but what do our clients want?

Since 2009, I’ve offered some form of an extranet to clients for sharing documents, communicating, and general collaboration. In fact, the moment I learned about extranets, I was mildly obsessed. The concept seemed to solve so many problems: no deleted emails or lost attachments, a clear chain of communication, and security. One place for everything!

The security point was (and still is) really important to me, especially when it comes to sharing sensitive documents and communication. Email is not the place for this. Even if you use encryption on your end, never lose sight of the fact that the minute you hit send, you have completely lost control. Even encrypted email, once decrypted, is subject to the recipient’s whims. I live by this golden rule: don’t put it in (or attach it to) an email unless you’re okay with the content appearing on page one of the New York Times.

My extranet journey started with an investigation into VLOTech, the predecessor of the Total Attorneys Suite that includes a client-facing portal. I ultimately opted for an extranet product by PBWorks that predated its current offering, PBWorks Legal Hub.

For a couple of years I diligently created PBWorks workspaces for business and estate planning clients in my transactional practice. Configuring the workspaces was somewhat cumbersome, which made me feel all the more invested in having clients use them. (Note: I’ve tooled around in a free PBWorks LegalHub account and configuring a workspace is no longer so cumbersome).

I loved my extranets. My clients did not. Well, for the most part. Those who did like it, like my developer and my creative clients, were already accustomed to using a cloud-based collaboration tool. Everyone else? They would log in to the workspace, but they didn’t use it to communicate. They sent me emails. They didn’t use it to share documents; they sent them as email attachments.

Why? Because my clients want me to meet them where they are: email. I even had clients who would respond to a message I posted in our workspace by sending me an email instead of leaving a message in the workspace.

And this behavior applied no matter the extranet platform I used. I eventually abandoned the original PBWorks platform because (a) it was so cumbersome to use, and (b) it was expensive, especially for something that clients didn’t view as a value add. I found more intuitive (and less expensive) platforms, but the underlying problem continued. No one but me (and some other like-minded lawyers I collaborated with) really wanted to use them.

What I’ve realized is that client extranets can be a fantastic tool for lawyers and firms, especially when part of an integrated platform that ties it directly into case management and billing. Relying on too many different platforms and software programs is a leading cause of inefficiency in any practice. Consolidating functions and tying them tightly together promotes efficiency, productivity, and sanity.

But this is a benefit to the lawyers.

Our clients aren’t interested in our integrated platform. Our clients want us to meet them where they are. They already have to log into too many accounts. When we ask them to add another, they ask, “Why?”

Well, there are very good reasons — which I explain to my clients:

  • Transparency: locating everything (documents, communication, calendars, billing records) in a single place online makes it easy for everyone to know where things stand in a matter.
  • Efficiency: clients have access 24/7 to their case/project information, and don’t have to spend time looking through email chains or attachments.
  • Improved communication: by locating all “discussions” (whether via an IM or email-type interface) in a single spot, clients are far less likely to ask the same question twice, and are able to find the relevant information when they need it.
  • Customization: designing and using the workspace in ways that best fit the client’s (and the matter’s) needs should improve the client’s overall experience.

Even knowing these things, clients generally don’t use the extranet. They prefer to use their own email for everything. (Surprise!) So for most clients I bypass the extranet, and honor their request to use email (while still following my golden rule, above). But I’ve tweaked the process a bit: for example, I use links (with expiration dates) to secure cloud platforms for sharing documents instead of attaching documents to email messages.

Despite all of this, I’m certain that others are having a different experience with extranets in their practices.  A survey conducted by ILTA in 2010 reports on client extranet use by the 49 firms surveyed. The results describe the value add to clients and suggest client satisfaction with extranets. Worth noting: all but one of the firms surveyed (PDF) has 50+ attorneys, and 16 have more than 700.

But I wonder if these results are widely indicative. A current consulting client (a firm recently started by three ex-large firm attorneys) responded this way when I suggested that they consider a client extranet for sharing the voluminous number of document revisions with one particular (corporate) client: “The company already has its own extranet. The last thing our clients want to do is log into someone else’s. They prefer email. So we use email.”

Anecdotal, yes. But telling.

Which leads me to a conclusion: cloud platforms that offer client extranet features (integrated with other practice management features) are a potential boon to all attorneys. Solo and smaller firms, who likely work with individuals as opposed to large entities, can benefit internally from the efficiency and productivity features of such platforms. But they may find their clients are less likely to use the extranet, preferring the platforms they’re already using (like email). And big firms may find that their corporate clients don’t want yet another place to log into, either. Why? They, too, just may prefer to be met where they are.

I don’t discourage anyone from considering an extranet, though, especially one that’s part of a larger practice management platform. Individual success will depend heavily on the type of practice as well as clients served. My experience may not at all be predictive of another attorney’s or firm’s. Although I do hope that firms consider the lessons I’ve learned when planning for the adoption and integration of an extranet into the workflow, and take clients’ preferences and needs into account.

And perhaps some of the extranet platform designers may start considering what our clients want, as well.

Here’s some solid advice for anyone wanting to sell a service or a product in the 21st century: “Build something just for the people who matter. Relevance is the new remarkable.”

Which leads to a suggested query: how can we meet clients where they are and make the extranet relevant to the client’s experience?

This post first appeared on the ABA’s Law Technology Today Blog.

the ideal responsible party?

I spoke to a group of professional legal assistants today about social media marketing. I deliver presentations and workshops on this topic to lawyers a lot.

This was my first time presenting to a legal support staff audience about all things social. And it got me thinking about one of the core elements of any solid social marketing plan: the responsible party. The RP is the person(s) who carry out the social marketing plan.

Today’s epiphany: support staff members are ideal candidates for the RP role. Specifically?

Give blog posts and other content intended for consumption via social media (including website content) to legal assistants and paralegals to review for you. Why? Because your content should convey information in clear-to-understand, non-legalese language that is interesting (and not boring). Your support staff is ideally situated to give you feedback on whether this goal is being achieved, for at least a couple of reasons.

First, they likely have some general knowledge about the content so know what you’re likely trying to convey — and thus can identify if you’re missing the mark. As well, they’re not lawyers. To put it bluntly, they’re probably more capable of placing themselves in the shoes of your intended audience and assessing the content from that perspective.

[This is a gross overgeneralization, but many, many lawyers, having been trained as we are trained, do a very poor job of creating content intended for an audience that isn’t other lawyers or judges.]

Assign the posting to a support staff member. Productive social media marketing requires a diligent and consistent presence. Most lawyers I work with on marketing freak out about the perceived time commitment. So? Focus on creating content and give someone else the job of posting.

Train support staff to contribute to content creation. If someone in your office is a good writer and you’ve established a clear social media game plan, then let him or her handle the Facebook posts. Tackle Twitter. Research blog post topics and start filling out the editorial calendar. Draft post outlines. Review the posts after you’ve written them for readability and likability. Note that I’m not suggesting that you have a paralegal write a post and publish it as your work. For obvious reasons, this is a bad idea.

Finally, an organized process is crucial if you’re delegating any aspect of social media activities. Use a cloud collaboration app like Trello, Tracky or Flow to manage your social media marketing process. This keeps the various responsible parties coordinated and on-task.

Someone on your staff may just be the ideal responsible party for carrying out your social media marketing plan.