I am continually surprised by the number of firms that are still using hard servers in-house. Not only do those servers become antiquated more quickly, but the volumes of programming and information we are forcing them to handle may not be able to keep up going forward. Some firms without an IT department or designee often rely on a trusted paralegal to resolve the IT issue at hand despite the loss of billable hours.

So, let’s assess the situation: Are you having compatibility problems within your own office, software-wise? Do you have Outlook 2003, 2007 and 2010 running on different computers? How about the operating system? Most firms are running various versions of Microsoft Windows, generally Windows XP and Windows 7, and word processing software such as Word or WordPerfect. How many different versions of those are running under the same roof? Have you experienced the .doc vs. .docx dilemma, where the department with the older version of Word cannot open a document created by another department or client with the newer version of Word? Have you thought about just how much billable time is being wasted on IT (information technology) problems that are solvable?

Last year, I concluded that our firm was losing too much time on software incompatibility issues because of the necessity of replacing dead computers with new models, without taking into consideration whether we should have upgraded the operating system and software on older computers still in use or purchased the older versions of these items for the new computers so that everything would be uniform. Although the founding partner had used the same IT provider for more than 20 years, our IT costs had rapidly increased and seemed out of control, with no end in sight. I sought permission to investigate our options and hope sharing my trials and tribulations will help you on your journey to IT sufficiency.

The fact that our in-house server’s manufacturer warranty would expire within six months was the driving force. My first step was to determine the replacement costs for that server, while doing my best to predict what our IT needs would be over the life of the new server. Last fall, the server replacement costs for our 18-computer firm were quoted at $15,000 to $25,000 for the hardware alone, not counting the installation and configuration fees. The lifespan was predicted at an average of five years — four if we were not so lucky and six if the force was with us.

I recognized that hardware seems to depreciate quicker than driving a new vehicle off of the dealer’s lot — for example, BlackBerry’s version of what we know as a smartphone was introduced in 2004 and both Google and Apple introduced their first smartphones in 2007 — and had been intrigued for years after seeing a commercial, for who knows what, touting “servers in the sky.” I immediately took advantage of our firm’s Pennsylvania Bar Association benefit and sent a question to Ellen Freedman, the Pennsylvania bar’s law practice management coordinator, through the “Ask Ellen” website feature. We spoke soon thereafter, and she soon emailed me the names and numbers of several local IT providers who offered both hard server and cloud-based solutions.

Cloud … solution? To quote the inaugural and current Delaware County Paralegal Association president, Eileen D’Angelo: “The only clouds I know are cumulus, stratus and nimbus.” I suspect she is in good company out there.

The first IT provider I contacted spent a significant amount of time with me on the initial call, only to tell me something I already knew, which was that we needed an IT overhaul to get all of our computers’ operating systems and software on the same page. My immediate thoughts were “ugh” and “cha-ching.” Several others offered both hard servers and cloud options. I quickly learned that there is an abundance of cloud solution combinations and providers out there, many based outside of Pennsylvania, that even install remotely and never come to visit. For me, that made it easy to rule out some of the potentials.

As I secured three hardware options, I delved into the cloud options of backup and hosting. Cloud backup is simply another place, other than your in-house server(s), to store a copy of your data in the event your hardware fails or is destroyed. The most important item to consider with cloud backup is where your data will be stored. If you are told “overseas” or outside the United States, look for a stateside option. Also, 1.15(c)(3) of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct provides that if records required by Rule 1.15 are kept only in electronic form, they must be backed up at least monthly on a separate electronic storage device.

The second option is whether the vendor is able to host your network and software on their servers. Before beginning the process, make a hit list of the key software programs your office depends upon for data processing, email, timekeeping, accounting, etc. Your list should include all of the software you cannot live without.

While contemplating our hardware and cloud options, I contacted Daniel Siegel, former chair of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s technology committee, who is not only a practicing attorney, but also an IT consultant. Siegel advised that cloud hosting is not for everyone because it may not be cost-effective depending on the size of your firm. For instance, he is able to administer his entire network, making an in-house server a more cost-effective solution for him. Regardless of whether you continue with an in-house server(s) or opt for cloud hosting, he highly recommends a cloud backup solution to avoid the consequences of a fire or other onsite event in which data is either lost or inaccessible.

My firm opted for a cloud-hosted solution because the provider we chose offered several things: (1) predictability of monthly costs; (2) saying goodbye to a $15,000 to $25,000 expense every five years (remember, a cloud-hosted solution eliminates the need for a hard server, so the replacement cost is also a consideration); (3) a contract that includes help desk access; (4) a contract that includes upgrades to our operating system (Windows) and all standard software (Word), at no extra charge, upon availability and request (we’ll probably still wait for the bugs to be worked out of brand new versions); and (5) computer speed, even as programs are added.

Is cloud hosting a perfect solution? Is anything perfect? We were die-hard WordPerfect users, although we knew that many of our clients and the majority had converted to Word long ago. The solution we chose did not offer WordPerfect hosting, so the verdict on our total cloud experience is still out, as it would be unfair to pin the fun we’ve had with our transition to Word on the cloud provider. Also, I couldn’t understand why one firm still had its in-house IT employee, although now I do. While IT needs may be reduced, they are not eliminated.

One last consideration: less hardware is more environmentally friendly. As for getting rid of old servers or computers, donating for reuse is the best option. If that is not possible, everyone should be aware of Pennsylvania’s Covered Device Recycling Act, which goes into effect January 24, 2013. Businesses and individuals will be required to dispose of computer hardware and televisions responsibly to avoid fines. •

Judy Stouffer is the law firm administrator and senior paralegal at Berner Klaw & Watson. She is first vice president of the Philadelphia Association of Paralegals and co-chairs the Philadelphia Bar Association’s green ribbon committee.