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By: M. Steve Rastin
The last several years have revealed a fundamental change in personal injury practice including increasingly aggressive competition for files, more widespread advertising, legislative changes that continue to pose challenges, and increased client customer-service demands. It is only natural, in such circumstances, for forward-thinking lawyers to consider how to enhance their operations. The office of Rastin & Associates is typical of m any litigation firms in that it is relatively modest in size, but we do have multiple locations, and we were looking for a way to use technology to leverage our capabilities. In December 2012, working closely with a company called LexCloud.ca, my office made the journey to the cloud and eliminated our in-house computer servers. The benefits of increased efficiency and enhanced customer service are compelling. This article describes our experience of moving into the brave new world of cloud computing.
Where we Started
Our office has not always been on the cutting edge of technology. Not too long ago we operated in a traditional paper-based office environment. Our documents were saved in Word and we used the litigation template program ACL. For the most part, the only documents that would be saved electronically in the office were the ones that my own staff had typed themselves. Everything else, including expert reports, correspondence, pleadings, accounting bills and the like were simply placed in the file. From a practice-based perspective, this meant that our operation was very support-staff intensive. Approximately 25% of our support staff time was spent on doing dictation. Much of our practice is based upon travel to meet clients, and it was necessary to pack files that were often large and bulky. The file review process, which we undertake quarterly, also required my staff to physically carry in every file into the boardroom for review. We have always operated from multiple offices, and it was an ongoing issue when a client called looking for a lawyer who happened to be working in a different location.
All that changed in 2008 when we decided to take the leap to go paperless. Using TimeMatters practice management software and Primafact document scanning software, we were able to save our entire clients, files, including deadlines, onto our systems. This meant that we were no longer tied to the physical file to do productive work. As long as we were in any one of our offices, we could access the entire file contents. There have been a number of excellent articles written about the process of taking your law office paperless, and we will not repeat that discussion here. (See for example the article by Dale Orlando for The Litigator entitled "Using Technology for File and Practice Management", February 2008.)
One decision that was particularly helpful when we decided to go paperless was the decision to scan in all correspondence, including all incoming and outgoing letters to insurance companies, lawyers, and other parties. I am aware that some other law firms have opted not to scan that documentation; however, in my opinion, by not taking the time to do so, those law firms have remained at least partially dependent upon the paper file. It is worth noting that the transition to a paperless office represented a significant challenge to our information technology company, and in fact, we ended up changing IT companies in favor of another service provider who had expertise in paperless offices.
While we were generally happy with the enhancements offered by a paperless environment, we still faced a number of limitations and problems. Most significantly, we were able to access all of our programs only while we were physically located in one of our offices. We had limited connectivity to our accounting software, TimeMalters document management and calendar program, and even Primafact. Primafact does allow you to upload files for off-line access, but this functionality only partially addressed our concerns.
Into the Cloud!
We got by with our paperless office solution for a number of years, but we were only partially happy with the solution. In addition to the issues related to limited connectivity, we spent significant amounts of money allowing our various satellite offices to connect to our server. Also, I am a big fan of Apple computers. The innovation, elegance and longevity of Apple systems make them superior to Windows computers (at least for my personal use). When my IT company told me that they wouldn't be able to integrate my new Apple notebook into our office system, I decided to look around.
One option I was open to was moving our systems into a secure data centre, otherwise known as the cloud. Ideally this would mean that I would be able to access a client's complete electronic file from anywhere I could get an Internet connection. It would also have the benefit of avoiding an investment of tens of thousands of dollars replacing the back-office systems in our office. Of course, I had reservations about moving my files outside the office, so a primary consideration was finding an IT company that was fully conversant with cloud-based computing and storage as well as the specific needs of litigation law firms in Ontario. Fortunately, we found Toronto-based Animate Inc. and their LexCloud.ca cloud product (www.lexcloud.ca).
LexCloud.ca allows you to eliminate the servers in your office and replace them with your own private servers operating out of a world-class data centre based in Toronto. You don't have to buy any equipment and your key software licenses, including MS Office, are paid for on a monthly basis instead of up front. This configuration is often called a "private cloud", in contrast to the public cloud offering of vendors such as Googlc and Amazon. In a private cloud, you have dedicated private servers that are not shared with any other entities. One unexpected benefit of working with Lexcloud.ca was that they are also certified consultants on our key software products, TimeMatters and Primafact.
Many IT companies claimed they would be able to service our needs, but when we got into specifics, we found that they were basically just attempting to sell their own proprietary products and were really figuring out our needs as they went. I would strongly suggest that you obtain evidence that the IT company that you are using is fully familiar with the current software that you are running in your office. I would also ask for a list of references which includes law firms. Cloud-based computing is going to become increasingly popular, and you want some level of comfort that whatever company you hire to assist you in this regard is not going to be learning how to provide the service on your dime.
In addition to researching the IT company that is going to handle your journey to the cloud, there are number of practical concerns that you ought to look at. These include:
The Nitty Gritty
In our particular experience, LexCloud.ca made a comprehensive conversion plan. They provided multiple on-site visits to our offices in Barrie and Midland, multiple meetings and an entire implementation strategy Expectations were set off in a mutually signed contract before proceeding. The actual transition started on a Friday afternoon and was completed by Monday morning. They provided training to my staff at our offices and on-site support immediately following the transition. LexCloud.ca provides daily backups and stores those backups at an off-site location on a weekly and yearly basis. Note that this represents a savings to my office as previously my staff were responsible for making the backups and storing them off-site themselves.
