12/15/10

Moving A Law Firm To Google Apps

[Guest Blogger Eric Hunter]

Why Google Apps? Why Not.

I know, it sounds a little nuts, but Google is going to take over the world, our collective consciousness and all of us in it, so we might as well just jump on board! Seriously though, from a strategic investment perspective, there’s a lot to Google Apps and competing collaborative cloud hosted applications that should catch the eye of firms of all sizes.
Consider my firm and our move (leap of faith?!) to the cloud as a decent starting point and case study in what collaborative cloud solutions, in our case Google Apps, can offer as well as what they can’t or shouldn’t provide (silver bullets are still tough to find!).
Technology Outsourcing 
All right, so what happens with your Technology? I was told by a good friend of mine recently, and recognized expert in her field, that “I don’t really do Knowledge Management, that my focus is purely on infrastructure.” I told her my choice is actually to outsource the infrastructure and solely focus on KM! Consider it fact, that the more collaborative cloud platforms like Google Apps evolve, the more technology will be outsourced. Both a portion of the humans in your tech departments, and the applications running wherever you currently have them, will be outsourced to Google in this model.
Behavioral Change? 
Yep. We chose to migrate to Google’s browser hosted web app. We wanted the most dramatic shift for our users possible to ensure they would begin altering their day to day behavior immediately. Google’s platform is built to tie in mail, documents, sites (their sharepoint/extranet equivalant), and messaging in ways completely outside the box from a traditional business perspective. Such a ‘shock and awe’ strategy helps users quickly get out of existing behavioral thinking patterns they take for granted, and to do something different, innovative, and evolve with both the business and consumer market. This is good, because when you move your firm to evolving cloud hosted collaboration, it’s going to change, all the time. Of course, the ability to implement such extreme change is dependent on a lot of factors, some behavioral, some business strategy focused. I firmly believe the concept that “law firms do not embrace change” is something that will change to “our law firm demands continual change to stay ahead of our competition and engage in the most strategic fashion possible with our clients.”
This may seem ludicrous to some, but consider the consumer market, primarily social media. How many of your users use Facebook? How many user Twitter? How often do those platforms change, and how much training do your users need in their personal lives to navigate changes with these evolving platforms? These collaborative cloud hosted solutions, both consumer and business, are built to be intuitive and designed to connect people with people and link information among users, including third parties. The platforms that do it the best, thrive. The ones that do not, fall away. In my opinion, the collaboration features in these knowledge sharing social media markets is merging within cloud hosted applications within the business market. These applications drive behavioral change in the consumer. Why not leverage this?
So how do you stay on top of this evolving platform? 
Training and professional development. Senior Management must embrace this behavioral shift to their business, and stay unified. Ensure your committees, practice groups and mid level managers are all part of continual training sessions on the evolving platform and the new ways your firm is utilizing these features. Some of these training sessions will be ‘target specific’ within your firm, and some of these sessions will target all. Granted, most firms have similar training procedures in place. But with a model like Google, the decentralized nature of the system and the continually evolving product demand these sessions to be consistent and innovative. We’ve found our relative knowledge level has risen across all departments, departments are better connected, we connect more effectively with our clients, and our end users are demanding change, faster than Google’s product is developing.
Speaking of that, is Google as a collaborative cloud provider ready for global law firms heavily invested in alternative systems and third party leveraged integration? No, not yet. But Google’s investment path shows they’re well on their way and will most likely move faster than many think. Third party players may be well advised to adapt their systems to offer integration options, and quickly before new players arrive in town.
What about Microsoft? 
Microsoft’s Business Productivity Online Suite is a great product with considerable cost savings in licensing, and is a collaborative cloud option that competes directly with Google. It’s because of Microsoft’s investment path with this product I think Google is going to continue to innovate in this market. It’s because Microsoft has come out so publicly with their “cloud” offerings, that I think Google will continue to emerge as a player, and Microsoft will continue to refine and offer a better competing product. Bottom line, licensing drops across the industry, cloud hosted collaboration products continually improve, and it’s a win for legal and their clients.
Are law firms defined by the vendors they use?
Ultimately as law firms, it isn’t the name of the vendor we choose that makes the difference, nor even the technology, but the business drivers, behavioral change, and competitive intelligence that benefits our firms, our practice groups and our clients. So much focus is on the ‘Cloud’! When considering cloud hosted collaboration systems, I suggest taking away that ‘cloud’ focus from the analysis for a short time. Focus then on the immediate cost savings in licensing. Focus on the benefits of a hosted collaboration system that evolves and is integrating with consumer driven social media applications and enterprise level applications. Focus on the benefits of an emerging Knowledge Sharing platform, collaboration platform, and unified communications platform, and which existing and emerging third party vendors could best integrate with this platform. Consider how your staffing options will shift, how your client correspondence and extranets will shift, how many alternative staffing models become possible, and how your attorneys will rethink how they think! How will your business model shift in this environment, and how will your firm’s culture evolve? Then put the ‘cloud’ back into play and consider your options.
How will it all play out?
Google is still an emerging player, but they are highly innovative, and we are experiencing daily innovation within our line of business and our forward thinking investment strategy. We’re trusting that Google’s continual investments in improving their search and collaboration features and bridging them across all applications and to as many devices and mediums as possible will not only bring them obscene amounts of ad revenue, but will benefit their clients, like my firm, in a cloud hosted relationship. I’m trusting Microsoft will continue to compete in the business arena to protect their licensing revenue in Office, Sharepoint, and related applications. I’m trusting there is too much of a financial and market incentive for Legal’s third party players in business, financial and competitive intelligence to sit on the sidelines and not integrate in this medium. As you can see, I am very trustworthy (or is it trusting) … Stay tuned to see how it plays out.
About the author: Eric Hunter is the Director of Knowledge Management and Technology at Bradford & Barthel, LLP, where he is currently integrating a cloud-hosted collaboration platform within the firm’s 12 office environment. Eric has spoken on collaborative cloud solutions at ILTA’s Insight in the UK, ILTA’s 2010 Strategic Unity conference, and the Chilli IQ Conference in Australia. He is the recipient of ILTA’s 2010 Knowledge Management Champion Distinguished Peer Award. Eric can be reached at ehunter@bradfordbarthel.com.

