Private Cloud 101 for Law Firms

law firm private cloud

Private Cloud: A Primer for Law Firms.

Introduction

It’s officially the cloud era.

Over the past decade, we’ve seen more and more law firms embrace the cloud, in all of its formats. Most recently, we’ve seen firms adopt work-from-anywhere strategies, naturally looking to the cloud for solutions.

When one thinks of “the cloud,” we often think of web-based software such as MyCase law practice management, or FreshBooks accounting, or simple cloud storage solutions like Microsoft OneDrive, DropBox and Google Drive.

But there’s a lot more to the cloud than just web-based software.

Many law firms, particularly those that have 8 or more team-members, need tools more sophisticated and more robust than the web-based software available and basic cloud storage. Many firms need comprehensive case management and accounting software. And many firms need a document storage system that’s more than just basic files and folders.

What’s more, many law firms are committed to the practice management software they already use, applications like Time Matters, Tabs3, PCLaw, ProLaw, Worldox, TrialWorks and others.

For these law firms, a Private Cloud might be the perfect fit.

  • What exactly is a Private Cloud?
  • How is it different from web-based software?
  • What are the advantages of a Private Cloud?
  • What are the caveats of a Private Cloud?
  • What are the costs of a Private Cloud?

We’ll answer these questions and more in our Private Cloud 101 guide for law firms.

Let’s dive in.

In the Beginning: Server-based Legal Software

To understand the purpose of a Private Cloud for law firms, we need a (brief) recap of law firm software, and history of software in general.

Remember that not too terribly long ago, there was no such thing as web-based software. Software was generally installed, desktop software that ran on your Windows PC. That software (law practice management, billing, accounting or document management software) was, by it’s nature, meant to be shared within your firm, so everyone in your firm can access it.

That sharing necessitated a server. Which means, if law firms wanted to run law practice management software or document management software, they would have to get a server.

But the fun doesn’t stop there. After buying a server to host your legal software and data, you’ll need to:

  • Maintain the Server
  • Periodically Upgrade the Server
  • Repair the Server when it Breaks
  • Back Up the Server

Keeping up on all of this usually (if the law firm is being responsible) means hiring a local IT consultant or IT service provider to keep the system healthy and backed-up.

Call it a necessary evil or a means to an end: A server was simply a requirement to run law firm software.

Today: Web-based & Server-based Law Firm Software

Back then, all law firm software was desktop/server based. Today, we have a mix of web-based (sometimes simply referred to as “cloud-based”) and server-based software (sometimes referred to as “premise-based” software).

However, referring to web-based software s simply “cloud-based” is bit misleading, because server-based software can also be run in the cloud. Similarly, referring to server-based software as “premise-based” also implies that it can only run on a server at your premise (which, as you’re about to find, is not the case.)

Today’s law firm software is now a mix of web-based, and server-based. Popular law practice management software applications today include:

Server-based Software

  • Time Matters
  • PCLaw
  • Tabs3
  • ProLaw
  • Timeslips
  • TrialWorks
  • Worldox

Web-based Software

  • Clio
  • MyCase
  • LEAP
  • Rocket Matter
  • CosmoLex
  • Bill4Time
  • Practice Panther

The advantages of web-based software is that there is no server required, and no dealing with backups, security, repairs and other IT headaches. Web-based software is also inherently accessible from anywhere.

The advantages of server-based software is that, broadly speaking, server-based software tends to be more robust and feature rich than web-based software. Solo and small law firms often don’t need much in the way of law firm software complexity and nuance. But we find that firms of 5 people or more often need more capabilities than web-based software can offer.

Related:

So if web-based software provides the benefits of the cloud (ease of use, no IT to manage, work from anywhere), does that mean that a law firm has to choose between the advantages of the cloud and the functionality they need in their legal software?

No, because of what we call a Private Cloud.

What is a Private Cloud?

Earlier I explained that desktop/server based law firm software, while often more robust in capabilities, requires a server.

In a Private Cloud solution, the Private Cloud itself is the server.

A Private Cloud is a hosted server (or set of hosted servers) that provides the necessary IT platform to host and run your legal software. In a Private Cloud solution, you’re effectively leveraging another company’s server, as opposed to buying/managing/maintaining your own.

Specifics vary by solution provider, but generally, a Private Cloud includes:

  • Hosting for your Server-based Legal Software
  • Secure Storage for your Documents and Data
  • All Necessary Maintenance and Backups
  • All Appropriate Data Security
  • Updates, Patches, and Fixes As-Needed

In other words, a Private Cloud provides all of the functions that a server does, and delivers the very things that your law firm got a server for in the first place.

Often, with a Private Cloud, a law firm enjoys the benefits of the cloud, without sacrificing their software.

The “Private” in Private Cloud

Private Clouds are so-called because every law firm (called a “tenant,” in cloud computing parlance), has their own segregated, dedicated working environment. In most cases, that means:

If you’re not familiar with these technologies: What it amounts to is that your law firm has its own private space for its software, documents and data, separate from other law firms, which gives your firm an added level of data security and privacy.

How Private Cloud Works: The Virtual Desktop

Now that you conceptually understand what a Private Cloud is, let’s talk about how it works.

With a Private Cloud solution, each person in your law firm logs into their own secure Virtual Desktop.

The Virtual Desktop is your end-user’s portal into your Private Cloud. But it’s more than that: It becomes your home base, your desktop that you can access anytime, anywhere, from any device.

A Virtual Desktop is a desktop, like the Windows or Apple desktop you log into and use at home and work. Typically, your Virtual Desktop will have the software that you need every day, like Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook, along with your law practice management software, accounting software, even your document management software.

The Virtual Desktop makes your law firm’s software, which is otherwise only available from your work computer or while connected to your office’s servers, available from any computer in the world.

