When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we all had to make do with whatever home offices we could put together on short notice. We plugged in our headphones, remade couches into workspaces, and tried to keep our kids’ shouts out of the Zoom meetings.
As the crisis extends, many of us are settling in for the long haul. And that means we’re more interested in ensuring we have all the tools and technologies we need to run a fully-functioning legal office out of our homes.
Here are the top 17 tools that legal professionals need to ensure they can perform at their highest levels, wherever they may be.
The 3 Basics
The most important consideration for law offices adopting remote work practices is to take stock of their current capabilities. They should begin with the structures already in place and work out from there to eventually develop a full-fledged remote legal office.
For firm managers overwhelmed by this time of radical transformation, it can help to first focus on the bare essentials.
1. Access to the Cloud
When COVID-19 hit, many businesses scrambled to stay afloat. But one sector soared: the cloud. When you lose the central office space, you need a virtual tool to provide that core space. The cloud is the most important tool to provide coherence, direction, and accessibility to a remote workforce.
With cloud-based practice and document management, your case files, time-tracking tools, reports, and documents can be available at your remote office, from any device. It doesn’t require complicated technical support or new training—just like in the office, you log on and get to work.
If your firm hasn’t invested in a cloud-based legal operating core, analyze whether you have other cloud-based tools at your disposal. Does your business use Google Docs, iCloud, Evernote, or Office 365? It might be more difficult to organize an entire practice around generic business tools, but these can at least provide basic access to your files.
What about firms that haven’t yet seriously invested in the cloud? According to the 2019 ABA TechReport, only 58% of firms acknowledge the use of web-based software in their firms.
Even under the best of circumstances, transitioning to the cloud takes time and resources. That’s why so many firms have put it off this long. But the earlier firms invest in secure, comprehensive cloud-based tools the earlier they can reap the benefits of remote work. This is why business analysts are predicting that those who invest now in digital transformation will outperform those who take a more conservative approach.
If you’re only now transitioning to the cloud, you may need to bring a ‘triage’ mindset to the process. To determine your priorities, ask:
- Which files and matters are most urgent, and needing immediate cloud accessibility?
- Can you bring on additional help or services to digitize files?
- How will you ensure security for each other and your clients throughout the digitization process?
- Do you have remote desktop access in place that can be used as a stopgap measure (and if so, is it sufficiently secure)?
- Will you need to hire additional IT help to get your team through this transition?
The COVID-19 crisis transformed the way people think about legal services. Even once the crisis has abated, the cloud will remain a crucial legal tool. Clients will increasingly come to expect legal services that can succeed remotely. And the right technology will position lawyers to better comply with their ethical obligations to protect confidential client information, as set out in ABA Model Rule 1.6, Formal Opinion 477r, and the ACC Model Information Protection and Security Controls.
2. Secure Mobile Devices
Each member of your team needs a secure device, prepped and ready for mobility.
The standard law firm model relies on desktop computers, but this is an era for mobile laptops and tablets. Affordability, rapid deployment, and easy access to all your cloud-based tools make laptops and tablets an effective solution when it comes to workplace mobility.
Whatever tools you choose, it’s crucial to ensure they’re continually updated. Older software is more likely to have vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit. Ensure your mobile devices are frequently updated manually to include all important security patches.
You could also consider implementing a Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution to help reduce the security risks to these devices. MDM software is available to help you inventory, secure, manage, and protect mobile devices and ensure they are patched, encrypted, and only authorized software is installed and used.
Of course, for these devices to be useful, you also need a stable internet connection. That might mean beefing up bandwidth for some home offices. Here are a few stop-gap measures if your internet is slow or choppy:
- During video calls, shut down other bandwidth-consuming applications.
- If a video call still freezes or has choppy sound, close the visual portion, and rely on audio.
- Stagger video meetings with others who are working in the same location, if possible.
- If working from home, establish ground rules with children about when they can use the bandwidth with Netflix and online games.
3. A Shared Communication Platform
Your team needs to communicate across distance, in written chats, and on video calls. To find the platform that will work best for you, start with the systems that are already in use. If your law firm is already an Office 365 customer, consider going with Microsoft Teams. If you’re a firm that uses GSuite, Google Meet can bring you together. Other popular meeting technologies include Zoom, Slack, and RingCentral.
By sticking with communication platforms that are already familiar to your team, you can make your initial transition smoother. Consider which platforms the majority of your clients are already using, so you can find one solution that enables easy video conferencing with them as well.
Whatever your team chooses, ensure everyone can connect to it on the operating system they’re using and that the sound and video quality meet your needs.
Please make sure any cloud hosting services you think using for your shared communication platform are either SOC 2 Type I & II compliant or they are working towards their compliance certification.
Advanced Steps for a Fully Remote Office:
With your basics in place, you can move to incorporate other tools and technologies, expanding to give your team fully-functioning legal offices from their homes.
Could you make sure your team is all on one shared calendaring system? If you use a robust legal operating core like Filevine, your deadlines and meetings will already be accessible through the cloud. Rules-based calendaring tools can make it easier to ensure no deadlines are missed. If those aren’t already in place, law firms will need to rely on other tools like Outlook Calendar or Google Calendar, or worse, multiple calendars simultaneously.
Whatever tool is chosen, make sure it’s something that the entire team can employ. Many lawyers may be accustomed to someone else setting up their calendars. In a time of flux, it’s best if everyone understands how to run their calendar themselves.
5. Time Tracking and Billing Software
In 2019, Filevine surveyed 200 randomly-selected lawyers about their experiences tracking time and billing for their work. Respondents said, on average, they believed they could have captured around 20 hours of billable work every month. 75% said it was too difficult to account for their time, and 70% said they felt pressure from their firm to meet billable hour targets.
