Law firms are moving to the cloud in droves. Many studies suggest that by the middle of this decade, the vast majority of law firms will have entirely transitioned to cloud-based platforms.
Why Law Firms are Moving to the Cloud
It may seem obvious, but let’s at least briefly recap why most law firms, large and small, are moving to the cloud, and the advantages your own firm can command by making the same move.
1. More Mobile, More Flexible
Cloud-based solutions are more flexible and give your team the ability to work from anywhere. Your firm’s employees have the same work experience and access to the same tools whether they’re working from the office, home or a client site.
Keeping your firm and client data secure is among the most important obligations you have when representing clients. Most cloud-based platforms are orders of magnitude more secure than the all-eggs-in-one-basked approach of a physical server sitting in a law firm’s coat closet or copy room.
By most measures, a collection of cloud-based systems is more cost-effective than the alternative of buying servers, maintaining IT and hiring local IT consultants to keep everything running. In addition saving money, cloud-based technologies usually offer more predictability, providing services for a fixed monthly fee (as opposed to the ups-and-downs of in-house IT costs)
Related, but worth it’s own mention: When a law firm makes a complete transition to the cloud, the complexity of their IT, and thereby their IT problems and challenges, drops dramatically. When your core applications and data are in the cloud, your law firm is made up of desktops, laptops, printers and scanners: easy-peasy to support.
5. More Centralized
On-premise servers usually means limited or inferior access to your core business systems (legal software and data) for anyone outside of the office. This almost inevitably leads to employees using tools like Dropbox, VPN connects, or other disjointed, clunky tools to patch together a semi-working system. Cloud-based tools eliminate the need for band-aids and work-arounds, keeping everything central and accessible
Elements of a Complete Law Office in the Cloud
While moving to the cloud is almost universally beneficial, there’s certainly a right way and a wrong way to move to the cloud.
The wrong way to move to the cloud is doing so without a long-term strategy. That is, moving chunks of your law firm in a piecemeal, unplanned, directionless way. Maybe you switch to cloud-based billing software. Then later you move to Office 365. Meanwhile you still have legacy applications on your old server, and… nothing works together. We call this situation Cloud Hell.
The right way to move to the cloud is to craft a thoughtful, comprehensive strategy that encompasses and considers all elements of your firm’s technology. This ensures that every piece of your technology has a plan and a home, and that everything works well together.
The best way to plan a comprehensive moving-to-the-cloud strategy for your law firm is to break down each part of your law firm’s (current and future) technology into a defined set of elements.
Each of these elements should be considered individually, whether you plan to move an existing element (piece of software, data, etc.) to the cloud or replace it with a new solution. And your law office in the cloud strategy should include a plan for each element.
Law Firm Technology Elements
The core elements of most law firms are:
Security & Compliance
To build a complete Law Office in the Cloud, we need to develop and execute on a plan for each of these elements. Next, we’ll walk you though how to do that for each individual element.
Practice Management Software
In building a complete Law Office in the Cloud, our first order of business is pinning down your billing and Practice Management software. In general, your firm is likely to fall into one of three paths:
If your law firm is just getting up and running, you’ll likely want to explore Cloud-based Practice Management software, which we’ll cover in more detail shortly.
If your law firm uses premise-based practice management software (software that runs on your firm’s server and desktops), but are looking for new practice management software, you’ll want to explore Cloud-based Practice Management software options.
If your law firm uses and is committed to its current premise-based practice management software, you’ll want to explore a private cloud / virtual desktop solution.
Committed to Premise-based Practice Management
Some law firms use premise-based practice management software (such as PCLaw, Time Matters, ProLaw, PracticeMaster, Tabs3), and for one reason or another, cannot make the change to new software. This may be because your firm has extensively customized your software, and it fits your workflow perfectly. Or it could be because of a lack of will to train the entire firm on using new software. Or could be because no currently available web-based practice management application has the features and functions that you need.
