Why not go that extra mile for your clients, by offering them an extranet?
An extranet is a private, secure network that those with permission and sign-on information can access from outside the network. In the law firm context, the client enters a username and password and then enjoys instant access via the Web to all the documents relative to the attorney’s representation.
In the past, extranets were only for large or medium-sized firms, primarily due to cost, but not anymore. Like all things technological, as time passes, extranets price has decreased, while the possibilities they present have increased.
Appleton attorney Kevin Eismann said he uses an extranet to add value to the services his five-lawyer firm already provides. Collaboration through tools such as an extranet will be a critical factor, he said, in keeping the cost of legal services competitive.
Eismann’s firm, Epiphany Law LLC, is almost entirely paperless, he said, thanks in part to the web-based storage of documents on an extranet. Staff and attorneys know where all documents are located at any given time, which saves time, he said.
In April, Eismann used an extranet to share documents and other materials for a complex case with a long-term business client. He hopes to expand his extranet’s availability to other clients in the coming months and years, depending upon the nature of their cases, he said.
Down the road, he also plans to use the extranet for marketing. A qualified prospect could access it to view general resource materials and sample work product that he doesn’t necessarily want to broadcast to competitors.
Eismann said he outsourced the extranet’s design and functionality to an IT firm he regularly uses. He estimated the cost was just under $10,000. He doesn’t expect ongoing maintenance expenses to be significant.
A sizeable portion of that expense can be attributed in some ways, both in hardware and software, to security, he said, as it’s the paramount concern. Eismann said his extranet’s security profile is on par with that used by banks and brokerage firms. Moreover, his client data resides on a server in his building, under lock and key – there’s no third party involved in the data’s storage.
Deciding to use an extranet was not a decision he made lightly, he said, as doing it required time, discussion and research.
Eismann intentionally didn’t track the time he and others have spent on it, he said, as that would be too painful considering the billable hours lost. But it’s an investment he believes will be recouped many times over, in terms of streamlined productivity, client goodwill and resulting referrals.
“It certainly raises the client’s perceptions regarding what we’ve done – or anything they’re thinking we might not have done,” he said. “They [Clients] want to see efficiencies and leveraged use of technology in the legal profession, just like they do in their own businesses. They want to see that they’re going to save money by going with people who effectively use technology.”
What about the cloud?
Chicago lawyer Hugh Totten said he and his nine-lawyer firm, Valorem Law Group, turned to extranets as a way to save money on data storage charges.
They employ hosted software – known as “the cloud” – through PBworks Legal Edition. Because it’s hosted, there was no installing of software or hardware required, he said, and they did not need an IT person to set it up. The cost is $50 per attorney per month.
Using the system, firms can create an unlimited amount of extranets; one per client or one per client matter even. Each extranet has its own URL – typically it’s “lawfirm-client firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Using templates, a basic extranet can be created in about 30 seconds. The attorney chooses a URL, decides who will have access and presses “Go.” The client is then invited to the extranet via e-mail. He or she selects a password and is granted access.
With regard to features, the attorney can restrict the client’s access to certain documents, so the attorney can see when she has logged in and which documents she’s accessing. The documents are searchable by both the client and the attorney. In addition to a computer, they are accessible by a smartphone or a tablet.
Totten said they’ve been satisfied with the PBworks extranets, and that the company has been very open to his ideas for additional features.
The critical questions are: Is the cloud ethical? Is it secure?
On the former, five states have issued advisory opinions generally permitting cloud storage, as long as the lawyer takes reasonable steps to stay current with technology so as to ensure that the provider is keeping the data secure.
On the latter, PBworks’ marketing director told me its data center is under lock and key and is video-monitored 24/7. Every employee undergoes a thorough background check.
With regard to physical security, there are safeguards at the network- and code-levels, using “IP whitelisting,” which means that only certain IP addresses are allowed to communicate within the data center.
For law firms, they employ the extra step of encrypting the data at a level approved by the National Security Agency, while it’s in the data center.
I’m no expert, but that sounds fairly intense.
CaseEnsemble by Xerdict Group is another option. Xerdict is an ancillary business of an international, San Francisco-based law firm, Sedgwick LLP, that’s been around since 1933.
AMS Legal is yet another choice, and it’s also attorney-owned, for attorneys.
Again, I’m not an authority, but that attorney ownership suggests they understand other firms’ need for impermeable security.
Still, there is no way to be 100 percent certain your data is safe, Totten said. Sony PlayStation’s network was hacked just last month, despite efforts to prevent it.
Many years ago, attorneys were wary of cell phones for similar reasons. But as time passed, technology improved and clients continued to want to communicate via cell, and they are now viewed as acceptable tools.
“I think there a rule of reason that’s got to be applied here,” Totten said, “and that we’re well within it.”
And if you’re still concerned about security, consider hiring a third-party cyber security expert to test the system before it goes live and make any additional recommendations. A one-time audit (although security experts say it’s a process, not a singular event) is inexpensive and might help you sleep better at night.
Jane Pribek can be reached at email@example.com.
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