Before Jumping into an Extranet, Ask Yourself: 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 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?

Featured image: “Email symbol with question mark” from Shutterstock.

About Caitlin Moon

Caitlin Moon
5th generation lawyer | legal tech co-founder + COO/CDO | design thinker After representing startups and creative businesses for 18+ years, Cat now applies tools like agile project management and human-centered design thinking to the creation of legal technology. She believes that the delivery of legal services will be revolutionized when we put clients at the center of all that we do — and that a lot of this will be done on a blockchain. Reach her at cat@legalalignment.com.

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  • Josephine David

    Great article for the legal folk :) Collaboration with clients is huge for us. We kicked off a Sharepoint project a few years ago. I think we spent close to $3000 on trying to get a client site up; about half of which was on customizations. Long story short: a complete disaster. We didn’t fully implement when finished because it was too complicated and our clients wouldn’t adopt. Suddenly everyone was using email again! Online client collaboration is a must-have. But unless it’s simply to use, all the other bells and whistles the technology guys push matter less if no one adopts. That’s the dirty little secret about Sharepoint and a lot of other collaboration apps. There seems to be total disregard for the end-user. It should also be taken from the customer’s point of view. What are they trying to do? Law firms like ours are trying gain an edge on competition. We don’t need to “collaborate internally” with software (just go walk 10 feet down the hall…). Big corporations needs SW for that. What law firms DO need is to “collaborate externally” with clients, partners, suppliers… It’s do or die on cash flow. And driving stronger relationships with clients through collaboration tools is a great focus. But all those features mentioned above matter little if clients don’t adopt them because they’re too confusing. I’ve traveled a long road with SharePoint and Jive. You want to waste a lot of money and scare and frustrate your customers? The part all these software DON’T get is that all the features (file sharing, proj mgt, wiki, etc) are very much commoditized. First, it has to be rock solid secure. Then must be easy, as in Facebook easy. Otherwise you’re going to spend a whole bunch of time and money on complicated interface that customer won’t use. We have a whole lot scars in this area, but saw the importance of “customer engagement”. We now use Centroy. It’s super easy, yet has all the fancy features boiled down like Apple. I’m not at all tied to these guys. Just a satisfied customer after going down a long road.