It’s a common phrase used in business and economics in order to describe obstacles one faces when attempting to enter a particular market.
Tim Wu, in his book, The Master Switch, spends a fair amount of time discussing barriers to entry as he traces the rise of communications technology. Sometimes the barriers are physical, like a brick-and-mortar store or having to manufacture a product, like telephones. Sometimes the barriers to entry are stiff competition as there may be many players in a particular market. Sometimes the barriers to entry are regulatory, where the government has setup laws that are too costly to comply with for new ventures. After awhile, the phrase “when you take your eyes of the goal, all you see is obstacles,” fits. And when people keep their focus on their goal, barriers fall.
Technology has played a role in removing barriers, and cloud computing is no exception.
Kevin Smith of BigDoor made this point in his GeekWire post. BigDoor is a “Seattle-based startup dedicated to making the online world more rewarding by providing gamification technology to non-gaming websites.” While it seems as if using the cloud would be a no-brainer for a start-up, he explains exactly what cloud computing has allowed his business to do:
AWS has allowed us to scale a complex system quickly, and extremely cost effectively.
At any given point in time, we have 12 database servers, 45 app servers, six static servers and six analytics servers up and running. Our systems auto-scale when traffic or processing requirements spike, and auto-shrink when not needed in order to conserve dollars.
For lawyers, technology such as cloud computing has allowed many to open up their own solo and small firms. The ability to practice remotely, or virtually, removes the “brick-and-mortar” barrier to entry. The freedom from being tied to a desk makes it easier to balance life and work. And being able to leverage technology in your solo or small firm practice can make it easier to charge a flat fee, or use a different fee structure than the typical billable hour. Alternative fee structures, coupled with a niche focus area can lower, perhaps eliminate, the competition barrier.
What remains is the regulatory barrier. Darryl Mounting discussed numerous barriers to virtual law practices, from the patchwork of state and federal rules in the US to barriers for virtual practices across the globe. Since his post, there has been movement towards reducing some of these barriers. The North Carolina State Bar has issued a Proposed Formal Ethics Opinion regarding lawyer use of cloud computing services, or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). And the American Bar Association’s Ethics 20/20 Commission has published issues papers relating to lawyer use of technology, ”Client Confidentiality and Lawyers’ Use of Technology” (PDF) and “Lawyers’ Use of Internet Based Client Development Tools;” (PDF) cross-border practice, “Choice of Law in Cross-Border Practice” (PDF) and “Multijurisdictional Practice“ (PDF).
Technology like cloud computing can remove barriers that might otherwise prevent lawyers from starting and running their own practices, and the wide-spread use of cloud computing by solo and small firm lawyers is helping to lower, if not remove, regulatory barriers. The ABA has certainly taken note, as have state bar associations. Technology, perhaps, is indeed much like water: finding ways to flow through and around anything put in its path.