Virtual Desktop for the Distributed Firm
Late 2020 and beyond will see law firms with employees distributed across multiple locations, likely working from home at least 1-2 days per week: this is the Distributed Firm. With this operating model comes new challenges with managing remote teams, ensuring productivity and providing virtual client service.
The good news is many forward-thinking firm leaders have identified this opportunity to enhance their practice by leveraging technology to more effectively support the firm’s needs, including critical capabilities such as remote access, team collaboration tools, paperless document management and virtual meetings.
Stable remote access to software and client information is the first essential, with advanced security and availability where and when firm users need them. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is an increasingly popular choice to replace remote access solutions that were designed before full-scale remote work. Key advantages of VDI are superior user experience, advanced security, seamless software compatibility and better manageability.
Before we delve into the capabilities and business benefits of Virtual Desktop, for broader context, let’s first take a high-level look at two other remote access technologies commonly used by law firms: virtual private networks and remote desktop software.
Virtual Private Network
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a relatively affordable and traditional option, requiring a firewall, a router and some expert configuration.
Highly secure, a VPN effectively extends the network in the firm office to a remote employee’s device through an encrypted tunnel. Remote employees are directly connected to their email and files, accessing them on their home computer. Software runs on a host computer inside the office, accessed through the VPN. Firms should be aware this requires security investments such as software updates and security patching for both the in-office host computer and the remote employee’s device.
In addition to maintaining device security, software performance is a challenge for firms using a VPN. Some of the popular software they depend on is Windows-based, which means it was designed to run on a PC inside of an office, using a much higher network speed than a typical home network can provide. Software does not perform well through a VPN, often lagging and crashing to the point that it becomes unusable. For this reason, a VPN is not an appropriate solution for full-scale remote operation.
Remote Desktop Software
Remote Desktop Software such as LogMeIn or Team Viewer are browser-based client programs that deliver capabilities to remote users over the Internet. Usually software installation isn’t required on the remote device, but the office IT infrastructure will require additional servers.
Employees can remotely interact with all their files and emails on a host computer in the office. Software can also be accessed, however because the connection between it and the remote employee is not high grade, the experience is sub-optimal.
Another challenge for distributed firms is that the remote employee relies on a physical computer inside the office: if that computer is accidentally shut off, they will be too.
As users interact with firm data on their unsecured home devices, there is increased risk of file infection and malware introduction to the firm network and thus, robust security controls and regular management must be implemented.
Essential Technology for the Distributed Firm
Tools & best practices for distributed work
Virtual Desktop Infrastructure
A Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is more than just a remote access solution, but a highly secure, robust alternative to VPN and Remote Software configurations.
How it Works
VDI is a powerful asset for the Distributed Firm who relies on trusted Windows-based software like PC Law and Time Matters.
The firm's entire Windows environment is virtualized and hosted on a server in the office or in a professional data centre. Each employee is assigned their own workspace or profile, which is “projected” from the server onto any computer they log into, giving them a consistent work experience. Because the desktop is virtual, performance is no longer tied to a host computer in the office, which means employees can remain 100% productive in any scenario.
All of the "work" takes place in the servers rather than on the employee’s computer, ensuring files stay off of remote devices and are protected from threats.
Whatever device employees use to log in to the Virtual Desktop, their work environment is consistent and familiar. They can step away from their session then return hours later, and everything will be as they left it, ready for them to resume. Remote employees are able to work just as they would in the office, copying and pasting text, participating in Zoom calls and even sending documents to their local printer.
Software is hosted in the data centre rather than on a desktop computer, run on more powerful machines at higher network speeds. This ensures seamless, consistent performance across all applications, in any location.
Through VDI applications such as Citrix, employees can use firm software on a variety of devices including Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. VDI enhances mobility of Windows desktop software like PC Law, enabling firms to gain added benefits while retaining the trusted software they’ve already invested in.
With Virtual Desktop, the IT team can better control security configurations on user profiles, deploying anti-threat software updates and security patches on multiple profiles across the firm at once.
All data is kept inside the server room and off employees’ devices, eliminating risk of interception or breaches from device theft. This is particularly important for the Distributed Firms, whose employees are regularly working from home or on personal devices – it affords some control over how and where data is accessed and stored.
Citrix’s built-in user controls, monitoring and behaviour tracking provide additional reassurance that firm and client data is protected when accessed offsite.
Virtual Desktop also presents strong business continuity for the firm, as employees can access everything they need in just about any scenario. Following the lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis, this is an important factor when planning the firm’s long-term technology roadmap.
A Virtual Desktop provides full compatibility with all of the applications a firm runs on a Windows network, including MS Office, Outlook and platforms such as Microsoft 365 and its many applications. With an experienced legal IT provider, legal software can also be hosted and enhanced with VDI’s mobility and scalability benefits.
Document management software (DMS) such as Worldox is a critical component of the Distributed Firm’s productivity. With a VDI, employees are able to access their DMS from any location on almost any device. Additional integration with applications such as MS Teams can be built in to improve collaboration and workflows for distributed teams. A VDI connects employees to one comprehensive, seamless work environment that’s customized to the firm’s business needs.
Because of their complexity, Virtual Desktops are usually outsourced to an experienced IT provider. Premier providers will use Citrix Workspace to deliver the virtual platform as Citrix is the worldwide gold standard for virtual desktops, enabling for central management of user profiles, deploying software updates across all users, and monitoring the health of server components.
Firms that outsource their IT to a provider must decide whether to host their network on their own servers inside their office or on the provider’s servers in a professional data centre – this is known as a Private Cloud.
Outsourcing to a Private Cloud provider brings many management benefits, the primary being that the firm offloads the responsibility of owning and maintaining their own IT equipment. The provider hosts and manages the firm’s network on their own enterprise-class equipment, delivering enhanced capabilities a firm is unlikely to achieve with their own onsite IT. Hosting, management and support are provided by for a monthly fee, and the firm never has to upgrade their equipment again.
Learn more about Private Cloud for the Distributed Firm
Consider Your Options
Because Virtual Desktop is a very robust, secure solution, it presents a more mature decision than the VPN and Remote Desktop alternatives. However, when evaluating this investment, firms who are transitioning to a distributed workforce should take the time to carefully consider how their needs have changed and which tools will best enable them to achieve long-term success.
Private Cloud for Law Firms
Executive Summary for Firm Partners