Why attorneys are flocking to client portals

June 2017 | Around the ABA

Since the 2016 presidential election, more clients understand that it is possible to hack into – or steal – emails, and hacked emails disclosed to the public can be problematic. Many firms are now adopting the use of client portals, which offer more security and other benefits for the client.

In the ABA webinar, “Client Portals: Why Attorneys are Flocking to Them,” James A. Calloway, director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program, and Darla Jackson, Oklahoma Bar Association Practice Management Advisor, explain the advantages of using client portals to communicate with clients and manage your practice.

Email systems were never meant to be secure, Calloway said. “Emails flow across the internet completely open, and any attachments are visible to anyone along the way,” he said. Yet more than half of the attorneys responding to the 2016 ABA Legal Tech Survey said they send confidential or privileged information via email one or more times a day.

 “It’s easy and it all works fine – until something goes wrong,” Calloway said. Many lawyers often use email as a remote access tool, sending files “home” to work on after hours, which presents further risk.

“Client portals are online, secure and private,” Jackson explained. “The intent is to increase secure and private communication with your client.” In a nutshell, a client portal is software that allows you to interact with your clients, share files, discuss, chat, plan, organize and manage tasks and events in a private online environment.

Calloway said getting trained – and training staff – on how to use all the features of the new system is crucial.

“There will be a learning curve, but this is going to be more efficient than envelopes and stamps in the office,” Calloway said. “Providing a better, more modern service for your client is really something that makes your firm shine.”

Law firms often don’t know a client’s preference when it comes to secure communications, because the issue may not be discussed. “Statistics show we’re not always great about talking to our clients about their preferred communication,” Jackson said.

According to the 2016 ABA Tech Survey, 68 percent of respondents do not address preferred communication in their fee agreements. “If you are going to use a portal, talk to your clients about why it’s important and discuss the terms of use,” Calloway said.

One of the challenges associated with selecting a portal solution is finding the right portal that fits into the goals of your practice. For example, a common goal is to build contact lists to allow generation of future repeat business and referrals. “Consider a client portal with an automatic intake form that’s embedded in your website,” Jackson said.

Is one of your goals to ensure that basic communication, such as the receipt of documents by the client, is occurring? If so, select a portal solution that includes an activity log indicating when a client logs into the portal and when the client views or accesses content, such as messages and documents. This type of “audit trail” could be very valuable if the quality and frequency of a lawyer’s communications were later questioned.

Other features that may be considered include two-way communications. Put more simply, does the portal provide the ability for the client to upload reviewed documents with comments into the portal so that they can be “returned” to the attorney for modification? Can the client send secure messages to the attorney via the portal?

Ease of termination of client access may also be a consideration, Calloway said. If a third party has obtained the credentials of the client, how difficult is it for the lawyer to temporarily or permanently revoke access?

A client portal operates in an online or cloud environment. Those adopting a client portal solution need to consider whether the software-as-a-service provider is operating according to best practices and security standards. One group, the Legal Cloud Computing Association, has developed a set of standards that may be useful in performing a due diligence examination of the provider of a client portal solution.

One rule of thumb is determining whether a portal is HIPAA compliant. A portal that has been designed for medical privacy will likely be appropriately secure for use by the legal community. A fee-paid service is more likely to have 24/7 security standards and quicker response rates if there are problems. And, in the event there ever was a problem with information security, the law firm would be in a stronger position by having paid for a secure portal.

In addition to lawyers in your firm becoming familiar with your client portal, staff should also receive training. That way, when a lawyer is unavailable because they are in court, for instance, the staff can monitor the client portal and respond to communications.

Because client portals are in the cloud, they are routinely available with mobile features.

This means that clients and team members can collaborate everywhere, not just from their desktops in the office. Making use of these mobility features makes collaborating that much easier.

Clients should be instructed to first contact the portal provider for assistance if they have trouble accessing the portal. “Valuable attorney time should not be wasted providing technology training or performing helpdesk duties,” Calloway said. Providers of portal solutions should offer this type of assistance as part of the support function. Clients should only contact the firm if they are unable to access content on the portal in time-sensitive situations.

Most clients will understand that the client portal provider is not part of the legal team, but the relationship should be explained and the client should be cautioned not to discuss their case with the technical support staff of the portal software provider.

Client Portals: Why Attorneys are Flocking to Them” is sponsored by the ABA Center for Professional Development; Forum on Communications Law; Law Practice Division; Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and Young Lawyers Division.

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