Traditionally, many legal practices have invested heavily in software and IT equipment that constantly needs upgrading and replacing. This is often accompanied by inefficient manual paper based systems and processes. The top heavy costs often mean that partners have to provide large amounts of capital and can be a significant hurdle for new firms. The landscape is rapidly changing with the advent of cloud based systems and automated processes. Although the promise has been there for several years it is only recently that cloud based products have developed sufficiently for effective use. Over the next few years these will dramatically change the way we do business.
SO WHAT IS THE CLOUD?
There may be several models of so-called cloud computing but for the purposes of this article we will define the cloud as accessing the software and databases required over the internet instead of on desk-top hard-drives and in-house servers. If you access something over the internet then it is in the Cloud. In a pure model the user’s desk-top, laptop or tablet connects directly to the internet and all software and data (e.g. documents) is held on off-site servers. In many cases these servers are located overseas, possibly in several countries. There are also many variations of hybrid models where some software or data may be stored on desk-top hard-drives or in-house servers and the rest accessed over the internet.
WHAT CAN LEGAL PRACTICES DO IN THE CLOUD?
Everything, well almost. The following are common examples:
Products such as Microsoft Office 365 allow for the creation and storage of emails on Microsoft’s servers with inboxes and other folders downloaded and uploaded over the internet as needed.
Document creation and collaboration
Again this can be provided through products such as Microsoft Office 365 which allows users to use on-line versions of Microsoft Word, Excel and other Microsoft Office applications.
Document and email storage
There are many storage products available such as Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox etc. and also the more specialised document management systems such as NetDocuments which provide sophisticated search and other functions.
Client database, timesheets and billing
Sophisticated cloud based practice management systems are available where all client data, timesheet and billing processes are accessed over the internet. Workflow Max in conjunction with Xero is a cost-effective but powerful solution for smaller practices.
Practice accounting and accounts payable systems
There are now several cloud based accounting systems which integrate accounting, billing, accounts payable and other accounting related functions. Xero is a leader in this field with the flexibility to add on many integrated third party applications as required.
Most external research providers, e.g. LexisNexis and CCH, offer cloud based products.
Payroll and HR
Payroll and some HR functions can now be accessed in the cloud.
There are many options for cloud based telephone systems, faxes etc. with PABX switchboards and fax machines now a thing of the past. Also on-line webinars, meetings and video-conferencing is all possible using cloud based services.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES?
In short, massive cost savings and efficiency!
Generally there is no need to purchase software, instead software is typically leased for a relatively low price per month, per user. This makes it easier to scale up or down as staff resources change. There is also no need to purchase expensive IT infrastructure such as in-house servers, PABX switchboards, video conferencing equipment and fax machines. If base hardware such as desktops and laptops are leased rather than purchased, a practice can be started with virtually no initial capital outlay.
More for less
Many of the cloud based software products have very powerful functions which were previously only available in the most expensive versions of traditional software packages
or required expensive customisation. Now, even small practices can have IT resources comparable to the biggest practices.
The cloud based provider will typically update the software automatically so that you are always using the latest version without having to have an expensive IT person going
through the office updating every users’ device. It should also generally be much easier to move to the latest version of software.
As indicated above, you don’t have to keep purchasing expensive software upgrades and may be able to save on in-house or external IT support persons.
Although it is often perceived that cloud based systems may have security issues, the reverse is often true. Most cloud based providers will have their servers housed in purpose built bunkers with far greater security and sustainability than the average New Zealand office building. Data is usually stored in multiple sites, so that there should always be a copy available in the event of a disaster. Encryption of data and robust virus protection is also common to decrease the risk of unauthorised access and contamination.
Cloud based systems typically allow users to access the practice’s software and databases 24/7 from any location using any desktop, laptop or tablet with an internet connection. This means that not everyone has to come into the office when they want to use the practice’s IT systems. Staff may work from home, out of town, offshore or in transit.
With more powerful and accessible systems there is more scope for automation of workflow, monitoring and review processes. Many products allow integration with other software, hardware (such as copier and printers) or with other parties (such as the practice’s accountant) so that duplication is reduced. Staff can be more productive, which can allow for business growth or cost reduction by reducing staff numbers.
Collaboration is much easier with multiple parties being able to access the same document and systems. This also includes collaboration with third parties such as other law practices, government agencies and suppliers.
Improved access and collaboration can also allow more cost effective outsourcing or off-shoring of certain functions. For example, on-line collaboration with an external accountant can mean much more accurate, timely and meaningful accounting