If this describes your law firm, you’ll want to explore a Private Cloud solution, one that will host your server-based software in the cloud via a Virtual Desktop. This gives your firm all of the aforementioned advantages of the cloud while keeping your current software intact.
If this is your law firm, I refer you to our resources on Private Cloud and moving premise-based legal software to the cloud.
For the remainder of this section, we’ll assume that your firm is looking for new Practice Management software.
We’re often asked: “What is the best law practice management software?” That’s a bit like asking what the best kind of car is. The answer, of course, depends on what your needs are.
For instance, some law practice management solutions focus heavily on accounting; but if your firm already has accounting software its committed to, that focus is meaningless to you. Other case management solutions focus on document and form creation, a must-have for some law firms, but not all.
We recommend that ever law firm searching for law practice management software start by identifying what features and functions are most important to you. This will help you narrow down the (long) list of suitors, and will provide a framework you can hold each option against.
Typical practice management software features include:
Client & Contact Management
Calendaring & Docketing
Task Management / To-Do's
Time & Expense Tracking
Billing / Invoicing
Document/Form Assembly (Automatin)
Document Management *
* Some, but not all Practice Management software includes limited accounting (for instance, Trust Accounting without complete business accounting); a few include end-to-end accounting. Similarly, some Practice Management software offers limited document storage and management capabilities, but usually lacks the full feature set of a Traditional Document Management System (DMS).
Available options for Law Practice Management include:
We recommend saving this list and checking the box next to each feature that you know your law firm needs.
To drill down further on finding the right law practice management software for your firm, we recommend our Best Law Practice Management Software list, as well as our annual Legal Software Report.
Next in building our complete Law Office in the Cloud: We’ll need some kind of accounting solution.
Nearly every (if not all) Practice Management product includes time and billing. As mentioned above, some Practice Management software offer varying degrees of accounting software.
Some Practice Management applications offer nothing beyond basic billing
Some Practice Management applications offer limited accounting, such as Trust accounting (but no business accounting), and are meant to be used alongside QuickBooks.
Some Practice Management applications include end-to-end accounting, including full business accounting, meant to eliminate the need for separate accounting software (such as QuickBooks).
It’s important to understand which applications include what, and whether or not you’ll need (or want) separate, dedicated accounting software.
General-purpose accounting software (like QuickBooks and FreshBooks), along with hybrid Practice Management/Accounting software (like LEAP and CosmoLex) usually offer some combination of the following capabilities.
Chart of Accounts
Bank / Operating Account Management
Credit Card Management
Loan / Line of Credit Management
Billing / Invoicing
Profit & Loss Statement
Law Practice Management applications like Clio, Practice Panther and Time Matters do provide time tracking, billing and even reporting on billings… but they do not provide the “rest of accounting,” and instead integrate with applications like QuickBooks to complete the picture.
This is not to say one method is better than the other; rather it makes defining and understanding the classes of law firm accounting software important.
To drill down further on finding the right law accounting solution for your firm, we recommend our Best Law Firm Accounting Software list.
No Law Office in the Cloud is complete without a home for your firm’s documents.
If you’re moving to the cloud from an on-premise server, your client, matter and firm documents are likely on a network drive or share (EG: “the S: drive.”) The cloud bring a range of options for where and how to store your documents in the cloud.
In general, you have two categories of options when it comes to moving your law firm’s documents to the cloud:
1. Simple Cloud Storage
Simple Cloud Storage is basic but effective storage for your business (law firm). Products in this category include OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox and ShareFile. These systems allow you to create a folder structure (or move your existing folder structure), and access your documents from anywhere.
We classify these as “Simple” cloud storage because they provide little in the way of functionality. With Simple Cloud Storage, you can create folders, put stuff in them, and that’s about it. If your firm needs nothing more than this–then Simple Cloud Storage solution like OneDrive is likely the right tool for the job.
