Using Online Forms Is Easy and (Can Be) Ethical

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The material in this post comes from a presentation I gave for the Washington State Bar Association's Solo and Small Practice Section's annual CLE on January 22, 2016. This article won the BlawgWorld Pick of the Week award. The editors of BlawgWorld, a free weekly email newsletter for lawyers and law firm administrators, give this award to one article every week that they feel is a must-read for this audience.

Let’s stop doing data entry whenever possible. That’s the basic idea. If anyone at your firm is routinely inputting lots of information, you might want to explore whether you could automate that system. How? Fundamentally, it’s by having the person who originally has the information — often your client — input it into your system without human intervention.

Here are just some examples of how you might use a form tool in your practice. If you’re one of the many attorneys who feel their clients “don’t use computers,” start looking at your clients’ phones. The tools discussed here will work nicely on web-enabled mobile devices.

  • Contact forms/prospective clients. Most of us probably have contact forms on our websites for prospective client contacts. Form tools can channel prospect information into whatever contact database or Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool a firm is using.
  • Intake. Do your clients sit in the lobby and fill out a paper questionnaire à la the doctor’s office? Worse yet, does staff use time completing a questionnaire while the client talks? What if the questionnaire could be completed by the client before she walks in, and the data just a click away?
  • Routine case information. I’m an immigration lawyer and need the same information for most clients in a given legal scenario. Becoming a citizen? There’s a standard 15-pages worth of information I’ll need for such a case. Most practice areas have certain information that repeats per case type.
  • Customer satisfaction surveys. What do our clients actually think about us? We could always ask them. The easiest way is the net promoter score — a one-question survey that assesses whether a client would recommend our services. Note that unlike other tasks described here, this one does not necessarily capture data protected by client confidence rules, so your choice of (free) tools may be broader.

What do the RPCs have to say? An attorney has an ethical responsibility to competently use technology that she chooses to deploy in practice. Why? It follows from our many fiduciary duties to a client. For present purposes that mostly means safeguarding client information: your duty to secure client information naturally extends to the choice of tech used to store that information. Advisory Opinion 2215 gives us seven factors to consider in a due diligence analysis of such tools. To cut to the bottom line: if you collect and store client data online, it almost certainly needs to be encrypted where saved.

As is always the case with technology, before starting to shop, first decide what problem you are trying to solve. Consider:

  • How are you going to be using this data? Is this background information about a client that you just want to be able to reference later if needed for context? Is this data that you want to be able to import into some form of document automation tool? (Remember: Word can be a document automation tool.)
  • What type of data is being collected? Will you be capturing sensitive financial data and social security numbers? Or do you need to store only a 1–10 rating score of an interaction they had with your office staff?
  • What are the dividends you stand to gain? Are you collecting data for a use that’s core to your practice, used in daily client work? Or is this a small amount of information used for an isolated purpose? Some tools are cheaper and easier to implement than others.

With those considerations in mind, here are some of the forms tools that I’ve played with personally; while there are many more out there, these are some of the most popular.

Google Forms (free) Google offers an excellent, free forms tool that integrates seamlessly with Google Drive (also free). I use this tool often for various non-client scenarios. In the screenshot below, for example, I was creating a form to collect information about colleagues who were interested in collaborating with my web-based immigration firm.

SoundImmigration screenshot
SoundImmigration screenshot

Google recently revamped Forms and its drag-and-drop interface is now even better than it had been. The catch? Forms does not presently support encryption, though there are third-party solutions to encrypt Google Drive. A second limitation of Forms is that it does not support “save/continue” functionality, which you would want for any form of much length.

JotForm (free for up to 100 submissions) JotForm is an intuitive form builder that can be great for many law firm uses. The user interface of the forms-builder is intuitive, if not beautiful. (See screenshot below). JotForm supports encryption and also has a save/continue feature. The encryption tool is potentially clunky, depending on how you plan to manipulate the data once a form is submitted.

JotForm screenshot
JotForm screenshot

WuFoo ($29.95/month for “bona fide” plan) WuFoo is another popular drag-and-drop form builder that works similarly to JotForm. Personally, I feel its interface is easier to use, and it’s easier to customize a great-looking end product. Like JotForm, WuFoo offers encryption. The rub: you have to buy a premium plan to get it. If you’re achieving any efficiency with the form, however, the price point is a drop in the bucket.

Intake 123 ($9–79/month) This tool was specially designed for lawyers with ethics-related security issues in mind. It’s designed around lawyer “use cases,” meaning its templates and interface help you build forms for common law scenarios like client intake. In using it, I didn’t enjoy its user experience. Their customer service was responsive, however, and the fact that they designed their tool for lawyers means that you might get (for example) an intake questionnaire setup more quickly than with other tools, since Intake 123 will suggest popular questions to include.

Gravity Forms ($39 one-time license) This tool is a plugin for your WordPress site; if you don’t know what that means, this probably isn’t the right tool. Gravity Forms allows for encryption and save/continue functionality. A major appeal is that you pay for the one-time license and are set to go. Easy to use, this tool can build a form that’s nicely integrated into your WordPress site (though the tools mentioned above can be embedded by a script). The fact that it’s hosted on your site’s host, though, means that if you bungle something, your data will be lost. This may or may not have happened to the author at the time he was experimenting with Gravity Forms for a client intake tool (though if it did happen, no actual client data was lost or compromised).

Ye Olde PDF (free) The cheapest technology is always the technology you already have. If you’re running a paperless practice, you probably have Adobe Acrobat Professional. Along with Word, you can easily create a great-looking form with fillable data fields. This can be safely circulated to your client on a secure client portal like the WSBA-endorsed Clio. Once returned, you can export the data to .txt or .csv format, then import it into almost any context needed. After experimenting with all the above tools, I ultimately decided this approach was the best for the lengthy immigration questionnaires I send to clients. It’s easy for them to save their work and return to it as needed, then share the form with my firm on Clio once they’re done. And I don’t have to pay for any additional monthly user licenses.

If readers love other tools not mentioned here, please chime in.

This material will be presented at “7 Keys to Managing a 21st Century Practice,” the Solo and Small Practice Section’s annual CLE, on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Seattle. Learn more about the event.

This post first appeared on the Washington State Bar Association's SideBar blog