The COVID-19 global pandemic has dramatically and possibly permanently changed the way law firms and lawyers get their work done. Remote work, once a perk available to allow lawyers more flexibility, is now the de rigueur way of working. Even amid the crisis, one industry analyst predicts that $1 trillion will be spent on cloud computing over the coming decade.
Kenneth Jones, chief technologist for litigation boutique firm Tanenbaum Keale LLP, is one of these believers in cloud. Jones explains that the firm had embraced cloud technology after the firm’s New Jersey offices were rendered temporarily unusable after Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Now, Tanenbaum Keale uses cloud technology to allow a number of the firm’s lawyers and staff access to a level of depth beyond just email and Google docs. Some of the firm’s lawyers are accessing documentation, research, and each other in ways that Jones says he’s never envisioned before. “Our people are able to be productive no matter where they are,” Jones explains. “That’s really, really important to us.”
Tanenbaum Keale is not alone. Cloud technology has become a potential driver of innovation at law firms impacting how firms build their teams and serve their clients. “On our cloud projects, project management and technology leadership is important, but without outstanding engineers with the skills, knowledge and initiative to research and recommend products at cloud services, many of these great ideas would never be implemented,” Jones explains.
Indeed, the current pandemic crisis is having a big impact on how the legal industries will consider work processes in the future. The need for social distancing has forced almost every law firm (as well as their clients) to accelerate the way their employees work remotely. Cloud technology has been instrumental in making that happen.
And while many legal service firms and their clients have utilized the cloud for secure storage, better technology management and related cost savings have simply become table stakes now.
Working with anyone, from anywhere
Certainly, remote access isn’t anything new, even before the crisis greatly accelerated working from home. Smart phones for example allowed access to social media, email, and the internet, all with a small, hand-held device.
What’s changed in the cloud, however, is the size, complexity and accessibility that the somewhat archaic term “remote access” brings today.
By more fully infusing cloud technology with artificial intelligence, voice commands, new personal tech hardware and embedded cognitive services, the cloud can link a firm’s technology to the rapidly advancing world of customer and professional networks through third-party apps.
What that means in the real world is the ability to build remote working environments for disparate groups of employees — environments that have more depth and flexibility than traditional desktop virtualization programs.
Using the cloud in this way allows lawyers or legal managers to design a hosted workspace on a third-party cloud vendor. Then, those workspaces can be customized depending on who will be working in the space and the matters to be worked on. The process allows almost unlimited customization, allowing users to pick basic or advanced configurations, depending on the work to be done.
“At the end of the day, employees will be able to access that platform through a desktop icon and that’s how they get to the remote applications,” Jones explains, adding that this brings additional benefits of security so that employees are not downloading documents onto their home computers or smartphones.
Indeed, the advantages of using the cloud in this way include taking all the material off-premises and off-loading the responsibility for managing or supporting technology. “Everything is totally in the cloud," Jones says. "It’s just a different way of addressing remote access.”
Managing custom apps in the cloud
The creation and management of a law firm’s “application portfolio” has become one of the cloud’s chief uses. These apps — the set of computer applications used to conduct the business of the firm — can be stored in the cloud, of course, but cloud technology can in fact offer so much more.
Within a law firm, for example, some cloud-stored applications are obvious — email, office suite, accounting/time entry software, document management systems, security software. But there are a whole host of other apps, relating to business operations, client support, business development, public outreach and various other areas that also must be managed.
On average, about half of a law firm’s portfolio of applications are in standard operations applications, about 15% in pre-packaged apps, and 10% in new business apps. That leaves about 25% in customized operations apps, which usually are the last apps a firm will send to the cloud.
Rick Weyenberg, a cloud solutions architect at Microsoft, says that once you see the depth and breadth of what you can do from a service offering and capabilities standpoint — that’s "where the epiphany comes in and you decide you need to do this tomorrow.”
As firms construct their portfolio of operational apps, snapping them together like pieces of a puzzle, they have to be methodological and deliberative of how the pieces fit together to truly unlock the maximum value that the entire portfolio of operational apps represents, Weyenberg says.
