Secure Online Collaboration: A How-To for Small Firm Lawyers

Communicating and collaborating effectively and confidentially has always been an important part of representing clients. After all, the better you communicate with your clients about their cases, the more likely they are to recommend your law firm’s services, regardless of the outcome of their case. In other words, keeping clients in the loop isn’t just an ethical obligation, it’s good for business.

Of course, written client communication has changed a lot over the years. Gone are the days of typed letters as the default method of sharing case-related information. The advent of electronic communication via email in the 1990s ushered in an entirely new way to interact with legal clients. Instant communication became the norm, but with that convenience came new challenges, as ethical committees across the country struggled to keep up with the ethics of communicating with clients using ever-evolving tools designed to facilitate online communication.

The good news is that today’s lawyers have more choices than ever when it comes to sharing updates and collaborating with clients. The key is to carefully and thoughtfully choose electronic communications tools that are conducive to efficient online collaboration, while also sufficiently protecting client confidentiality.

The ethics of secure client communication

Lawyers have an ethical obligation to ensure client confidentiality. This means that reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that all confidential client communications are secure and protected from prying eyes. Not surprisingly, as technology evolved, so too did understandings regarding which methods of electronic communication were sufficiently secure.

For example, in the mid-1990s, bar association ethics committees across the country began to approve the use of unencrypted email when communicating with clients and for nearly two decades lawyers used email to communicate with clients since no other more secure methods were available. But most ethics opinions acknowledged that the standard established was an elastic one that could conceivably change as technology advanced and more secure options became available.

Since then, technology has improved significantly, and more secure electronic communication methods have emerged, rendering unencrypted email insufficient for certain types of client communication, as the ABA acknowledged in  Formal Opinion 477 last year. In this opinion, the Ethics Committee concluded that unencrypted email may not always be sufficient for client communication. Specifically, the Committee advised that lawyers must assess the sensitivity of information on a case-by-case basis and then choose the most appropriate and sufficiently secure method of communicating and collaborating with clients. Options offered in the opinion included encrypted email and “the use of a Virtual Private Network, or another secure internet portal.”

And then, earlier this year, European researchers discovered major vulnerabilities in the PGP email encryption standard most often used to encrypt email, and recommended that the use of encrypted email cease until such issues were addressed. This news meant only one thing for law firms seeking an encrypted method of client communication: client portals were the best option for secure, efficient, and convenient client collaboration and communication.

The client portal solution

Client portals offer a secure and effective communication option for lawyers seeking to avoid email altogether. These portals are often built into law practice management platforms and offer a host of benefits, with security being just one of them. With online portals you can communicate and share case-related information with your clients, all in one convenient, secure location. The cumbersome back and forth process of unsecure, threaded emails is a thing of the past and is instead replaced by the ability to securely communicate in an encrypted, controlled online environment.

As discussed in this recent blog post, experts opine that the benefits of online portals are many:

  • Superior security
  • Easily accessible via a direct link from any internet-enabled device
  • Built-in ability to share information and documents
  • Enhanced communication capabilitiess and threaded, easy-to-read discussions
  • Streamlined communication and collaboration increases efficiency
  • 24/7 convenient access to information.

Another benefit of particular interest to small firm lawyers is the ability to track and view all communications. Online portals provide visibility into all client communications, making it easy to see who interacted with the client, how often communications occurred, what was said, and when. In other words, for small law firms, client portals are an ideal communications solution.

So if you’ve been searching for the best way to securely communicate and collaborate with clients, look no further. Online portals are the perfect solution for law firms seeking a secure 21st century communication tool. Interested in learning more about online portals and effective client communication? Make sure to download our free guide “Fixing the Communication Problem: Tips for Providing Exceptional Client Communication.”

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