As the information age marches ahead, bringing ever-advanced forms of technology, law firms have started to adopt the various business-to-client pathways the era has developed. However, with a more accessible communication and marketing environment have come concerns over privacy and security. It is within that context that electronic gateways known as "client portals" have come into being.
In essence, a client portal represents a means for sharing information between a business or organization and its clients. As the “portal” half the of name suggests, a client portal permits a business to provide its clients a secure entry point, usually through a website, where clients can log into an area where they may view, download and upload private information.
Legal Requirements and Popular Desire for Security
Client portals became universally relevant after the enactment of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, also known as the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999, which mandated that organizations encrypt clients’ personal information when it is sent electronically. For example, the inclusion of client information in an email is noncompliant with the GLB Act (as well as with other federal privacy laws). These laws have provided an opportunity for data-encrypted client portals to flourish.
Client portals also offer needed and wanted security. American society has become increasingly concerned over data security breaches, particularly in the financial industry. That concern has spread to other industries, including the legal field.
Members of the financial industry have been shaken by several high-profile hacking schemes in recent years. Among potential law firm clients, financial professionals have become particularly sensitive about the cybersecurity of law firms -- sometimes even asking law firms to fill out lengthy security-related questionnaires or conducting onsite inspections. Companies have asked law firms not to put files on portable thumb drives, email those files to nonsecure tablets, or work on computers that are linked to shared networks in notoriously hacking-rampant countries.
While it is difficult to assess how vulnerable law firms are to hackers, one measure of the breadth of the problem was released in 2012. The security consulting firm Mandiant issued a report that estimated that 80 percent of the 100 biggest U.S. law firms had suffered some sort of malicious computer breach in 2011. And while news concerning this issue has focused on the largest firms, the attention it has drawn has prompted clients of many smaller firms to demand that they implement heightened security measures as well.
Some law firms may not even be aware that they have been hacked, but the consequences of any successful security intrusion could be serious indeed, particularly if extremely sensitive and valuable assets belonging to clients, such as their business strategies, corporate secrets or intellectual property, have been compromised.
Looking at the security issue from a transactional perspective, employing a client portal instead of email to communicate with clients is a much more reliable way for attorneys to protect client confidentiality. Email is essentially an open-book platform to anyone with the expertise, technology and desire to view messages while they pass through multiple servers.
A recent U.S. district court case in West Virginia drove home the foregoing point in another way that will resonate with attorneys. In the case, a bank president who emailed his lawyer through the company’s email system was ruled to have waived his attorney/client privilege, because his company's policy stated that emails sent through their account were deemed company property.
Against the backdrop of recent data security issues, client portals are a compelling means of transmitting data safely between law firms and their clients. In doing so, they help allay the concerns of those clients. And while client portals were hitherto considered an option only large firms could afford, as they are typically expensive to license and implement, the development of cheaper, cloud-based client portals tailor-made for small law firms has largely eliminated cost as a disincentive.
Aside from the security advantages that communication via a client portal offers, there are more practical pluses for firms to make client portals available for communicating with their clients. With a client portal in place, a firm can eliminate time-consuming and annoying phone tag.
From the client’s perspective, the ability to log in quickly, day or night, is a time-efficient way of obtaining information about the case or answers to many common questions. And the more that a client feels informed about his or her case (particularly through an attractive virtual office space that a firm’s client portal provides) the more likely he or she will be to share the positive experience with other people who need a lawyer.
Teamwork and Project Management
There are additional benefits that a law firm derives from implementing a client portal, including the ability to execute effective project management among the members of a firm and with key outside contacts.
While the concept of project management is relatively new to the legal profession, when one considers its definition — the discipline of planning, organizing, securing and managing resources to achieve specific goals — it becomes powerfully relevant in the cost-conscious business landscape where which most law firms now operate.
A law firm’s project management system is most effective when it relies on collaborative effort among members of the firm’s team. Client portals efficiently further that essential objective. There are several cloud project management applications with a client portal that permit exchanges both between attorney and client and among law firm staff members. Through such a portal, staff involved in a case can be quickly informed of related actions or activities, assigned tasks and deadlines.
Efficient teamwork through client portals can also go beyond the confines of the law firm itself. A law firm may wish to grant access to documents and information concerning a specific case to outside contacts such as co-counsel, experts or investigators who are also working on that case. As in the case of clients, these outside contacts can not only upload or download documents, but also communicate with the firm in a secure setting.
Client portals offer a secure means of uploading or downloading documents, and they also enable the efficient management of those documents. Through a client portal, documents can be edited, saved and filed with multiple versions. And, in an era of electronic documents in which the expense of e-discovery has become a factor for firms, the use of a document management system that uses a client portal enables the firm to quickly locate and retrieve a document through searches based on client names, case numbers or keywords.
Data security concerns have propelled client portals into popular usage. But law firms that have adopted client portals have also benefited from the useful tools they offer and a streamlined method of communication with staff members, relevant contacts and clients. In turn, clients can find a more consumer-friendly way of doing business with their attorney through well-protected portals.