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Everywhere you look people are using technology outside the confines of the workplace. Smartphones, laptops, eReaders and iPads abound on the train, in the park, on planes, at the coffee shop and countless other places. Consumers are accustomed to going online at their convenience to look up and share information, shop, pay for goods and services, book hotels and flights and, well, just about everything else. And no matter what type of clients you serve, it’s likely they want to be able to use the same technologies for similar conveniences when they’re working with you.
Happily, there are numerous tools to help you accomplish that, even within the limits of a solo or small firm budget. Here are some suggestions for incorporating technology tools to give your clients enhanced options so you can meet—and even exceed—their expectations.
Location, Location, Location
Whether you have a regular brick-and-mortar office or use a rented conference space to meet clients, how about creating a Google Map for your Web site or e-mail signature to show clients the way? Simply go to maps.google.com and type your address into the search box. Click on the “Link” tool on the upper right and grab the link to the map, or get the code to embed into your Web site, blog or signature lines. You can also take it a step further by creating a customized map that shows the way to other locations that may be useful to your clients based on your practice area.
For instance, if yours is a family law practice, you could create a map that includes logical paths from your office to the family court, child services and local Social Security offices. Think about what would be helpful to your clients—perhaps you want to include a local coffee shop, the closest place to get gasoline, the nearby mall or a scenic overlook, too. It’s easy to create the custom maps. Log in to Google, go to the Maps page, click on “My Maps” and watch the video tutorial for instructions on how to set it up. Also, don’t forget to add your business address to Google Places for free.
Thanks for the Reminder
Most airlines and travel Web sites offer customers the option to get flight status updates via e-mail, voice or text messages. Likewise, many doctors’ and dentists’ offices remind patients about upcoming appointments via those same tools. Why don’t law offices do the same?
The start of a new engagement is always a good time to discuss communications preferences with clients, from methods for exchanging confidential information to their preferences for receiving other, general communications. You could give them an option then to opt-in to get reminders about upcoming appointments via voice, text or e-mail. While there are arguments about communicating with clients via text messaging owing to its short form and insecurity, a simple text confirming an upcoming meeting might be just what the doctor ordered.
Caring and Sharing
Proactive informational updates can be very helpful to your clients—and keep you top of mind with them. For instance, what if you sent an article about a new automotive plant moving into the area to a client that provides recycled aluminum? Or an alert to a client about regulatory actions that are about to affect her business? Setting up alerts is easy. Just go to Google Alerts and type in your keywords. Have the alerts sent to you by e-mail or RSS feed for screening, then forward as appropriate to the respective clients.
In addition, if you subscribe to multiple industry-related blogs and news outlets, you can combine them in a single tab on iGoogle and share that tab with clients. In the iGoogle tab, click the carat (down arrow) and select “Share tab” to e-mail your clients an iGoogle gadget that lets them add the tab to their own iGoogle page. Be creative and think about how you can tailor valuable information to specific people.
There are a number of ethics opinions about accepting credit cards for payment, but most jurisdictions will allow lawyers to accept them for fees for services rendered. If you’re already sending invoices electronically, consider this the next logical step. While there are costs associated with taking credit card payments, the ease of use for the client—which frequently results in getting paid faster—makes this an option worth exploring. Plus, clients often get cash back and other rewards for credit card use, so paying you also pays them!
Some merchant account providers, such as LawPay and Law Charge, are set up to serve law firms specifically. They will deposit all retainers into your IOLTA and take any fees or charge-backs from your operating account. For earned fees, there are also options such as PayPal, although as with any major operator, PayPal enjoys its share of criticism as a vendor.
Many merchant account vendors now provide a Web portal to facilitate online payments, and companies such as Google and Square provide technology to accept payments via your smartphone. Weigh your options, shop around and, of course, consult your ethics rules concerning credit cards.
For Your Eyes Only
As every lawyer knows, maintaining the confidentiality of client information is an ethical foundation of the profession. E-mail, though, presents special issues. While ABA Formal Opinion 99-413 states that “a lawyer may transmit information relating to the representation of a client by unencrypted e-mail sent over the Internet without violating the Model Rules of Professional Conduct,” it follows that up with the caveat that “a lawyer should consult with the client and follow her instructions, however, as to the mode of transmitting highly sensitive information relating to the client’s representation.” And, in addition to ethical duties, some states (e.g., Massachusetts) have a statutory requirement to encrypt certain types of information in transit.
For adding extra security to electronic communications, your options include employing encrypted e-mail and document transfer through services like Dialawg, Rpost or ZixCorp. Discuss the options with your clients—and make sure that the encryption tool you choose is easy to use for both the sender and the recipient. Your clients will appreciate your extra efforts to keep their information safe and secure.
