While the use of client portals is most frequently associated with the transfer of tax documents, their potential scope extends far beyond that.

In addition to serving as client extranets, portals can offer better content management and collaboration tools to accounting firms, in addition to aiding in document retention requirements and securing private data.

Experts say that by utilizing client portals, a CPA firm not only gains a secure electronic storage space, but also bi-directional file exchange capabilities that ease delivery and reception of client documents.

"Portals are an exciting area for growth," said Brian Zeve, managing director of the professional services industry at Microsoft.

Zeve explained that portals serve to bring a team together in a virtual environment by aiding in enterprise content management, virtual collaboration and client engagement. "It is something of an evolution," he said.

Experts say that portals ease the user experience by distilling down the complexity and security of content management via their use, while allowing delivery and access through multiple locations. Zeve pointed out that while content management has traditionally been slow, portals allow users to communicate in real time.

CLIENT HUBS

Craig Witty, chief legal administrative officer at global CPA and business advisory firm Grant Thornton, which uses Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server, said that the firm utilizes portals in the form of what it calls "client hubs" - versions of its client sites through which clients can access their documents.

Witty described those hubs as "gateways" for the firm's clients. Client documents can be copied, shared and updated through the hub, or portal, which makes it easier to track the hundreds of documents. "Through that hub, the client can get access," he said. "We can manage multinational clients with the same basic system."

At the end of the client engagement, the internal engagement team can see all the documents because the portal provides access to several levels of oversight.

"The client portal is very engagement-specific," said Shawn Ivey, director of technology strategy and architecture for Grant Thornton. The client sites are unique to the client as well as being secure, Ivey added.

COMPLIANCE AND RISK MANAGEMENT

Managing all sorts of engagements through the use of client hubs also helps in the critical legal and compliance arenas, particularly in regulatory mandates that dictate the archiving guidelines for workpapers. Portals offer tightened security and client data protection.

In addition, technology experts point out that an increasing number of states are enacting laws governing the transfer of sensitive customer information, such as tax returns, through unencrypted e-mail.

As a result, more firms are opting for secure portals, as opposed to implementing more complicated data encryption processes.

Client portals can also cover gaps that may exist with other document retention and tracking methods that are not centralized.

They provide what Jim Bourke, a partner and director of firm technology at New Jersey-based WithumSmith+Brown and chairman of the Certified Information Technology Professional Committee of the American Institue of CPAs, described as an "electronic-file room."

A primary difference between using e-mail as a means for document transport often boils down to portals providing a central and single location for documents, whereas e-mail ends up in various locations because it is sent, received and copied, Bourke explained.

He said that WS+B implemented a client portal about two years ago because often an e-mail can get into the wrong hands. "We do not e-mail confidential, private information to anyone, including our clients," Bourke stressed.

LITIGATION

Microsoft's Zeve said that portals help accounting firms in the event of litigation, and enable a firm to produce documents in a quick and consistent manner. Sorting through documents through a central portal can even determine whether a document was contained in an audit engagement or a client exercise, said Witty. As an example, New York-based Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe uses Microsoft Office SharePoint to create an extranet for processing transactional documents at the 21-office global law firm. With regard to e-discovery, it becomes really competitive for firms to have a process in place, and a portal can aid that process, Zeve said.

COMPETITION

Portals also help firms maintain a competitive edge by providing their clients with more efficient and targeted services. Clients are always looking for better fees, Zeve noted.

In November, the Tax & Accounting business of Thomson Reuters announced that its users implemented more than 300,000 client portals, an increase of over 100,000 portals in 16 months. Thomson Reuters, which offers portal services through its NetClient CS, attributed the increase in part to heightened client demand for online connectivity. Another option through Thomson Reuters is its GoFileRoom, a document management solution with a portal feature that is used by WithumSmith+Brown.

Zeve noted that client portals offer more client transparency, while the associated workflow can prevent redundancies, thereby enhancing both delivery and productivity.

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