Avoid the Client-Portal Potty

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.