28 Feb 2013
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Office 365 delivers unique advantage for legal firm

By Donovan Jackson

Introducing new email technology into a law firm which, like many others, is largely dependent on this mode of communication for its business, can be tricky.

However, for Blenheim-based Gascoigne Wicks, shifting from an on-premise Microsoft Exchange server to the Office 365 service has delivered a substantial efficiency boost.

That’s because each professional at the firm has a far larger email inbox, making all records easily accessible with the built in search functionality.

Situation

Practice manager Kay Nalsund explains that previously Gascoigne Wicks had an email setup still used by many companies across New Zealand; “We had a duplicated Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 [SBS], located within the office building, which was purchased in 2009.

With an integrated SQL database on this version of SBS, it worked well with our practice management software, Infinity.”

The server hosted Gascoigne Wicks’ Microsoft Exchange 2003 email server. At the time of its commission, Nalsund says the firm had commenced scanning all physical records, such as deeds and wills, and storing them electronically.

This provided a major advantage in that and all documents could be viewed from any screen in the office.

However, the upshot was that upwards of 50 000 records are bound to take up substantial hardware capacity. That’s not all.

Since email is such a integral part of doing business – and since law firms are required to retain records under the principle of discovery – the capability of the server to cope with the sheer volume of information was quickly compromised.

“After a year of this information accruing in the server, it just wasn’t performing very well. It was running short on memory and the RAID storage was, simply put, full.”

Furthermore, with just 1GB mailboxes, the legal professionals were obliged to archive their email off. That introduced additional complexity, as well as considerable inconvenience when historical emails were required.

PC Media director Lee Harper says Gascoigne Wicks was experiencing an all too common issue. “It’s a problem that occurs time and again; data grows faster than expected.”

Not only that, but he says under- and even over-specification of servers at delivery is practically inevitable.

“It is very difficult to anticipate what the IT needs of any business might be a year from now; change is inevitable, whether it is growth or contraction. On-site solutions simply don’t provide that sort of flexibility.”

Nalsund says this situation prompted an examination of alternatives, since an overloaded IT infrastructure was beginning to impact the flow of work.

“Email is absolutely critical; with a year to go on the anticipated life of the old machine, which was on a lease, we had to look at options.”

Solution

She says Gascoigne Wicks looked to its IT services provider, PC Media, for help. “They suggested a cloud solution; with Outlook on Office 365.”

This would allow the company to sidestep the purchase or lease of new servers altogether. It would also provide staff with unlimited email inboxes, with no need to ever archive email.

Nalsund also says it meant there would be no need to upgrade the firm computers and laptops, something potentially required for more recent versions of ‘on-site’ email solutions.

Harper says PC Media immediately saw the suitability of Office 365 for the law firm. “Its experiences with on-site hardware had shown the limitations of an inflexible solution which reaches the limits of useability long before the end of the lease term,” he explains.

However, with lawyers ranging from the ‘tech savvy’, to the ‘tech challenged’, moving into the cloud was not without its issues.

For example, security and sovereignty of information was a primary concern. Harper says the level of security which is provided by a reputable cloud services provider far exceeds that which any organisation is likely to provide itself.

“Security and trust has to be built in and it has to be inviolate. That is a core value proposition,” he says.

With all data cached at Palmerston North, and ultimately mirrored between Hong Kong and Singapore, Nalsund says the firm partners were satisfied with the configuration of the system; meanwhile, dependent as it is on email, uptime is another non-negotiable. For Gascoigne Wicks, this is guaranteed at 99.9% availability.

In terms of the migration from old system to new, Harper says the instability of the previous system required some manual work.

“The only way to attack it was mailbox by mailbox, loading each into Office 365,” he says. However, only 6 months of email could be drawn from each mailbox, with the archived mail staying behind in an on-site server.

Nalsund says this is a niggle, but one which lessens over time; as email gets older, the need to access it diminishes. Harper says migration of an environment like that of Gascoigne Wicks, with some 30 users, happens over a weekend.

“The big question is not around Office 365; rather, it is about what you are left with. What does the network look like with Exchange out of the question?”

In the law firm’s case, it meant machines unburdened by the weight of a overworked email system. Benefits Just on sheer capital outlay, Nalsund is able to put a figure to the advantage of Office 365’s Outlook service.

“No need to lease or buy new servers, and no need to upgrade the computers of our staff,” she says. That calculates to a diverted capital expense of some $45 000 over the 30 users within the company. “Our email instead costs a few hundred dollars per month.”

There are also specific benefits for a law firm: it is possible to search for email documents across the whole organisation, while the unlimited mailboxes means even old messages are just a few keystrokes away.

“The same searchability we saw with digitising records is now available in the email inboxes,” Nalsund confirms.

No longer do the words ‘mailbox full’ interrupt busy legal professionals, and there is no need for any sort of maintenance of physical hardware to keep the email system running.

And even when staff members are out of the office, they can access all their email from mobile devices. She believes the firm is future-proofed, too.

“Cloud computing is the way the world is going forward. There may have been some minor adaption required, but the benefits are clear and become more pronounced as our people become more comfortable using the system and seeing what it is capable of,” she concludes.

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