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Client portals—private websites built for messaging and file sharing—are excellent tools for attorney-client communication. However, portals are primarily available as a feature within a full practice management software purchase and are not convenient for you or your client to use.
But if you do not use practice management software with a built-in client portal, or you are looking for other options, look away from lawyer-specific software. Slack is a practical, safe, and even fun way to communicating with clients.
What is Slack?
You are more likely to have heard about Slack from a software developer than your state’s practice management advisor. Slack is a cloud-based hub where a CEO can swiftly make an announcement to an entire organization at once, share files with specific departments, or create strategies with any unique combination of individuals. In her New York Times article, Virginia Heffernan explains the Slack experience here:
[…] participants sign into “channels,” and threads unspool with surprising fluency and delight. A Slack conversation proceeds like a group text. If you like to type, riff and find links, it’s stimulating, with the energy of a chat room from the Internet’s early days.
There is a version of Slack for virtually every platform, and the core functionalities remain the same across each of them.
Many of Slack’s core features are free but come with limitations. In the free version, you can only search and browse up to 10,000 messages, and there is a limit on the number of apps you can integrate with Slack.
Slack’s Standard plan gets rid of the archive and integration limitation and includes customer service support and a number of other features for $8 per user every month (there are annual billing options as well). For solo and small firms, this plan should suffice.
If you want more support and exports of all your message history for compliance reasons, Slack’s Plus plan at $15 per user every month is the way to go. Slack also has an Enterprise plan coming but pricing details and features are not hammered out.
It’s also worth noting that Slack will not charge you for users who are a part of your Slack team but are inactive for one reason or another. The details of this are outlined under Slack’s billing policy.
Understanding Slack requires a quick rundown of various terms it employs.
- Team. This is your Slack user group. It does not need to be an actual team.
- Channel. A chatroom within a team that has some defined purpose. Administrators can limit which team members are in a channel and the capabilities they have.
- Private Channel. A channel that is only available to those given permission to be in the channel. Each client (or jointly-represented clients) should probably have their own private channel.
- Team Member. A user who can typically access multiple channels and view other team members and single-channel guests.
- Single-Channel Guest. These users can only access a single channel and cannot see other team members. For client security, the best option is probably to set up each client as a single-channel guest.
What You Can Do with Slack
Slack offers all of the features you would expect in a client portal—messaging, notifications, file uploads, and storage—but in a more friendly and aesthetically pleasing package. In addition, you can conveniently access the portal, or channel, for each matter in the sidebar.
Using Slack for Client Communication
While Slack is ostensibly built for internal team communication, the same key benefits are largely applicable to working with clients. Overall, Slack facilitates easier conversation for both client and lawyer.
Every question your client asks you probably does not require a brand new email thread and a new contribution to the inbox pile-up. Slack has been described as a middle-ground between email and text; a place where brevity is not confused with abrasiveness.
In my experience, the overall effect of this with clients has been quicker response times with less effort, no sign-off, and no email signature. Simply a concise response to the question asked, and if I notice that the client is online, I will anticipate a follow-up and continue the dialogue while it is fresh.
New Ways of Interactions
Interestingly, Slack permits space for humor and banter with clients (when appropriate, of course). For example, when a client asked me if, on his document, we could “for the love of all that is holy, please use a sans serif font?”, I was able to quickly reply with “what’s a sans serif font? do you mean Tahoma or Georgia?”
These interactions with clients can help build stronger and more personal relationships, and they occur surprisingly naturally.
Slack also facilitates engagement with clients in other practical ways, such as sending relevant news articles and information on local events and opportunities. The Slack iOS app is built into the iPhone’s native sharing feature and will conveniently list client channels for you to choose from.
If you work with others at a firm, you can bring everyone into a single Slack channel. If you already started a dialogue with your client in the channel, on bringing another participant in you will be given the option for the existing conversation stream to appear for the new entrant, which will also show any uploaded files. Revealing this history can help save the time of forwarding entire email threads and other regurgitations of the client matter.
Each file that is uploaded to the client channel is stored inline within the conversation stream. The view all files option presents all files sent and received, in chronological order. You can also pin specific files to a channel. The files are stored securely in the cloud, but anyone on the channel can download them to save them.
