"Cloud Computing”, Solos and Small Law Firms, and Consumer Access to Affordable Legal Services
A common definition of “cloud computing” is the storage of an organization’s data on the Internet in a server provided by an independent data center that is a separate organization from the client organization. Law firms can now store client data, financial records, legal documents, and other information on the Internet, rather than house data in servers located on their premises, often at a cost which is much less than the cost of storing data internally.
There is another aspect of “cloud computing” that is often over looked in bar association discussions about this issue and that aspect is the ways in which the “cloud computing” results in increased access to legal services and enables solos and small law firms to become more competitive.
A law firm, for example, that wants
to offer “unbundled” legal services online at a reduced fee can only do so
by creating an online “client portal” that enables a client to purchases
legal services over the Internet.
It is mostly solos and small law firms that provide legal services to solve
the legal problems of individuals and small business. Large law firms may
have the resources to create portals for their corporate clients, and to
store data on servers located within the firm, but solos and small law firm
Because this online legal technology is capital intensive to develop, very few solos and small law firms have developed a virtual law firm technology on their own. Instead, they have looked to an expanding group of software vendors known as SaaS vendors SaaS stands for “Software as a Service.” – software that is delivered over the Internet through the web browser. This means that the solo and small law firm is able, for a relatively inexpensive monthly fee, may subscribe to a set of complicated software technologies that are provided over the Internet from a vendor who hosts both the software application and the firm’s data on a server that is not within the firm’s physical facility. It is only in this way that these software applications can be delivered to solos and small law firms economically and at a price they can afford.
There are important strategic advantages to enabling law firms to adopt an online legal service strategy that is based on the concept of "cloud computing.". Here are a few of them:
“Software as a Service” levels the playing field between solos and small law firm and the LegalZooms of the Internet world, enabling them to remain competitive in a changing legal landscape. The market for consumer legal solutions is changing in fundamental ways, primarily because of the ascendancy of the Internet. We have estimated that there is a huge latent market for legal service, approximately $20 billion annually.
“Software as a Service” offered in the “Cloud” is a major step towards innovation in the delivery of legal services in terms of increasing law firm productivity enabling law firms to serve a broader group of consumers at prices that these consumer’s can afford. This becomes, in fact, an access to justice issue for many individuals and small business owners.
There has been some discussion distinguishing between services that point outward towards the consumer, and cloud based services that are focused on the internal operations of law firms are which are limited to timekeeping and billing, case management, and other internal functions. This distinction simply makes no sense. Both kinds of “software as a service” involve the storage of client confidential information in the Cloud.
A recent article in TechnoLawyer, by Ross Kodner, a consultant to solo and
small law firms, sums up the argument for “Cloud Computing”:
Moreover, there are well known examples of companies that store mission critical information for other companies in the “cloud.” Perhaps the most well-known is www.salesforce.com , which has brought modern sales and marketing technology to the smallest business enterprise. Another example, reported in this month’s Fortune Magazine, [ April 12, 2010, P. 26, ] is a company called Workday that stores a company’s human resources information online. Most recently Sony Pictures and Lextronics moved their human resources function online by subscribing to the Workday system Workday contends that it can securely lower customers’ technology costs (few servers to purchase and maintain) and improve efficiency (software upgrades take days, not months) by delivering complex applications and information over the Net. The information stored by Workday is mission critical and confidential information that contains the files of hundreds of thousands of employees. Oracle and SAP are also developing plans to develop “software as a service” models similar to Workdays.
The trend towards “cloud computing” is accelerating as organizations realize that this is lower cost method of accessing the benefits of enterprise wide computing, and that certain kinds of innovations will only be available to the smallest or organizations by adopting this approach.
Minimum standards for SaaS Providers should result in the protections that law firms need to be able to operate on the Internet without fear of violating current ethical standards. Standard setting by SaaS vendors, malpractice insurers, and bar associations can provide assurance that the costs involved in shifting to a new platform are minimized, while the benefits of “cloud” computing are realized.