Private Cloud for the Distributed Firm
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how work is performed in law firms.
In the Distributed Firm, employees regularly work offsite and access the firm’s systems using a variety of different devices. A central challenge in this new environment is supporting team productivity and managing communications to ensure client needs are met in a timely way.
Forward-thinking firms are finding opportunities to maximize productivity, deliver more efficient client service, and attract the best talent with flexible work arrangements.
Leveraging technology is essential to meeting these challenges.
IT Challenges in the Distributed Firm
IT has always been challenging for law firms. While necessary for a smoothly running practice, it is outside the core competency of most firms.
This is amplified in the Distributed Firm because managing distributed technology is more difficult and riskier than overseeing a traditional IT environment.
Some key IT challenges include:
Software Performance: Almost all legal software are designed to run on a Windows desktop computer on a local network. For example, MS Word runs on a desktop and loads documents over the network from a file server. On a high speed internal Ethernet network this works well because the user’s computer has responsive features and data is safely stored on a centralized server. However, when this model is applied to remote computers using the Internet to connect to the file server, applications become sluggish and even unusable because data loads at much slower speeds.
Security: Always an IT priority, protecting the firm’s information has taken on even greater importance now that many team members operate outside the safety of the firm’s network. If users connect on a VPN (virtual private network), the connection may be secure but documents are likely opened on a remote computer. This exposes documents and data to the user’s local environment, which in many cases is a shared computer that doesn’t have rigorous security protection.
It is also possible that users are working from multiple devices using sharing software such as MS Teams. As documents are opened and edited on these devices, additional security management is required to ensure threats are pro-actively neutralized.
Workflow and Communications: Remote work introduces new models of collaboration and communication for legal teams. Document creation may be largely an individual task, but there has always been significant incidental discussion of relevant issues and precedents. New tools like MS Teams and Zoom facilitate moving away from email to achieve more robust distributed communications. However, these tools require adjustments to workflow for users and new support skills for IT teams. Firms with a proactive approach to planning and training for both users and IT teams will be more successful.
User Support: The requirements to provide helpdesk support to users at distributed locations in diverse technical environments is more demanding than supporting users located together on an office network. To avoid compromising user productivity or security, firms should proactively plan for IT skills development and new approaches for support teams who themselves may be working remotely.
In the remainder of this article we will discuss how a well-managed Private Cloud solution from a trusted vendor helps to solve the practice management and technical challenges of the Distributed Firm.
Technology Essentials for the Distributed Firm
What is a Private Cloud?
Private Cloud refers to moving an organization’s IT infrastructure to a data centre under the management of a professional IT services group. The firm is no longer responsible for owning or managing back-office IT and instead consumes their “hosted” IT environment on a subscription basis.
Network infrastructure is managed behind-the-scenes unseen by users. Key features, such as advanced security, geographically redundant backup systems, and mobility come built-in. Systems and software are automatically patched to achieve security best practices.
User experience should be identical to an onsite network, while software and data now remain in the protected data centre managed by the provider and are never downloaded to local computers. Users connect to secure virtual desktops using any device and run their familiar applications. When they are done, they disconnect from the virtual desktop, leaving no data on the remote computer. The session can be securely reconnected later, from the same or a different device.
Benefits of Private Cloud
Moving to a Private Cloud enables firms to offload the responsibility of owning and operating IT infrastructure. Everything is managed by the provider offsite, and capital expenditures are eliminated, replaced by a fixed monthly subscription fee.
IT works better and firms can focus on their core business without technology related interruptions.
High Availability Systems
Private Cloud delivers enterprise-level technology at scale, giving firms access to capabilities that are otherwise attainable only to larger firms. Onsite servers are replaced with state-of-the-art systems, hosted in a secure data centre. With service commitments from providers, the days of unavailable IT systems are largely over. Virtualization allows servers to pick up the load and continue operating even when there are problems. Redundant components such as load-balancing servers and multiple network paths maintain high system performance and minimize interruptions. Management best practices ensure reliability and minimize errors.
In addition, providers manage almost all aspects of the platform centrally, including security patching, software updates and backups. The platform is continuously monitored so that problems can be anticipated and resolved before they happen.
Security and Business Continuity
Private Cloud includes built-in advanced security and business continuity features.
Not only do virtual desktops provide users with a higher performance Windows environment, but because they transfer only screen images and receive keyboard and mouse input, no data is ever saved on remote computers. This solves the tangle of security issues that result if remote computers access the firm’s network by VPN.
Further, because systems are hosted entirely by the provider in a secure data facility, risk of unauthorized access to servers is virtually eliminated. Access to equipment is controlled, requiring pre-authorization and identification that often includes advanced bio-metric authentication.
All data remains in the data centre and is encrypted - no files are transmitted to the user’s device, preventing potential exposure through theft or infection. The firm’s information is protected by centralized and up-to-date anti-threat software and security patching.
Multiple redundant levels of backup provide for rapid recovery in scenarios ranging from an accidental file deletion to complete data loss. Secondary data locations ensure business continuity even in extraordinary circumstances.
Private Cloud with virtual desktops enable a distributed workforce: employees can securely access information and software from the data centre, from any location on any device. With Private Cloud, employees can be as productive inside the office as out, while realizing the benefits of flexible schedules and reduced travel.
Software applications are hosted in the Private Cloud, where they run on enterprise-class equipment at high network speeds. A separate Microsoft network is created for each firm or tenant. This ensures that legacy applications such as PCLaw and Time Matters continue to work as they always have and users benefit from fast performance running on the high-speed Private Cloud network.
Tools like MS Teams, which facilitates real-time team communication and document collaboration, can be connected in a Private Cloud to powerful document management systems such as Worldox, enabling legal teams to review and mark up documents and then store them in an organized, searchable database for efficient retrieval.
Private Cloud from a trusted provider aligns well with the unique needs of the Distributed Firm.
In Canada, Private Cloud has been recognized by law societies as a preferred option for meeting lawyers’ professional obligations in the evolving area of cloud technologies.
In the era of the Distributed Firm, forward-thinking firms are looking to Private Cloud from trusted providers to make their IT work better so they can focus most effectively on their core business of providing legal services to clients.
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