By Jim Calloway, Oklahoma Bar Association.
With businesses and individuals now managing most of their documents digitally, a fundamental question for lawyers going forward is: How do you securely share documents with your clients?
New data security breaches are exposed frequently. Email is not a secure method for confidential client communications, particularly sharing drafts of important nonpublic documents. Client portals are simply the best and most secure method to share documents in most cases.
Fortunately, there are affordable ways for even the smallest, least tech-savvy law firm to provide client portals as most cloud-based practice management software services now offer them as a standard feature.
But, as important as law firm client portals are today, they will have a greater role in the near future.
Document Sharing Is a Basic Client Portal Service
Before we discuss its role in the near future, let’s look at what a client portal should be today.
Security of confidential client information is the threshold critical concern for lawyers sharing documents online.
We have seen email hacked and spoofed, infected with malware, unread because of email overload, and generally made less trustworthy because of spammers and wrongdoers. But logging into the portal gives both client and lawyer access to documents and communications without such issues.
If you are not already familiar with web portals, you can read definitions here and here. For a simple outline of the features of a generic one, see Zoho’s small business portals description here. Not that lawyers, however, are usually not well-served to use an inexpensive generic portal software package. While there are certainly some business-class tools that securely store and share documents, programs designed with a law firm in mind will require much less customization and are generally the best choice — especially for solo and small firm lawyers without a dedicated in-house IT department.
Most cloud-based legal practice management programs provide a client portal.
This means the same practice management tool that organizes client file information can also help the lawyer organize information shared with clients securely. As the matter proceeds, sharing documents securely through the portal means that a partial copy of the client file is being assembled for the client’s use. They can securely log in to review the documents shared by the law firm whenever and from wherever they need.
Similarly, a client portal should make it easy for clients to upload documents, too.
If your firm subscribes to practice management software but hasn’t yet activated its client portal, you are missing out — by not using the features you paid for and because you could be reducing the number of emails and phone calls from clients checking on the status of a matter. Clients can use the portal to answer questions for themselves without taking up the lawyer’s time or being billed for the inquiry.
Posting to the client portal through the practice management program you are already using to manage documents in the client file is often the simplest, and best, solution, for both lawyer and client.
Beyond Document Sharing: Client Portals as the Law Firm “Virtual Lobby”
As more people do business online, it is helpful to think of the client portal as your firm’s virtual lobby for clients, potential clients and sometimes others who interact with you virtually.
Some law firms, of course, already offer their services virtually and may not have a physical location for clients to visit. But most law firms with physical offices will find that going forward, digital delivery of legal services will in many situations be the most effective. We will still have videoconferenced meetings, deals closed with online electronic signatures and digital deliveries of documents.
Client portals can be the place for all virtual visitors to check in.
Even the client who wants to stop by the office, visit and maybe pick up a paper copy of each important document may still appreciate a repository of all their relevant documents. Every year there will be more clients who prefer only receiving documents digitally. The future
definitely has fewer red-rope files and banker boxes in it. Only lawyers will view that with nostalgia.
Decorating Your Virtual Lobby
Beyond document access for each client’s matter, what else should be a part of your virtual lobby?
First, it should be well designed, comfortable to navigate and aesthetically pleasing. Your client portal will undoubtedly have customization options, and you do not need to be a design or technology expert to create a personable space for your clients or yourself. Other options to
- Guides and FAQs. Depending on the type of practice, downloadable brochures may be an important feature. These can provide useful, free information, help cross-sell clients on other firm services, and otherwise promote possible future business for individual clients. You might also want an FAQ section relating to the firm’s primary practice areas.
- Appointment scheduling and check in. How about a link for virtual clients to check in for their scheduled appointments? Today’s consumers do not like wasting time in waiting rooms, whether physically or virtually.
- Billing and payments. Also, a law firm website should allow clients to make payments electronically, which is certainly something that should be a clear feature of the law firm’s virtual lobby.
- News. Perhaps you also want a brief legal news area. But note: It is probably best if those are reviewed and posted at your end, rather than tapping into an automated newsfeed that may display news items you do not wish to promote.
- DIY tools. At some point, many consumer-focused firms may consider offering subscription-based services that allow individuals access to significant information and perhaps even some do-it-yourself forms. Cautious lawyers will consult their professional liability carrier. But some DIY tools like a car sales contract or power of attorney when a child travels out of state with another family seem low risk.
Related: For more, see Mark Palmer’s “Can Law Firm Portals Reshape the Practice of Law? An Ethical Perspective”
Think Ahead: Mind Your Ethics in Closing a Client Portal
One of the common ethics questions about client portals is when it is appropriate to close them, meaning the clients no longer have online access to their information. Certainly, some law firms, such as estate planning firms for high-wealth individuals, might keep the client portal open indefinitely. But for most matters, lawyers should close the portal in conjunction with the file being closed.
Consider the portal an extension of the client file.
You should address ending portal access in the attorney-client engagement agreement just like file destruction is addressed. Closing the portal 30 to 45 days after the file is closed is a good target. For most clients, you do not do them any favor by leaving the portal open months after a matter has been concluded. The idea is not to exclude clients from their information. Rather, it is to assist them in saving their information securely for themselves immediately after the matter is closed, instead of having to contact the client months later to make sure they have downloaded their documents before the portal is fully closed.
The Security Path Provides a Positive Client Experience, Too
Whether we are still using the label “portals” a decade from now remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that sharing of digital documents will increase and lawyers have an obligation to securely handle that information. Most law firms will have some type of portal because it is the simplest way to securely share documents as needed and provides a positive experience for the law firm’s clients.