
  • Does the solution provide the functionality and integration the firm needs?
  • Does the cost align to appetite?
  • Has the supplier passed the client procurement due diligence assessment (commercial stability, anti-bribery etc)?

What is cloud computing?

Let’s go back a step. What do we mean by cloud computing? Since the advent of the internet as a mainstream business tool in the early 1990s, the way technology has been delivered and utilised has consistently changed.

Condensing over 25 years of development into a few words – the scale, speed and reliability of modern networking technology aligned to the hub of inter-connected computing capability (the internet) has created what is commonly known as ‘the cloud’.

The cloud environment has revolutionised how technology can be consumed by businesses regardless of their size.  Traditionally, businesses capital-purchased hardware and software solutions, and hosted them in their own environments.

The rise of cloud computing has transformed this model.  Massive levels of investment from technology giants such as Microsoft and Amazon mean cloud is almost certainly going to be the dominant technology hosting model for the foreseeable future.

The provisioning of data centre space, the procurement of technology hardware, the use of business software, and even the use of people and resources, has increasingly moved to an operational expenditure / services model.

As cloud solutions and suppliers mature in technology offering, service and compliance e.g. SRA code of conduct, it is becoming commonplace for firms to consider the cloud to deliver their technology.

Furthermore, it is now mainstream to procure all elements of a traditional IT function ‘as a service’, because:

  • Firms do not want the overhead and burden of managing internal IT teams or the responsibility / risk of hosting data centres from their own office locations.
  • It is quicker to procure services from the cloud and bring them to market when compared to traditional sourcing mechanisms.
  • It is possible to scale the technology services up and down quickly, to provide computing power and IT services on demand.
  • Key suppliers are pricing cloud services keenly as they want customers to use them.
  • Licensing models from key suppliers, such as Microsoft, are making it more expensive not to move to a cloud sourced model.
  • Some legal application suppliers are stopping the development of traditional solutions and are only providing cloud-based options.

Cloud and innovation

Innovative uses of technology drive business growth and / or efficiency, but can often be opportunistic and entrepreneurial in nature, requiring an ability to fairly quickly try out something without huge levels of investment or long-time delays, to assess whether the opportunity will really achieve a beneficial outcome.

However, the traditional infrastructure hosting model is not conducive to this type of ‘incubator’ based piloting approach.  Very few organisations have spare infrastructure available just for this type of Research and Development, which can lead to delay, cost and complexity in trying out new opportunities – ultimately stifling innovation.

Infrastructure hosting in the cloud has the potential to remedy this challenge.  Generally, these services are costed on a ‘pay as you use’ model.  Infrastructure can be switched on and off very quickly, with the user only charged when it is being used.

The main benefit of this is that the traditional innovation-blocker is removed, but also that large scale capital investment in infrastructure isn’t required, and time to provision services is dramatically reduced.

Finally, many innovation opportunities require high levels of computer processing power, particularly when considering the use of artificial intelligence technologies.

The level of up-front investment required in a traditional hosting model would smother the potential to ‘try out’ these opportunities, whereas in a cloud environment, the level of compute power available is almost limitless.

Cloud options

Co-Location – This is not strictly considered cloud computing. The firm hires space from a third party but is still responsible for the hardware and applications. Data centres are rated from one to four, with four being the most resilient.

Infrastructure as a Service (“IAAS”) – The firm hires resilient hardware (‘infrastructure’) that is hosted in a data centre. The hardware is not owned by the firm but rented, so is owned and maintained by the service provider. The firm licences its own server operating system, platforms and applications that it can put on the rented hardware. IAAS providers can offer a Microsoft server operating system as part of the solution.

Platform as a Service (“PAAS”) – The firm hires a platform but retains responsibility for the applications that use the platform.

Software as a Service (“SAAS”) – The firm hires the application but retains responsibility for how the application is delivered to staff and any integration or development.

Desktop as a Service (“DAAS”) – The firm hires the desktop environment but retains responsibility for any development of applications e.g. case workflows.

Adopting a cloud-first approach means other IT services will be considered differently in the future.  Most notably:

  • Whilst the amount of infrastructure located in any existing Data Centres / Communications Rooms will reduce, network connectivity to the cloud hosted services will be critical to ensure operational service performance. Overall expenditure may therefore not significantly reduce, but will be re-directed to a different technology area.
  • A cloud-first approach, particularly for utilising applications hosted by different suppliers, potentially increases complexity in how services are integrated. This will need to be carefully assessed as part of any procurement, but may also require a slightly different skill-set than is currently available from the IT function.
  • When current Managed IT Services contracts expire and a re-tender is due, the firm should consider the skills required for the duration of the new contract term, whether they are likely to change. In particular:
    • Expertise in provision and migration of infrastructure services to the cloud should be paramount;
    • As it is likely that services will be increasingly sourced from third parties, any new Managed Services supplier will need to have strong supplier management and commercial procurement expertise;
    • Integration architecture and design skills will be vital;
    • Data Sovereignty – Regulated firms need to consider where their data is stored;
    • Exit – Suppliers make it very easy to consume new services. Exit terms have to be thought out and very robust.  Getting access to firm’s data when trying to move suppliers can prove to be extremely difficult with some providers demanding a ‘king’s ransom’;
    • Supplier Licensing – Enterprise software providers are now geared heavily to the Cloud.

Considering moving your law firm’s IT services to the cloud? Light-On Consulting can provide impartial and independent advice on cloud computing to help you make the right decision for your practice. Contact us for a confidential conversation.

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