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Solo & Small Law Firms

Client Portals – Love ’em or Leave ’em

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.