My Shingle

Client Portals – Love ‘em or Leave ‘em

by Carolyn Elefant on December 16, 2011 · 9 comments

in Client Relations, Tech & Web

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There’s an article by Donna Seyle in Law Practice Today that provides a comprehensive round-up of various platforms for client portals and practice management. As the long list of products suggests, they’re all the rage – though as Marc Lauritsen notes in the concluding paragraph, large firms have long offered extranets to clients. What’s new now, however, is that these products are available to solo and small firm practitioners.

But do our clients want them? When I first learned about portals – where clients can download documents, access their own files and check the status of their bills and their case, they seemed like a win-win — a way to encourage clients to play a more active role in their case while saving lawyers time and money. So I jumped on board, testing out nearly every platform under the sun – Clio, Zoho, Basecamp, Huddle, Box and Dropbox. (Phew!)

Yet my own experience with platforms has been less than stellar. Most of my clients – who range from individual landowners to large trade associations and corporate entities – don’t want to log into a work space to download a pile of documents. They’d rather get them by email – and so, I find myself dispatching my virtual assistant to serve their requests. In short, my efforts to corral clients into their designated portals has been much like herding cats.

So why do portals work for some lawyers but fail for me? It’s a frustration because I like to consider myself as being on the cutting edge. I suppose that lawyers who handle unbundled work virtually have high success with portals because in many situations, they provide the only way for the client to interact with the lawyer. Plus, the clients are receiving lower cost service, so they’re willing to shoulder more of the work – like filling out cases or learning the case status instead of calling someone – themselves. Most of us willingly make these trade offs ourselves when we use free services like gmail or Facebook where there’s no human to talk to if there’s a problem.

On the other side of the coin, large firms and mega-clients also enjoy the portal. However, I’d venture to guess that in many of those cases, the lawyers and the company top dogs aren’t the ones logging in. Rather, it’s likely administrative assistants and paralegals uploading and downloading the documents. In a recent case that I handled, the firm set up a portal to house e-discovery responses – though they also sent them out dutifully on CD. My guess is that I was one of the few lawyers in the case who took advantage of the portal (which while appreciated, was still clunkier to use than the CD data).

In my own case, I continue to experiment with portals and make them available – they’re cheap enough, plus I have my image as a 21st century lawyer to consider! But at the end of the day, my clients take precedence over my longing to be cool and so if they want materials sent by email or electronically-compiled and bate-stamped or annotated to highlight important provisions, that’s what I do to make their lives easier.

But I’m interested about your experience. What’s the real scoop on client portals? Do your clients love ‘em or would they just as well leave ‘em? And have you started using portals and project management platforms at all – and what’s your experience been? Let me know what you think in the comment section below.

  • http://twitter.com/VBalasubramani VBalasubramani

    I love this post for highlighting the huge disconnect between practitioners and consultants. 

  • Anonymous

    Well maybe it’s just me. I am not good about training our dogs – my 2 puppies are very spoiled – so in not surprised that I can’t train my clients. Maybe others are better
    Carolyn

  • http://www.kre8tivelaw.com ARiccio

    Carolyn,  my experience has been very similar to yours.  Virtually all of my clients prefer the speed and convenience of e-mail over the safety of a secure client portal.  For now I continue to make improvements to my website and the online service offering in an effort to get better results out of the portal.  There are though other ways to use technology to improve communications with clients and improve law office efficiency without meeting the technical requirements of a “virtual law office”.
    Andrea Riccio, Kre8tive Law Group

  • Donna Seyle

    Carolyn: I’m curious to know what email service you use to send your clients their documents in a secure fashion, and comply with regulatory requirements related to preserving confidentiality. Really, I’d like to know. Otherwise, I don’t get your priorities. Are you willing to sacrifice your ethical obligations to your clients to placate their childish demands?.So please, tell us how you handle this.

  • http://www.kre8tivelaw.com ARiccio

    Donna: every jurisdiction will have different rules but I let my clients know in my retainer letter about the risks of using e-mail and invite them to use the secure client portal.  To date none of my clients have opted for the portal.  At least in my jurisdiction, I’ve satisfied my ethical obligation by altering my clients of the risks associated with using e-mail.
    Andrea Riccio, Kre8tive Law Group

  • Donna Seyle

    Andrea: Are you no longer using your virtual law practice? Regarding jurisdictional requirements, the trend in this country is that both the ABA and various state bars are issuing opinions and draft proposals requesting comments that address ethical conduct related to this issue and several others. It’s pretty clear that the compliance bar will be going higher.

  • Anonymous

    Donna,

    You ask a good question. First, let me clarify that most of the documents that I exchange with clients are drafts of pleading or publicly issued orders. While it’s true that an opposing parties could hack this information, the risk of disclosure would be minimal. If I were routinely circulating personally identifiable information like credit card numbers or social security numbers, I might take more precautions.

    Second, as far as I know, there are no ethical impediments to using email. The recent ABA opinion that requires lawyers to advise clients on risks of email applies only where they access email from an employer’s machine and communications lose confidentiality. The same problem would arise with a portal – any document downloaded from a portal by a client using a work machine would similarly lose privilege. The problem is not the means of communication itself – email v. portal – but the location. Just as using a phone is not ordinarily unethical unless a lawyer calls a client who is in jail where the communications are subject to surveillance.

    I don’t consider my clients demands to be childish. Though my rates are far less than my large firm colleagues, my clients are very busy people. They come to me with legal issues that burden them and the last thing they need to do is to have to log on to a portal to download a dozen documents when they are trying to figure out how to get a development strategy
    together or obtain membership consensus on a matter or save their property
    from being condemned. If I can make their lives easier by having my
    assistant organize documents to save them some time, I’m more than happy to
    do it. They certainly pay me well enough to deserve that kind of
    treatment.

    Carolyn

  • http://www.Kre8tivelaw.com ARiccio

    Donna: I am stilling using my virtual law practice and am still trying to encourage clients to use the secure client portal over e-mail.  The clients are buying the web-enabled automated documents because it’s cheaper than my brick and mortar service.  They are not using the secure client portal for other communication with my office.  So unless they can get the entire service online, the client prefers the convenience of e-mail over the security of the secure portal.  That’s been my experience.

    In my view, if the compliance bar is set too high to the point where it impacts convenience, I predict the consumer will simply use non-lawyer legal document services who will not be bound by the same ethical standards and focus their services on convenience.

    Much like faxes a decade ago, I believe we will learn to live with the risks associated with doing business by e-mail.

  • 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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