For a while now, the American Bar Association has been recommending that lawyers use client portals to exchange information with their clients. One of the main arguments is that client portals provide a more secure way to communicate than email is. So, what are client portals, and what benefits do they offer?
In a previous article, we described client portals as a place on the Internet where your clients can view, and possibly edit, their own data, usually with a browser. It allows you to interact with your clients, to share files, to have discussions, chat, plan, organize and manage tasks and events in a private, online, and secure environment. The data are often stored in the cloud (or are accessible via cloud technologies) and are encrypted. The communications between the portal and the client is encrypted as well.
Client portals have several key features. Sharing of information is one of the most important ones. Once a client has access to the client portal, he or she can consult the status of his or her cases. The client can view documents, get overviews of billing and accounting data, of what tasks have already been completed and what tasks are in the agenda, waiting to be executed. As such, clients portals offer greater transparency, as well as an effective way to collaborate.
A second key feature of client portal, and mentioned above, are the secure communications. Because the data on the portal, as well as the exchange of data between the client and the portal are encrypted, the communications are more secure than email exchanges. Google publishes a real time transparency report that keeps track of the amount of email that is not encrypted and can therefore be intercepted and read. It shows that at present, on average one in four emails are not encrypted. For a lawyer, this is important, because sending email over non-secure channels could lead to liability for violation of confidentiality if the mail is intercepted.
A third key feature of clients portals is the tight integration with practice management software. Client portals typically are available as add-ons to existing practice management packages. The practice management software typically will provide an administration backend, which, among other things, incorporates permission management. In it, you can specify who has access to what information, and what they can do with that information, i.e., e.g., whether they can only read information, or whether they can comment, or modify information, etc.
There are different types of client portals. Most common is the regular client portal that is used for messaging and document sharing. Some law firms use client portals that have more advanced document management functionalities, where clients can, e.g., generate legal documents by filling out forms. These forms supply the data that are then merged into templates. There are law firms, too, who are using project management client portals. An increasing amount of client portals also allows clients to make online payments.
So, when do you need a client portal? You can use one if you want to
- share confidential information,
- enhance your communications with your clients
- accept online payments (though not all portals provide this functionality yet)
- improve collaboration, between lawyers, clients and possible other third parties
- audit access to the information (i.e., you can keep track of who access what and when)
- leverage “anytime anywhere access” to your law firm’s information
So, it’s clear that client portals offer multiple benefits. Apart from the ones already mentioned the increased transparency that client portals offer, also leads to greater client satisfaction and reduces the need for ‘keeping up to date’ communications. The collaboration aspects of client portals increase productivity. Having a client portal can offer also a competitive advantage in that it will appeal to more Internet-savvy clients.
So, what are you waiting for?