Once the application portfolio is hosted in the cloud, there is really no end to the potential cross-over interactions that can be initiated, which is even more important as law firms not only need to keep working today, but will need such tech advantages once the pandemic ends.
More cash going to the cloud
Given the potential of the cloud and the acceleration of remote-work solutions needed as the legal industry deals with the pandemic and what comes after, it’s no surprise that investment in cloud technology is growing.
One measurement expects cloud capital expense to rise 13% in 2020, even taking into consideration the COVID-19 impact. While this has revised downward from a prediction of 16% growth before the pandemic, this still represents a robust increase from 2019, when cloud capital expenditures grew just 3.5%.
So, where is all this investment going?
Everywhere, to hear cloud tech proponents talk of it. Cloud technology has become so pervasive in not just the legal industry, but throughout the business world, that it’s difficult to imagine work life without it — and this sentiment has only been strengthened by the isolation and tech-reliance forced upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, imagine a world where we couldn’t access real-time sales information or communicate with our colleagues from anywhere in the world.
And the ability to share and collaborate on everything from document management to data analysis would be critically curtailed. The cloud provides users with the ability to bring data, people, and platforms together; allow for seamless interaction; and thus create an environment where individuals can work on solutions together, from anywhere.
Indeed, the continuing pandemic has tested how the business world will adapt and utilize online applications and other technologies run through the cloud. It has also raised the question of whether these applications will deliver the reliability and security that businesses require. It seems, at least for now, that the cloud has passed with flying colors. In a time when video conferencing, remote work collaboration, streaming video education and training are being used at a previously unprecedented level, the cloud has accepted this massive step-up in use without much of a problem.
And while companies like video communication facilitators like Skype and Zoom Video, email alternative systems like Slack, and even streaming video services like Netflix have risen in prominence during the lockdown, it is really the behind-the-scenes cloud providers — such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud — that have allowed these players to thrive and serve a greater portion of the working world during this crisis.
Further, application vendors are also utilizing the cloud to keep pace with the growing number of people who are working remotely and want additional apps that can increase their efficiency and effectiveness; or, conversely, allow them more access to entertaining downtime distractions once the work day is finished.
And those cloud providers in the area of infrastructure-as-service or software-as-service solutions that have allowed users to quickly and securely deploy their apps and scale-up operations as needed during this crisis, have also become cloud-based tech heroes during this time.
“At no other point in time has there ever been such a need for the instant availability of IT resources enabled by the cloud than during this coronavirus pandemic,” wrote Emil Sayegh, the President and CEO of Ntirety, one of the largest managed cloud service platforms in the world.
As cloud technology continues to allow businesses and organizations across the globe to survive during this crisis, the cloud is likely to play a much more prominent role in the continuation of legal and business work once this crisis has passed.
Looking at the future through the clouds
Combing cloud technology with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning has the potential to greatly speed innovation, especially around previously only dreamed-of developments such as voice commands and even wearable technology.
Indeed, the next generation of innovation, likely revolving around voice command that is compatible with your operations infrastructure and that’s hosted in the cloud, is already looking to be an extraordinary development.
While this ease of access may be sound a bit futuristic, the technology is there; it’s just a matter of a firm embedding its AI technology into the cloud and letting it interact with the operational applications that are hosted there.
And while speed is obviously critical in a law firm’s cloud strategy, it’s really the ability for law firms to add to their technological prowess by more cheaply and easily pursuing innovation that makes a well-thought-out cloud strategy so essential. Simply put, that’s the future of the cloud.
Indeed, it’s that rapid on-ramping of technology and innovation where the cloud really starts to make the critical difference for law firms that want to remain competitive and cutting-edge.
"Those law firms who are early adopters of emerging technology have a leg up in today’s competitive marketplace,” says Tanenbaum Keale’s Jones, adding however, that there is more to this than simply being an early adopter. “The best law firms will be using many tools, including cloud technology, as building blocks to assemble technology-based product offerings to assist clients with their business imperatives.”
The process of using the latest legal technologies together — such as linking customized, cloud-based operations apps with voice command and remote access abilities — cultivates the type of next-gen “building blocks” that will allow law firms to differentiate themselves among their peers and offer clients a level of service far above their competition.
So far above, in fact, that it could be hosted in the cloud.