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Cloud computing is the offloading of storage and processing to servers where they can be accessed them via the internet. Basically it means that instead of using software you install on your computer, you use software installed on a remote server and accessing it with a web browser or app. But it’s not accurate to say the cloud is just someone else’s computer, as the joke runs. It’s more like the cloud is someone else’s infrastructure. But let’s step over that rabbit hole and focus on what cloud-based software does, rather than what it is.
Cloud computing makes it easier to support multiple users, so cloud-based software tends to support collaboration. In a file-sharing service like Dropbox, for example, you can share folders and files with other Dropbox users much like you would do on a more traditional file server, as well as the now-ubiquitous anyone-with-a-link sharing. In Teamwork, users can assign tasks to each other and supervisors can see what tasks have been completed. In Google Docs, many people can work on the same document at the same time and see updates in real time. In practice management software, users can assign tasks and documents to each other, add clients as users, and more.
A cloud can be public, private, or anything in between. A public cloud is available to anyone who wants to use it. Think Microsoft Office 365, Westlaw, and Clio. A private cloud is only available to a limited group or a single entity. A law firm might have its own private cloud, for example. Or a family. Or just one person.
Cloud computing usually comes with a software-as-a-service (SaaS) pricing model, meaning there is a monthly fee for access to the software.
Origins of Cloud Computing
Wikipedia has some fascinating information about how the cloud became a common way to refer to internet-based resources. Apparently a cloud symbol was used to represent networks as early as 1977 in ARPANET documentation. (The ARPANET was a predecessor to the internet we use today.)
But cloud computing was basically waiting on high-speed internet to become widely available.
The modern concept of the cloud probably emerged in 2006 with the birth of Amazon Web Services and its Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) service. (Today, something like a third of the cloud runs on AWS, but clouds are, by their nature, fairly nebulous and therefore difficult to quantify.) Google and eventually Microsoft followed suit.
The Birth of Legal Cloud Computing
The earliest examples of cloud-based legal software may be Westlaw and LexisNexis, both of which have been around since the early 1970s as dial-up services with dedicated terminals. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, both transitioned to browser-based software. And in 2020, LexisNexis moved its database to Amazon Web Services.
However, since Westlaw and LexisNexis were around for so long in one form or another and evolved gradually, I’m not sure many users thought of them as cloud computing.
Things got more exciting when companies like Clio (2007), Rocket Matter (2007), and soon after, MyCase (2011), began offering cloud-based practice management software. Soon, lawyers started arguing about whether it was ethical to use cloud-based software and kept it up for most of the following decade. (Cloud-based legal research services rarely came up, for some reason.)
But the companies grew steadily, lawyers got more comfortable with cloud computing, and the objections dwindled as more and more law firms adopted cloud-based software and none of the ethical nightmare scenarios materialized.
“Cloud Computing is Now Mainstream.”
That’s a quote from Bob Ambrogi just five years later, after ABA TECHSHOW 2013. He also had this to say:
Wandering around the Techshow exhibit hall, one almost had to wonder whether any company makes desktop software anymore.“What ABA Techshow Shows about Tech” on LawSites.
At the time he conceded that there was plenty of desktop software still available, but observed that all the new software was launching in the cloud, and everyone else was figuring out how to move there.
ABA TECHSHOW, for those who have not been, is one of the premier legal tech conferences on the annual calendar, especially for small and medium firms. TECHSHOW is known for its huge EXPO Hall as much as for the sessions, and the EXPO Hall’s transformation over the years tells the story of cloud computing’s takeover of legal tech.
At my first TECHSHOW, probably in 2008, Westlaw and LexisNexis occupied the biggest, most ostentatious spaces at the center of the EXPO Hall. They brought carpet and their own lighting and took up at least 4 booth spaces each. At the time, LexisNexis’s Time Matters and PC Law were some of the most popular practice management software options for small firms. The Amicus Attorney booth was probably nearby, too.
It is my understanding that vendors have to “earn” their way into those premium spaces by coming back and spending more and more money, year after year. First-time vendors have booths on the fringes, and those that keep coming back move gradually towards the center. I don’t remember if I saw Clio and Rocket Matter at my first TECHSHOW, but if they were there they must have been in the EXPO Hall exurbs.
A few years later, I was only a little surprised to walk into the EXPO Hall and see Clio, MyCase, and Rocket Matter occupying the biggest and best spots, with Westlaw and LexisNexis settling for smaller spots in the first-ring suburbs of the EXPO Hall. And in the rest of the EXPO Hall there were plenty of practice management software startups lining up to be next. It was a powerful statement that the cloud was taking over.
That’s more or less where things were at TECHSHOW 2020. Clio was the first booth, although it isn’t taking up quite so much space anymore. Statement made. The other premium spaces were also taken up by cloud-based software providers like MyCase, Zola, PracticePanther, and Lawmatics. It isn’t just practice management software, of course. The EXPO Hall is full of cloud-based software of all kinds.
So goes the EXPO Hall, so goes the legal tech marketplace. Cloud software has become the dominant software delivery model. Even well-established software companies like Microsoft have shifted to a cloud-based strategy, with Office 365 subscriptions displacing Microsoft Office-in-a-box.
Published on January 14th, 2021. Last updated on April 7th, 2021, by Sam Glover.