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Avoid the Client-Portal Potty

by Carolyn Elefant on December 6, 2010 · 8 comments

in Ethics & Malpractice Issues, Ethics 20/20, Security, Tech & Web

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What’s not to like about an online client portal?  Setting up a site that enables clients to access their records or check the status of their case 24/7 offers the benefit of convenience and saves costs by eliminating the need for staff to respond to client requests for information.

Client portals aren’t pricey either.  Technologies to support client portals have been around for a while and are rapidly coming down in cost.   Initially, it was mostly large firms that had the ability to offer the benefit of portals to clients through costly, custom-designed extranets.  In recent years, project management sites like Basecamp and Zoho and lawyer-specific applications like VLOTech emerged, which served the same purpose.  But this past year, it seems that client portal solutions have proliferated, with vendors rolling out client portal applications left and right.

I’d always assumed, perhaps naively, that lawyers could implement portals in a responsible, ethically-compliant matter.  But these privacy terms from this virtual, portal-based law firm gave me pause:

You need to know, however, that due to the open communication nature of the Internet we cannot guarantee that communication between you and us, and between us and you, will be free from unauthorized access or by third parties nor can we be responsible for information stolen from our servers by information harvesting software which may have the ability to scrape data.

So a client uploads personal information like social security numbers, bank account information, proprietary trade secrets (the firm handles IP) or other confidential information, a third party accesses the information, steals the client’s identity, ruins his life… and the firm isn’t responsible?  Well, then who is? And even if the firm isn’t gathering personal information, what kind of  sense of assurance do terms of service like this convey to potential clients?  Unlike LegalZoom, we lawyers can’t contract away malpractice liability, yet that’s exactly what this privacy policy does: it abrogates responsibility for a law firm’s failure to safeguard its own servers against intrusion, which screams malpractice to me.

Client portals are the new “it” IT.  But just because technology enables lawyers to set up client portals or virtual practices, doesn’t mean that every lawyer should.  Virtual firms and client portals don’t fit every business model and even when they do, ethics rules still apply.   So please, before you leap into setting up an online practice, think for just half a second about how you’re going to secure that data that clients entrust to you.  Let’s not cheapen the goals of client empowerment and convenience that virtual firms may serve may serve by converting every lawyer online presence into one giant client-portal potty.

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  • http://solopracticeuniversity.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    Carolyn, this company clearly states they use SSL encryption which is the standard and take every precaution as most providers of SaaS which powers virtual technology tools. I think in this particular situation they were adding an extra (if not inappropriate) layer of ‘don’t blame us’ which doesn’t absolve them of possible responsibility anymore than it absolves anyone else. It just highlights the possibility that nothing is ever completely secure. While virtual technology appears the flavor de jeur, it is here to stay. It is the responsibility of the lawyer to learn everything there is to know about virtual technology and the reputation of the service providers they employ as well as their business practices which protect against the serious threat of hacking and scraping as well as lost data, down time and more.

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  • Kenneth Jones

    Carolyn, another interesting posting might be to compare and contrast the risks associated with storing data in client portals with the risks of storing / sending data and documents other ways (e.g. faxes which can go to an incorrect number, lost mail, stolen laptops, paper records which are thrown in the trash but not shredded, old computers which are discarded without hard drives being wiped, paper files which are taken out of the workplace to work off-site and misplaced, and even employees who are unsophisticated enough to release information like this just because they are asked to do so) Client portals arguably would actually reduce some of these risks and it might be possible that placing data into areas where the data is professionally managed might be a safer approach. There really is no “risk-free” way to work, all risks need to be assessed and balanced, and one needs to be vigilant with respect to data security regardless of what processes and technologies are in place.

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  • Jfjm

    Silly argument. Any retainer agreement could contain similar language regarding the possibility of a janitor stealing a physical file from an office after hours. There’s always the risk of theft. Encrypted data stored online is far safer and is usually only criticized by those resisting technological advancement, usually because it requires less effort to keep on doing the same thing. I smile when I see the old farts at the courthouse pulling their bankers boxes and wheely carts around while I have the same information available to me on my tablet.

  • thadleingang

    I am looking for a client portal to PARTNER with for VentureDocs content SaaS. all the offerings I have seen are OVERLY complex or have too much to help me with legal firm penetration.
    Thad@VentureDocs.com

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