(Credit: John Yaneza/ALM)

Amid all the slick tech hardware on the market today, desktop computers perhaps seem like a relic of an ancient past. They’re bulky, arguably unattractive and chained to one specific location—the name literally points to its permanent fixture on a desk top. And yet, 45 percent of all law firms plan to equip attorneys with desktop computers in their 2017 hardware refresh.

In the modern legal workplace, where attorneys are expected to be reachable at any given hour of the day, it may seem counterintuitive for law firms to invest too heavily in desktop technology. Law firms have taken significant steps towards embracing the kind of mobility and flexibility needed to stay available to clients at any time of the day. In the last decade, laptops and tablets began to outstrip desktop computers in law firm purchasing. Aiding in the matter, law firms have widely adopted cloud-based data hosting, enabling attorneys to work remotely and collaboratively.

Yet in a few key ways, desktop computers still play an integral role in law firms’ technology strategies. Desktop computers are still potentially the most secure, reliable and cheaply maintained option for many law firms.

The Survey Data

The 2017 LTN Law Firm Tech Survey found that 45 percent of law firms plan to equip lawyers with desktop computers in their next hardware refresh, a 16 point jump from last year. The bump in desktop purchasing also seems to show a pivot from the 20 percent that planned to equip attorneys with desktop computers exclusively. In 2016, 41 percent of firms intended to equip attorneys with laptop computers only in their next hardware refresh, and an additional 30 percent of firms planned to offer attorneys laptops and tablet devices.

The International Legal Technology Association (ILTA), however, didn’t find such a precipitous jump in its most recent data. The group’s 2016 Technology and Purchasing Survey found that 61 percent of law firms purchased desktop computers in the last 12 months, with 60 percent of firms reporting the same in 2015. Despite their different conclusions, both reports point to the staying power of desktop hardware in the law firm technology budget.

Computing hardware generally operates on a set of refresh cycles, timeframes in which firms expect to update their technology to stay up to date. David Clark, director of information technology at Kirton McConkie, says that desktop computers typically run on four to six year refresh cycles, a timeframe notably longer than laptop refresh cycles.

“You don’t drop desktops, you don’t move them around. If they fail, it’s actually a component failure,” Clark says. “Anything that’s mobile, including a vehicle or bicycle or a laptop for that matter, is bound to be bumped and bruised.”

Upkeep on laptops can also require more administrative time and energy than law firm technology staff can reasonably manage. Lance Edwards, chief information officer at Arnall Golden Gregory, says that laptop maintenance alone is perhaps more time consuming than it may be worth. “It’s almost a full-time job for one individual to maintain that whole fleet. I’m not really sure that makes a whole lot of sense,” Edwards explains.

Refresh cycles can be set by basic machine lifespans, but operating system upgrades can also force firms to bump up their refresh cycles to keep pace. This year, many firms are opting for a desktop refresh to update their operating systems up to Windows 10, which will allow them to better secure data and run newer software. Clark estimates that perhaps up to 40 percent of those reporting new desktop buys could be primarily motivated by the need to upgrade to Windows 10.

“In this industry, you can’t run anything legacy. It’s all got to be protected; you’ve got to make sure you’re at the standards required to make sure your client data is protected,” Edwards adds.

Additionally, desktop computers aren’t typically saddled with a ton of application software, largely because they can be operated through virtualization. David Cunningham, chief information officer at Winston & Strawn, says that desktop computers at the firm run virtual desktop infrastructure, a software technology allowing users to access their desktop environment from a different machine remotely. Typically, vendors like Citrix, Microsoft and VMWare will act as a connection broker to encrypt the connection between a user and the desktop machine, effectively allowing users to access the content on their desktop computers via a virtual image presented on a different device.

Virtual desktop infrastructure also forms the core of Edwards’s computing strategy for his firm. He explains that by using virtualization, he can keep desktop computers essentially clear of applications, which can up their lifespan substantially. “Computers now are nothing more than zero clients. There’s nothing actually installed,” he says.

Some firms may choose to combine desktop virtualization and cloud hosting via “desktop as a service” (DaaS) offerings, which host user desktop environments from a cloud server rather than from a law firm’s in-house back end. Although DaaS strategies are still fairly new to the legal community, a report from virtualization vendor Citrix notes that legal made up around 9 percent of DaaS vertical market specialties, indicating that the strategy is finding some traction in the legal community.

David Moon, a consultant and founding partner of CompassPOINT Legal, noted in a talk at the State Bar of Georgia’s 2016 Solo & Small Firm Institute that DaaS strategies have found a home primarily within the small firm and solo practitioner space. For smaller firms, who don’t often have the IT support to manage firm data in-house, DaaS strategies can be a way to keep data secured and accessible in a cloud-hosted desktop environment, which can sometimes be a cheaper and more secure strategy than housing data across a few different proprietary SaaS products.