One thing I particularly like about the new system is that we now have access to our entire system from any location where we can obtain an Internet connection. I can access my system with my Apple notebook from my office, a court reporter's office, a hotel room or a dock in Muskoka. In fact, my iPhone 5 has a "hotspot feature" which I can use to provide a connection from just about anywhere. I have logged into my office and done work while sitting in a cafe or at a conference.
Another thing I particularly like about LexCloud.ca is that they provide a help desk which my staff can access from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. during the workweek. The help desk also has 24-hour emergency access. This represents a marked improvement over previous IT services. In the past, when we had a problem we would contact the IT company and they would send a tech to take a look at the problem. Depending on schedule and availabilit-y, the tech might not get to our location for hours. We would also have to pay for mileage and time for the service call. Now our IT company manages the server in the cloud. They do not have to come out to our location, because the server and data is actually on-site with them. This results in a much faster response time to fix problems and concerns. And almost all the support is covered in the set monthly fee. Another upgrade we implemented in 2012 was a migration to VOIP telephones. This current technology blends well with our cloud server. The system automatically pushes phone calls or recorded voicemail messages to my i Phone. As a result, I am able to access and respond to any matter from just about any location. In fact, the client often does not realize that I am out of the office or even out of the country. Especially given the fact that we scan all documentation including correspondence into Primafact, there is nothing that I can access in my office that I cannot access just as easily from any other location.
Am I happy I made the switch to the cloud? Absolutely. One interesting outcome has been that my staff have evolved to the point where everyone working in a support capacity in my office is functioning as a law clerk or an accounting clerk. This is due in part to increased efficiency from a cloud and paperless environment, and also our implementation of another technology-a speech recognition tool called Dragon Dictate.
Providing our employees with higher-level work to do has helped the bottom line and has led to a more rewarding and fulfilling workplace experience which has improved retention. Generally speaking, I am fortunate to have some of the most highly trained and able law clerks anywhere, and I believe that our technological advancements have contributed to this.
Another surprising result is that our analysis indicates the cost of going to the cloud is not markedly less than the cost of buying new server. We do have the advantage, however, that we are not spending $30,000-$40,000 or more every 4 to 5 years on a new server, but are rather continuing to pay on a monthly basis. In addition, we are no longer incurring fees for server maintenance or IT support. Previously, we had paid a company every month to come out to our various locations and look at our software and hardware. We have not had to have anyone come out to our locations since we migrated to the cloud. This represents a significant offset in terms of our monthly out-of-pocket expenses. While we are still clearly spending more on a monthly basis, when you factor in that we have not had to pay for a new server, we are at worst, at a break-even level financially.
Also, I feel we have significantly improved customer service because we are able to access any file, in its entirety, from any location. The combination of VOIP telephones pushing messages out to iPhones, improved connectivity including access using an iPhone hotspot, and access to our entire network, allows us to service our clients from any location-be it the desk or the dock. Some people may see that as a negative, but it is my view that I am able to get away more often and worry less when I am able to check in, even for a while, and make sure that everything is functioning properly on my files.
From a practice management standpoint, we also benefit from the fact that the product that we currently use is scalable; that is, on very short notice we are able to increase or decrease number of users on the system. This makes it easier for me to hire students or temporary staff.
I have to admit that there are some challenges that have arisen from the change. As indicated previously, our monthly operating costs are somewhat higher. In addition, we have continued to encounter significant problems with the fax solution used by Primafact. This has become an area of great frustration for my staff as well as other law firms that have had difficulty communicating with us. (Primafact has promised a fix for this problem shortly). Even worse, since the data no longer sits on a local server but up in the cloud, it has become technically very challenging to burn data from the cloud storage system lo a CD in order to send it to other lawyers, experts or other parties. What used to be a simple five-minute process has now become a multi-step, time-consuming process that has created frustration for my staff. LexCloud. ca has attempted to ameliorate and simplify this process, but we have only met with limited success. In addition, there is a significant additional knowledge base demand placed upon my staff. They need to be more technological and more comfortable with the systems to make the operation work properly. While they have done an admirable job, this has presented some challenges and we are still working to make it better.
In conclusion, while our journey to the cloud is not been without its frustrations, I will freely admit that I love the technological upgrade. In a few short years, we have evolved from a system of limited connectivity and functionality to a system where we have total access from any location where we can get an Internet or telephone signal. I can service my clients and communicate with my staff from my office, cafe, a hotel, dock or beach. From an efficiency standpoint, sometimes being able to get back to a client quickly or provide meaningful direction to a staff member even when you are away, makes all the difference. If I had to offer one piece of advice, it is that I have learned that the key to making the transition work is to find the right technical support. You need lobe 100% confident you have an IT company that understands the requirements of litigation firms and how to meet them in the cloud.
Litigation lawyers operate in a world that is increasingly filled with challenges and competition. The use of cloud technology to leverage efficiency and capability is one of the key reasons that my office has been able to thrive in this brave new world.