Using SaaS: Are You Ready?

October 11, 2009

There has been much discussion of SaaS, Cloud Computing, and their ilk over recent years.[1] SCL has published articles, the technology press has a constant stream of stories, and even the mainstream media are telling us that these technologies are the future. Law firms of all sizes are starting to use hosted services, and generic and law-specific web services are burgeoning. 

However many firms are still uncertain as to what they should do and how they should go about it. As ever this problem is most acute for cash-strapped, time-poor small firms and sole practitioners. They lack time to investigate these matters themselves, and cannot afford to employ someone else to undertake research and draw conclusions for them. 

This article aims to shed some light on questions that might be in your mind if you are considering SaaS adoption in your own practice. Questions such as: Has there been any thorough independent testing of SaaS and what were the results? What influential ‘major players are using it? Are there any data on levels of business and/or firm adoption? Where can I get first-hand advice from fellow lawyers who are actually using SaaS? Following this are some suggestions as to how the oft-repeated controversies that surround lawyers’ use of SaaS are starting to be addressed. 

Some Questions

A seven-month study of Amazon’s EC2, Google’s App Engine, and Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing services simulated 2,000 concurrent users connecting to services from each of the three providers. Researchers measured response times and other performance indicators. The resultant report states that the services offered by Amazon, Google and Microsoft suffer from regular performance and availability problems.[2] This statement might seem to be a damning indictment of SaaS but the report as a whole is by no means entirely negative. Moreover, proponents of SaaS commenting on the report have been quick to suggest that the study validates the entry of AT&T in the USA and BT in the UK into the managed cloud services market, it being claimed that they will create purpose-built computing platforms able to supply the service levels that businesses need.  

No matter how you choose to interpret research such as that just highlighted, the fact is that major, influential players are using or about to use SaaS. One can only surmise that they will have commissioned or undertaken their own research and investigations and are satisfied with the technology. For instance, the US government for one has moved beyond the stage of debating the usefulness of SaaS, or its robustness and longevity as a technology. They have accepted it is here to stay and are preparing to adopt it.[3] This is relevant for us because UK government tech tends to follow the US lead, and the IT used by governments in turn influences that used by those who have to deal with them, even law firms. Here in the UK we cannot quite expect things to be as advanced as they are stateside, but it is worth noting that we do already have our own ‘cloud implementation officer’, from whom we have had some suitable woolly pronouncements.[4] 

SaaS has been touted as ideal for small businesses (and firms). But do they agree? Well at least one survey suggests that they do. [5] According to that survey Microsoft is losing its grip on the UK small business market. The poll of 1,400 Microsoft customers, all small businesses in the UK, found that 13% of them intended to switch to Google Apps within 12 months, while 22% were undecided. In other words a healthy number are either going to switch or may switch. Of the remainder, 36% did not intend to switch and 29% were not aware of Google Apps. 

These purported statistics are interesting as much for the percentage of businesses ‘unaware’ of Google Apps as for the number claimed to be switching. If the unaware figure can be extrapolated to apply to SaaS apps in general, and to be possibly more acute as regards lawyers (who, rightly or wrongly, are traditionally regarded as being less aware of and more averse to technical innovation than those working in other sectors), then the continued need for articles such as this to inform firms (and small firms in particular) of what they might be missing is clear.

While one might glean some insight into law firm uptake of SaaS from surveys of small businesses, of more interest would be statistics specifically on small firm adoption, or even on adoption by law firms generally. I am not aware of any findings on overall firm use of SaaS in the UK, however in the US cautious growth is reported. Specifically, according to the ABA’s 2009 Legal Technology Survey Report, 16% of respondents have used online software services, compared with 13% in the 2008 survey.[6] If these figures can be viewed as offering even a hint of the level of use by UK firms (which may be regarded as even more cautious in their adoption of new IT than their North American counterparts) then it would suggest that very few have yet tried it. 

However, while there may be many firms that have not tried SaaS and even more that are simply unaware of it, there certainly seems to be plenty of it around in the UK. Through online research, plus a review of independent publications such as Legal Technology Insider and the Internet Newsletter for Lawyers (and their associated websites) one can find many law firm specific and general online services. For instance: Case management, practice management, conveyancing modules, claims management, online document assembly, expenses modules, billing services, legal cashiering, email management, document repositories; not to mention hosting of the entire IT systems of a firm, both generic and law firm specific.

