A lawyer-slash-IT chief explains how his 14-person law firm is realizing good ROI after its move to Microsoft Office 365.
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Technology means different things to different small and midsize businesses (SMBs). At Parsonage Vandenack Williams (PVW), it's quite literally part of the law firm's foundation.
"The reason why we left one of the larger firms here in Omaha was because we wanted to focus on technology," founding member Mark A. Williams said in an interview. "What we really mean by that is using technology to create efficiencies and expertise so that you can take a small group of lawyers and serve a very large clientele."
That strategy enables the 14-person firm to stay lean and eliminate many lower-level roles common in larger firms. It doesn't employ secretaries, has minimal paralegal resources and it automates as much of the administrative work involved in running a law firm as it can. Williams serves double duty as both an attorney and as the firm's resident IT guy, in part because he grew up in an IT family and was weaned on Texas Instruments and Commodore 64 machines. "If I'd been born 15 years later I'd probably be writing apps for a living," Williams said.
Using technology to keep overhead down enables PVW to charge Omaha, Neb., rates to clients in, say, New York or San Francisco -- or anywhere in the world, for that matter. The approach increasingly relies on cloud services such as HotDocs and Worldox for document production and management, for example, or process automation in potential cash drains such as data entry. Recently, the firm also made the move to Office 365, Microsoft's cloud descendant of its longstanding software suite.
Because PVW's technology strategy draws a straight line to the bottom line, matters of total cost of ownership (TCO) and return on investment (ROI) aren't left to vague assumptions or let's-just-hope-this-works optimism. On the TCO/ROI front, Williams gives Office 365 high marks so far.
"For us, [measuring TCO/ROI] was very real," Williams said. The firm had been facing necessary upgrades to its computing resources that included a new server, new desktop licenses for Office 2010 -- the firm had employees still using Office 2003 -- and similar updates. "When we looked at [Office 365], there was a huge up-front, real-dollar savings. Obviously, you're then paying a monthly fee to be able to use the functionality, but that monthly fee is substantially offset by reduced IT costs."
PVW's biggest IT budget busters have historically been its SharePoint and Exchange deployments. Because Williams' billable hours are too valuable to spend all day doing server maintenance, troubleshooting and the like, the firm had an outside IT provider on monthly retainer for help. They've since been able to move that vendor to an hourly, as-needed arrangement and slash the monthly bill.
"Over 90% of those types of problems were Exchange or SharePoint, and we've reduced those to nothing by moving over to Office 365," Williams said. "We've actually enjoyed real, true-dollar cost savings."
Office 365 wasn't a shoo-in when PVW began looking to expand its cloud investments; Williams said the firm considered four or five other online platforms. One reason Office 365 won out: Its higher-priced packages include desktop licenses for Office applications like Word and Excel, too. (While PVW is a small business by most definitions, it subscribes to Office 365's E3 enterprise tier.)
"[Office 365] was really trying to push the cloud computing while not leaving behind the desktop computing," Williams said. "Most of the cloud computing resources we were looking at, we almost had to go all or nothing."
Microsoft did gain an early edge simply because of Office's historic hold on business environments, PVW included. While the firm looked at competitors, Williams said some of Office's core applications have a continued allure for the firm's users.
"The reality is we were very focused on the continued use of Word and Excel," Williams said. "We're very comfortable with those products, [and] we're very comfortable with the Outlook product. Our ultimate solution, within the way our law firm operates, needed to be able to use those products specifically. When you start getting down to what these other companies were doing, they were creating essentially -- and this is my view -- scaled-down versions of those products."
Williams said there have been some minor learning curves for new users of the Web-based Office apps. "Yes, a little bit," he said. "But what we've found is when we're doing our heavy work, we're doing [it] on desktop versions of software. Where the Web-based versions come in handy is when you're remote and you're trying to review documents or making simple changes."
PVW's cloud strategy supports an increasing amount of that remote work. Williams himself has found that Office 365 in particular enables him to set up shop at a client site and bring the office to them. Cloud services assist in a related area, too: The firm embraces the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) era. Attorneys and staff use iPads, iPhones and Androids. Williams brings his own Mac to work. Company-purchased PCs run Windows, though even there they're still in the process of syncing everyone on the same version.
"We're trying to get everyone out of Windows XP at this point; it's kind of a dying-breed software," Williams said. "We're moving everybody into Windows 7 and are still kind of in a hold pattern with respect to Windows 8, at least until all the other software platforms we utilize are fully supporting Windows 8."
Cloud platforms better serve the firm's mix of operating systems and devices. They also ease some of its BYOD-related security concerns. "When the actual document is sitting on a server in the cloud or in our office, there's a lot less security vulnerability," Williams said. "If that laptop gets stolen, one there's not much data on it, [and] two you can wipe the data from it. We don't encourage people to take documents and just save them on their laptops."
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