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Collaborative Databases

Collaborative Databases (November 2009)

By Tanya Witt
The Witt Law Firm

Technology has changed the practice of law and often solo attorneys are leading the change. Because of their small size, solo attorneys and small firms can react quickly when new technologies surface. Because only one attorney has to approve its use, solo attorneys are frequently the first to implement emerging technology into their practices. One type of emerging technology is secure, online, collaborative databases.  These collaborative databases offer important advantages over previous methods of transmitting and sharing information with clients and others outside the firm.
E-mail, if unencrypted, lacks security and data integrity. Many, if not most, people are still using unencrypted e-mail because establishing and using an encrypted e-mail exchange can be too complex for most users. Fax machines are not an ideal method of sharing and transmitting data due to legibility issues. Have you ever tried to read a fax of a fax of a fax? U.S. mail and even the large express delivery services do not provide the security and instantaneous exchange of information offered by collaborative databases.
Collaborative databases allow attorneys to practice from anywhere they can access the Internet. If an attorney is in court or at a closing, she may communicate with a client and work on a file without the compromised security and privacy of a cell phone conversation or an unencrypted e-mail or a text message. Collaborative databases offer a secure portal that can be accessed by multiple users from multiple networks. After a secure login, users can upload documents, enter relevant deadlines and information, and provide status updates that can be accessed by other approved users. Instead of faxing or e-mailing documents to numerous parties, the documents can be uploaded to the database once and then viewed by all approved parties.
Efficiency is also improved by automatic, instantaneous notifications. The database can be configured to send an e-mail message automatically to notify relevant parties that there has been an update on the database, eliminating the need for routine status update calls or letters. Users can access and update the database 24/7. The database eliminates the need for attorneys and their clients to engage in “phone tag” just to share information and updates, and the need for attorneys to draft and transmit letters or e-mails to their clients. Collaborative databases allow files to be easily backed up. Backing up the database only requires additional hard drive space that is usually available for an almost negligible incremental cost.
The accuracy of information sharing can be improved with the use of collaborative databases. Because a client can enter his information directly into the database, there is no risk that the attorney or staff member incorrectly entered the information. Accuracy is improved by allowing a client to enter his information directly.
From a cost perspective, a client can realize cost savings by entering information such as dates, facts, witnesses’ names, and uploading documents herself instead of paying an attorney or legal assistant to collect and enter that information.
Lastly, there may be a synergy or camaraderie that develops when clients and attorneys collaborate and share information through a mutually accessible database. The client and attorney may feel a stronger sense of teamwork when both can add content and ideas into a shared database.
Collaborative databases can be limited to certain aspects of representation or leveraged for a completely virtual law office. An example of limited use is attorneys who use these tools only to record their time, bill and collect payment from clients. When fully leveraged, collaborative databases allow attorneys to provide legal services without the need to meet clients in person. By removing or reducing the need for face-to-face client meetings, attorneys may represent clients from a much larger geographic area, eliminate the environmental impact caused when attorneys and clients commute to offices to meet each other or use overnight carriers to deliver documents to each other, and realize cost savings.
There are several providers of collaborative databases for attorneys. Virtual Law Office Technology, LLC, which abbreviates its name as VLOTech, is a web-based Software as a Service (SaaS) application. Its service is offered over the Internet rather than via downloading or installing any software. According to VLOTech’s website, the software serves as an attorney’s law office, handling administrative and management tasks, as well as communication with the client.
Some attorneys hire technology consultants to create a custom collaborative database for their use. One attorney recently hired consultants to create a custom database because he had a specific goal, namely bidirectional file and message access in a secure, digital format that would be user-friendly for clients who are not too technologically advanced.
Attorneys who are interested in collaborative databases should research the third-party hosting company, especially the company’s data return and retention policies. They should educate themselves on the different ethics and malpractice concerns associated with this form of law practice management.
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