When I started my solo family law practice, I designed a client portal called the Case Manager. It gave every client a unique login, an interactive calendar, online bill payments, the ability to download all documents in the case, an FAQ, and a glossary. I did plenty of research before launching the Case Manager and I was certain that few, if any, family law firms were offering a similar service. It was unique and helpful, and I was confident it would be a hit.
I had reason for my optimism. I am usually my clients’ first lawyer, divorce or otherwise. I often explain common elements of civil procedure and introduce the basic tenants of domestic relations law. Here was a service that would make all of that information available to the client without them incurring additional attorneys’ fees. They could dive into their case at their leisure and learn as much, or as little, about the law as they wanted. Instead of emailing me to find out when the next court date was, they could login, see a timeline of their case, and have a better sense of where things were at.
To put it mildly, the Case Manager was not a hit. It was rarely used and never discussed during initial consultations. The few clients that did sign up for it never used it. It never attracted new clients, I never heard rave reviews, and I never stopped receiving routine questions and check-ins from my clients.
I was initially disappointed. The Case Manager was the product of a lot of thought, work, and money. It never took off and, after a year or so, I removed it from my website entirely. It took me a while to figure out why it failed. I’m now thankful it failed as quickly as it did. I think the worse fate would be a slow trickle of interest, enough to justify keeping it on the site, but never enough to produce the returns I had initially anticipated.
The failure of the Case Manager taught me what clients want from me and my firm. Clients come in with a legal issue they cannot tackle on their own. It may be that it’s too complex or hostile, or it may be that they simply don’t feel comfortable handling it themselves. Either way, they want to be able to hand it off, in its entirety, to their attorney. Any collaboration that happens after that point typically occurs by the client’s initiation. That is to say: some clients want to work alongside their attorney and some want their attorney to fix the problem and let them know when it’s done.
The Case Manager provided rote facts and updates, but it couldn’t provide a sense of case strategy or progress in understanding a complex issue. A lot happens in-between court dates, and that’s a hard thing to express in a case timeline. Perhaps more importantly, the Case Manager couldn’t tell a client “I understand your issue and here’s what we’ve done and what we’re doing to address it.” Clients want the guidance and comfort of working with a calm and experienced professional. They want to be able to checkout as often as they need to keep their personal lives in-order. The Case Manager invited them to play a more active role in their case, free of the comfort of human interaction. In retrospect, it’s no wonder why it failed.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there are plenty of uses for case timelines and document sharing. I am the under the impression that similar tools are commonly used in corporate litigation, particularly with corporate clients. I’m personally a big fan of Timelines By CaseFleet. However, I did not see a similar interest with domestic relations clients.
The failure of my client portal was one of the best things to ever happen to me and has made me a better lawyer. A client portal has to assist the attorney in his or her work, but can’t supplant the attorney’s role in any fashion. The failure taught me to appreciate my role in my clients’ lives and to value even the most routine interactions. At the end of the day, representation is about attorney-client rapport. Nearly everything else is secondary.