2. Document Management Software (DMS)
Your law firm may require more in the way of managing documents (and email) than simply cloud-based folders. If so, your law firm may benefit from a Document Management System (DMS).
Whereas Simple Cloud Storage simply provides a place to put documents, a DMS provides additional tools and capabilities to help you manage and organize documents.
In particular, law firm Document Management software organizes your documents and email into Clients/Matters. From there, you can further structure and organize data by document type, email, and create additional subfolders or tags.
A word of caution: Many Practice Management applications describe “Document Management” as a feature of their software. However, this “document management” is, in most cases, limited to uploading documents to a matter (and that’s about it). This makes the built in “document management” within most Practice Management applications akin to Simple Cloud Storage. Again–if that’s all your firm needs, there’s nothing wrong with that. But many law firms need more robust document and email management capabilities.
True Document Management software typically includes features such as:
Client / Matter-Centric Organization
Matter Docs & Firm Docs
Microsoft Office Integration
Full-Text Search (Documents, Email, Metadata)
Email Management / Outlook Integration (Save Emails to a Matter)
Document Profiling & Tagging
Document Version Management
Document Check-Out / Check-In
Favorite & Recent Documents
Unique ID for Each Document
If your law firm needs these capabilities, you’ll want to implement proper Document Management software as part of your complete Law Office in the Cloud.
Next up in building our Law Office in the Cloud: Productivity software. Specifically, we’re referring to:
The Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote)
Email (Exchange, Outlook)
PDF Documents (Adobe Acrobat)
This may be an element that you’ve already moved to the cloud. If not, read on.
Unlike Practice Management and Accounting software (where there’s no “one best” option), the solution to law firm productivity software is clear: Office 365 is the best way to get and maintain your Microsoft Office software.
Office 365 provides the Office suite plus other online services for a fixed per-user, per-month fee. This replaces the antiquated system of buying Microsoft Office retail or OEM (with a new computer).
Depending on the edition you subscribe to, Office 365 includes:
Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, OneNote and Outlook
Microsoft Teams (more on Teams below)
Microsoft SharePoint (Intranet)
Most Practice Management products integrate directly with Office 365, as do countless other general-purpose applications.
For most law firms, the Office 365 Business Standard edition will meet their needs.
Nearly every law firm needs to view and (often) edit PDF documents. Adobe has their own subscription-based service, similar to Office 365, called Adobe DC.
Adobe DC includes Adobe Acrobat Professional, and allows you to run Acrobat on a number of devices, such as your computer, tablet and smart phone. Adobe DC is available at a fixed fee per-user, per month.
We recommend Adobe DC for all law firms, which will ensure that your entire team is up-to-date with the latest Acrobat software, and can use Acrobat across all of their devices.
To build a modern law office in the cloud, you’ll need modern tools to communicate and collaborate with your coworkers, your clients and other third parties.
Covid forced us all to adopt video calls and virtual meetings, and we’re better for it. Even when the pandemic is behind us, hybrid work is here to stay, as is virtual face-to-face meetings (over traditional phone calls). To stay connected with your team and your clients, your Law Office in the Cloud will need to include remote meeting and communication tools.
For collaboration, we recommend Microsoft Teams, Slack and/or Zoom.
Zoom is the face-to-face video call system that gained popularity during the early stages of the pandemic (and remains highly-used today). And for good reason, Zoom is easy to use, fast and effective. Zoom is a great way to facilitate one-on-one calls, or a group meeting with multiple participants. Zoom provides the (now classic) tile of faces, with a focus on who’s currently speaking.
Slack is also an excellent communication tool, primarily for chat and messaging. Slack allows you to create groups (called channels) for specific teams, functions or practice area. Slack also supports direct person-to-person messaging. Ultimately Slack helps your team stay in touch, and dramatically reduces email clutter (think of the quick notes back-and-forth that you send by email currently).
