Lawyers often get stuck trying to navigate the sea of choices of methods for communicating with clients. This article discusses issues lawyers should consider when choosing their file-sharing system, such as how security, including client confidentiality and encryption, and file management should play a role in your choice.
There are numerous choices for platforms/systems to share data or files with clients. As you might suspect, each system has pros and cons. You may share documents with your clients through law practice management software client portals, through ecosystems such as Microsoft 365, or through file-sharing tools, including stand-alone solutions.
Before implementing, consider whether you want to select a tool that has only one purpose—file-sharing—or whether you would rather choose a tool that will serve multiple purposes, perhaps including robust data security to protect confidentiality, file retention, and organization.
Consider whether the tool has adequate security to protect your obligation to safeguard client confidentiality or the enhanced security you may need, given the sensitivity of the information you will be sharing. Consider whether the system lends itself to preserving data for the client file and the ease with which that will be accomplished. Also, ask whether the system will aid in your matter organization or whether it requires too many labor-intensive workarounds, including regular moving, dragging and dropping, renaming, or resaving.
Client Portals in Law Practice Management Systems
Client portals are excellent for communication with clients. The security of client portals often parallels the level of security used by bank and medical portals, which strongly protects client confidentiality. Client portals are also a good multipurpose choice for file and document preservation and organization when they are built into law practice management systems (LPMSs).
Because LPMSs are matter-centric, communications through the client portal are saved in each client’s matter. This is far better for file preservation and organization than having to move clients’ email messages, text messages, voice mail, etc., from one folder or system to the next. Client portals also provide options for communicating in multiple ways.
Legal professionals can choose which documents to share with the client via the client portal. This aids efficiency by having the files easily cross-referenced. Further, sharing in this way is more secure, as access is limited to the proper people. By comparison, systems such as email are fraught with the risk of inadvertent disclosure to similarly named contacts or the use of “reply all.” Other commercial stand-alone, file-sharing solutions may be equally secure but do not offer an integrated solution and require “filing” of the communication in the client’s digital file.
Some industry-neutral systems, such as Microsoft 365, have been broadly embraced by the legal community. If you already use Microsoft 365’s Business Standard, Business Premium, or Enterprise, you have access to its breadth of features that aid collaboration and security. You may, and we suggest you should, avail yourself of the entire Microsoft 365 ecosystem, from OneDrive to SharePoint to Word, and capitalize on the applications’ abilities to work in concert. This will make it far easier to develop processes and workflows to ease and facilitate file organization.
Other file-sharing systems commonly used by solo and small law firms include business versions of Google Drive (Google Workspace), Dropbox (Dropbox Business), Box, and ShareFile. These business versions offer many security features for sharing folders with clients. Lawyers should routinely use features that enhance security, such as password protection and making client information permission-specific. File organization in such systems must be established by the firm users.
Document Management Systems and More
Document management systems have strong capabilities for robust file management and security, but these systems may be financially prohibitive for some. With that in mind, we are focusing here on more value-friendly systems for sharing files with clients. Secure messaging solutions such as Signal allow texting and messaging with end-to-end encryption, which is great for security. The downside, however, is that you cannot easily preserve communications. This makes such applications less useful in the professional setting where substantive client communications need to be saved as part of the file.
Sharing on a Shoestring
We don’t advocate file-sharing with clients by email. It is not secure, and attaching confidential documents to email is a recipe for disaster. But as realists, we know that some lawyers will ignore our warning, so we’ll offer some tips to lessen your risk if you insist on using email for file-sharing.
First, if you’re already using a system such as Microsoft 365, both you and your clients should turn on multifactor authentication. Second, does your email version already offer an option to turn on email encryption, or can you upgrade to a version that does offer email encryption? If so, turn on the option or upgrade the software. Third, if you are truly on a shoestring budget, at the very minimum, you should password-protect shared files. You can password-protect Word, Excel, and PDF documents before emailing them to the client.
Lawyers often struggle to understand how to assess security features for client communications. Essentially, is the client’s information you store going to be secure? You’ll want to know about the security measures included with the solution you choose. You want to have all data secured both in transit and at rest to protect client confidentiality; this is most often done via encryption.
Be sure that your file structure sufficiently segregates each client’s file from every other client’s file. Your file structure in your platform should be both robust enough to do that and simple enough to avoid “misfiling” documents or folders. Much as you would have done with paper files and documents, make sure you have a naming convention that is easy to follow to distinguish each case.
What Is Better, File-Sharing or a Client Portal?
The answer is, “It depends.” The most important consideration is that you make an informed choice. Look at security, encryption, ease of use for you and your staff, the sophistication of your clients, and the ease of use for them. And consider whether your IT consultant is sufficiently versed in the tool you choose or can refer you to someone who is.
ABA LAW PRACTICE DIVISION
This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 26 of Law Practice, May/June 2023 (49:3).
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