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Management Assistance Program

Client Portals Are Now an Essential Service for Law Firms to Offer

By Jim Calloway, Director Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program

Every law firm needs the ability to securely share information electronically with clients. Email is not a secure communication tool. Every law firm also should have a goal of providing superior client service. Providing your clients a secure location to log-in to review all the documents in their matter at any time and securely communicate with the firm demonstrates a commitment to great client service and careful attention to securing their confidential information. Let us briefly discuss how to affordably set up a secure client portal and the ethical considerations about managing one.

Even a small law firm can easily set up secure client portals by subscribing to one of the cloud-based law practice management services. Client portals for all clients are included in the basic subscription fee for those services. Some basic tech support and information for clients is supplied by these providers. Six of these services provide new subscribers who are OBA members a discount: Clio, CosmoLex, MyCase, PracticePanther, Rocket Matter and Zola Suite. To access the discount codes, go to your MyOKBar account on www.okbar.org and select the “Practice Management Software Benefits” link.

We at the OBA Management Assistant Program believe practice management software solutions are important for lawyers to use for their digital client files. We also believe these tools provide best solutions for most lawyers because it is simple to share documents from the digital client file to the included portal. Citrix Sharefile provides a nice option and Office 365’s One Drive can also be used to create sharable folders.

One of the common ethical questions about portals is when it is appropriate to close the client portal, meaning the clients no longer have access to their information. The answer is that the portal should be considered an extension of the client file and ending portal access should be addressed in the attorney-client engagement agreement as matters like file destruction are addressed. 30 to 45 days after a file is closed is a good target. Personally, I do not believe you do clients any favors by leaving a portal open for many months after a client’s matter has been concluded. The idea is not to exclude the clients from their information. Rather it is to assist them in saving their information before the portal is closed.

So, the file closing process should include reminding the client (more than once) when the portal will be closed and they should print or save the documents before this date. Printing is simple and does not involve digital security issues. A few words about saving information securely are warranted. Many clients now have access to secure cloud storage and understand how it works. But others are very lax with their digital security. One suggestion might be to save everything to a flash drive and put the drive in the family safe in an envelope identifying the contents.

What about the client who misses the deadline and wants or needs something later? At that point you no longer have a client portal, but you still have a closed client file, whether digital or physical. Your attorney client agreement should address obtaining documents from closed files and whether there will be a charge for such retrieval.

Ambitious law firms may develop different types of client portals in the future. If you represent clients in a particular industry, it might be full of news, information and downloads related to that industry. The law firm may decide that indefinite portal access for current and former clients is in the best interest of the firm. A law firm catering to individual consumer clients may build a portal with a wealth of basic information, downloads, statutory forms and even some do-it-yourself forms for consumers. If reading that strikes you as too risky, then your law firm will not be doing that, but other law firms will. The model for a portal like that may be more like 90 days access after all client matters are concluded and afterwards there is a fee for an annual subscription to that service. Maybe a few simple questions would also be answered at no charge. But I also see models like a consumer bankruptcy law firm portal providing months of largely automated “after care” helping clients to make better financial decisions in the future.

Client portals are at the top of my mind right now as I’ve been invited to speak at ABA TECHSHOW 2020 on Client Portals: The Cornerstone of Virtual Practice on the virtual practice track. This year ABA TECHSHOW will be virtual, beginning March 8th, which means it has never been more affordable for you to attend. Using OBA discount code EP2109 when you register reduces your registration fee to $295.