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Managing the disparate technology needs of a small firm can be quite daunting. Often it proves to be a task that’s too burdensome in time, money and staff for small firms to undertake themselves. According to some surveys that I’ve read, technology support staff costs for a 25-attorney firm can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But there is an alternative. For many law firms it’s more cost efficient to turn over technology concerns to a third party. An often successful option is to outsource the entire integrated desktop (all the software that the law firm would run on its local system) to a full-service hosted solutions provider). This includes troubleshooting, maintaining, and upgrading general office software — e.g., Microsoft Office and Microsoft Exchange — and more industry-specific systems, such as case management, document management, time and billing and other practice-specific applications. The HSP runs the software applications at a secure central location. Each user’s office PC accesses the applications remotely via a secure private connection or the Web. With this type of arrangement the HSP assumes total responsibility for a fixed monthly fee. As a further precaution, our firm also has data backed up to a server in our offices. For small firms, this solution provides the highest return on their investment. The monthly rate paid to the HSP is usually less than the total paid for licensing and maintenance fees for the software, the costs of regular updating of computer hardware and software, and the costs of consultants and full-time systems administrators for support. REAPING THE REWARDS A key benefit is that outsourcing substantially reduces hardware acquisition costs. With the software and files hosted at a data center, the specific computer you’re using becomes relatively unimportant. Because the software is not running on the PC, the PC essentially acts as a display tool, enabling you to use older model workstations. The actual computing horsepower required is quite minimal, so early Pentium-class machines with older Windows operating systems are quite serviceable. Using HSPs also saves valuable time. At law firms, personnel are the most valuable asset, and downtime is detrimental to the bottom line. An HSP helps minimize lost productivity. If you have a problem with a PC, you can easily swap it out and restore the identical environment on the new PC within minutes because all of the programs and files are stored at the data center. What’s more, this means the employee doesn’t have to sit idly by while the software is loaded. Many HSPs host the systems of other law firms, so you can benefit from its experience servicing those clients and from economies of scale. This provides smaller firms with access to the most advanced (and perhaps unaffordable) law office technology. Firms can use top of the line e-mail programs, for example, and also take advantage of higher bandwidth technology that may stretch the budget if you chose to handle your tech needs in-house. This technology sophistication is also critical when it comes to the security and disaster recovery areas. If there’s a fire, a power outage or a telecommunications problem, your business could suffer. An HSP’s real-time backup of your data will allow employees with remote access to stay productive. But there are downsides to consider. Some older software or custom applications may not be able to function in the HSP environment and may need to be run on a local system. Multimedia applications and Webcasts may also need to be maintained at the firm due to shared bandwidth constraints. And systems that tie your computer network and phone network together, like call center applications, may not work because some are required to be hosted locally and some run from the off-site data center. CASE STUDY At Finn Dixon & Herling, a Stamford, Conn.-based law firm employing 48 people, we had always considered ourselves to be technologically advanced. Although ahead of the technology curve, we had a number of technical challenges. Our network was costly and complex, requiring large investments of time, money and personnel. When we made the decision to go with an HSP, we selected Network Alternatives, Inc. (NAI), located in Langhorne, Pa., because we heard of the good work it had done for other law firms of similar size. NAI thoroughly evaluated our existing infrastructure and custom-designed a new system to fit our requirements. The NAI analysts were straightforward about the applications that they could run for us. We did have a few applications that had required extensive support to operate ourselves. It was valuable to be told by NAI that its experience with other law firms had shown that these applications were difficult to run, and it suggested alternatives it could host more capably. By way of example, NAI steered us in the direction of Goodlink for our handheld devices, a choice that has worked well. In our first year after switching to an HSP, our costs were cut in half and have since dropped even further. Our capital budget has shifted from support costs (in our case, principally outside consultants) to printers, flat screen monitors and scanners. NAI’s commercial-grade data center supplies us with advanced technology resources, such as a gigabit Internet connection, remote access, real time back-up, and high level virus and spam protection. This has given us technological capabilities comparable to those of much larger firms. Our attorneys are now more confident that the information they are transmitting is secure and are thrilled that they can access it anytime and from any place. By outsourcing to NAI, we always have experts on hand through its remote 24/7 help desk who are responsible for handling technology issues, and the staff at Finn Dixon can focus on our business — practicing law. Ernest Lorimer is a partner at Stamford, Conn.-based Finn Dixon & Herling. Contact him at [email protected].

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