So hosted services providers for the UK exist but, conjecturing from the reports on general small business uptake in the UK, and law firm adoption in the US, one has to deduce that there is as yet little overall use by UK firms. We know that smaller firms (which form the vast majority of UK firms) are comparatively more likely to benefit from SaaS than larger firms, but they have fewer resources to conduct their own research, piloting and testing. What would help them when deciding what to do about SaaS would be to hear from their pioneering peers (ie fellow lawyers who have tried online services). After all, if 9 out of 10 lawyers write glowing reviews of a particular product that fulfils a function you have in mind for your firm then it is very likely that it merits further investigation.

In North America one can see such peer support in operation. E-mail newsletters from the likes of the TechnoLawyer Community < > and LawTech < > contain opinions, reviews and advice posted by lawyers in response to IT questions posed by fellow lawyers. This can result in certain products and/or services being easily identifiable as worthy of consideration due to overwhelming endorsements. (N.B. The newsletters are free and you can be a UK subscriber.)

An example of the ‘9 out of 10 lawyers recommend’ scenario has been seen recently in the TechnoLawyer newsletter, where online services such as Clio and RocketMatter are constantly recommended by lawyer-users whose small firm and solo peers are seeking web-based PMS and CMS. Such ‘collective wisdom’ operates equally for generic hosted services. For example, the community response to the question of whether it would be a good idea to use a hosted version of the Microsoft Exchange email system comes back as a resounding ‘yes’, accompanied by suggestions as to specific hosting companies to use.

This ‘weight of opinion’ guidance is in itself a great feature of these legal IT communities but another important aspect is the very nature of the vigorous, sometimes heated debate that they voice. Obviously one has to weigh up and put into context the opinions that are conveyed but instinctively one feels more comfortable with thoughts that are directly expressed by the end users of technology than with sanitised case studies and/or testimonials, (even if attributable to specific firms and/or individuals).

Unfortunately, but some may say unsurprisingly given the relative sizes of the legal markets, the UK does not have a vibrant online legal IT discussion community comparable with those in North America. While publications such as Legal Technology Insider strive to keep us informed about new hosting companies and new services being offered, as well as which firms are subscribing to them, what is absent in the UK is a digest of peer insights and experiences like the US/Canada has. The newsletter format has in fact been tried in the past in the UK but got disappointingly little support.

Is there another approach? Possibly. The editor of Computers & Law recently appealed for more SCL web site postings from members.[7] An ideal application of this would be for SCL members to post on the SCL web site their opinions, views, war stories, etc. about their (and their lawyer colleagues) experiences of SaaS apps. Given all the reports, over the past 12 months, of UK providers of legal specific apps signing up firms for their online services (as well as what these providers themselves have been saying on their own sites about their success in this regard), at least some SCL members must by now be using hosted apps and have a story or two to relate! 

Addressing Concerns over SaaS

As many authors have observed, concerns and questions over SaaS and cloud computing in general remain and need to be answered. There are data access/availability worries: eg how do I get to my data if my SaaS provider goes out of business, or is unavailable for some technical reason, or I am dissatisfied with them and want to move my data to another provider? There are professional worries: eg are my legal and regulatory obligations, to my clients and others, in danger of being compromised when using a hosted services provider? 

Such themes are common to lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic. What follows are some (emerging) approaches to the concerns, which you may or may not view as satisfactory. 

As regards data access and availability, lawyers who are actually using web services are, rather than whining, taking practical measures. For example, backing up locally whatever goes into the cloud and/or replicating data within the cloud among multiple hosts. A simple example of the latter is having a Gmail account into which you ‘pull’ a copy of every e-mail delivered to an Inbox you have hosted by another company. That other company could be providing a fully featured hosted Exchange service that you primarily use. 

As regards professional obligations, on client confidentiality in particular, some practitioners simply do not perceive there to be a problem. One lawyer states explicitly that: “I use Google Apps, and I am not worried about security, privacy, or waiving the attorney-client privilege.” He then presents his arguments why. For example (paraphrased), ‘you are probably already using SaaS’, or ‘the SaaS providers are not actually reading your email’.[8] Of course other lawyers and commentators may condemn this attitude as cavalier.

