Legal technology is going the way of shared resources, similar in a few ways to utilities such as a community’s water supply. Ages ago, each home had its own well on the premises. They had to dig the well, line it, provide their own bucket, maintain it, and monitor the quality of the water. The process was very inefficient for each dwelling to have this infrastructure. Today, the infrastructure of providing water is shared, more efficient, and far less expensive on a per capita basis than in days of old.
I like to think of “Cloud Computing” as a shared resource for software — shared in the sense that the software is made available to anyone with access rights, over the internet, wherever and whenever they might need to use it. Legal technology too is moving towards shared resources – no longer do you need your own hardware and software in a closet in your office space. Instead, infrastructure and software are maintained by large, specialized entities that allow you to use as much or as little as needed. Pay only for what you use - just like your water supply. A more “official” definition of the Cloud comes from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). I like this definition because it reflects the true nature of the cloud. According to NIST:
“Cloud computing is a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”
There are many common SaaS examples that consumers have readily adopted – Google Maps, Amazon, and Netflix. Business SaaS applications abound such as Quickbooks, Salesforce, and Office 365. Legal SaaS solutions include DISCO, FastCase, DocuSign, Clio, and a host of others. Tools lawyers use regularly, such as Office365, Sharepoint, and web-based Microsoft Outlook are also cloud-based. What do they have in common? All are in the cloud and require no infrastructure on the user side other than a device connected to the internet.
What are the benefits of cloud technology?
There are many benefits to leveraging cloud technology. One of the most significant advantages of cloud technology is its massive scale. Here is a snapshot of a single row of servers in a single data center (these equipment racks are not even full). It is the rare law firm or company that can ever match the investment and infrastructure this picture represents, and it is likely that if the cloud is not their core business, their resources could be better allocated to other, more relevant, business functions.
Let’s take a look at a hypothetical architecture of a cloud-based, ediscovery software solution. Solutions like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud are considered companies that provide infrastructure as a service (IaaS). A typical SaaS schematic consists of layers of intricate architecture built on top of such an IaaS. First, raw collected data or production data goes into network attached storage (NAS). Web servers contain software that provides a user interface to users and allows access to the NAS or database (DB) of indexed information as necessary for user tasks. To note, the NAS contains raw data, while the DB servers include indices of the data and metadata. A second data center provides real-time replication of everything done on the data in NAS. Workers do all of the compute-heavy tasks like ingest, processing, batch actions, and productions. Additional compute resources may be used for things like AI/machine learning and real-time data processing. Users can then access the data through a browser while robust firewall technology controls access security. A load balancer spreads the traffic across multiple central processing units to scale up or down to meet user demand, ensuring that users get a consistent experience.
SaaS demonstrates the scale and performance of cloud computing. For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS) allows DISCO’s SaaS ediscovery platform to provide a dynamically scalable solution that automatically adjusts computing power and storage in real time based on your need. Using DISCO eliminates the need to pay and wait to install larger file and network servers, install new operating systems, and update software for large matters with terabytes of data, hundreds of reviewers, and big productions with hundreds of gigabytes of data. Cloud computing also ensures you have the latest software and updates. SaaS models provide you with the latest features, enhancements, and bug fixes requiring no downtime or upgrade on your part.
Finally, cloud computing offers true high-availability, disaster recovery, and data security. For example, uptime availability exceeds 99.999% for most cloud infrastructures such as AWS. DISCO maintains multiple redundant data centers throughout the AWS infrastructure, physically isolated from each other. This ensures that if a rare catastrophic disaster occurs, DISCO can immediately recover data and resume service. All data is backed up throughout the day, nightly, and weekly to these data centers. Any data sent to DISCO, physically or electronically, is fully encrypted. Once data is ingested, it is further secured using state-of-the-art encryption keys. Furthermore, all activity in DISCO databases and all transfers into and out of DISCO data centers is logged for future audit.
Ethically, can lawyers even use cloud-based software?
Looking at the power and scalability of the cloud, it is inevitable that cloud computing will become the norm for legal technology solutions. However, attorneys cannot become competent in cloud technology overnight when a new matter arises. One way to handle this is to reach out to an ediscovery vendor or consultant that can provide expertise in a certain area. However, attorneys cannot just hand off everything to an outside party without involvement. They still have an ethical duty to supervise and remain involved with the work. Whether you like it or not, cloud computing isn’t just for IT departments. Anyone who handles litigation needs to have a basic understanding of the technology.
So then, the question becomes: when attorneys use cloud technology, are there any ethical concerns? Well, yes, of course, but they are not prohibitive. Ethical obligations are rooted in requirements under state versions that are similar to the ABA Model Rules focusing on attorney competency (MR1.1), confidentiality of information (MR1.6), safeguarding client property (MR1.15), and ensuring compliance by nonlawyers (MR 5.3). In my next blog post, I’ll take a deeper dive into what ethics opinions require of attorneys regarding SaaS technology.
(25 Oct 2011) Final Version of NIST Cloud Computing Definition Published [Article]. Retrieved from: https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2011/10/final-version-nist-cloud-computing-definition-published
 SHA-256 key exchange and AES-256 encryption. Anytime data is transferred, TLS, SSH, and SCP encryption is used.