Technology for Client Communication: Are Client Portals the Answer?
Technology has long been available to help improve the lawyer-client relationship and ease the burden of day-to-day communication so that lawyers and clients no longer have to rely on “snail mail,” constant telephone calls, or strings of email messages to convey important information, schedule meetings or court dates, report on case status, collaborate on or share documents, or bill clients and get paid. But despite wide availability, over 60% of respondents indicated that their law firm does not offer clients many of these common services that would make keeping clients informed and involved in their matter faster and easier for both lawyers and clients. In fact, the results show that the use of these services has declined from several years ago.
For lawyers in most practices, one of the best ways to provide all of the aforementioned services to clients is through a secure client portal, which can offer these services through one centralized location. Secure client portals have been available to attorneys for years, and yet only 29% of 2021 Survey respondents say their firm website includes a secure client portal. Client portals are most common from lawyers in firms with 100+ lawyers (51%), followed by firms of 10-49 lawyers (22%), 2-9 lawyers (19%), and only 9% of solos.
According to the 2021 Survey, only 31% of respondents say they communicate with clients through their website or another online service (other than email), as compared to 38% in 2019. Similarly, only 9% of respondents said their firm provides fillable forms for online legal document creation/document preparation, and only 38% offer document sharing. As a result, lawyers continue to rely heavily on email to communicate with clients and to create and share documents, particularly when in-person appointments are not feasible or desirable.
Indeed, 60% of respondents said they emailed confidential or privileged information to clients one or more times a day in the past year; 20% did so 1-4 times per week, and 10% 1-3 times per month. Although most are taking some precautions such as requesting the client’s oral (5%) or written (14%) consent or putting a confidentiality notice in the subject line (30%) or body (70%) of their email messages, these security measures do little, if anything, to protect client data or confidentiality.
While some lawyers take more strict precautions, such as using registered or secured email (23%), encryption (43%), or password-protecting documents (32%), the majority of lawyers are not taking these extra precautions, leaving client data and confidentiality potentially exposed. Using a client portal to communicate with clients would significantly minimize these concerns by providing a more secure way for attorneys and clients to communicate than the use of email.
In addition to the security advantages, communicating through a client portal can provide clients with quick and easy answers to their most common questions with little to no interruption of the lawyer’s regular daily work. Currently, only 14% of respondents said they provide clients with case updates through their website or other online means, down from 23% in 2019. In addition, according to the survey, only 18% of respondents offer clients scheduling or calendar services through their website or other online means, and 62% of respondents indicated that they either do not have document sharing capability through their website or did not know if they had this capability.
By using the client portal as the main mode of communication, lawyers can eliminate duplicate modes of communication, including text, email, and telephone messages, which can provide the added advantages of keeping a record of all client communication in one central location that can be accessed at the client’s convenience. With a secure client portal, clients have 24/7 access to their files; to the calendar to see upcoming appointments or court dates; or to view, collaborate on, and/or sign documents.
And what law firm wouldn’t want to get paid faster and more efficiently, with minimal action required by the firm? Most clients are used to paying for everything from groceries to medical services online, yet only 31% of respondents’ firms offer the ability for clients to pay online or through their website for their legal services. Implementing the ability for clients to view and pay invoices online has been shown to reduce the time it takes for clients to pay and increases the chances that payment will be made in full. All of these tasks could be accomplished through a secure client portal.
If secure client portals are a way that lawyers can use technology to better communicate with and serve their current clients, let’s look at what lawyers are doing to market their practices and to communicate with potential clients, referral sources, and others.
Marketing: Communicating with Potential Clients
A website can be a powerful way to communicate a law firm’s message and information about the services it provides to the community, to potential clients, and to referral sources, and the 2021 Survey results reveal that most law firms have come to recognize this. Since 2018, the number of respondents who have indicated that their firm has a website has climbed from 77% to 94% in 2021. Although more people than ever access websites on smartphones and other mobile devices, many lawyers do not know whether their website is mobile-friendly; 69% of respondents say their firm website is mobile-friendly, while 5% report that it is not, and 26% do not know.
As the number of firms with websites has increased, it appears that the firms are pushing the work for managing those websites to non-lawyers. In 2018, 31% of respondents said their firm website was managed by one lawyer in the firm, 23% by an outside consultant, 14% by marketing staff, 10% by technology staff, and 9% by an office manager or firm administrator. In the 2021 Survey, marketing staff (24%) and outside consultants (21%) were the most likely answers, followed by one lawyer in the firm (13%), and office managers or firm administrators (12%).
Although staff or outside help may be managing the majority of the respondent’s firm websites, more than half indicated that lawyers are still creating content for those sites, although the burden is no longer quite as much on only one lawyer in the firm. More than one lawyer creates content for 54% of respondents’ firm websites, and only 16% said one lawyer creates web content. This is an increase from 2018 when 26% said content was created by more than one lawyer in the firm and 30% said only one lawyer created content for the firm’s website.
In addition to the firm’s lawyers, respondents indicated that firm marketing staff (38%), outside consultants, (21 %) office managers or administrators and firm technology staff (11% each), and firm webmasters (5%) create content for the firm’s website.
