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Remote Client Access

Written by Jeff Stouse on 29 June 2012.

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Remote Client Access (RCA) has been a concept that many law firms have wanted to provide (given that the access is both controlled and secure) for a long time. How many times has an attorney wanted to say to a persistently “needy” client: “As soon as we hear something, we update your file in our system. That update is available to you via the Internet. Simply login to our site and view the update. There’s no need to call, as the information you would receive from us over the phone will also be available online.”

In other words, don’t call us – look it up on the Internet. While this scenario may not work in all situations, there are many times when the client can be assured that progress/effort is being made by simply looking at the data in the legal practice management system. This approach can also be improved by creating client progress data that is specifically designed to show that progress. For example, short documents/notes can be created with a specific category/code so that when clients access their matter data, they need to see only the one source of data to know what is going on.

Many firms have desired this functionality but have been hesitant to use it (if they owned any of the few programs that have offered it) due to concerns over the ease of setup, security of data and general access support issues. With the new group of web-based clients and one premise-based third party product, access to a client’s data has become an option that sometimes eliminates all of the above.

Premise-Based Approach

With existing premise-based practice management programs (as opposed to cloud-based practice management systems), the option for sharing client data is basically the same: set up some type of remote access system (Terminal Server or similar functionality) and then test/retest/test some more the security of the practice management program to ensure that the client, when they login, has access to ONLY those parts of the system that they need. Then notify the client of their access and prepare to answer any questions they may have concerning access to their data.

Using this approach, providing client access is a task that requires the following components: A) IT infrastructure skill  - needed for granting access via whatever remote access tool is used by the firm, B) intimate and in-depth familiarity with the security components of the practice management system, so that the staff person can grant access to only the desired parts of the practice management system, and C) additional licenses for accessing client data while staff/paralegals/attorneys continue to access the program at the same time.

There are some exceptions: Steve Stockstill at Data Equity has developed Guest Office, a client portal that is very easy to set up and provides remote access to Time Matters data (only). The installation process is simple: everything you need to perform the install is self-contained within the application (no IT personnel, no requirements of in-depth security required (access templates are provided to ensure proper access levels – but if you have the knowledge you can customize access to your TM data.) The unfortunate limitation is that LexisNexis does not allow any third-party product to add/update data to Time Matters, so data access is review-only.

You can view the information on the Data Equity website here: 
http://www.dataequity.com/index.php?option=com_content&;view=article&id=172&Itemid=120

Cloud-Based Approach

Of the feature-rich/popular cloud-based practice management programs, some have implemented client access, while others are still evaluating. For example, RocketMatter is currently evaluating client access and has not yet placed it on its feature timeline, according to a sales representative.

Clio offers the Clio Connect option – where a client can pay invoices using an online payment system (currently PayPal, Law Charge and LawPay only) and see documents created for them.  In addition, secure messages can also be shared. Granting access to client data is done on a per-item (document, To invoice, message) basis. There is no charge for allowing clients to access the specific data items that have been shared. Clio does offer an audit trail for all activity that the client performs while using Clio Connect (Firm Feed.) Access, once granted, can be revoked at a later time.

A couple of drawbacks with the Clio implementation are that currently you cannot automatically share all documents/tasks of one type because there are no types – each document you create that you want to share with a specific document you must specifically share and then choose the client. While the granularity of this approach is comforting – it makes the approach very cumbersome and time-consuming. For example, if you were to create a weekly progress document, which summarized the activity on a matter (for both the firm and the client’s interests), then it would have to be shared by selecting the share option and assigning the client to which it would be shared, even though the document is being saved to a specific matter and Clio knows who the client is for that matter.

Also, you cannot share Notes with your client, which would seem to be one of the more common matter items you would want them to see. You can also not share Tasks; which, if the client is waiting to see if the payment check has been received, is a Task that you would want them to be able to see (so they would stop calling!)

Advologix offers a Client Portal, from which clients can access their own data; however, user licenses must be purchased in order for users to access data stored in Advologix. That being said, since Advologix is based on the Salesforce.com platform, all portal functionality that Salesforce.com (which is substantial) allows is passed through to Advologix administrators. But, as with all of the power that Salesforce and Advologix offers, the firm using Advologix is required to "build" the portal - there are no preset templates, and building a portal is an involved task.

HoudiniESQ offers a Remote Client Access option that includes easy setup, straightforward notification of access to the client, and no additional charge for clients who need to view their data. One of the main differences between the Clio approach and the Houdini approach is that Clio requires the granular approach of every document, every invoice being individually granted access. Houdini, which requires a “type” being assigned to every record, grants (and protects) access to each record type on a matter-by-matter basis, making it easier to grant client access to all Notes (of the “Client Progress” type) with one check.

Another difference is that while Clio (currently) allows only access to documents and invoices, Houdini and Advologix allow access to all data types. In addition, Houdini offers a default template setup so that when a staff chooses what records (and types within each record) are going to be shared with a client, they can choose the default template set up by their firm’s administrator. Houdini also can revoke complete access by a defined Expiration date, or the staff responsible for allowing the access can revoke partial or total access at any time.

As you can see from the above examples, some cloud-based practice management programs have made significant progress in providing client access to legal practice management systems. Depending on what other features are important to your firm, be sure to weigh the advantages/disadvantages of the this valuable feature when deciding to purchase/switch to a practice management program.

For more information about HoudiniESQ, please visit http://www.houdiniesq.com- they offer a free, fully functional program as a trial; or if you are a solo attorney, you can use their product for free (no catch!) for as long as you want. HoudiniESQ is a product of LogicBit, and Frank Rivera is the CEO of that company.

For more information on Clio, please visit http://www.goclio.com – there is a 30-day free trial. Jack Newton is the CEO and co-founder.

For more information about Rocketmatter,  please visit http://www.rocketmatter.com – they offer a 30-day money back guarantee, but no free trial. Larry Port is a co-founder of the company.

For more information about Advologix,  please visit http://www.advologix.com .  Bill Pickard is the president of Advologix;  Paul Deschenes is the founder.