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Many law firms are moving their data and software to the cloud because of the cost effectiveness, mobility and security the cloud offers. And many others have not yet made the shift because they really don’t understand what the cloud is — and sending data that you have an ethical obligation to manage carefully somewhere “up there” sounds a little scary.

Let me assure you, the cloud is not “up there.” It is right here on Earth. Simply put, the cloud is a network of servers that stores data. That data is accessed via the Internet. So really, the cloud is just a metaphor for the Internet. And where did the term “cloud” come from? It originated from drawings in IT flowcharts that represented the Internet as a white fluffy cumulus cloud. Remember?

So now that the cloud has been demystified, here are some other important things you need to know about moving your law firm data there:

Know Where Your Data Resides

The ABA has blessed the use of cloud storage with the caveat that attorneys must make “reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.”

This can be difficult to do if you’re not sure exactly where your data resides. Which is why it is recommended that law firms choose a private (vs. public) cloud vendor whose data centers are located within the U.S. and comply with all U.S. laws regarding data privacy, security and protection.

Public vendors typically don’t host the data themselves, but contract it out to third-party data centers that can be located anywhere in the world. Private cloud vendors use a dedicated cloud solution and law firms can require that their data be hosted in a specific geographical area to ensure security and confidentiality.

Maintain Ownership of Your Data

Any service agreement you have with a cloud provider should explicitly state that you retain sole ownership of your law firm’s data. Some firms have been blindsided by SaaS (software-as-a-service) and public cloud vendors that claimed ownership of data uploaded into their systems.

You may remember a few years ago that Dropbox changed its terms of service to give it ownership rights over user data stored in the cloud. That change was quickly reversed due to a huge public outcry over data ownership and privacy rights.

Don’t make the mistake of inadvertently giving up ownership of your law firm’s data. Be sure your service agreement confers all data ownership rights to the firm so you will always be able to access your data, even if your provider goes belly-up.

Integrate All Law Firm Systems

Hosting your law firm’s data in the cloud makes it accessible from anywhere on any device. While many firms turn to the cloud to host their practice management system, they fail to integrate all of their systems — research tools, email, word processing, etc.

To maximize productivity, all law firm systems should be accessible from anywhere at any time. This accessibility allows you to collaborate with clients and other attorneys on documents in real-time. In addition, your entire practice is assured that all your data and applications — not just your practice management system — are provided with the highest level of security, backup and disaster preparedness.

Avoid Using Multiple Vendors

If you have different vendors for support and maintenance for your IT functions, you are inviting a circus into the heart of your firm. And it’s not just the monkeys slinging poo. For example, how many times have you had a problem with your website and you have to call multiple vendors to have it solved — with each one pointing fingers at the other? It happens all the time.

Having multiple vendors means you have the potential for multiple points of failure, with no one taking responsibility and you or a staff member having to spend precious non-billable hours trying to resolve your issue.

You can solve this by selecting a cloud provider that offers full IT management capabilities. You then have one point of contact for maintenance and support, security updates and monitoring, and software upgrades.

Don’t Choose a Provider Based Solely on Price

I don’t know any law firm that likes to be shopped on price, but law firms get sucked in every day by an IT provider promising a low price without realizing there can be long-term implications to this short-sighted decision.

Saving money will not be so attractive once you realize you have compromised the integrity of your data and possibly violated ethical rules and regulations by choosing a poor quality service and vendor.

Look for a cloud provider whose services include best practices for cloud technology: five tiers of security, a OC2/SSAE16 certified data center, managed backups, a 99.999% uptime guarantee, inherent redundancy and disaster recovery, and more.

Moving your practice to the cloud can be a savvy long-term decision as long as you avoid the mistakes outlined above and make wise choices. Your firm’s productivity and reputation depends on it.