Where's Your Stuff?

[originally posted at Slaw, January 11, 2010]

Or, perhaps more importantly, where is your client’s stuff? Software-as-a-service (SaaS) is a hot topic for a lot of businesses, and the legal profession is not exempt from its impact. It can be defined in a variety of ways and is part of what is commonly known as cloud computing. At its essence, you license access to software that is installed on a computer outside your office and you access it over the Internet. All of the data you enter into the software – e-mail, appointments, letters, depositions – is stored on that remote computer. SaaS services are accessed through a Web browser, but may look like a typical business application, like Microsoft Word, as much as a typical Web page.

The benefits tend to be obvious. They include:

  • Having someone else handle your software installations and upgrades, and provide support;
  • Having someone else handle your data security, backup, and disaster preparedness;
  • Knowing what your software will cost you, often on a monthly or annual basis, in advance.

You may not be aware you are using SaaS, but both major legal publishers, LexisNexis and Westlaw, are SaaS services. They eliminated the software you have to install to access their databases, and now you use your Web browser to access vast libraries of information. In addition to typical research, you can store your research, set up notifications, and perform document assembly within their systems. When a new version comes out, you automatically get the benefits without upgrading any software except, perhaps, your Web browser. That is the typical SaaS experience.

There are also many free services, like Google Mail and Google Calendar, or Remember the Milk, where you can start to store more detailed practice-related data. Not only is the price right, but, like the legal publishers, Web-based information and practice management applications are available whenever you have an Internet connection. [If you are not familiar with the Lifehacker blog, it is a great source for online productivity tools that fall in the SaaS category.]

The real power for the legal profession is in the fee-based SaaS applications, some of which are specifically for lawyers. Practice management software like ClioRocket Matter, and AdvologixPM, are designed to take a lawyer from client intake to final bill. Other business applications, like Google Apps (afreemium version of Google Mail, Calendar, and Documents), Intuit Quickbooks Online (not in Canada), orNetDocuments, provide extra features beyond those available in free services.

There are obvious concerns with relying on SaaS applications. You need to make sure you have reliable Internet access. Even if you do, you will want to find out how to use your SaaS application offline, when your Internet connection isn’t available. Many of the SaaS providers are developing ways to store some portion of your data on your local computer in case you need to work without Internet access.

You should also know how often and where your data is being backed up. Just like your backup in your office – you are one of the 63% of lawyers who responded to the 2009 ABA Legal Technology Survey that they perform daily backups, right? – you need to know how you can get your data back if your SaaS provider has a failure. Some experts are predicting that 2010 will be the year that there is a “cloud computing” disaster (e.g., cloud catastrophe in 2010), although users of Google applications or T-Mobile Sidekick devices may suggest that there are already disturbances in the Force.

As important as backup is portability. A benefit of SaaS is that you may feel less tied to a single software application that has a sunk cost. If the day comes when you tell your SaaS provider, “I’m just not that in to you”, you need to know you can take your practice information somewhere else.

The online world has many of the same challenges as the physical world. Your client confidentiality duties are as important in the cloud as they would be if your confidential documents were found blowing around the neighborhood.

Proponents of SaaS highlight that outages, hardware failures, and data loss occur in law offices as well as online. The 12% of lawyers responding to the 2009 ABA Legal Technology Survey who had no backup might actually be getting more protection by using a SaaS provider.

Data security is an issue both online and in your firm. If your office server is not in a locked room, then it is more susceptible to being carried out the door. When you put your client information and work product in the cloud, you need to know where “there” is and how it is protected. Some Canadian SaaS providers have their servers in the U.S. Some well-known SaaS providers, like Google, have their servers located in multiple, undisclosed locations. If you have concerns about placing confidential information in an environment subject to local laws, like the USA PATRIOT Act, then you may need to be more selective about your SaaS providers or the types of applications you use online.

You should also consider how you interact with your SaaS. If your data and work product is in the cloud, see if your provider is going to encrypt your data and support secure Web browser sessions. For example, if you are using Google Mail, turn on the “Browser connection: always use HTTPS” setting to ensure that your Web browser is sending and receiving your information in an encrypted format.

When dealing with a SaaS provider, understand the terms and conditions of your license. Where you are paying for the software, understand what your service level agreement (SLA) says about availability and what the provider will do if they are offline. This could be comprehensive, or they could just offer to give credit your monthly subscription back and promise to “do their best” to keep their systems running. If you are not comfortable with their service standards, look for another provider or forego using SaaS for that application.

SaaS isn’t one-size-fits-all. Elements of your practice will be more or less conducive to using SaaS, depending on how you practice and how comfortable you are with placing your client and work information in the ether. You may decide to use SaaS just for e-mail and calendaring, with everything else installed on your local computer. However you decide to use SaaS applications, they are an exciting new and mature option for many law offices.

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