COVID-19 (the official name of the highly-contagious coronavirus disease) has lawyers rethinking how they practice law. Now is the time to commit to the tools and practices that will keep lawyers and their clients safer.
It should be no surprise that the second COVID-19 case in New York involves a Manhattan attorney. A traditional legal practice includes lots of face-to-face time with colleagues and clients, and frequent travel. It also depends on paper, local servers, filing cabinets, and shared office space. These features lead to massive disruptions should disaster strike.
COVID-19 is an urgent wake-up call to law offices that have resisted new technologies. Fortunately, other lawyers are leading the way in developing smart business continuity protocol. Their tools and policies can safeguard their work not only in a pandemic but also when facing other growing threats, such as extreme weather events or ransomware attacks.
Here are some of the top ideas for continuing to serve clients through any kind of disruption:
1. Create an Action Plan
Do you have a business continuity plan in place? If not, get on it quickly. If you already have a plan, revisit it with a focus on what we know about COVID-19.
To create an action plan, form a planning team. Keep it small and composed of decision-makers with the most knowledge of key aspects of your practice, such as technology and human resources. Don’t overcomplicate your business continuity plans. Simpler plans are more likely to be followed in a moment of stress.
For some examples, check out the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s “Resilience in a Box” tool. For a deeper focus on issues unique to law offices, check out the Risk Management Practice Guide from Lawyer’s Mutual.
Be sure to schedule periodic evaluations of your disaster plans in the future, to make sure it’s up to date and fresh in your mind.
2. Convert to the Cloud
If you haven’t already, consider a cloud-based legal operating core.
The CDC and other health organizations recommend staying at home and away from public spaces in situations where the disease might be transmitted. But this doesn’t have to mean that your work screeches to a halt. With your case files securely stored in the cloud, you’ll be able to continue your work even through a quarantine.
Based on what’s happened so far with COVID-19, here are some times when cloud-based case management might be crucial:
- When someone in the firm is well enough to work but has some symptoms of illness that worry them. Isolation is recommended until 24 hours after symptoms are gone.
- When someone returns from a hard-hit area or worries they might have come into contact with the virus. Public health organizations are currently recommending isolation for 14 days to determine if someone is infected.
- If the entire office needs to close because it’s in a heavily-affected area (a number of law offices in the hardest-hit regions have already closed down).
- If schools close down and some firm members need to stay home with their kids.
With a cloud-based legal operating core, your case files, time-tracking tools, reports, and documents can be available at your home office.
These tools aren’t just useful for pandemics. Even once the public health threat passes, cloud-based practice management will allow you to provide greater work flexibility to team members and reduce the risk that other crises will disrupt your service to your clients.
3. Get Everyone on the Same System
In some offices, each lawyer organizes their files and calendar differently, according to their own whims. This creates chaos when another lawyer needs to step in for them.
The threat of a pandemic is a powerful reminder to centralize your calendars, files, and workflows within one shared and secure system. If someone falls ill and can’t work, another lawyer can more easily cover for them. They can readily see the latest case updates, access all important documents, and ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. Clients experience seamless service instead of the frustration of a bumpy hand-off.
Also make sure you have a clear notification channel in place, reserved for important updates, that will be seen and read by all employees.
4. Invest in Good Remote Meeting Technology
Have a board member who just returned from a virus-laden cruise ship? While she’s in quarantine she can still participate in meetings, provided you’ve given some thought to your technology.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong in remote meetings. Sometimes remote attendees can’t hear what’s happening, are ignored when they try to speak up, or have difficulty even connecting at all.
Evaluate your current videoconference technologies. Do you have good sound and video quality? Can attendees connect, regardless of their operating system? In addition to choosing the right application, invest in additional microphones or other tools as needed to create the right environment for your meetings.
5. Cut Down on Travel
Technology can also help you cut down on your travel. You might use video depositions instead of flying to depose a witness in person. Webinars can take the place of in-person training. And your globe-trotting vacation should perhaps become a stay-cation, at least until summer comes.
Many major law firms are cutting down on non-essential travel, particularly to hard-hit countries. Keep up on the latest CDC travel alerts to keep your team safe. Should travel to an affected area be necessary, it’s recommended that the traveler work from home for 14 days following their return.
6. Keep the Office Clean
Increase cleaning frequency in your office, with a focus on surfaces that are touched more often. These include phones, doorknobs, copy machine buttons, keyboards and mouses, and breakroom objects like refrigerators and coffee pots. Also, ensure that you have a good stock of soap in the bathrooms and hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes in common areas.
Have the hygiene-talk with all office members, even though they’ve surely already heard it before: wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap; cough into a tissue that is immediately thrown away, or into your elbow; avoid touching your face with unwashed hands; follow all other recommendations by the CDC.
In more public spaces like courtrooms, the Administrative Office for U.S. Courts is recommending maintaining a distance of 3 feet from others.
This is also a good time to embrace wellness efforts in your office. Chronic stress erodes the immune system’s ability to keep out unwanted pathogens. Promote exercise, sleep, a healthy diet, and a good work-life balance to keep the entire office stronger.
7. Regularly Check in With Clients, Reduce Need for In-Person Meetings
You want to be available to your clients. But you don’t want to spread a potentially deadly disease. There are technologies that can help.
Reports and automated workflows can cue lawyers and staff to check in regularly with clients. Clients that feel neglected are more likely to demand face-to-face meetings with their lawyers. But by proactively reaching out to them, you can deal with questions and concerns early on.
Another feature that can help you reach clients is text-to-case-file technology. This allows you to send and receive texts directly from the client’s digital file. That means communication is accessible to the client’s entire legal team and securely archived.
Have a contract or form that needs to be signed? Instead of making an in-person appointment, utilize e-signature tools, such as Vinesign.
Also, consider ways to share alerts and notifications regarding COVID-19 and your office’s efforts to keep staff and clients safe. In posts on your website and in social media, include valuable and relevant health information—sharing your expertise can make this an additional tool to engage with clients and prospective clients.
Finally, make sure that anyone who answers your phone can speak knowledgeably about your office’s response to the virus, expressing both caution and reassurance.
8. Brush Up on Related Employment Law Issues
Can you make one of your staff members stay home if you think they’re sick? How should you inform others of the risk of infection an employee brought into the office? Can you ask lawyers and staff if they have compromised immune systems or other risk factors in case of infection?
As you exercise appropriate caution to keep your office safe, make sure you also protect the privacy and workplace rights of each member.
9. Be a Good Global Citizen
Albert Camus wrote that “in the time of pestilence” we learn a valuable lesson: “there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”
Some things to admire: our resilience, our intelligence, and our ability to come together to help each other. This is a good time for your office to support relief efforts in your community and globally, and recommit to the greater good.
Epidemics can also unleash some ‘unadmirable’ tendencies, such as alarmism, overreaction, and conspiracy theories. Use your platforms to spread real information from verified public health sources. Take a public stance against any instances of xenophobia and racism against people of Chinese and East Asian descent that occur in your community. Amid the fear and grief inherent in this situation, spread your values of community service and client care.