Here are your options for secure real-time chat with your legal team
Now that we’re well into the second year of the pandemic, remote working has become the norm. While the impact of the pandemic on law firms has varied, in part based on firm size and location, the fact remains that for many legal professionals, a permanent, full-time return to the office remains elusive due to the continued unpredictability wrought by COVID-19 variants and surges.
Because of the continued uncertainty, many employers are allowing all or some of their employees to work from home at least part time. This newfound reality is forcing law firm leaders to invest in permanent remote working tools to ensure long-term sustainability.
One key challenge throughout the pandemic has been communication. Because workforces have been dispersed, law firms have increasingly invested in technologies designed to facilitate real-time communication within law firms.
In fact, according to a legal industry survey conducted by MyCase to be released next month (note that I am affiliated with MyCase), 16% of respondents shared that their firms had invested in some type of communication software since the start of the pandemic, and 57% reported that their firms had an internal chat tool in place. Of those firms, 16% used a standalone chat tool like Slack, 28% relied on chat tools built into email programs, and 44% took advantage of chat tools built into their law practice management software.
If your law firm doesn’t already have an internal chat tool in place, there’s no better time to get one than now. Not only will this software ensure that internal communication along with the sharing of documents and files in your firm is instantaneous and seamless, but it will also help lay the foundation for a full-fledged IT stack that will ensure business resiliency no matter what the future may bring.
It’s important to note that these types of chat tools are typically cloud-based, and whenever you use cloud computing software, you are entrusting your law firm’s data to a third party and thus have an ethical obligation to thoroughly vet the technology provider that will be hosting and storing your data. This includes ensuring that you understand how the data will be handled by that company; where the servers on which the data will be stored are located; who will have access to the data; and how and when it will be backed up, among other things.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of your options when it comes to real-time internal law firm chat. This list isn’t all-inclusive but provides a good overview of the products that are currently available. For purposes of this article, we’ll only be focusing on real-time chat tools designed for businesses as opposed to those typically used by general consumers. And because email-based chat tools aren’t designed primarily for businesses, those won’t be covered in this article either.
Tools of the trade
First, there are chat tools that aren’t legal-specific, but they are often used by law firms due to their popularity and familiarity, or because they’re built into systems already used by the firm. The top real-time chat tools that fall into this category your firm may want to consider are Slack and Microsoft Teams.
Slack is arguably the most popular real-time chat tool on the market. This is because it was one of the first to be developed specifically for businesses and is thus well-suited for the needs of organizations large and small. With Slack, you can create channels of your choosing that are limited to a specific case or matter, subgroup of people within a firm such as a practice group or a particular project. There are mobile, desktop and web-based versions available. Although there is a free version, I always recommend that lawyers pay for technology to have access to better customer support and more robust features. Fee-based plans for Slack start at $6.67/user/month.
Microsoft Teams is another nonlegal real-time chat tool that is often used by law firms, in large part because it’s included in the Microsoft Office 365 ecosystem. If your firm already uses Microsoft Office 365, then using Microsoft Teams may make sense for your firm. The features are similar to Slack’s, and when used with other Microsoft tools, provide a seamless experience for firms already entrenched in this ecosystem. For firms seeking to use Teams for standalone real-time chat, it costs nothing to open an account. From there pricing increases to $5/user/month as an annual subscription for access to Teams, Exchange, OneDrive and SharePoint; and further increases to $12.50/user/month as an annual subscription to access the entire range of Microsoft products.
For a standalone real-time chat functionality designed specifically for lawyers, there’s Encrypted Information Exchange. EIE is available as a mobile app for iOS and Android devices. Although this tool resembles a texting app more than anything else, it does offer desktop access as well which is why I’m including it in this article. It facilitates secure real-time chat with the built-in ability to archive conversations, which can be a desirable feature for lawyers seeking to keep records of conversations. When you download this app, the first five message threads are free. After that, the cost is $4.99/month. Law firm clients can communicate with your firm at no cost after downloading the app.
Finally, some law practice management software platforms offer built-in, real-time chat functionality. Note that most platforms offer secure messaging, but not all offer real-time chat capabilities similar to those offered by Slack and Microsoft Teams. That being said, there are at least two platforms that include real-time chat capabilities: MyCase and Rocket Matter. Real-time chat features are included with your MyCase subscriptions ($49/user/month when billed annually). In comparison, Rocket Matter offers tiered pricing, and this feature is only included in the top two pricing tiers—the Pro ($59/user/month) and Premier ($89/user/month) plans.
So if your firm is one of the 43% of firms not yet using real-time chat tools, it might be worth thinking about. After all, the end of the pandemic is not yet in sight, so there’s no better time than now to take steps to ensure that your law firm has all of the tools in place that will set it up for future success, no matter what happens.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York, attorney, author, journalist and the legal technology evangelist at MyCase, legal practice management software for small firms. She is the nationally recognized author of Cloud Computing for Lawyers and is co-author of Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, both published by the American Bar Association. She also is co-author of Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for ABAJournal.com, Above the Law and the Daily Record; has authored hundreds of articles for other publications; and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. Follow her on Twitter @nikiblack, or she can be reached at [email protected].
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.