Written By Lee Ji En, BMS Law LLC
First published on 25 June 2018
In this article on instant messaging applications (a.k.a. chat apps), we discuss the the apps that a lawyer in a small law firm should consider using.
To tackle this issue, we need to first list out the most common categories of communication for a lawyer:
- Internal correspondence;
- External correspondence: with third parties, opposing counsels etc;
- Correspondence with client; and
- Correspondence with potential clients.
Except for external correspondence, I would generally recommend the use of chat apps for all other types of correspondence, especially internal correspondence.
This article will only focus on the use of chat apps on internal correspondence. This is because the factors for consideration in the selection of chat apps are relatively different for internal correspondence and client correspondence. Client communication deserves another article on its own.
A. LET'S CUT DOWN ON EMAIL
This is not just about being environmentally friendly.
There are many good reasons that internal correspondence should be exchanged via chat apps instead of via email:
- “The Tragic Reply-All”: I have seen many firms suffer from this plight when someone in the email chain decides to reply all, without realising that some unintended recipients have been copied in the email. This is especially problematic on email apps on mobile phones, where the “CC” or “BCC” fields might not show all the email addresses. These mistakes are potentially fatal as you cannot recall the email (and you might not even want to send out a recall because it will only bring more attention to that email). Unfortunately, no one would delete the email even if your email footer said so. The simplest and most intuitive way to prevent such problems: chat apps for internal correspondence and email for external correspondence.
- (Dis)organization: Email platforms lack systems to organise content. We receive hundreds of emails from our colleagues daily. Unless you go through the painstaking way of starring or labelling all the emails that you receive, all the emails would just be left in the “Inbox”, which would be a mess. Just think of the “Inbox” tray on your paralegal’s table – can you imagine how chaotic things would be if the paralegal never files a document that gets on the inbox? The beauty of chat apps: channels or threads provide an intuitive way to organise your content.
- Continuity/institutional memory: Unless you have printed out and saved all the internal email correspondence (including all the “noted with thanks”), it would be painful to provide the correspondence to anyone who needs to know what happened to the file (e.g. new member of the firm, new person on the file). If a person leaves the organisation, you might have to go through a “discovery” process to find out all the missing correspondence.
These are just the main reasons for today’s law firms. For tomorrow’s law firms, I would argue that chat apps can be much more powerful and useful than emails with the growth of integrations. For instance, you can have “AI-assistants” on your chat app, which could provide secretarial functions.
B. LET'S REVIEW THE APPS
The chat apps in the market can generally be split into the following two categories:
- Free apps: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Wechat, etc.
- Paid (or Freemium) apps: Slack, Hangouts Chat, Microsoft Teams, etc.
The factors that a lawyer or law firm should consider before choosing to adopt a chat app include:
- Data privacy or security: We have an obligation to maintain confidentiality of our clients’ information.
- Ease of use: For any platform to succeed, it must be fully adopted by every employee in the firm.
- Interoperability: Chat apps must at least be available on the Web (browser), iOS and Android.
- Integration with emails: There is often a need to discuss on an email that you have just received from an external party. To make it easy for the discussion to take place on the chat app, it ought to be easy to send your email over to the app.
Based on these factors, I have narrowed down the chat apps to the following list, with a summary of their pricing method, key strengths and weaknesses:
- WhatsApp (Free):
i. End-to-end encryption (E2EE) by default.
ii. User friendly.
i. Not integrated with emails.
ii. Does not provide the best way to organise content – only by contact persons or groups.
iii. Potential loss of institutional memory because all data for a user are stored and encrypted on a device.
- Telegram (Free):
i. Branded as a secure messaging app, it provides for E2EE via “secret chats”. For normal chats, they provide encryption-in-transit.
ii. High interoperability and easy to use on all platforms.
iii. Bots can be helpful.
i. No E2EE by default.
ii. Shares the same weaknesses as WhatsApp.
- Facebook Messenger (Free):
a. Strengths: Same as Telegram. E2EE provided via “secret conversations”.
i. Same as Telegram.
ii. In addition, some people would not want their colleagues to know their Facebook account.
- Slack (Free version available, Paid version for full features at USD 6.67/user/month): Possibly the most popular chat app in the startup community.
i. Integrations with email are available. For instance, you can set up a service that forwards all emails to a particular Slack channel every time the phrase “Case A” appears. Also integrated with many other tools that could be useful to the legal practice, e.g. scheduling, AI assistants, project management tools.
ii. Ability to organise content in the form of channels and threads (e.g. you can start a channel on “Client A” and a thread on “Filing a Writ of Summons”)
iii. Good for institutional memory because all data is stored with the organisation, not with the individual users.
i. No E2EE (encryption in-transit and at-rest available).
ii. Most lawyers would probably require some training and time to get used to the user interface and all the features that it provides as a collaboration tool.
- Hangouts Chat (Free with G Suite, which starts at US$5/user/month): Google’s Slack competitor
i. Integration with emails and the entire G Suite ecosystem, including your Google Drive files.
ii. The new Hangouts Chat also provides the ability to organise content in the form of channels and threads like Slack.
iii. Easy to use.
i. No mention of E2EE. Having said that, G Suite users can generally feel safe with Google’s enterprise-grade security systems. Also, for G Suite users, Google does not sell the user’s data or scan it for advertisements.
ii. While it is easy to use, this app was just launched out of beta in 2018, so some bugs might still exist.
- Microsoft Teams (Free with Office 365, which starts at US$5/user/month): Microsoft’s Slack competitor a. Strengths:i. Same as slackii. Integrated with email and the Office 365 ecosystem.
i. Same as Slack.
ii.Integrated with email and the Office 365 ecosystem
iii.Skype for Business online capabilities would soon be incorporated into it, which provide some of the most advanced features for online meetings (e.g. you can record a video conference).
i. Like Hangouts Chat, no mention of E2EE, but generally secured with enterprise-grade security systems.
ii. Like Slack, this is more of collaboration tool and it would take time and training for users to learn the interface.
C. SPECIAL MENTION TO DATA SECURITY
The following is an illustration of the common forms of encryption:
Image Source: https://heimdalsecurity.com/blog/the-best-encrypted-messaging-apps/
E2EE is widely considered as the most secured form of encryption for instant messaging. If you are extremely concerned about data security, you should always opt for an app which provides for E2EE. Without E2EE, there is always a chance that someone else might obtain your data. For instance, the government might request for the service provider (e.g. Facebook) to turn over your chat data.
Amongst all the apps, only WhatsApp provide for E2EE by default.
The other apps which provide for E2EE, but which you need to specifically enable, are: Facebook Messenger (in the form of “Secret Conversations”) and Telegram (in the form of “Secret Chats”). In both cases, the chats protected by E2EE will only be accessible through your mobile device, not via the Web browser, because these messages are not synced over the cloud.
E2EE is particularly important if you are using a free product. As the saying goes, “if you are not paying for it, you are the product”. Chats in consumer chat apps are often scanned by companies in order to sell advertisements to you or to sell “insights” to third parties.
In contrast, the enterprise products (at least those mentioned above) generally do not scan your data for ads. For enterprise data, you own your data and you have more control over what is shared with the service provider. Thus, even without E2EE, most small law firms should feel comfortable as long as the service providers comply with enterprise-grade security standards, e.g. G Suite and Microsoft Office 365. These products would come with a strong encryption in-transit and at-rest.
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