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You have probably heard of “the cloud” and how it is revolutionizing the way people use computers and the Internet. But you may not be clear about what the term means and what distinguishes it from the Internet itself.

“Cloud computing” refers to a service that includes the use of computer hardware and the delivery of computer software via a network, usually the Internet. The term comes from diagrams depicting computer networking infrastructure in which illustrators often use a cloud-shaped symbol to represent the complex web of relationships among the various hardware and software components involved.

How does cloud computing differ from traditional, localized computing? Consider the difference between Microsoft Outlook and Google's Gmail, two widely-used email applications. Outlook is an application that (in its most popular incarnation) requires installation on your PC or Mac; call this “desktop software.” Gmail, on the other hand, is accessed via web browser – it has no permanent place on your computer's hard drive; call this “cloud software.” When you access Gmail, a remote server at a Google data center queries a database, compiles a list of email messages, and sends to your web browser the resulting data, along with layout instructions, in HTML form. Outlook, on the other hand, maintains its own local database of your emails on your computer and runs local code to allow you to interact with it. While the visual representation and the practical use of the data are very similar between the two, there is a drastic difference in the role your computer plays in the process and the location of the data.

The concepts behind cloud computing are decades old. Mainframe computers – huge and expensive machines that often occupied an entire room – became available to universities, governments and large corporations in the 1950s and 60s. They were accessible by “terminals,” also known as “thin clients,” which functioned simply as input/output tools for the user and had no standalone function. The relationship between the mainframes and terminals is similar to the relationship between remote servers running cloud software and home computers running web browsers.

General advantages of cloud software

Because cloud software stores your data on the software vendor's servers and is accessible via a sophisticated web interface, all the information you need to run your practice is available wherever you have Internet access. Yes, you can duplicate much of this functionality with desktop software by remotely logging into the computer in your office or your firm's servers. But you may need professional assistance in order to set up remote access, and you may need to leave a computer on 24/7 (and hope the power in your office does not go out).

It is also possible, of course, to carry everything with you on your laptop. But cloud software is well-suited to tablets and smartphones, allowing you greater mobility than laptops. And pity the poor lawyer whose laptop is stolen – as they often are – and whose backups are imperfect – as they often are.

Speaking of backups, you would be hard-pressed to duplicate the redundancy of data provided by modern cloud software vendors. No single hard drive failure or natural disaster is going to wipe out a responsible vendor's data servers, as could easily happen to any privately held data not protected by a very thorough backup protocol.

If your computers are getting a bit long in the tooth, or you have been thinking of trying out a different operating system, cloud software makes it easy to migrate to a new machine. The more you rely on the cloud to store your data, the less data you must carefully back up in order to make the switch.

Because cloud software resides on the vendor's servers instead of your computer, it is always up-to-date. You will never have to stop what you're doing to install an update as you do with desktop software, nor worry that an update will break something or cause unexpected behavior.

Data security is obviously extremely important to attorneys, and many instinctively feel that having physical possession of the data is essential to security. But the fact is that software vendors' servers are extraordinarily secure, as are the standards used to transmit data between servers and end users. Your clients' data truly is more secure on a software vendor's computer than on your own.

Moving your practice to the cloud is a transition that you can take as quickly or slowly as you like. It is not an all-or-nothing commitment. You might decide that all new clients or matters will be handled via cloud software and current clients will remain on your current software. You might decide to take advantage of online document storage right away, but tackle time tracking and invoicing later, when you have more time to learn the software. In fact, there is nothing preventing you from maintaining both your desktop software and your cloud software simultaneously until you feel comfortable making the switch.

Cloud-Based Practice Management Software Suites

A number of suites of cloud-based law practice management software are available. Because cloud software can do anything that desktop software can do, these suites aim to enhance nearly every aspect of legal work for which a computer is used. However, do not fear that using cloud software means giving up all of the software with which you are familiar. Leading suites integrate seamlessly with both desktop software and cloud software that you may already be using. Certain applications may be replaced entirely by cloud software if you so choose, but you will probably find the cloud software to be far more user-friendly and modern.

By most measures, the leading cloud software suite for lawyers is Rocket Matter. Competitors include Clio, Houdini and VLOTech. Take a detailed look below at some of the most important features of Rocket Matter. Any competitor worth its salt will have a very similar lineup of features.

Interface Overview

You will access your cloud-based legal software entirely over the Internet via any web browser on any Internet-enabled device or via the software vendor's specialized smartphone or tablet app.

Using Rocket Matter, you will spend a big part of your time viewing the User Dashboard and the Matter Dashboard. Both dashboards display an overview of: current and upcoming tasks, events and appointments; recent documents and email messages; and recent billable hours. The User Dashboard will display any such information that pertains directly to you, and the Matter Dashboard will do the same thing for a particular matter.

Throughout the software, clients and matters are tracked by names, not numbers, and are accessed via search fields. The search fields are “live,” meaning results are displayed as you type, putting each matter's information just a few keystrokes away.

Document Storage

Modern word processing software allows you to use templates and forms to quickly generate new legal documents, letters and more. Cloud-based document creation software does not aim to entirely replace your full-fledged word processor, but may prove faster and easier for certain simple or repetitive tasks.

Documents stored in the cloud are accessible anywhere, from any Internet-enabled device. They are also located much more quickly than a paper document and do not need to be re-filed after work is completed.

Most software suites will have no limit to document storage space. Nor are you limited to storing only text documents. Images, audio, and video can all be uploaded and linked to a matter.

Email

Even if your email software is not cloud-based – for instance, if you use the desktop version of Microsoft Outlook – the messages themselves reside in the cloud, at least part of the time. That's because email messages are delivered to your email provider's server, where they wait for you to access them with whatever software you choose. Therefore, integrating software like Rocket Matter with your existing email is easy. You simply authorize the software to access your email server by entering your address and password. This works independently of the software you currently use to read and write email.

You probably already sort your email into folders, with each folder containing messages pertaining to a particular matter. It is easy to associate a given folder with a matter within Rocket Matter. Whenever you access that matter, the software will access the appropriate email folders and display them exactly as you have organized them. Other lawyers and staff in your firm can associate their email folders with a matter as well, giving you one-stop access to all relevant emails firm-wide.

Time Tracking, Invoicing and Trust Accounting

Accurately tracking billable hours is essential to any law practice, but is a nuisance and can be a distraction from the work itself. When you are frantically working 12-hour days dealing with several different clients, you may find it very difficult either to keep track of billable hours as you go or to reconstruct them at the end of the day, week or month. Rocket Matter integrates time tracking into many parts of the software. On virtually any page, you will see an option to start a timer. Assign the timer to a matter and note the nature of the task; when you stop the timer, the time is filed away for later invoicing. Your smartphone makes it easy to run timers while you are on the go.

The Matter Dashboard shows you at a glance how much time is ready to be billed. When it comes time to create invoices, you can do so for all of your clients literally in minutes with just a few clicks of the mouse. You can also easily customize the appearance of invoices.

Trust accounting is built into Rocket Matter as well. You can easily record transactions, see how much can be withdrawn, and transfer funds to your operating account.

Conclusion

The advantages of cloud software are, in many cases, subtle. It has few features that absolutely cannot be replicated by desktop software. But the cloud is in its infancy and is already fundamentally transforming the nature of how software is delivered and where data is processed and stored.

The future of computers and the Internet lies in the cloud. Given the simplicity of getting started with cloud-based legal software and the huge advantages it grants in mobility, efficiency and security, you owe it to yourself and your clients to try it out.

About Author

Ryan Conley is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and a legal content strategist for U.S. based law firms.

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