Virtual Desktop solutions are sometimes also referred to as “Desktop-as-a-Service,” or DaaS (analogous to “Software-as-a-Service, or SaaS).

Your Virtual Desktops are, effectively, the “front-end” of your Private Cloud platform. The cloud service provider is responsible for all system maintenance, software updates, backups and security… and all you (and your team) have to do is log into your Virtual Desktop, and log out when you’re done.

In a Virtual Desktop environment, very few, if any, applications are actually installed on your local computer. Often, the only icon on your local desktop is a shortcut to log into your Virtual Desktop.

When you (or anyone in your team) logs into your Virtual Desktop, you’ll have access to all of your law firm’s software, documents and data, including:

  • Your Law Practice Management Software
  • Your Productivity Software (Microsoft Office)
  • Your Billing & Accounting Software
  • Your Document Management Software
  • Your Email
  • Your Files and Folders

Virtual Desktops also mean that you no longer have to install, update and maintain each of your applications on every computer within your firm. Instead, your Cloud Service Provider simply keeps all software updated for you.

Learn More:

Private Cloud Demonstrated

Most Virtual Desktop platforms look, work and function like any other (Windows) desktop.

You have a desktop for shortcuts, apps and files. You have a start menu, a Recycle Bin, and any other items or options that your firm may need. Most law firm Virtual Desktops will be standardized, with the apps and tools everyone in your firm needs, and can be additionally customized on a person-by-person basis.

By way of example, watch the demonstration video of Uptime Practice, our own cloud-based Virtual Desktop platform for law firms.

What Software Can Be Used in a Private Cloud?

With the many clear advantages of using a Private Cloud for law firms, the question becomes: What software applications can run within a Private Cloud?

Again, specifics vary by cloud service provider, but generally a Private Cloud can host most Windows-based software. This is especially useful to law firms who run Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, WordPerfect, and a myriad of practice management, case management, billing, accounting, and document management applications.

This includes today’s most popular law practice management and document management software. A Private Cloud enables law firms to take advantage of the benefits of cloud computing, without abandoning their software.

Quite a few software packages used by law firms can be run in a Private Cloud.

Law firm’s should seek out a Cloud Service Provider that has extensive experience hosting these titles, and a cloud platform specifically optimized to run these specific law firm applications.

(We’ll cover more due-diligence items shortly.)

Related: Learn more about hosting your law firm software in a Private Cloud.

Should My Law Firm Move to a Private Cloud?

The advantages of a Private Cloud are numerous. By contrast to on-premise servers, a Private Cloud is:

  • More Accessible - Work from Anywhere
  • More Reliable - Less downtime and IT headaches
  • More Secure - State-of-the-art Data Security
  • More Flexible - Add/Remove Users and Apps As-Needed
  • More Economical - Lower Total Cost of Ownership

(We’ll cover the economics of Private Cloud shortly.)

To sum up the decision to move your law firm to a Private Cloud:While every law firm is unique, in general, a Private Cloud is likely the best route for your law firm if some combination of the following are true:

  • Your firm is committed to it's (premise-based) law practice management software
  • Your firm uses a combination of devices (Windows, Macs, Tablets)
  • Your firm needs to be able to work from anywhere
  • You're tired of dealing with servers and IT headaches
  • Your firm needs to keep your applications an data secure

Private Cloud Costs

“Sounds great, but what does this all cost?”

The cost of a law firm Private Cloud solution will vary based on the number of people (users) in your firm, and the specific legal software your firm uses (more heavy-duty software requires more computing power). The cost also varies based on the number of applications you’ll be hosting in the cloud, and (to a lesser degree), how much data you’ll store in the cloud.

  • A simple Private Cloud platform to host a single application might cost less than $90 / user / month.
  • A more sophisticated Private Cloud implementation for multiple applications might cost $150 / user / month or more.

Private Cloud solutions are almost always more economical than owning and managing in-house servers.

If you compare the up-front and ongoing cost of buying, managing, maintaining and repairing servers over a multi-year period, to the predictable, straight forward per-user-per-month cost model of a Private Cloud, you’ll see that near and long-term: the Private Cloud almost always has the financial advantage.

By adding up the total up-front, monthly recurring and unplanned costs associated with both on-premise and Private Cloud solutions, you’ll find that the Total Cost of Ownership of a hosted (Private Cloud) solution is nearly always less.

I encourage you to do your own side-by-side financial comparison using our Cloud Cost Calculator.

Private Cloud Due Diligence

As you’ve now learned, a Private Cloud brings numerous benefits and advantages to law firms.

It’s important, however, that if your law firm goes this route, that it finds and selects the right Private Cloud provider for your firm.

Today, there are many IT companies and Cloud Service Providers that offer Virtual Desktop and Private Cloud platforms. It’s important to not only make sure that the company you select has experience hosting and supporting the software that your firm relies on, but that the company has the infrastructure and security in place to keep your data secure and your firm up and running.

Among other things, you’ll want to ensure that your chosen Private Cloud provider:

  • Has extensive experience hosting your legal software
  • Owns their own infrastructure (server/network equipment)
  • Employs bank-grade data security (including data encryption)
  • Has multiple datacenters across the united states
  • Makes regular backups of your data
  • Serves many other law firms, like yours

For more information on how to evaluate appropriate Cloud Service Providers for your firm, read our checklist: 25 Things to Require of Your Law Firm Cloud Provider, and our Cloud Security Guide for law firms.

We covered a lot of ground.

I hope you find this Private Cloud guide for law firms useful. What questions do you still have? Post a reply in the comments section below, or get in touch with us to learn about Private Cloud solutions for your law firm.

Onward and Upward!