Software as a Service (SaaS) has been with us for several years with hosted applications that deliver information to lawyers. In the examples below, we show how much further this has moved, with law firms using a variety of software services via the internet from simple applications to the whole of their IT systems. Adoption of SaaS solutions should be explored by all firms as there are now solutions that can fit the needs of firms of just about any size and focus.
Key components of any SaaS solution are:
- Use of software over the internet
- “Pay-as-you-go” subscription licensing on a per user or transaction basis
- Centralised update, development and support, with investment in high levels of expertise by the provider
- Availability of extended (maybe 24/7) support for users by the provider
- Access to the services anywhere, anytime
- Access to the system online by all interested parties.
Early SaaS services gave lawyers access to online systems managed by, for example, LexisNexis Butterworths and other legal publishers, for legal research for a fee. Then we had Land Registry Direct, which continues to expand the range of services that lawyers can access on their system.
Also, providers of property searches, such as Searchflow, where case management systems are now often integrated, to feed information into online searches and then to place the information fed back into client files. The alternatives here are for lawyers to employ their own people to buy and manage the reference books or go out to do the searches. Online services continue to be more effective solutions here, where a third party does the work, providing access to their content to many other firms.
One example of the radically improving technology that has just arrived is BT’s recent launch of its revolutionary 21st Century Network (21CN) programme, a multi-billion pound infrastructure project that will create high bandwidth Ethernet networks nationwide to help customers simultaneously improve their business performance and save money. Until now Ethernet connectivity has been largely limited to selected urban areas, with coverage based on just 60 points of presence (POPs) in 40 metropolitan areas. The roll-out of 21CN will increase this number to 600 POPs, covering 87 per cent of UK businesses, by April 2009; rising to 1100 POPs a year later providing the option of next generation ethernet services to 98 per cent of UK businesses.
So this kind of incredibly fast and reliable connectivity means that lawyers (like any other business) can now have some or all of their IT resources securely locked away in a data centre, cared for and nurtured in a safe environment and managed by a team of experts with highly secure connections to the Internet that a law firm could not otherwise afford to build for themselves – all accessible via the internet from anywhere 24/7 with support on tap. When employees leave your firm, the costs reduce immediately; when they arrive, there is a known cost per user for each person added.
This is happening now with law firms. The question is not whether to use SaaS, but how and when. Microsoft has recently forecast growth in takeup of subscription software at a compound rate of 30 per cent per year during the next 3 years, considerably outpacing the traditional software market.
Examples of SaaS in practice
Hosted case management systems have been available for some time from online providers like EasyConvey and Ochresoft in conveyancing. They have provided a low cost entry level for firms at a cost per transaction which has made the solution affordable and manageable, but generally without any integration into the other parts of the practice. Users can work from anywhere and other parties can share the information as it is all accessible, subject to security on the web.
Simple application-driven solutions that can be used as and when needed, many providing new low-cost tools to help develop your business. For example:
- Web conference calls and webinars (gotomeeting.com)
- Online newsletters with sophisticated feedback tools (enablermail.com)
- Microsoft CRM systems customised for law firms (crm4legal.com).
Hosted practice management systems are now being offered by a number of suppliers, with hosting provided either by the supplier or through specialist business partners such as:
- SOS whose hosted users include JBS Solicitors and Towcester Family Law Practice
- DPS whose hosted users include McKenzie Hope and King Prior.
Hosting of email is becoming increasingly popular. As part of overall improvements in managing IT services, Druces LLP moved their Exchange email services to be hosted by Network Si who now deal with all aspects of management of email from setting up new users to security updates, archiving and encryption. Hosting guarantees redundancy and availability for peak periods and releases the in-house IT team from dealing with time-consuming updates, allowing them to focus on other aspects of IT.
Hosting the virtual office – the ultimate SaaS solution. Wolferstans, Morrisons and Martin Kaye all have their entire IT systems hosted at e-know.net in Telford. All employees at each firm access their usual desktop (hosted in Telford) with all their usual Microsoft Office applications, email, digital dictation, practice and case management systems, SharePoint etc via the internet. All applications are integrated as they would be in their own office.
Centralising all applications and data in a highly secure environment with fast and reliable links to the internet also facilitates seamless use of all methods of communications (mobile, text, email, voicemail, fax, phone) producing more flexibility and improvements for users and clients. It also creates an environment that can be easily replicated and brought to life for disaster recovery and business continuity purposes.
Users are comfortable with SaaS. The new generation of employees entering the workforce has not only been raised on consumer services, such as iTunes and YouTube, but also lives on social networking sites like FaceBook and MySpace. These applications are all “SaaS”, even if much of it is free.
To keep abreast of the variety of solutions that are now evolving and developing very quickly, refer to the Suppliers and Case Studies section of the MSC website.
Allan Carton is a Director of Inpractice UK Limited which advises law firms on all aspects of business development. He is also Director of Managed Services Consultancy which advises law firms on IT outsourcing and managed service options.