Top secure communication tools for lawyers during the COVID-19 crisis
Like most lawyers, you’ve probably been working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between the quarantines and social distancing requirements, you didn’t have much of a choice.
Obviously, you’re not alone, since remote working has become the new normal for most businesses during the pandemic. And even with some areas of the country slowly reopening, remote work won’t be going away anytime soon due to social distancing mandates.
One of the greatest challenges lawyers have encountered when shifting to remote work has been finding ways to effectively and securely communicate and collaborate with colleagues and clients.
This wasn’t surprising since many law firms simply weren’t equipped with the tools needed to communicate while working remotely.
Communicating and collaborating effectively and confidentially is an important part of practicing law, and the better you communicate with your fellow lawyers, staff and clients about their cases, the more streamlined your work processes will be. That’s why one of the top priorities for law firms seeking to enable employees to successfully work from home should be to invest in remote working tools designed to facilitate secure communication from any location.
The good news is that today’s lawyers have more choices than ever when it comes to sharing updates and collaborating with colleagues and clients remotely. The key is to carefully and thoughtfully choose digital communication tools that are conducive to efficient online collaboration, while also sufficiently protecting client confidentiality.
The last time I wrote about secure communication and collaboration tools for lawyers was in October 2018. The encrypted email tools I discussed in that article haven’t changed much since that time and aren’t necessarily conducive to collaboration. Instead they’re most useful for communication alone. So, I won’t cover those tools again in this article. But please note, they are still an available option, and if you’re interested in using them, you can refer to that article.
Instead, I’m going to focus on tools that will be most helpful in facilitating secure communication and collaboration for lawyers working remotely. These include videoconferencing tools, messaging tools and secure online communication portals. The list of tools discussed below is not all inclusive, and it is instead intended to provide an overview of the different types of secure communication tools used by lawyers.
Note that all of the communication tools discussed in this article are cloud-based. That means the software company you choose will be hosting your law firm’s confidential data. And because you have an ethical obligation to ensure client data remains confidential, you will need to understand how the data will be handled by that company.
That ethical duty includes knowing 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.
The ethics of secure communication
Lawyers have an ethical obligation to ensure client confidentiality. This means that reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that all confidential communications are secure and protected from prying eyes. For lawyers, many conversations with both their colleagues and clients are confidential. And regardless of the mechanism for any discussion, lawyers should always ensure that confidential communications are protected.
The good news when it comes to secure client communication is that both the ABA and the Pennsylvania Bar Association have recently addressed this very topic.
First, there’s the ABA Formal Opinion 477 from May 2017. In this opinion, the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility concluded that unencrypted email may not always be sufficient for client communication, and advised lawyers to assess the sensitivity of information on a case-by-case basis and then choose the most appropriate and sufficiently secure method of communicating and collaborating with clients.
More recently, in April in Formal Opinion 2020-300, the Pennsylvania Bar Association Committee on Legal Ethics and Professional Responsibility addressed the ethical issues presented when lawyers and their staff work remotely within the context of COVID-19. The committee adopted the analysis set forth in ABA Formal Opinion 477, and determined that because of improved technology, unencrypted communications are insufficient for particularly sensitive information.
The committee acknowledged that because of the pandemic, lawyers are increasingly using videoconferencing tools and other remote working technologies. The committee explained that when doing so, lawyers must assess the sensitivity of confidential communications on a case-by-case basis and, for particularly sensitive matters, use encrypted communication methods, such as encrypted email, secure client portals, and secure videoconferencing tools.
“At a minimum, when working remotely, attorneys and their staff have an obligation under the Rules of Professional Conduct to take reasonable precautions to assure that: All communications, including telephone calls, text messages, email, and video conferencing are conducted in a manner that minimizes the risk of inadvertent disclosure of confidential information,” the committee stated.
One way to avoid having to make a case-by-case determination regarding every law firm communication is to simply choose the encrypted communication methods that all law firm employees will be required to use for each and every communication. This is especially relevant during the current pandemic, where some or all firm employees are working from their homes.
If all law firm employees use designated secure videoconferencing software, encrypted email or the secure client portals built into law practice management software, and other secure communication tools, then you’ll have effectively ensured that all confidential communications are sufficiently protected.
As you put systems in place to facilitate practicing law virtually, video conferencing has undoubtedly become a central part of your remote workflow arsenal. If videoconferencing is new to you, you’re probably using Zoom, which is arguably the most popular platform for video meetings, since it now provides end-to-end encryption, and it is both affordable and user-friendly.
Other videoconferencing options to consider that likewise provide end-to-end encryption include Webex and GoToMeeting. Alternatively, if your firm uses Outlook for email via Office 365 Business, Microsoft Teams might be your best bet. Finally, Legaler is a videoconferencing tool designed specifically for lawyers, and it’s offering free access to its platform during the pandemic.
During the pandemic, effectively collaborating with colleagues and clients presents a unique and pressing challenge. That’s why streamlined internal law firm communication is critical. Lawyers need to be able to obtain the information they need when they need it.
Written memos and documents can sometimes fill the gap, but oftentimes, people are the only ones who can provide the required facts. Obtaining information from others as efficiently as possible is one of the keys to reducing unnecessary—and extended—interruptions of your workflow.
That where instant messaging and texting tools come in. Using messaging platforms, you can instantaneously chat with colleagues and share and collaborate on documents. Most tools allow you to create channels that are devoted to specific matters, topics or teams in your firm. With the click of a button you can receive and respond to messages from clients or colleagues, allowing you to be respond promptly regardless of where you’re working. Also of import is that online conversations are less disruptive than a phone call.
One of the most popular platforms for instant chat and collaboration is Slack. In many ways it’s cornered the market when it comes to instant chat for the workplace. That being said, another option to consider, especially if your firm already uses Microsoft Office 365, is Microsoft Teams, which also provides teamwide chat capabilities in addition to the videoconferencing tools (discussed above).
Texting is also a popular option that many lawyers use for client communication, but using a personal cellphone is problematic for any number of reasons, including privacy issues and the inability to save chats and associate them with cases. Fortunately, there are now a number of options available for lawyers seeking to text with clients.
For starters, some law practice management software platforms now include the ability to text right from the software using a phone number provided by the vendor, which not only preserves privacy but also makes it possible for lawyers to save text conversations and assign them to the relevant matter. Other legal-specific options include the EIE legal app and JurisMS, both of which are mobile apps designed for lawyers that provide encrypted text messaging and create a record of all conversations.
Online communication portals
Last, but not least are online communication portals. Taking phone calls or answering emails can be disruptive when you’re working remotely, and neither form of communication is very streamlined or efficient. Phone calls can lead to convoluted, often lengthy discussions; while threaded email chains are typically hard to follow.
That’s why web-based communication portals, which are often built into law practice management software, should be your firm’s communication method of choice over email. Not only are online portals more secure, as discussed above, they’re also more efficient, since all discussions related to cases and case-related events and documents are grouped together and easily accessible using any internet-enabled device, 24/7, day or night. Documents and other digital files can be uploaded and downloaded using the portals, and lawyers can share and collaborate on them with colleagues and clients.
So, if you’re struggling to communicate with your colleagues and clients while working remotely, struggle no more! Test drive a few of the options discussed above. Then invest in the tools that are a good fit for your firm and will best facilitate communication between your firm’s employees and clients during this pandemic. Once you’ve done so, before you know it, lawyers in your firm will be communicating and collaborating more efficiently than ever, regardless of whether they’re working in the office or from home.
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].