Among the many ways to personalize Slack, lawyers will certainly appreciate the snooze notifications feature. This will shut off audio and visual notifications while you are drafting a document, relaxing after work, or when you’re on vacation—whenever you don’t want to be disturbed. Slack will even let people know that you are in Do-Not-Disturb mode when they try to contact you, so they will not expect an immediate reply.
Additionally, Slack is very rich in third-party app integrations. For example, copied-and-pasted Google Docs links can be searched for directly from Slack, saving you the time of searching through Google Docs for that client file.
Brownie Points with Your Clients
Slack currently boasts 2.5 million users and growing—and your clients are probably among them (depending on your practice area). Think of Slack as the first client-facing client portal that happens to be lawyer-friendly as well. They will appreciate you using a modern communication tool and may even feel slightly more confident about your services.
Downsides of Slack
Of course, since Slack is not a platform built explicitly with lawyers in mind, there are some drawbacks.
Difficult to Track Time
Unlike email, where each person corresponds one-message-at-a-time, Slack is closer to real-time. Therefore, it is difficult to tell when you are actually allocating time towards legal advice or simply participating in the flow of the conversation with your client.
Difficult to Save Chat
Chats are not as easily saved to files as individual emails. And while Zapier can facilitate exporting conversations to Evernote, this currently does not work with private channels (which are recommended for clients). All channels permit downloading the entire message history, and it is a good idea to do so periodically.
Limited Offline Access
Slack is a true cloud-based platform, where almost everything needs to be accessed while connected to the Internet. The one exception is on the Slack iOS app, which has an “offline mode” that displays past communications without a connection.
Single-Channel Guests Limit
Only five single-channel guests are permitted per team member. Therefore, a solo attorney or small firm may consider registering multiple “fictitious” team members under other email addresses, and keep them inactive just to allow more clients to register as single-channel guests.
As with any cloud platform, one must take reasonable precautions to ensure that confidentiality and security are preserved. In addition to the single-channel guest and private channel functions, Slack comes with standard security features. You can read Slack’s official Security Policy here.
This ensures that one password alone isn’t enough to compromise an account—an additional confirmation by text message or third-party app notification is required. The administrator can make this type of password entry mandatory for the entire team.
Slack lets you initiate a team-wide instant sign-out and password reset. The password-kill feature allows administrators to instantly flush out their system in the event of a security breach. Any attacker would be kicked off of Slack instantly and will not be able to regain access without access to team member’s email. Your clients will have to go through the password-reset process, which is a small inconvenience in the case of a security breach.
Sensitive information, such as sign-in credentials, are encrypted via the transmission of that information using secure socket layer technology (SSL).
How To Get Clients to Use Slack
Before adopting Slack for your law practice, make sure to consider the following:
- Ask your client if he or she wants to use Slack. Remember, one purpose of this is to make communication easy for your client. Depending on your area of law practice, Slack may not be appropriate. If your client objects, insisting upon using Slack may defeat the purpose.
- Teach. If your client is not familiar with Slack, explain the basic functions to them.
- Set the scope of use. Will you use Slack exclusively? Will email be used for certain types of communications? How will the client be billed for Slack communication?
- Privileges and access. Ensure that you, or any personnel that is inviting clients to your team, have administrative privileges.
- Create a private channel that matches the client file name. Private channels are essential for preserving confidentiality against other clients and possibly coworkers on the team.
Now that you have explained to your client what Slack is, here’s what you need to do to onboard them.
- Send an invite. Through whichever platform you use Slack on, you will have the ability to invite your client (or anyone else) to your Slack team.
- Notifications. Set up notifications so that you can see when your client joins.
- Create the right group. Invite your client as a single-channel guest with access to client’s private channel.
- Be welcoming. Once the client joins, send a welcome note in the channel, so your client can see that you’re present, and prepared to communicate.
The client portal is evolving quickly. Slack may not be specific to lawyers, but it is a modern, flexible, and secure way to manage and facilitate attorney-client communications. Plus, your clients will probably love how easy—and fun—it is to use Slack.