The most common information contained on law firm websites is still information about the lawyers themselves. Partner profiles are included on 99% of respondents’ websites, associate profiles on 86%, and of-counsel profiles on 66%. Legal articles written in-house are included in 59% of respondents’ firm's websites, 55% include recent successes, and 51% include information about recent cases of interest. Only 11% offer consumer guides written in-house.
However, law firm websites still largely appear to be used as tools for one-way communication, rather than offering the firm’s audience easy ways to communicate with the firm through the site. Live chat is offered on only 6% of respondents’ websites, including 9% of solo lawyers and firms of 2-9 lawyers, 6% of firms with 10-49 lawyers, and 2% of firms with 100+ lawyers. Of those that employ live chat on their websites, that chat is handled overwhelmingly by virtual receptionists, at 63%, followed by 11% who employ an attorney to handle live chat, and 5% by an in-house receptionist. 21% use someone else for live chat.
Only 17% of respondents said consultations could be scheduled through their firm’s website, while 61% do not offer this capability, and 21% do not know. Firms of 2-9 lawyers were most likely to provide the ability for clients to schedule appointments through their website (28%) followed by solos at 26%, firms of 10-49 lawyers (19%), while only 7% of firms of 100+ lawyers provide this service through their website.
Blogging, another means to communicate legal concepts and to develop a strong network, has gained some ground according to the results. In the 2021 Survey, 37% of respondents said their firm had a blog, while 57% said they did not, and 6% did not know. Respondents from the largest firms are most likely to report that their firm has a blog; 62% of firms of 100+ lawyers have blogs, followed by firms of 10-49 lawyers at 33%, 29% of firms of 2-9 lawyers, and 12% of solos. Only 5% of respondents personally maintain a blog for professional purposes, including 11% of solos, 6% of respondents from firms of 2-9 lawyers, and 4% of respondents from firms of 100+ lawyers.
Of those who do blog, the overwhelming majority (88%) do so for client development or because they enjoy writing and outreach (59%). Other common reasons were for career development/networking (47%) or to improve search engine rankings for their site (35%).
Social media is more popular than blogging; 86% of respondents indicate that their firms have a presence on social media, including:
- 87% LinkedIn
- 61% Facebook
- 37% Twitter
- 13% Instagram
Once again, LinkedIn is the most popular social media platform for law firms with 96% of those from firms with 100+ lawyers, 90% of those from firms with 10-49 lawyers, 71% of those from firms with 2-9 lawyers, and 95% of solos reporting a firm LinkedIn presence.
Individually, 81% of respondents report they personally use social media for professional purposes, with the vast majority–90%–on LinkedIn. Facebook runs a distant second at 29%, followed by 17% on Twitter, and 13% on Instagram.
For those using social media personally for professional purposes, the most common uses are:
- Career development and networking – 77% (including 80% of respondents from firms of 10-49 or 100+ lawyers)
- Client development – 52%
- Education/current awareness – 46%
- Community engagement – 41%
- Case investigation – 19%
The majority of respondents have still not claimed their Avvo profile–only 25% report claiming their profile, including 32% from firms of 2-9 and 10-49 lawyers, 19% of solos, and only 9% of lawyers from firms of 100+ lawyers. Of those who have claimed their Avvo profile, more than 57% report doing so to be more discoverable by search engines.
Client email alerts were a popular marketing tool in 2021, with 72% of lawyers responding that their firms use client alerts to market their law firms. Fewer respondents’ firms use email newsletters (41%), although that number has risen since 2020 when 26% of respondents indicated that their firms sent out an email newsletter. Only 5% of solos report sending an email newsletter in 2021.
Video remains a marketing tool that firms have not capitalized on, particularly small firms. Only 28% of respondents’ firms use video for marketing overall, including only 19% of lawyers from firms of 2-9 lawyers, 18% of lawyers from firms of 10-49 lawyers, and only 10% of solos.
The 2021 Survey results point to the lack of a strategic approach to marketing taken by many law firms. In 2020, 37% of firms of 10-49 lawyers, 68% of firms of 2-9 lawyers, and 86% of solos did not have an annual marketing budget. This trend has continued in 2021. Although 84% of respondents from firms of 100+ lawyers and 55% of respondents from firms of 10-49 lawyers reported having a marketing budget, only 35% of respondents from firms of 2-9 lawyers and 7% of solos reported having one.
Further, firms do not appear to be paying much attention to analytics data available to evaluate the effectiveness of their online marketing efforts. Only 14% of respondents indicated that their firm works with an outside agency and gets regular reports on web analytics, and another 21% indicated that they have an internal marketing team that has web analytics information and provides regular reports to the firm.
Respondents to the 2021 Survey are no more confident in their firms’ marketing efforts than in previous years. On a scale of 1-5, respondents indicated their level of confidence in their firms’ marketing effectiveness at only a 3. The largest law firms have the highest confidence level, at 3.4, while solos have the lowest at 2.7.
As lawyers increase their use of virtual means to connect with potential clients, referral sources, and existing clients, they need to find better ways to engage with those audiences, rather than just push information out to them. Client portals are one excellent way to do that with existing clients. To further engage potential clients and referral sources and improve marketing, networking, career development, and client development efforts, law firms can offer visitors more content-rich and multi-media elements, including video, as well as more robust communication options, interactive tools, and services on their law firm websites.
This report was written using the data from the "Marketing and Communication Technology" volume of the 2021 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report.