To Retain or Replace On Premise Platforms?

As it pertains to e-discovery, the market is careful and has been slow to transition from outdated legacy platforms despite knowing that retaining current review software isn’t sustainable. Law firms are staring down two distinct paths: retain platforms that were never built for e-discovery, which means they are lacking the agility in ECA and review that law firm clients are beginning to demand, or replace their current system with an on-premise or SaaS platform meant to support e-discovery. This article will look at the current climate of the industry and discuss how to know which path is the right one for your firm.


Nearly every small-to-mid-size law firm still relies on platforms developed in the 1990s, which were created for scanned case documents. Since these products were developed before electronically stored information (ESI) was even a consideration, many know these platforms are quickly approaching their end-of-life. But even with that in mind, the jump to the new class of enterprise platforms is a long one. Attempting this leap by deploying a firm wide replacement and risking failure could end poorly for those making that decision—at least, that is the fear. It becomes easier to stay put, see where the majority of the market moves, and then shorten that chasm.

Many of the conversations I have with the firms in this quandary reflect a need to outsource their larger projects and “jam” data into these older platforms while stifling efficiencies. They have also said that doing so keeps their practices focused on the small cases their clients give them and that clients rely on larger, better equipped firms to manage the larger cases. While they might get a larger case a few times a year, the confidence their target clients have in them is mitigated by their limited resources.

The challenge is twofold: choose one of the many cost-effective e-discovery on-premise and SaaS options with varying approaches, or choose an enterprise platform that is “safe,” yet too expensive.

Before we dig in to the two models, it is also important to know your firm’s business focus. Nearly all law firms fall into three categories for how they are using technology and servicing their clients as it pertains to cost: pass all e-discovery processing, hosting, etc., costs through to the client; absorb all hardware and software costs as a “cost of doing business”; or utilize technology to create a profit center. All have their place, but depending on your firms focus, the investments in these platforms have their implications.

Replace With An Updated On-Premise Platform

The gamut of the new guard of on-premise platforms does extend into a range, but they are all closer in cost and efficiencies that one might assume. There are many benefits in creating your own IT environment and managing client data for processing, ECA, review, and production, but many also have concerns as well. Here is a list of items to consider:

  • Costs: Your firm’s IT staff and resources, hardware, and software costs must be in-line with your firm’s willingness to invest in servicing cases that involve e-discovery.
    • Infrastructure: Processing and storage capacity, database redundancy, and administration.
    • Staff: SQL administration, support, and product administrators.
    • Platform: Initial and projected growth in the product increases license fees.
  • Security: All cases contain sensitive client data, and with cybersecurity measures being required for any entity housing data containing PII, trade secrets, etc., the proper measures must be in place.
  • Software updates: Administering software updates to mitigate downtime on product usage.
  • Client data control: Holding all client data in-house may be important for better management of long-term costs and physical control of data.

Once those considerations are agreed upon, the search for the best solution begins with working with the technology providers and ensuring there will be proper hardware configurations, support of the product, and the team certifications to administer the system. Although newer technology requires certifications and continual education, it can be worth it for firms and the clients they serve.

Generally, on-premise fits the model of either a “cost of doing business” or a profit center, as these are billed directly to the firm.

Replace With SaaS

With many law firms moving their internal software to the cloud, there is already a growing and general acceptance for cloud software and services. In fact, every time any client data is handed off to a service provider for processing and hosting, it is in the cloud. With this confidence in data center security and processes, the next natural step is to consider housing all client data outside of the firm’s data center and software.

Last spring, I wrote an article for LTT outlining the necessary safeguards for all SaaS providers when taking on client data, regardless of the sensitivity. Although the article is certainly a guideline of things to ask your SaaS providers when you are evaluating them, safeguards are generally already in place with your service provider. Many providers, though, prefer to maintain their own infrastructure as it gives better control of client data.

SaaS e-discovery providers have a broader range than the current on-premise platforms in functionality, scalability, and pricing models. Although there are too many differences to list, the approaches each fit the broad legal market. Here is a short rundown of major differences to consider:

  • Ease of data in and data out: Nearly all provide this functionality with simple drag-and-drop processing, ECA, review ,and production, but make sure it is easy for administrators.
  • Data analytics: Buyer beware! Some SaaS offerings tout advanced analytics but merely offer metadata put into charts. Advanced analytics allows simplified concept searching/clustering, near duplicate searches, and email thread organization as a baseline.
  • Support: Should some elements of the platform (searching workflows, productions, etc.) require assistance, make sure you have project and case management support to ensure the best outcomes.
  • Pricing: Models certainly vary, but make sure predictable pricing is available, not off of “expanded data volumes,” or make sure to get a subscription that works for you.

“SaaS models are more prevalent today than they were just five years ago,” says David Gomez, litigation support manager at Smith Moore Leatherwood. “They provide an option for those firms without the necessary or desired infrastructure to move the hosting and support or for those firms transitioning from legacy platforms to utilize their services while they bolster their infrastructure to manage the various aspects of the e-discovery spectrum they choose to do in-house.”

SaaS models will allow firms to use any of the three models of firm business costs, pass through or added firm profit, as there is flexibility in how you structure an agreement with the provider.

“I don’t consider SaaS and in-house options as being mutually exclusive, but complementary,” says Gomez. “As an analogy, you don’t go golfing with a single club, nor do you use your driver on the greens. We identify the need and apply the appropriate tool for that particular case.”

Although the general trend is moving to the cloud, in fact many of the on-premise providers are creating a cloud option. There is value for either path. The decision between on-premise and SaaS is generally impacted by the firm’s agreement with clients on how clients are to be billed. Find what works best for your firm by evaluating the firm’s infrastructure tolerance and how either path serves you and your clients’ best interests.

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