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Sharing Files With Clients: Bridging Security and File Management – Legal Tech from the Trenches

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  • Dive deeper into issues lawyers should consider when choosing their file-sharing system, including how security, including client confidentiality and encryption, and file management should play a role in your choice.

  • Before implementing, consider whether you want to select a tool that has only one purpose or whether you would rather choose a tool that will serve multiple purposes.

  • Look at security, encryption, ease of use for you and your staff, the sophistication of your clients and the ease of use for them.

This article was written by Roberta Tepper, lawyer assistance programs director at the State Bar of Arizona, and Laura L. Keeler, practice management advisor at LCL Mass LOMAP, and originally appeared in The Management Issue (May/June 2023) of the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine. 

Lawyers often get stuck trying to navigate the sea of choices of methods for communicating with clients. In our last column we addressed the risks of neglecting training, and the dangers in improperly using file-sharing systems, how file-sharing systems can help with organization and how to avoid improper mistakes. We also compared file-sharing platforms to client portals.

Now we’ll dive deeper into issues lawyers should consider when choosing their file-sharing system, including how security, including client confidentiality and encryption, and file management should play a role in your choice.

Setting the Stage, Redux

There are numerous choices for platforms/systems to share data or files with clients. As you might suspect, each system has pros and cons. You may share documents with your clients through law practice management software client portals, through ecosystems like Microsoft 365, through file-sharing tools including stand-alone solutions. As with all things, file-sharing solutions are not created equally, and lawyers must take care to use them Advisedly.

Framework

Before implementing, consider whether you want to select a tool that has only one purpose—file-sharing—or whether you would rather choose a tool that will serve multiple purposes, perhaps including robust data security to protect confidentiality, file retention and organization.

Does the tool have adequate security to protect your obligation to safeguard client confidentiality, or the enhanced security you may need given the sensitivity of the information you will be sharing? Does the system lend itself to preserving data for the client file, and what is the ease with which that will be accomplished? Does the system aid in your matter organization, or does it require too many labor-intensive workarounds including regular moving, dragging and dropping, renaming or resaving?

Assuring Client Confidentiality

Let’s look at how safeguarding client confidentiality and file organization come together, or fail to, in some commonly used tools.
Client portals in law practice management systems

If you read our last column, you already know that we think that client portals are excellent for communication with clients. Their security often parallels the level of security used by bank and medical portals, Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), which strongly protects client confidentiality. Client portals are also a good multipurpose choice for file and document preservation and organization when they are built into law practice management systems (LPMS).

Since LPMS are matter-centric, communications through the client portal are saved in each client’s matter. This is far better for file preservation and organization than having to move communications with clients from email, SMS, voicemail, etc., from one folder or system to the next. Client portals also provide options for communicating in multiple ways. For example, preserving texts facilitated through the portal is a snap for file preservation compared to using phone messaging.

Legal professionals can choose which documents to share with the client via the client portal. This aids efficiency by having the files easily cross-referenced. Further, sharing in this way is more secure as access is limited to the proper people. By comparison, systems like email are fraught with risk of inadvertent disclosure to similarly named contacts or the use of “reply all.” Other commercial stand-alone, file-sharing solutions may be equally secure but do not offer an integrated solution and require “filing” of the communication in the client’s digital file. It is a truism that the fewer steps there are to a system, the less likely it is that there will be a mistake, omission or another disruptive lapse.

File-sharing systems

Some industry-neutral systems, such as Microsoft 365, have been broadly embraced by the legal community. If you already use Microsoft 365’s Business Standard, Business Premium or Enterprise, you have access to its breadth of features that aid collaboration and security. You may, and we’ll suggest should, avail yourself of the entire Microsoft 365 ecosystem, from OneDrive to SharePoint to Word, and capitalize on the applications’ abilities to work in concert. This will make it far easier to develop processes and workflows to ease and facilitate file organization.

Other file-sharing systems commonly used by solo and small law firms include business versions of Google Drive (Google Workspace), Dropbox (Dropbox Business), Box and Citrix ShareFile. (We have previously advised that the free consumer versions of these solutions should not be used by law firms, so will leave it at that.) These business versions offer many security features for sharing folders with clients. Lawyers should routinely use features that enhance security, like making client information permission-specific and password protection. File organization in such systems must be established by the firm users. You’ll need to carefully train staff and be deliberate in implementing file structure and organization, including folder mapping and naming conventions.

Document management systems and more

Document management systems have strong capabilities for robust file management and security, but these may be financially prohibitive for some. With that in mind, we are focusing today on more value-friendly systems for sharing files with clients.

Secure messaging solutions like Signal allow texting and messaging with end-to-end encryption, which is great for security. The downside, however, is that you cannot easily preserve communications. This makes such applications less useful, if useful at all, in the professional setting where substantive client communications need to be saved as part of the file.

Sharing on a Shoestring

Let us be clear up front, we don’t advocate file-sharing with clients by email; in fact, we will go so far as to say “Don’t.” Email is not secure, and attaching confidential documents to email is a recipe for disaster. But as realists, we know that some lawyers will ignore our warning, so we’ll offer some tips to lessen your risk if you are insistent on using email.

If you’re already using a system like Microsoft 365, both you and your clients should turn on multifactor authentication. Second, does your email version already offer an option to turn on email encryption, or can you upgrade to a version that does offer email encryption? Third, if you are truly on a shoestring budget, at the very minimum you should password-protect shared files. You can password-protect Word, Excel and PDF documents before emailing them to the client. For instance, do not email attachments with a client’s financial information that aren’t encrypted or password-protected; it’s far too risky. But we would feel remiss if we did not stress again that using email as your sharing platform is not advisable. Please don’t.

Security

Lawyers often struggle to understand how to assess security features for client communications. Essentially, is the client’s information you store going to be secure? This is a primary question, and one with several parts. We’ll elaborate in a future column, but for now, some quick tips.

First, you’ll want to know about the security measures included with the solution you choose. It is surprising how many people don’t ask whether the systems they’re looking at secure “data at rest” and/or “data in transit.” You want to have all data secured both in transit and at rest to protect client confidentiality; that securing is most often done via encryption.

File Structure

Be sure that your file structure sufficiently segregates each client’s file from every other client’s file. Your file structure in your platform should be both robust enough to do that and simple enough to avoid “misfiling” documents or folders. Much as you would have done with paper files and documents, make sure you have a naming convention that is easy to follow to distinguish each case.

What Is Better, File Sharing or a Client Portal?

The answer is, as you might have suspected, “It depends.” There are pros and cons to both. The most important consideration is that you make an informed choice. Look at security, encryption, ease of use for you and your staff, the sophistication of your clients and the ease of use for them. And consider whether your IT consultant is sufficiently versed in the tool you choose or can refer you to someone.

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©2023. Published in The Management Issue, Vol. 49, No. 3, May 2023, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.
CATEGORIES: Law Office Management & Operations | Technology
TAGS: document management | practice management software

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