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12 comments:

Ron Friedmann said...

Excellent and provocative post. I have two comments / questions, one macro, one micro.

1. FOCUS ON COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE. I agree with your point that a law firm will not be defined by the infrastructure brands it uses. Any move to reduce IT infrastructure cost potentially frees up resources that can be used to invest in creating law firm competitive advantage. For example, use the savings to create content- and knowledge-based online legal services that serve clients and prospects.

2. WHAT ABOUT POWER USERS? I personally use Excel and PowerPoint regularly and, in both apps, used advanced features that Google apps lack. Is there a good model for allowing users like me to have fat desktop clients while most of the rest are on the cloud?

Anonymous said...

When will the entire firm be on this cloud? It is implied that you are. I'm pretty sure your firm isn't though. Is this true? If so, how many lawyers have been migrated?

Stephanie Kimbro said...

I think you are correct that other third-party software providers that focus on the legal industry should pay attention and ensure that their services integrate and/or are compatible with Google's applications. That said, I think a major concern with using a Google App for practice management is in the nature of their Service Level Agreement (SLA) or user agreement. If you are using the professional versions of the Google Apps then the terms will be different than the free versions.

If you are using these applications to deliver legal services online to clients or to transfer client data between attorneys then I think you have to consider whether there is end-to-end encryption of that data, what type of access Google has to the data, if there are data return and rentention guarantees in their user agreement, etc.

I hate to be a downer. I've operated a completely web-based practice for the past five years that operates on SaaS so I get it. I love using Google Apps for certain projects and have integrated the use of Google Scholar and Google Voice into my practice. I use Google for most of my personal communications as well. But I would not use it for anything that requires a higher level of security to protect my clients' data.

Model Rule 1.6 requires that we use "reasonable care" in protecting client confidentiality. If you know the application you are using does not encrypt the data and does not have the other levels of security in the user agreement, then can the attorney say that he or she is adequately protecting their client's property? Google's primary function is to facilitate sharing and communication with friends and family.

I think you have to consider the primary purpose of what the Google technology was developed for and then accept that tech for lawyers and other professionals holding confidential client data needs to use a higher security standard.

Bill WhatUSK said...

All the politics and user adoption\training problems aside, there are core technical & functional problems with the idea of moving a law firm to Google Docs.

The rest of the legal community and corporate law departments are never going to all switch to Google Docs. So, file compatability will be a huge issue. Have you ever done a ton of formatting on Google Doc and then opened it in Microsoft Word? It is a huge mess! The reverse is true too.

A law firm will actually lose clients and business over this. If every document you send out for changes comes in as a complete mess and takes hours to clean up, how long will that be tolerated? Remember the old days where MS Word and Wordperfect documents were not seamless and it could take hours to clean up docs? That is exactly what we are talking about here.

Add in the document formatting complexity of templates and styles for bates numbering, line numbering, contract formatting, motions, pleadings, etc. and you can start to see this is not a quick change-over. Yes, you can create these templates in Google Docs, but when you share them with other firms--they are NOT going to use Google Docs and there is the huge problem that will prevent others from migrating.

