Cloud Cover: Software as a Service enables virtual law practice management

originally published in National Magazine

“When I started my firm back in June of 2008,” Florida lawyer Jason Molder wrote in his blog, “one of the first things I did was begin looking into practice management applications. I knew that in order for me to even consider an application, it needed some core features, such as calendaring, time tracking, expense tracking, billing and invoice generation, trust accounting, and contact management/conflict checking.”

Lawrence Yelin of Montreal found himself in a similar situation when he retired from Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP in January 2009 and started a business law and real estate solo practice the next month. His two practice tool selection criteria stemmed from the quick changeover from big firm partner to sole practitioner (“I wanted to get set up as fast as I could,” he says) and his loyalty to a non-Windows computer (Yelin uses a Mac).

Many small firms, including Molder’s and Yelin’s, forego traditional client-server practice management applications, opting for “software as a service” (SaaS) alternatives instead. In a SaaS (often referred to as “cloud computing”) setup, software and data reside on the software publisher’s servers. Users typically access applications using only standards-compliant web browsers.

“Cloud” practice management providers include Vancouver-based Clio (www.GoClio.com), Florida-based RocketMatter.com, and Portuguese newcomer LawRD.com.

Jack Newton, founder of Themis Solutions (which develops Clio), says SaaS makes practice management different. For instance, he and his team are exploiting Clio’s home on the internet, enabling connections with “best-of-breed” applications online. This means Clio customers can, if they choose, use web-based software other than Clio to handle invoicing, calendaring or other needs.

“In desktop software,” Newton says, “practice management solutions act like a one-stop shop for everything you need. On the web, there’s an attitude of building ‘ecosystems’ of products that you don’t see in desktop applications. Things that you never anticipated simply happen organically.”

Molder likes the fact that his software licence is not tied to one computer. “Being in South Florida, from June to November, we’re on hurricane watch,” he explains. “At any time, we could be locked out of our building because of a hurricane warning. It would be impossible for us to run this firm if we were five years in the past.”

Molder adds, mentioning his two young children: “Many times we work until 11 o’clock at night. We couldn’t do it if we had to be in the office.”

Such mobility means smartphones can be practice management tools as well – not that this would be everybody’s cup of tea. “I wouldn’t want to do any of this stuff on a BlackBerry,” Yelin says. “It’s too small to work with.”

Perhaps due to the nascent nature of SaaS practice management, both Molder and Yelin get quick responses when they call Themis. (Both lawyers use Clio.) As Molder wrote in his blog: “If you want to see a feature added, ask for it.”

The nature of SaaS does give some lawyers pause. For instance, data resides on the provider’s servers, and not normally on the lawyer’s computer. “You don’t have it with you if you’re not connected,” Yelin says.

Since this class of software is relatively new, lawyers’ governing bodies may frown on it, even if they haven’t expressly forbidden it. So kicking SaaS tires includes performing due diligence that might not be necessary with more traditionally structured practice management systems.

The spectre of security rears its head whenever firm data resides outside the firm’s firewall. Molder, however, is sanguine. “Cloud computing, if done properly and encrypted properly and secured properly, is probably more secure than keeping a file server in your office.” Besides, he points out, “I could host the data in my office and my cleaning crew could compromise it.”

According to Newton’s figures, only about 30 percent of lawyers use any kind of practice management tool at all. “That 30 percent includes tools like Microsoft Outlook,” he says.

He figures that number will increase, and that SaaS solutions will provide more benefits than desktop-based options, given the emergence of what he calls the “Facebook generation” of lawyers. Current tech-savvy law grads, he says, “don’t all use installed software, and they’re used to web-based software.”

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