However, among the differing views expressed on lawyer use of SaaS, the beginnings of more authoritative guidance is emerging from professional bodies. For example, see the opinion of the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Professional Ethics on the question: “May a lawyer use an email service provider that scans emails by computer for keywords …”[9] The gradual emergence of such guidance in different jurisdictions will doubtless be noted by companies which seek to provide the services and complied with by those serious about retaining law firms as clients.

In fact a proactive approach can already be seen in the attitude of certain hosting companies which, as well as creating products whose technical capabilities lawyers are happy with, are anticipating concerns and addressing them directly. Such companies publish online their approach and provide advice that can be applied to dealings with any SaaS provider, themselves or a competitor.[10]

Some service providers are taking note of the worries being aired regarding the legal sector, but certain firms remain unhappy about dealing with a mixture of law specific and generic SaaS providers, even if the latter claim to have modified their terms and services in order to allay those concerns. After all, penalty clauses are no substitute for the problems that trigger them not arising in the first place. More appealing to such firms would be the existence of a service provider that had developed a comprehensive hosted service (supplying all of a firm’s IT needs) which, from its inception, specifically addressed the legal sector and all its demands. 

Such an initiative is (apparently) already underway. The company nScaled has announced a ‘vertical specific cloud’ targeting the ‘infrastructure on demand’ (IaaS) requirements of international law firms. This Legal Cloud is currently a beta project and it is claimed that several top firms have already agreed to test it.[11] Unfortunately I would imagine that, given that the service is aimed squarely at the big firms, it is likely to be priced accordingly and therefore be beyond the reach of smaller firms. However maybe some enterprising individuals will see the possibility of securing a reasonable return from providing a similar service to smaller firms, because, as has been noted, “Legal Cloud may represent a new model for startups of very low cost investment, since they need practically no capital investment to offer computing services and can rent more space from Rackspace or other infrastructure providers on demand.”[12] 

Looking Forward

The technology of SaaS will of course continue to develop and be adapted to suit the different sectors (such as legal) in which it is employed. Professional and regulatory advice for lawyers on its use by them will as ever lag behind the technology. The current and foreseeable economic climate will make it increasingly hard for firms to resist the allure of the cost savings and efficiency gains promised by SaaS, even if few firms are using it at present. So, when you come to make your own assessment of SaaS, look for peer support and be prepared to share your own findings. That way the best offerings will thrive and the entire profession will benefit. 

Alastair Morrison works at Strathclyde University where he evaluates, implements and runs IT services. He combines this ‘day job’ with continual monitoring of technology developments in order to write on how small firm IT needs can be better addressed:


[1] Those not familiar with the concept of SaaS, and the arguments for and against its adoption (specifically in the context of the law firm), may care to look at the following:

FYI: Software as a Service (SaaS) for Lawyers

American Bar Association


[2] Stress tests rain on Amazon’s cloud

Brett Winterford

Aug 20, 2009,stress-tests-rain-on-amazons-cloud.aspx


Report: Cloud services can’t handle the pressure

Dave Rosenberg

August 20, 2009


[3] US government opens Cloud shop to combat runaway IT costs

Cade Metz

15th September 2009


GSA Outlines U.S. Government’s Cloud Computing Requirements

J. Nicholas Hoover,  InformationWeek

Aug. 3, 2009



[4] More Details on UK Government’s Cloud Strategy

Reuven Cohen

June 22, 2009


[5] British small biz falls out of love with Microsoft, heads to the Clouds

Mike Butcher

 September 1, 2009


[6] Working in the Cloud: Tips on success with online software services

Dennis Kennedy

August 2009


[7] Interact. Please.

Laurence Eastham

10/09/2009 11:24


[8] Can You Trust Google Apps (And Other SaaS)?

Sam Glover

August 18, 2009


[9] Lawyers Should Not Be Wary of SaaS and Cloud Computing

Niki Black

August 26, 2009


Source Document


[10] See, for example, the pages from the creator of Clio, the Web-based Practice Management service, on



 Data Availability

 and even SLAs


[11] Legal Cloud: Have It Your Way

Craig Balding

May 8th, 2009


[12] Legal Cloud targets law firms, promises security, compliance

Carl Brooks

13 May 2009,289142,sid201_gci1356310,00.html