It depends on your practice area, but if you’re a typical law office, you may have a lot of documents that require not only client signatures but also require certain fields to be filled and initialed. For some transactions, this could include multiple signers in a certain order, too. The tools commonly employed to accomplish this work flow include traditional mail, e-mail, scanning and faxing—but only to find that someone forgot to complete a field or initial something and it must go out again. Enter the new e-signature solutions that make this process much easier for your clients and you.
Services like DocuSign and RightSignature make it simple to upload documents, flag required fields and signature blocks, send the documents on to the needed signers and reviewers, and ultimately allow them to “sign” the document with a mouse or stylus (similar to signing for a UPS or FedEx package). Companies are also developing apps for iPad-like devices as well as iPhones. As with any technology used to share confidential information, of course, make sure you’re confident about the security and privacy that the vendor has in place, and consider regulatory requirements for certain types of documents.
Make Mine To Go
Often documents need to fly fast and furious between lawyers and clients, but transmitting them via e-mail can lead to problems with version control, “lost” files and general confusion. A solution is to give your clients access to their documents in a secure online repository. The lawyer uploads the documents she wants to share with the client and the client accesses them via a secure log-in. The benefit to the client includes having all the documents for a matter in a single repository, accessible at his convenience, with the lawyer taking responsibility for document management. You can update or replace the documents as needed, thus eliminating concerns over versions.
There are many ways to incorporate a secure document repository in your practice. For example, SaaS vendor Clio offers Clio Connect as part of its feature set. Online document management provider NetDocuments offers some limited client document sharing and also offers full-scale extranets as an add-on. Virtual law practice turnkey products such as DirectLaw and VLO count this type of functionality as a key feature. Xerdict Group and PBworks offer legal extranets and deal rooms. There are many options and price points for achieving the logical benefit of client document repositories.
Easy, Breezy Meeting Scheduling
Scheduling meetings is often more of an art than a science, with the various parties having to consult their respective calendars and changes, delays and rescheduling requests occurring at the last minute. The result is a time-consuming loop of e-mail exchanges. Online appointment calendar tools can help you clear some of the hurdles. Plus, not only do they make it easy for existing clients and others to schedule some meeting time with you—if you offer free consultations, they make it easy for potential clients to take the next step by instantly scheduling an appointment online.
Online scheduling and appointment booking products like GenBook, Appointment Plus and BookFresh synchronize with your Outlook or Google calendar and display your free and busy times to your clients and prospects. Then, by simply clicking on a button from your Web site or using a secure portal, they can select one of your free times and set up an appointment. Some products offer the ability to send out automated appointment reminders, while others let you reschedule and automatically send the rescheduling information. Most of the full-function vendors provide a free trial, with a monthly fee thereafter.
Put Your Heads Together in Real Time
When a situation needs to be resolved with a detailed discussion or language in a document needs to be worked out and finalized, sometimes taking an in-person meeting is the quickest way to achieve the end. However, getting together for a face-to-face meeting can be difficult, especially when it includes travel, even if it’s just across town. A phone call will sometimes suffice, but a live meeting can be much more productive. Fortunately, there are numerous Web conferencing tools that provide the visual stimulation and human elements of a live meeting, allowing attendees to communicate, collaborate on documents and even give presentations in real time.
There are many Web conferencing services at many price points. Free services like Mikogo offer a lot of functionality, primarily useful for sharing and discussing on-screen documents or giving a presentation. Low-cost services such as DimDim add whiteboards and recording and chat capabilities. More expansive and expensive options, like WebEx and Microsoft Live Meeting, include videoconferencing and Voice-over IP. For when you just need to see “eye to eye,” Skype, Gmail and ooVoo will fit the bill and all you (and your client) need is high-speed Internet and a webcam. Most of these services offer trials, so the next time you need to connect with a client try scheduling a virtual meeting.
Do You Know How Your Service Rates?
Establishing and meeting expectations regarding communication methods will go a long way in ensuring that clients are satisfied with your services. But how do you really know if their expectations are being met? At the end of each matter, you can send a client satisfaction survey using easy Web-based survey tools such as Survey-Monkey or Zoomerang. Gathering data about the success of communications and other aspects of the representation, despite the outcome of the matter, will help establish how you’re doing and how you can improve. And don’t be afraid if you get some negative feedback—instead, prepare to use it as a learning tool both for evaluating new clients’ expectations and -serving existing clients in the future.
verall, think about how you can use technology to make it easier for your clients to work with you and to provide better client service. Talk with them about the kinds of tools they’d like to see from you and how you can make their experience better. Be sure to scrutinize the online services, considering your ethical and legal duties. Then continue to adapt to today’s client needs, be open to suggestions and work on further harnessing technology to increase their satisfaction.
Catherine Sanders Reach is Director of the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center. ABA LTRC provides product comparisons, training, tech discounts, a hotline and more.