The basic premise of cloud services - renting Web-based software instead of buying - means that your firm doesn't need to pay up front for programs that could soon be obsolete. And it means the vendor takes care of installing upgrades and patches because it is hosting the software on its own servers. Using cloud services also lets lawyers and staffers at your firm work wherever they are, on whatever device they choose, as long as they have an Internet connection.
Such mobility makes cloud services well suited to the way today's lawyers and their clients do business, says David Mitroff, founder of Piedmont Avenue Consulting in Oakland. "People are out and about, at meetings, working at home." Traditional software would require you to connect to your office network to get work done; cloud services let lawyers share documents and interact with clients more efficiently, he says.
Though the business world's move into the cloud involves ceding control of applications and possibly the data within them, Mitroff says cloud providers review and update their systems - and encryption and other security measures - more intensively than any firm's internal staff is likely to. To be entirely confident, Mitroff recommends asking potential vendors whether they'll track who accesses the data they store and keep their own staffers away from it.
Another important criterion for selecting a cloud provider is the location of its servers, says Shannon Brown, an attorney who consults on technology with law firms. "Your data can be stored in multiple locations around the world. If you need to acquire that information, or it's being subpoenaed, you could run into jurisdictional issues," says Brown, who is based in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. So far, there's no case law concerning the security and control of data stored in the cloud, he notes.
As you move to the cloud, be sure to evaluate your own network as well. If a software provider promises 99.9 percent uptime, remember that you need an equally reliable network connection to enjoy that rate. And, finally, if you plan for your firm's lawyers and staffers to access your cloud service on mobile devices (as opposed to laptops or other computers), make sure the service you choose provides good mobile apps for the tablets or smartphones in use at your firm.
To start the transition, Mitroff advises testing the waters with a single cloud service, one that interacts well with software you already use. Next, make sure the tool fits into your existing business processes. For example, if you have invested a lot of money in a full-featured website, you may want to embed a scheduling service in one of its pages, rather than sign on for one that takes your clients to a third-party website to make appointments. Finally, Mitroff says, the product should offer a good user experience: "You spend all this money and set up this huge thing and it works very well, but if no one is using it, why have it?" If the service does work well and your staff and clients use it, then you're ready to "move more and more to the cloud."
In 2013, the American Bar Association found in a survey that 30 percent of practitioners used cloud services - for case management, file sharing, scheduling, reputation management, and more. Here's a sampling of programs on the market.
- Go Matters
offers calendaring, contact, task, and billing management for multiple users with unlimited document storage; $50 a month for up to three users.
manages cases, including documents and contacts. It offers automated billing, shared calendars, unlimited data storage, unlimited client accounts and tech support; $39 a month per attorney, and $29 a month for staffers and paralegals.
- Uptime Cloud
will host your existing legal software and documents, and offers its own cloud-based applications, including management of email, calendars, and contacts; its LegalWorks product includes a client portal. Priced from $35 a month per user.
lets you share files via URL, shared folders, or Microsoft Outlook. Users can set levels of permission and get notifications of file access; $5 a month per user for a shared workspace and up to 100 gigabytes of storage; limited personal accounts are free.
offers secure, unlimited storage at 10 cents a month per gigabyte, including 24-hour support; cost depends on volume.
- Zoho Docs
can sync files between desktop computers and the cloud; users share documents via a link or secure email (with optional password protection), create multi-level folders, and see version history. Priced from $25 a month for five users with 250 gigabytes of storage; limited personal accounts are free.
creates a "book now" button on your firm's website, sends automatic confirmations, and syncs with a variety of calendars. Priced from $20 a month per user with unlimited support.
provides a "book now" button on your website that leads to a firm-branded scheduling page; includes a searchable marketplace where consumers can find businesses by ZIP code; $19.95 a month for one user.
integrates with desktop calendars and lets you set up unique appointment types. Unlimited appointments for one user cost $49 per year.
merges scheduling with client contacts and online billing; provides a branded scheduling page linked to your website, which clients can access from any device; sends automated reminders; and syncs with multiple calendars. Full service is priced from $9.99 a user per month a limited version is free.
- Google Alerts
are invaluable for tracking appearances of a key word or phrase - such as a client's name (or yours) - in the Google News aggregator; notifications can be set for a variety of frequencies; free.
provides peer reviews of lawyers; search your name regularly to monitor your professional reputation; free.
gathers mentions and messages from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yelp, delivering them by email at scheduled intervals; free.
- Sprout Social
provides a single in-box for all social media messaging and mentions; offers keyword monitoring and analytics; and allows scheduled publishing to social media; $39 a month per user.
Susan Kuchinskas covers business and the business of technology for publications including
Scientific American, Portada, and