Changes in work habits rarely come quickly or easily for lawyers; radical transformations even less so. However, the COVID-19 pandemic left lawyers worldwide with little choice but to abandon the profession’s traditional office-centric culture and embrace remote working, at least for now, and potentially forever.
It has not necessarily been a smooth transition.
In this new working environment, many have struggled to maintain productivity and the quality of legal services their clients demand. If you are one of them, we’re here to help.
To begin, you can set yourself up for long-term success working remotely as a lawyer by minding these best practices:
- Keep your workday routine. Working from home/remotely doesn’t have to mean abandoning the workday rhythms you have honed over the years. Stick to that schedule, at least for now, and allow it to evolve at its own pace.
- Set clear expectations for client communication. Clients understand that everyone’s work situations have changed. They’re in the same boat and know that when and how they can expect to communicate with their lawyer has changed. Just don’t expect them to figure that out on their own. Communicate a clear plan to them about when and how they can speak or (virtually) meet with you. Transparency facilitates adaptation.
- Take care of your mental health needs. We live in stressful, anxious and (for some) traumatic times. Be gentle with yourself. Set time aside to take stock of your mood, to recognize your emotions, and to allow yourself to decompress. As a lawyer, you think for a living. Take care of your brain to keep yourself in top form.
With those best practices as our guideposts, let’s take a look at some specific, practical steps you can take to make the most of your new remote or home-based working environment.
Use a VPN
In pre-COVID days, your office—no matter its size—likely had a reasonably secure connection to the internet. Whether you knew it or not, your firm had a commercial account with an internet service provider that followed essential security protocols. Larger firms also hired a dedicated IT staff and a third-party contractor to monitor their networks’ security. These means safeguarded your digital infrastructure, keeping your clients’ confidential information and communications with you protected from prying eyes.
Your home office has…none of that. But that’s OK. You do not need to become a network security guru to honor your confidentiality obligations to your clients.
Instead, you simply need to familiarize yourself with the concept of a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN is an ultra-secure access point to the internet. More precisely, it is a dedicated, encrypted connection between your computer and a remote server computer, which in turn serves as your gateway to the internet.
Subscribing to a VPN service (or, if your firm has the capability, setting up a VPN through your IT department) essentially outsources your home office’s network security by giving you a hardened connection to your office computer network and to the internet more broadly. In effect, it’s a secure pipeline that makes it possible for lawyers to work from home with all the digital safety and security of working at your office. Beyond working from home, a VPN is how to safely work abroad as a lawyer.
A monthly subscription to a reputable VPN provider costs less than $10/month.
Set Up Remote Access
A VPN serves as your secure connection to the internet, but you still need a way to get to the documents, emails and other case information you could previously access at your office.
Suppose your firm uses modern case management and networking tools. In this case, chances are, your VPN connection will allow you to connect to your office systems remotely, giving you access to all your client files, emails and documents as if you were sitting at your desk.
For firms that had not yet digitized their operations when the pandemic hit, now is the time to make the change. Here are the basics:
- No more paper files. Most law firms can no longer afford the space or inconvenience of maintaining file cabinets full of old pleadings, contracts and research memos. Everything that can be scanned and stored electronically, should. From here forward, file cabinets should ideally serve only as archives for items that need to exist in an original, hard-copy format to retain their evidentiary value or legal significance. These include hand-notarized affidavits, wills, deeds and contracts, or papers given to an attorney by the client for safekeeping or use as evidence.
- Scanning capability. In a work-from-home environment, a desktop scanner will suffice for the majority of your digitization needs going forward. Bulk document processing companies can handle the larger jobs. As an added bonus, scanning documents and disposing of hard-copies you do not need to keep allows you to declutter your home office.
- Cloud-based storage and case management solutions. You can only digitize your records, however, if you have somewhere to store them and a means of working with them. Fortunately, storing and managing your firm documents on a remote, secure server (a.k.a., “in the cloud”) has never been cheaper or easier. All the major legal tech companies, including familiar names like Thomson West and LexisNexis as well as a host of upstarts, offer ready-built cloud storage and computing solutions for firms of all sizes.
- E-signing capability. More and more contracts and other documents previously signed in pen-and-ink can instead be executed electronically with an e-signature software solution. E-signing documents represents the first step toward a rapidly-approaching future in which the all-important original, fully-executed version of a document consists only of an electronic copy.
Establish Secure Communications Channels
To complement your secure access to the internet and to your digitized client files, you also need to establish a clear, safe means of meeting and sharing information with your clients and colleagues.
Oh, you might be thinking, you mean Zoom?
Well, yes, but Zoom isn’t the only game in town. Check out our review of the top 5 video conferencing solutions for lawyers working remotely. It may surprise you to learn how many flexible, intuitive and convenient services you have to choose from when you need to talk face-to-face and share documents in real-time with others.
Of course, by now we hardly need to tell you that not all work interactions need to, or should, happen by video conference. To maintain your productivity, take advantage of other means of checking in with your team or clients. A secure open channel with your colleagues, such as the type offered by Slack, provides safe means of communicating with others in real-time. To ensure confidentiality of client communications, you might also want to try out an encrypted texting app, like Signal, instead of using your phone’s relatively un-secure native messaging. And, of course, you can always send emails, so long as you use your secure VPN to connect to your work server, or you set up an account with a secure, encrypted email provider.
