North Penn Legal Services: A Technological Turnaround

Strong technology systems can help an organization better meet its mission of providing great legal services to clients. Over the past three years, North Penn Legal Services (NPLS) has made considerable improvements to its information technology, which have had a ripple effect throughout the organization.

A quick rerouting

The catalyst for many of these changes was that NPLS hired a systems administrator, who had previously worked at NPLS as part of a consultant team and had more than 20 years of experience in the technology field. He immediately started working on some small and large fixes and upgrades, such as:

  • Implementing a password policy. This was the system administrator’s first priority. Before 2014, there had been no concrete policy in place. As a result, many of the staff members had simple or obvious passwords that could easily be guessed and hacked. After implementing a more complex policy, the administrator also standardized single sign-on, which permits staff to use one set of login credentials—one username and password—to access multiple applications.
  • Migrating NPLS over to a terminal server and thin client environment. Doing this—connecting the organization’s computers and devices to a local network for centralized control—allowed the systems administrator to do more than enforce policies verbally. NPLS now has deployed thin clients across the entire organization. They are computers without hard drives or local storage that rely heavily on the server for data processing, and are generally not as vulnerable to malware attacks, have a longer life cycle, use less power, and are most cost-effective than regular computers. This has enabled much easier administration and user support—the administrator can easily access the user’s application—while addressing significant security concerns. Thin clients are also sandboxed, meaning that if users download a virus, it’s highly unlikely that it will affect anything else on the network.
  • Cleaning up and monitoring the server room. Prior to 2014, the server room was a mess, with drooping Ethernet cables and old servers dispersed throughout. The systems administrator cleaned up the area, organized it, and consolidated servers through virtualization. He also installed watchdogs—small devices to monitor the humidity and temperature of the server room. With these, which NPLS got for $230 each, the server room is climate controlled, along with being well-organized and secured.
  • Improving connection speeds and the phone system. Realizing the need for a faster network, NPLS was able to get a decent price for the type of speeds the program really needed; it upgraded to a connection speed of 150 megabits per second (Mbps). The NPLS network is now fast, reliable, as well as standardized, and the new configuration appears significantly more secure. NPLS also has a much better phone system vendor, having replaced one that did not meet the organization’s needs.
  • Implementing a data backup and disaster recovery strategy. NPLS developed this strategy around its use of the data protection platform, Datto. Datto creates real-time backups of a significant portion of the program’s local data and systems and allows for restoration locally or in the cloud. This is important because in the event of a major disaster, NPLS would be able to continue operating and run the full version of its applications and data on its local servers or through Datto’s cloud. Furthermore, if staff couldn’t access NPLS’ offices, they could use a virtual private network (VPN) to connect and work from anywhere.
  • Moving to the Legal Server case management system. During the past couple years, NPLS switched its case management system (CMS) from Kemps to Legal Server. This change was supported by the staff, who were in favor of moving to a new CMS and acknowledged the need for the change. Meanwhile, NPLS has already deployed the Legal Server online intake module and is exploring other advanced features, such as a tool that easily assigns scanned documents to a particular case file using system-generated barcodes. More extensive staff trainings on Legal Server, beyond the initial staff orientation that coincided with the system’s launch, are also in the works.

A look ahead

The technology ecosystem at NPLS has completely changed over a period of three years. The combination of a knowledgeable, devoted systems administrator and an organization-wide focus on IT has been a recipe for success. But while there have been numerous improvements, NPLS’ technology environment as a whole remains a work in progress.

Adoption and implementation, for one, only works if the technology vision is communicated to the staff. Then they must receive sufficient training. And not only does an organization need staff buy-in for its technology initiatives and for ensuring that these new systems reach their potential, but it also needs the support of its financial officers just as much, and maybe even more so. Without their backing, things would move much slower or not at all. With both staff buy-in and financial support, organizations such as NPLS can focus on technological modernization and innovation, while at the same time providing great legal services.