A Law Firm Guide to Navigating COVID-19 Part 2: Law Firm Operations
Compiled with the assistance of North Carolina Bar Association Center for Practice Management
As the COVID-19 virus spreads law firms may be forced to work from home. Many law firms already have many of the elements in place to be able to work from home. The following are some considerations and guidance on temporarily moving your firm to a “virtual” environment.
If your firm has IT managed services, uses an outside IT consultant, or IT staff please consult with them to understand your options to move your firm to remote work as securely and swiftly as possible.
Members of The Florida Bar have access to a variety of resources for discounts on purchasing services and discounted technology, including free legal research; cloud based practice management software; LawPay merchant services; cloud based document storage; computers and peripherals; virtual receptionist services; and shipping services.
In a remote work situation, all personnel will need to take home their laptops. However, while some of the lawyers in the firm may have laptops, many on the support team may be using workstations. If at all possible, it is better, from a security perspective, not to ask employees to use their home computers to do remote work for the firm (assuming they have home computers). If the firm can purchase and deploy laptops to everyone in the firm, that is the best approach. While it is best to buy business ready machines from the manufacturer (like Lenovo or Dell for small business), firms needing to purchase in bulk may consider buying refurbished laptops from places like TigerDirect, Amazon, or NewEgg. Avoid Chromebooks, which can be problematic for running some business applications.
If purchasing new hardware is not an option one possibility is that team members with desktop computers pack them up and take them home – remembering to take the necessary cables, peripherals like a mouse, keyboard and monitor – with them. If the desktop computer does not have WIFI capabilities and the team member does not have ethernet capabilities (corded internet) at home, a WIFI adapter can be purchased.
If the firm chooses to ask staff to use their home equipment, they will need to deploy a VPN at the least and turn on multi-factor authentication. More about these below.
For law firms using a VoIP telephone system like RingCentral, Ooma, Jive, or others, the system can be set up to be used remotely through apps on mobile phones, through a computer browser, or have calls forwarded to mobile phones. Other VoIP systems through Comcast, CenturyLink or AT&T may have similar options.
For firms that have more traditional non-internet based phone systems or hybrid systems, check to see if voicemails can be forwarded to email. At the least make sure all staff know how to check remotely for voicemail by dialing into the system. Then have everyone leave an out-of-office voicemail alerting callers to leave a voicemail and it will be returned as soon as possible. For certain clients, while not ideal, a lawyer can choose to provide her personal mobile number.
If the firm uses a telephony system that cannot have calls rerouted or VoIP options are sub-optimal, another option is to sign up with a virtual receptionist service. There are many options, including Ruby Receptionist and Smith.ai.
Another option, is to alert callers via outbound voicemail message to dial a different number and get a Google Voice number. You can get the Google Voice app on a smartphone or use your computer to make and receive phone calls. You can also get a Skype number, which is free if you have an Office 365 account.
Firms can consider deploying a VoIP system. Many have free trials. Most VoIP systems have number porting, however there is usually a delay of 7-10 business days. Optional or additional features bundled into VoIP systems like electronic faxing, SMS messaging, audio and video conferencing, voicemail transcription, call forwarding, and other features may save time and money when looking for remote options.
If you are going to be using your smartphone check your plan and upgrade to unlimited talk, text and data to reduce overages.
If you are going to be participating in video chats and video conferences, you will need a video camera. Most newer laptops have a camera built in, though the placement of your laptop relative to your computing setup may mean you need an external camera. There are lots to choose from and they are relatively inexpensive. There are models that clip to the top of a monitor, some have microphones and speakers built in, some can sit on your desk and be raised with a pole. Consider your options and purchase an external video camera if you need one. The Logitech brand is a solid choice, and you can purchase one from Amazon or any “big box” store.
If you are using VoIP for telephony or if you are taking advantage of video conferencing or audio calls you will need a microphone and speakers. Most laptops have speakers and microphone built in, though sound quality and external noise may be an issue. A better option is a headset with comfortable padded over ear speakers and a noise cancelling boom microphone. Again, Logitech is a solid choice, though there are certainly many options on the high and low end of the price spectrum.
If you have a traditional fax machine at work with a separate phone line it will not be easy to move that or share with multiple people on the team who are now working from home. You may be faxing to the court or with hospitals and other health care providers. While many of the electronic fax options will let you port your existing fax number, that can take 7-10 business days. You may already have electronic fax options if you are using a VoIP system like RingCentral, so first check if that is an add-on option. If not you can get an inexpensive plan through standalone electronic fax services. This will result in a new fax number, which you will need to communicate to clients and other parties. You can note that the new fax number is temporary. Hopefully you can identify who would normally send you faxes, as you won’t be in the office to receive them and tell them where to redirect the fax.
Before you assume that you need to print, ask yourself if it is really necessary. Most documents are “born digital” so you will just need to consider how to keep it digital. For small print jobs a low-cost portable printer can be purchased. For larger print jobs consider services like FedEx office with printing and delivery services.
If your office uses a large, floor model multi-function device for scanning there are numerous ways to get scanning capabilities at home. If you have a desktop scanner, such as one of the ScanSnap models, you can simply take it with you. If you do not have one already there are plenty of scanners with a small footprint.