Tack on the need to use 3rd party tools like DMS Integration, Searching, PDF Conversions, Document Comparison and you have a pretty strong argument against Google Docs for the law firm.

Ryan said...

"The rest of the legal community and corporate law departments are never going to all switch to Google Docs."

Bill,
That is true. They haven't all switched to MS Word yet either. However, I think you're missing the bigger picture here. All of the problems you list are problems now, but to think that they will continue to be indefinitely is short sighted.
File format compatibility was a big problem when Word and WP were duking it out for market share. It required large corporations who were competing to work together at a time when there wasn't a lot of incentive for them to do so. That's not the case here. This is all on Google and it's clearly important to them. You can already easily save google docs in a variety of formats including Word, PDF and OpenOffice. The conversion isn't perfect, but it's getting better and if it becomes a sticking point for greater adoption of Google docs, I'm sure they'll allocate some of their considerable resources to the problem.
As for the third party integration issues, they all go away.
Google becomes your DMS.
Searching - Come on, who knows searching better than Google?
PDF conversion - They already do this to some extent.
Document Comparison - Well, you got me there, but somehow I think the people who brought us Google Earth with Street View can probably figure out how to compare a couple of text documents.

rcwguy said...

When will Google Apps support a decent pleading template -- I need line numbers.

The best WP for me is OpenOffice's Word Processor. MS Word, Apple Pages, and Google Apps come up way short.

Anonymous said...

Saving to create competitive advantage is not a new idea to us and has long been part of our practice mindset. I would worry for any organisation not looking carefully at operational costs and best value return from IT and all practice support departments. Smart firms who wish to evolve margins need to constantly monitor and adapt models of practice and often developments in IT technology can enhance earning performance.

Sixteen years ago I personally installed 300 Microsoft Windows based PCs in to a UK Law firm to replace its near bespoke and non supported Unix thin client solution. For some reason or other which now escapes me I stayed on to help. The fundamental market need to sell more product and our own desire to offer competitive advantage over our rivals has meant that technology vendors have many times convinced me of the need to upgrade or introduce new business systems. The IT footprint I now run blends I believe the best of offsite and internal systems at a price we can afford yet offers our fee earners highly available rich featured knowledge management systems with support for a fully indexed client matter electronic record depth of ten years. Federated Knowledge Searching, Paperless, IM, DMS, PMS, CMS, KM, BES, VOIP, CRM, CEM, SM, information leak prevention firm. I like to think I have done a good shift here. Though the Lawyer will still scream bloody should a printer jam. Good to know something’s never change.

Office 365 - vendors are genuinely queuing at my door to offer this service. Not free, but if I jump now I will be get the best pricing ever, they tell me. Google Apps. Which one? Seems everybody wants me to buy a piece of the cloud - I even got a call from an outsourced printing and scanning firm who used the C word within a minute of their opening pitch. Hyped masses of web based salesforce armed bandits aiming at me to improve their targets.

So I am skeptical, a little protective and also confused to my strategy for the next few years. Is it really possible to lift 15TB of live indexed and deduped DMS data (lets not count backup storage) to the cloud of fashion Google for less than I currently pay to house it internally on our DMS for example? Google quote $56000 and my budget tracks at £6000 to do the same thing using our well known DMS, what did I miss something? How easy is it to migrate now and anyway what happens in three years if I want to move to a new host? Security. That worries me and our clients. What if went for hosted office apps - its taken years just to get the industry to adopt on .doc. and train everyone to fully understand the difference between a style and a master. I don’t know if I have the stomach any more for another Office upgrade and redoing of our document automation form solutions. Shudder. Integration. How many systems have we written code for that joins things up to do smarter things - BI stuff. Our voice solution writes to the PMS and can record that in our DMS without users having to do anything other than answer their phone. My PMS supplier cant write that sort of BI code as cheaply as our smart internal IT department and no hosted Office or Google Application offers the same specialist functions as our legal minded KM product does.

Personally Google Apps is not the answer right now for us. To switch our evolved and highly complex systems which sit partially internally and on external hosts offers less and costs more. I will follow with interest shared experiences from all sized firms who are putting their toes in the water. I do plan to start a small scale deployment in the early year of Office 365 versus Google Apps just to see for myself what I could be missing.
R

Anonymous said...

Good article!

Saving to create competitive advantage is not a new idea to us and has long been part of our practice mindset. I would worry for any organisation not looking carefully at operational costs and best value return from IT and all practice support departments. Smart firms who wish to evolve margins need to constantly monitor and adapt models of practice and often developments in IT technology can enhance earning performance.