The looser structure of remote work can exacerbate all of these problems, making cloud-based time tracking and billing tools even more essential. They help you keep a meticulous record of your work and send out accurate invoices.
While some stand-alone offerings cover billing and time tracking, these can also be included in your legal operating core (as with Filevine). By staying within one system, you enjoy the added efficiency of tracking your work within the same system where you do your job.
When important documents had to be signed in the past, did you ask clients to come into the office? Did you mail out a hard copy and expect your client to mail it back to you? Remote workers can benefit greatly from e-signature tools like Vinesign, which allows clients to digitally sign securely (and quickly) from their mobile devices.
7. Digital Mailroom
Digital communication can easily transition to remote work. Older media are more intractable. Many firms are turning to digital mailrooms for help. Companies like Earth Class Mail provide a unified location to receive your mail, scan it into your cloud-based case management system, mail anything you physically need to your home office, and shred the rest. They can even directly deposit checks you receive.
8. Virtual Reception and Intake
Remote lawyers and firms can retain the same call answering standards clients expect when they call the physical office. Virtual reception services can keep the phones running even through the most difficult transitions.
In addition to managing incoming calls, services like Smith.ai offer full legal intake services. When a potential client is searching for a lawyer to represent them, you want to make sure someone immediately answers their call, engages with them compassionately, records their information, and sets follow-up tasks for lawyers and staff. Both in-office and remote lawyers frequently rely on virtual intake services to ensure top service to potential clients, from the first call. Enabling rapid responses to potential clients is even more important at times of financial turmoil.
9. Online Texting
Lawyers and staff may want to stay close to clients without giving away their personal phone numbers. They also want to ensure that client communication is archived and accessible to other legal team members. Online texting abilities can form a core part of a unified communication strategy with clients. With text-to-case file technology, texts can also be turned into tasks with scheduled follow-up.
10. Online Faxing
Many businesses and institutions still rely on faxes to send and receive information. Rather than buying a fax machine for each remote firm member, you can use online faxing tools to send faxes remotely and keep a detailed record of all of your communications in one central location.
11. Secure Document Sharing
Remote legal professionals need to develop a strategy for sharing documents with clients, third parties, service providers, and others. It must be robust enough to handle the large documents and various file types that legal professionals deal with, and should also be easy for the receiving party to understand and access. It must provide end-to-end encryption and security, protecting sensitive client information, and ensure regulatory compliance. A robust, secure, cloud-based solution will ensure maximum accessibility for legal professionals working away from the office—and will allow much faster file sharing than traditional methods.
One option is using file sharing links connected to some legal operating cores like Filevine. These allow you to send access to a document while retaining control over your information. You can choose whether to require an additional password for access, as well as set an expiration date to determine when the file will no longer be accessible to those with the link.
12. Voice Assistants
Are you accustomed to using dictation services to compose your thoughts? Now’s the time to get comfortable with the voice assistants that exist within the tools you already have. Whether you use Siri or the other capabilities built into your PC or Mac, you can enable full dictation and begin to vocally compose your notes.
Also look into the way that AI assistants can help you with calendaring, research, and other tasks.
The transition to remote work is an optimal time to switch to e-payment tools. Lawyers working in an office can accept payments in person or through the mail, but remote workers need a virtual alternative. In addition, an e-payment tool can also lead to faster payments and improve realization rates.
E-payments are also preferred by clients, who are already paying nearly half of their bills and a quarter of their discretionary funds online.
Some services can also send clients payment reminders and allow automatic recurring payments. To read about some of the top e-payment tools for lawyers, check out this article.
14. Remote Notary
Inside a physical law office, paralegals and other staff members are often authorized to perform notary services. But when a lawyer moves to remote work, the issue can become more complicated.
Remote notarization can help. In 2012, Virginia became the first state to allow notaries to authorize signatures through a video call. Since then, 15 states have followed their lead, with 6 more set to allow it in the future. When COVID-19 hit the US, many hold-out states made temporary allowances for remote notarization. For a frequently-updated list of where states stand, check out the National Notary Association page on the subject.
15. Stylus Pen
If you’re accustomed to working with paper copies of your documents, the move to remote work can be extra difficult. One way to ease your discomfort is to find the digital equivalents of your hard-copy habits.
Many lawyers find using a tablet with a stylus pen can make digital work more comfortable. You can still mark up your documents like you used to, without needing to first print them out.
16. Performance Dashboards
If you’re moving your office into a new system, you need a way to measure how the change is affecting your practice and your firm.
Tools like Audit Report for Filevine can give you an overview of your entire firm and analyze the changes over time with the metrics that are important to your firm. They can show how each member is coping with the change, and raise warning flags regarding decreased performance before it becomes a bigger problem for your firm or your clients.
Much research has shown that, on average, remote workers outperform office workers. By monitoring performance dashboards, you can address problems early on, and ensure your team is also harnessing remote work’s benefits.
17. Online Community
Remote workers need to guard against professional isolation.
Reach out to bar associations, social media groups and hashtags, and other forms of the online community. Join the LegalWFH group on Slack which Filevine has created to enable ongoing conversation about the challenges faced by those working at home. Share what’s working for you and learn from your peers. Look for online conferences and webinars that can help you bring new ideas to your crew.
The future of law will be mobile, paperless, and highly efficient. The same tools that allow firms to survive times of disaster will also help them take a leadership role in the post-pandemic era.
For more great tips on remote legal work, check out our comprehensive No-Panic Guide to Remote Legal Work