Client Portals:
The Future of Law Practice Management?

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Last week, tech-savvy attorneys from across the United States, Canada and Europe converged upon the Chicago Hilton en masse to attend the ABA’s annual Techshow. Their shared goal? To learn about the impact of the latest technological innovations on the practice of law.

One of the most interesting parts of the conference occurred on the last day, when Jim Calloway, the director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program, offered a “big picture” overview of the impact of technology on the legal profession in his plenary speech titled “The Future of Law Practice: Dark Clouds or Silver Linings.”

Throughout his speech, Calloway emphasized repeatedly that the effect of technology on the practice of law can no longer be ignored. He explained that the defining characteristic of lawyers who survive–and thrive–in midst of these rapidly changing times will be their ability to incorporate emerging technologies into their law practices.

One key to successful adaptation, according to Calloway, will be the implementation by lawyers of web-based client portals. Rachel Zahorsky of the ABA Journal explains why in her blog post summarizing Calloway’s speech:

Great client service in addition to great legal work means no more emails with bulky attachments. Client portals allow lawyers to upload and organize documents that can be viewed easily. Emails should be reserved for alerts to let clients know when the documents in the portal have been updated.

However, not everyone is convinced of the utility and feasibility client portals. For example, Carolyn Elefant recently questioned the practicality of client portals in her blog post “Client Portals – Love ‘em or Leave ‘em.” As she explains, many of her clients have been unwilling to log into stand-alone portals to obtain documents:

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, in her experience, client portals aren’t all they’re cut out to be. But, perhaps the reluctance of her clients to visit client portals stems from their lack of familiarity with the multitude of platforms being utilized.  When stand-alone platforms are used for a single purpose, such as a repository for documents or for collaboration, clients are required to visit and log into separate, unfamiliar sites in order to obtain access different types of information. In other words, perhaps it’s the stand-alone nature of the platforms that is the heart of the problem.

This is no longer an issue when the client portal is built into a one-stop practice management system, rendering lack of familiarity with the platform a non-issue. Clients log-in at the outset of their case and use the platform for a wide range of activities including communicating with their attorney, accessing and collaborating on documents, and obtaining information about the status of their case, such as the next court date. In other words, regular use of the platform breeds familiarity with the interface, thus eliminating confusion or reticence to use it. And, the more intuitive the interface, the easier it is for clients to use.

Ultimately, any client reluctance to use web portals will be a short-lived phenomenon. This is because client portals are becoming increasingly familiar to consumers. These portals are already commonplace in many industries, including banking and mortgage financing and for that reason, consumers will soon expect instant access to information via web-based portals in legal matters as well. The writing is on the wall: client portals are the future of effective and efficient representation of legal clients.

But don’t take my word on it. Instead, consider what the always prescient Richard Susskind predicted about client portals back in 2008:

“The astute lawyer of tomorrow…will want to have a more or less full-time presence, day and night, on the network…(L)aw firms will need to put in place practices and processes that ensure 24-hour-a-day availability of some form of client contact. In the future, the winners in the legal world may succeed by dint of survival of the most responsive.”

–Richard Susskind, The End of Lawyers (2008)

–Niki Black

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