Finally, sometimes you simply need to be able to share documents and other materials with your clients. A web-based client portal can facilitate that information sharing.
Keep Your Phone On!
As much as we have come to rely on nifty technological solutions during the pandemic, sometimes we and our clients just want to pick up the phone and talk. Make sure your clients always have that option by keeping your phone on and your office phone number working.
One simple way to maintain your phone accessibility is to set up call forwarding directly to your cell phone from your office direct-dial. It’s easy to do and ensures you will not miss an urgent call from a client. Just remember to change your voicemail message to one that’s professionally appropriate.
Over the long-term, however, call-forwarding alone cannot reliably maintain a separation between your personal and professional lives, nor does it give you the ability to screen calls in the same manner as having an assistant answer your line.
For a more comprehensive solution that ensures your firm’s public-facing presence stays professional, consider the services of a legal process outsourcing provider that offers virtual receptionist and client intake services. Outsourcing call services to a provider offers numerous benefits for remote-working and work-from-home lawyers, including:
- 24/7 call answering and call-overflow support, to ensure no call goes unanswered or gets lost.
- Live transferring and routing of calls to wherever you are, on whatever line you have available.
- Appointment scheduling that accommodates and adapts to the variability of work-from-home schedules and uncertainties.
- U.S.-based Spanish-language call answering for attorneys who need bilingual support in order to better serve their client base.
- Client intake and relationship management support integrated with your firm’s existing customer relationship management and case management systems.
Create a Professional Video Meeting Environment
In the early days of the pandemic, we all got a good laugh out of the viral videos of Zoom meetings gone awry because of impatient toddlers, dogs making impromptu on-screen appearances, bookshelves that revealed a bit too much about people’s personal lives and disastrous mute-button miscues.
Yes, working from home will always come with its share of inconveniences that require everyone to stay flexible and have a healthy dose of empathy for stressed-out professionals doing their best in a less-than-ideal working environment.
However, as an attorney, you can do your best to minimize the preventable pitfalls of at-home video conferencing. That means:
- Have a warning system. Come up with a (quiet) way to alert those you live with that they should not disturb you. For instance, you can hang a sign on the door indicating to others in your household that you are “On Air” (so to speak) and need to be left alone.
- Install a door lock. Not everyone will or (in the case of young children and pets) can recognize the warning, so it can also help to install and use a doorknob lock on the room where you take your video meetings.
- Soundproof. You don’t have to go high-tech. Simple tips borrowed from bedroom design can minimize the amount of sound—from crying children to barking dogs and loud traffic—that intrudes on your workspace or video calls.
- Invest in an earpiece, mic and ring light. They work for TV news show guests and they can work for you, too. A noise-canceling lapel mic and an unobtrusive earpiece (or, if you prefer, a headset) guarantee that you hear others and that others hear you. A ring light ensures that people can see you (not your back-lit silhouette). Decent versions of all three can be found on Amazon for no more than $25 each.
- Declutter and de-personalize. Fun as it can be to rate someone’s room, you want people focused on you, not the items on your bookshelf or the mess on your desk.
- Frame the shot. Situate your camera at eye-level and at a distance so that your face, neck and shoulders fill most of your screen. If you sit too far away, it’s distracting. If you sit too close, it’s just…awkward.
- Practice, if you need to. Get yourself into the habit of muting and unmuting when appropriate, of speaking clearly, of getting your lighting right and of looking and acting professional in what feels like an unprofessional setting. Not everyone feels comfortable seeing themselves on screen, so practice on personal calls if you need to.
The Tools You Need to Succeed
We’ve mentioned or alluded to a number of items of equipment, software and services you need to have on hand if you want to succeed in the new work-from-home lawyering environment. Let’s review them here:
- An upgraded computer. For even the most die-hard devotees of fountain pens and yellow legal tablets, the computer has become the single-most-essential tool for today’s remote working for lawyers. For most attorneys, a high quality laptop with an up-to-date operating system, plenty of memory and a built-in hi-def camera makes for the most practical and versatile setup. Do not skimp on this critical piece of equipment.
- Backup drive. Even if you store your work product and client files in the cloud (as you should), regularly backing up your documents to an encrypted external drive provides you with a cheap and indispensable extra layer of security against unexpected data loss or equipment malfunction.
- Scanner/copier/laser printer. All the big office brands—think HP, Brother, Epson, etc.—make affordable all-in-one desktop machines that scan directly to your computer, as well as copy and print documents.
- Earphone, microphone, ring light. No truly professional video call happens without them.
- VPN. Your secure connection to client files and the internet.
- Document/case management solution. Gives you access to your client files no matter where you are.
- Secure, encrypted email. Either via a VPN connection to your office’s email server or through a cloud-based, encrypted email service.
- Video conferencing and other client/team communication accounts. Video is essential. Mix-and-match the rest to facilitate collaborative working and information sharing that works best for your team and clients.
- Outsourced call and intake services. Ensure your firm is accessible to clients and prospective clients 24/7/365.
Can Lawyers Work from Home?
The way we work has suddenly changed, leaving many lawyers feeling unsteady and uncertain about how to adapt. Following the tips above can help you continue to provide high-quality legal services to your clients, no matter how long the current remote and from-home legal work environment endures.
For more ideas about how to evolve in these dynamic times, download our eBook “6 Technologies/Tools Every Law Firm Needs to Elevate Their Client Intake” today.