Navigating Mobility

Desktop computer purchasing is also fairly surprising given the move away from working exclusively from the office. The American Bar Association’s 2016 Legal Technology Survey found that nearly all attorneys work remotely at least some of the time, with only 15 percent of attorneys reporting that they work remotely less than 10 percent of the time.

Still, the ABA survey finds that 70 percent of attorneys work primarily out of a private law office. (Notably, this trend flips for solo and small firm attorneys, only 35 percent of whom now work primarily from a private law office.)

Edwards says that flexible policy allows attorneys the ability to choose where they primarily like to work, but most still choose to root themselves in a physical office location. “What I see is that most folks always have their home base in the office,” Edwards says, adding that although many attorneys choose to work from home some of the time, it’s rarely more than a day or two a week. “But it’s not like you see in other industries where you have truly remote work.”

While larger-scale remote policies have certainly proliferated in other industries, they haven’t played out perfectly. IBM operated such a popular telecommuting office policy that upwards of 40 percent of its staff chose to work primarily outside of a traditional office setting in 2009, but the company this year abruptly ended the policy, telling its remote workers that they can either “co-locate” into one of the company’s traditional offices or find a new job. Yahoo similarly banned remote work in 2013. Both companies cited workplace productivity as a primary driver of these policy changes.

For Edwards, giving attorneys access to work product and client data through virtual desktop infrastructure feels like the best way to meet attorney needs for mobility while keeping data secure.

Notably, remote needs may not extend to all law firm staff. Cunningham points out that for firm staff that don’t have the same responsibilities to be available to clients at all times, it can often be more cost effective and secure to offer desktop machines.

“The attorneys and many staff are mobile, but there are inherently people in a law firm that don’t travel and don’t generally work from home—secretaries, records staff, accounting, facilities, etc. These are the people with the desktop PCs,” Cunningham says.

Clark still sees laptops as the best technology to deal with modern mobility needs. “I haven’t bought more than maybe a dozen desktops in the last four years,” he says. Clark regularly updates the drives and RAM on older desktop computers, but largely opts to invest his firm’s technology budget on laptop computers.

Clark admits that laptops do introduce some security concerns. Laptops can easily be lost or stolen, which runs the risk of invoking data breach concerns. Additionally, company issued laptops fall into blurry territory for employees, who more often than not end up using their work device for some personal matters. “It’s very difficult to go to an attorney and say, ‘You can’t use your laptop except for remote access,’” Clark notes.

“Virtualizing” Security

The combination of high profile data breaches and the expansion of data breach regulation have made data security consistently one of the biggest concerns for law firm IT staff. For some, desktop computers still feel like the best way to keep data from vulnerabilities introduced by more mobile technology. Where laptops rely on users being able to pull down information from a secured server onto their local machines, virtual desktop infrastructure allows users to access content and data through a reproduced image of the root machine, meaning that client data never touches any other machine.

Edwards finds that desktop computers allow his team to ensure that client data stays contained within the firm’s infrastructure. Laptops, he says, expose data to the wide swath of human error issues arising from mobile devices.

“We do desktops at my organization, but that was for security reasons. I wanted to make sure I’m providing a completely secured environment for my clients, so I have no mobility for what someone else brings in to the office, but there’s no way to connect to client data short of virtual desktop interface. We made that decision to really force our end users to not be able to take any client data with them mobile-y [sic],” he says.

Edwards notes that his strategy somewhat precludes the possibility of bringing in a personal device for work use, but concludes that the absolute containment of client data is a higher priority for the firm.

Data control is fairly core to the virtual desktop infrastructure strategy. “It’s some firms’ way of keeping control of resources, technology, the law firm’s [intellectual property] and whatever they do for their clients,” Clark says.

Cunningham clarifies that it’s not that superior technology makes desktop computers more secure, it’s primarily a factor of the context in which they’re used.

“They are not inherently more secure, but it’s what they are used for that matters. Desktops sit quietly is a secure office space. Laptops travel to many countries, get carried in your trunk, get USB sticks from strangers plugged into them, get connected to random wireless networks, get left at security at the airport, etc. They are just exposed to a lot of unsecure situations.”

Although virtual desktop environments can help firms keep a better handle on their data, they’re not exactly the most user-friendly computing experience. Because the “image” produced on the remote machine is outsourced from a different server, applications, log-ins, graphics and other data retrieval can run frustratingly slow. More recent updates to virtual desktop infrastructure have worked out many of the kinks that initially frustrated users, but some users still find virtual desktop work somewhat obnoxious.

Clark notes that striking that the balance between portability and security remains core to the work of most technology operations in law firms today, and he still doesn’t quite have a clear best strategy. “I think you have firms that are looking at better ways to make remote access more palatable,” he says.

For the time being, that balance still includes the good old desktop computer.