Legal Ethics of Cloud Computing - Part 1 (What is Cloud Computing?)

Insight Yaacov P. Silberman Yaacov P. Silberman · August 19, 2011

Understanding Cloud Computing and It's Use by Lawyers

The use of cloud-computing technologies and other virtual law tech by lawyers and law firms is on an upward trend. Not only are alternative law firms or virtual law firms leveraging this technology, but Big Law is also jumping into the fray, with many conventional law firms including AmLaw 100 firms taking advantage.

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Cloud computing refers to the provision of computational resources, on demand, over a computer network (usually the Internet). In other words, any time we access a computing resource via the Internet, whether it be data that we store online, or an online computer program or even online e-mail, we’re dealing with cloud computing. It’s helpful to contrast that with the kind of computing that is not cloud computing. Typically, that’s computing that takes place on a single computer, or locally. If a lawyer makes a spreadsheet on a computer using Microsoft Excel, for instance, that’s not cloud computing. But if the lawyer instead creates a spreadsheet using an online spreadsheet tool, then the lawyer is using cloud computing. The distinguishing factor is not the nature of the activity; rather it’s how the computing service is delivered. If the service is delivered online, then it’s a cloud computing service.   

Within this broad definition, there are three main categories of cloud computing. These categories are demonstrated by the Cloud Computing Pyramid.

 Cloud Computing Pyramid Small

The foundation of the pyramid is the infrastructure layer. Cloud infrastructure is essentially raw computing power that is delivered online. It includes outsourced servers and outsourced data storage. A law firm may choose to outsource these functions to eliminate the upfront capital expenditures associated with developing them in-house. Instead, cloud infrastructure is generally billed like a utility; customers pay for the amount of storage they use or the processing power they need. Another advantage is that customers don’t have to worry about maintenance and upgrades of their systems.

The middle layer of the Cloud Computing Pyramid is the Platform layer. Platforms, allows developers, (people who write software, develop programs etc.) to build applications to run on the platform provider's infrastructure. Some common examples are, Windows Azure, and Google App Engine. A better-known example is Facebook. In addition to keeping track of friends, you can also run a lot of programs from within Facebook. You can play games, plan travel with friends, even trade stocks, all within Facebook’s ecosystem, or “platform.”

Finally, we have the Application Layer of the Cloud Computing Pyramid. This is the layer that most often comes to mind when lawyers think of Cloud Computing. Applications are essentially computer programs that run on the Internet. They include applications like Salesforce and Gmail, games like Farmville, financial tools like E-trade and productivity tools like Google docs, among thousands of others. There are also legal-specific tools like Clio ( or LexisNexis’s PCLaw. Rather than buying software outright, attorneys who use cloud applications usually pay a periodic subscription fee. This allows them to spread out the cost of the software over time and ensures they always have the latest version of the application.

To synthesize these layers, think of a person using Microsoft Word on their home computer. In such a case, the computer itself is most analogous to the infrastructure layer; it’s what provides the raw computing power. The platform layer is most closely analogous to the operating system – Windows for PCs and OSX for Macs computers. Microsoft Word is analogous to the application layer. In cloud computing, all this remains the same but these services are delivered over the Internet.

In the next blog post, I will discuss the main ethical issues stemming from lawyers’ and law firms’ use of cloud computing technologies.