How A Boutique Law Firm Handles Big Data

Like other small and midsize businesses, boutique law firm Thomas Horstemeyer capitalizes on its agility to stay ahead of rapidly growing data requirements.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

January 9, 2013

4 Min Read

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When lining up big data culprits, the likes of email, mobile and social are among the usual suspects. At the Atlanta-based law firm Thomas Horstemeyer, the cause of exponential data growth is old school: Paper.

A lack of paper is more like it. An industry that once produced reams upon reams of the stuff has undergone a major operational change. "The square footage that you would find in filing cabinets or in bookshelves has been transferred to the digital arena," Jack Huddleston, director of administration at Thomas Horstemeyer, said in an interview. "We had to have the space to be able to store this digital media."

Here's a snapshot of what big data means to the 60-person law firm. Five years ago, IT began moving from tape backups to online backup and recovery with EVault. It was storing roughly half a GB of data -- as in 500 MB -- at the time. Today, the firm backs up around 2 TB. In fact, its actual data size is a multiple of that. While it backs up 100% of its data, the final tally gets shrunk down by EVault's data compression technology. Huddleston keeps four storage area networks (SANs) in his office. The newest SAN array holds up to 12 TB; you do the math. In fact, Huddleston does just that, using historical information on things like file sizes and the number of users, along with a system of multipliers to project future data requirements.

"Then the question becomes: What is the best way to control this growth, still making it manageable and retrievable to our end users?" Huddleston said.

[ Big data is not just a trendy tech word. See Big Data's Surprising Uses: From Lady Gaga To CIA. ]

Moving online from an unsustainable tape backup process was part of a larger strategic shift in how Thomas Horstemeyer uses technology, driven in part by that significant data growth. The firm upgraded its firewalls and added load balancing, virtualized its servers and replaced its phone system with VoIP, among other initiatives. Huddleston believes a "pure virtual" environment running entirely on thin clients and blade servers is in the organization's not-so-distant future.

The next milestone will be putting the firm's entire infrastructure into a private cloud data center. There will be no public or hybrid cloud in its future; security is paramount for the firm because of the highly confidential nature of much of its client information and other data. Thomas Horstemeyer specializes in intellectual property law in fields such as computer science and electrical engineering. That helps drive IT strategy -- the firm's brand benefits by keeping up with the pace of technology.

Huddleston noted that 60 people might be considered midsize or even large by boutique law firm standards, yet the firm remains small enough to move quickly on the IT front. "It allows us to be a little more flexible and adaptable to the market," he said. "We evaluate [and] deploy technology always looking forward, so that everything we do lays the foundation for the [next] year."

When Huddleston makes a business case for IT initiatives, his return on investment (ROI) calculations include a variety of factors. But the foundation of every ROI case is a legal industry mainstay that, unlike paper, hasn't disappeared: The billable hour. Huddleston runs reports on the firm's total billable hours in a given time period and uses that as a starting point. When Huddleston sets the stage for investing in areas like security, backup and disaster recovery, the mock scene might look something like this:

The firm is compromised by malware inadvertently introduced by an employee. ("My biggest fear is human error," Huddleston said.) The malware spreads through 50% of the company, requiring a shutdown of affected systems while IT investigates and remediates. "You're losing at a minimum a full day of work; the reality is I'm probably losing seven," Huddleston said. So he calculates those lost billable hours, adds in the lost productivity of staff -- they still have to be paid, after all -- and then stacks that against the costs of deploying, say, virtualization or online backup and recovery platforms. When applicable, Huddleston includes indirect ROI, too, such as reducing the professional liability costs Thomas Horstemeyer carries as a result of the nature of its practice.

While big data might require a certain amount of sophistication -- it has already spawned a legion of graduate-school programs -- the bottom line for Thomas Horstemeyer's IT strategy remains refreshingly straightforward.

"At the end of the day, our evaluation in terms of technology is: What does our organization gain from it?" Huddleston said.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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