Microsoft Teams is a sort of combination of both Zoom and Slack. It supports video calls (individual or group) as well as chat and direct messaging. What’s more, Teams is part of the Office 365 suite, and included in most editions. Naturally, Teams integrates tightly with Microsoft Office and OneDrive, making it an unofficial hub of your law practice.
Security & Compliance
When building your complete Law Office in the Cloud, it’s important to plan for data security right from the start. Your Law Office in the Cloud is, in effect, a collection of various cloud-based tools and applications (like Practice Management software, OneDrive, etc.) It’s important that each of these individual elements, along with your local computer environment (network, desktops, laptops) include end-to-end security throughout.
We recommend the following data security measures and systems be implemented across all of your firm’s technology.
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is particularly important. Each of your individual cloud services, such as your Practice Management software, Document Management Software, and Office 365 will (or at least should) support MFA, which provides an incredibly powerful additional layer of security by requiring a second means of authentication prior to accessing your data.
Finally, you’ll need some level of IT and technology support to tie everything together, and to provide general technology support when your team needs it.
The beauty of and case for a Complete Law Office in the Cloud is (among other things) the dramatically reduced need for outside IT support in the first place. That said, you’ll still need a basic level of support for:
Desktops & Laptop
Printers & Scanners
Local Network & Internet
Office 365 Support
Law Practice Management Support
Frankly, IT consultants are a dime a dozen; ranging from independent consultants to Managed IT Service Providers. We recommend getting IT support from a company that has deep and extensive knowledge of the law firm software your firm uses.
If you don’t, you’re very likely to find that your IT consultant/company is eager to help you with the “vanilla” elements of your technology (computer support, networking, Office 365), but resists supporting your legal software (or worse yet: blames the software provider when things go wrong).
How to Avoid “Cloud Hell”
A word of caution when building your Law Office in the Cloud: Avoid a piecemeal approach to building out your technology stack.
We see it all too often: A law firm, with entirely all on-premise technology, switches to Office 365, their first small step into the cloud. Later they adopt a cloud-based Practice Management solution. Over time, they add more cloud-based tools, and end up with a hodge-podge of cloud and on-premise systems that don’t work together, and are a pain to manage.
We call this Cloud Hell: Too many apps, no single platform or single point of accountability and support. to avoid Cloud Hell, we recommend getting and implementing your Law Office in the Cloud via a bundled package, such as our own Uptime Practice Next.
Uptime Practice™ Next The Easy-Button for a Complete Law Office in the Cloud
If you follow the playbook outlined in this article, you’ll have a flexible, scalable easy-to-use law firm in a box. You can spend the time setting this up yourself, or hire a legal technology expert to help you build your Law Office in the Cloud.
If you’re looking for a ready-made, battle-tested Law Office in the Cloud: Take a look at our own Uptime Practice Next.
Practice Next is a suite of essential law practice management and cloud tools, fine-tuned for law firms like yours.
Not sure what practice management software is best for your firm? We’ll help you find the right fit.
Looking to get rid of on-premise servers, and move to the cloud? Practice Next is just what you’re looking for.
Already have a mix of cloud-based services, but need one team to optimize, manage and support it? Practice Next was designed for exactly that purpose.
Uptime Practice Next provides an complete Law Office in the Cloud, and includes:
Law Firm Software Assessment - Helping You Find the Right Solution
About the Author: Dennis Dimka Dennis Dimka is the CEO and founder of Uptime Legal Systems, North America's leading provider of technology, cloud and marketing services to law firms. Under Dennis’ leadership, Uptime Legal has grown organically and through acquisitions to become the nationally-recognized legal technology company it is today. Uptime Legal continues to innovate and disrupt the legal technology space, and has been named to the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing private for the past six consecutive years. Dennis was also an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist.
Want More Legal Technology Tips? Subscribe to Uptime Legal.
Get the latest blogs, news, eBooks, whitepapers webinars and more.