Sixteen years ago I personally installed 300 Microsoft Windows based PCs in to a UK Law firm to replace its near bespoke and non supported Unix thin client solution. For some reason or other which now escapes me I stayed on to help. The fundamental market need to sell more product and our own desire to offer competitive advantage over our rivals has meant that technology vendors have many times convinced me of the need to upgrade or introduce new business systems. The IT footprint I now run blends I believe the best of offsite and internal systems at a price we can afford yet offers our fee earners highly available rich featured knowledge management systems with support for a fully indexed client matter electronic record depth of ten years. Federated Knowledge Searching, Paperless, IM, DMS, PMS, CMS, KM, BES, VOIP, CRM, CEM, SM, information leak prevention firm. I like to think I have done a good shift here. Though the Lawyer will still scream bloody should a printer jam. Good to know something’s never change.

Office 365 - vendors are genuinely queuing at my door to offer this service. Not free, but if I jump now I will be get the best pricing ever, they tell me. Google Apps. Which one? Seems everybody wants me to buy a piece of the cloud - I even got a call from an outsourced printing and scanning firm who used the C word within a minute of their opening pitch. Hyped masses of web based salesforce armed bandits aiming at me to improve their targets.

So I am skeptical, a little protective and also confused to my strategy for the next few years. Is it really possible to lift 15TB of live indexed and deduped DMS data (lets not count backup storage) to the cloud of fashion Google for less than I currently pay to house it internally on our DMS for example? Google quote $56000 and my budget tracks at £6000 to do the same thing using our well known DMS, what did I miss something? How easy is it to migrate now and anyway what happens in three years if I want to move to a new host? Security. That worries me and our clients. What if went for hosted office apps - its taken years just to get the industry to adopt on .doc. and train everyone to fully understand the difference between a style and a master. I don’t know if I have the stomach any more for another Office upgrade and redoing of our document automation form solutions. Shudder. Integration. How many systems have we written code for that joins things up to do smarter things - BI stuff. Our voice solution writes to the PMS and can record that in our DMS without users having to do anything other than answer their phone. My PMS supplier cant write that sort of BI code as cheaply as our smart internal IT department and no hosted Office or Google Application offers the same specialist functions as our legal minded KM product does.

Personally Google Apps is not the answer right now for us. To switch our evolved and highly complex systems which sit partially internally and on external hosts offers less and costs more. I will follow with interest shared experiences from all sized firms who are putting their toes in the water. I do plan to start a small scale deployment in the early year of Office 365 versus Google Apps just to see for myself what I could be missing.
R

Donna Seyle said...

While Google Apps is a terrific platform for collaboration and other needs in the business world, it is a walk on the wild side for lawyers. I agree with Stephanie that it is questionable that a lawyer using Google .Apps for client communication, document storage, etc. would meet his/her "reasonable care" requirement to vet the vendor and design a service level agreement that includes provisions customized for practicing law online.

I'm not really here to promote my blog, but I've researched these issues carefully and written about Google here http://bit.ly/ap6C7e and the issues beyond security levels to be considered here http://bit.ly/a2wdWg.

I, too, am a huge fan of providing online legal services. However, lawyers are required to do their due diligence to insure the manner of client communication and data storage meet their ethical obligations. The best approach to bringing your office to the cloud is to use a service specifically designed for lawyers. More and more platforms are integrating collaborative functions. Google should not own this corner of the market, even if they do own the rest of the world!

Fabrice Talbot said...

Good article Eric! I like some of the comments and would like to add my personal insights.

1. Power users: Google Docs, like other online editors such as Zoho, is a light version of MS Office and lacks many power features; while Google will keep improving their online products, this should not change for years (industry analysts agree on this). So Google Docs should be seen as an extension rather than a replacement of your Office suite. This is especially true for law firms who rely heavily on business templates and formatting. So you may re-think the cost savings and ROI arguments (they do exist)

2. Loss of formatting and low fidelity rendering (either online or after downloading a document) is
a serious issue as Bill mentioned. Unfortunately Rian, there's no easy way to fix it. It has to do with the limitation of HTML. Unless the standards evolve, don't expect online editors to replace offline editors such as MS Word anytime soon.

Disclaimer: I am the founder of agilewords, an online document collaboration application, that is sometimes compared to Google Docs - even if I think we're very different :-)

Anonymous said...

@Ron Friedmann. Re: #2 - http://googleenterprise.blogspot.com/2010/11/bridge-to-cloud-google-cloud-connect.html

Anonymous said...

So if you were representing a client in a suit against Google, you would use Google apps to manage your case?

Isn't it at least much better to use a local install of Exchange to help represent a client in a suit against Microsoft?

 

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