Alternatively, for smaller scanning jobs there are many options for a smartphone. If you are using Office 365 or Adobe Acrobat DC there are integrated scanning apps through Microsoft Office Lens, the new Office app, and Adobe Scan. There are many other options for scanning apps, some with OCR capability and multi-page scanning.
If your firm uses a file server for shared files or to access on-premise client/server software like your practice management software or time/billing/accounting or other firm-wide software, you will need to make that server available to your team remotely. While servers can be moved to the cloud on Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, if you need to move quickly it would be more expedient to deploy a remote desktop protocol or VPN (virtual private network). A VPN is more secure and generally faster and more reliable than a remote desktop service, like LogMeIn. For considerations of each see this article from the OR Professional Liability Fund.
When looking at VPN solutions most require a “client” or piece of software to be installed on each user’s device. Contact your IT support for help getting this set up. For small law firms SSL VPNs are easier to deploy, like the NordVPN, which is popular and affordable and can be used on multiple devices. Another option is the Barracuda SSL VPN.
Keep in mind, firms using cloud-based systems and services like Google GSuite, Microsoft Office 365, practice management and time/billing, document management and file storage like Dropbox, ShareFile, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc. may have limited need for access to the firm’s servers.
Lawyers and staff working from home may need extra power outlets. An outlet strip with surge protection can be purchased most any “big box” store. For areas prone to power outages a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) can serve as backup power. You can use a combination of both. Be sure to measure how far the cables need to stretch and buy a power strip with the appropriate cable length.
Most remote work will rely on high speed internet access. Many people will have this available at home. Check to see that WPA2-AES has been set on their router for security. Their WIFI home network should use a long and strong password to access it. Many home Internet services provide the ability to create a separate network so check with your ISP for instructions
In some cases the remote worker’s new “home office” may be located far from the wireless router, causing slower speeds or instability. Your ISP may recommend or supply wifi network extenders or they can be purchased online or at computer stores. You can also get a new mesh router.
If you are setting up near your router you may be able to use an ethernet cable for more reliable high speed internet access, though both the router and computer will need the available ports.
You may also consider having a backup internet service. You may be able to use your smartphone and its data plan as an internet hotspot. Check with your carrier to see how to enable that option. It may result in a small fee if it is not already part of your plan.
Determine who in the office will receive the firm’s mail and make sure that person has the capability to scan and email the files to the appropriate parties. Mail forwarding through USPS can take up to 10 business days, so you may alert the necessary parties of your temporary address. Change your address on your website, social media, and Google My Business listing. You can note that the address change is temporary. USPS offers other options for business, such as P.O. boxes and premium forwarding services. UPS and FedEx both offer delivery intercept and re-delivery services. If you have a good relationship with your postal carrier or delivery driver let them know you will be officing from a different address.
Alternatively you can use a service like Earth Class Mail to get a new address and have mail received, scanned and held for your firm. They can also deposit checks for you. Similar services include Anytime Mailbox or Regus Mail Handling.
If your firm has procedures in place to back up cloud data, firm deployed laptops through online back services like Crashplan or Carbonite, and server backups then your backup protocols are in place already for remote workers. If a new laptop is deployed and an online backup service is being used make sure to add it to the list of backed up devices. If someone working remotely creates a file that would not be backed up under normal protocols employees can save the files on an encrypted external drive.
Because working from home means a lot of logging in make sure that your firm is implementing proper protocols for data security. For an overview see Basic Security Best Practices for Law Firms.
Passwords should be long, strong, and unique. The recommendation to change passwords on a regular schedule has been rolled back by NIST, however if someone thinks a password has been compromised they should change it. Be on the lookout for phishing scams that suggest your password has been compromised, however, and do not follow a link in an email but go directly to the site and change your password there.
Users should not store passwords in their browser. Instead opt for a password manager, like LastPass, Dashlane or Keepass. For more security and administrative controls to enforce good password behavior consider an affordable “enterprise” plan from Dashlane, 1Password, or LastPass.
For every single account you log into you should have multi factor authentication turned on. You can require this feature in most cloud-based practice management, time/billing, accounting, Office 365, GSuite, social media, WordPress and more. The protections afforded from enabling multifactor authentication is that without access to your phone or another device, if a hacker did get a password for an account, they could not access the account without the additional security factor. Here is an explanation with instructions on how to turn the protection in some common applications. If your firm is using an application that does not offer a multifactor option, you can use a third party tool like Authy.
See the above discussion regarding security for a home WIFI access point. If you are out in public avoid using public WIFI, even if it has a password, unless you are using a VPN on your device. Or use your mobile phone as a hotspot.
All firm devices and devices used for firm business should be secured with encryption. Operating systems have this capability built in, you just need to turn it on. There are lots of other ways to protect confidential information, see this video tutorial on different ways to enable or use encryption for file storage, communication and more.
Phishing and Scams
As with any disaster, there are people who will try to prey on and exploit fear and vulnerability. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has issued some tips to defend against coronavirus cyber scams. You can also subscribe to alerts from the FBI and distribute to your team as relevant.
Your Physical Office
If you won’t have anyone in your firm for a while make sure to lock the doors, check locks on windows, lock file drawers and offices, and turn on the alarm system.
If your firm saves files to the cloud, either in an online document storage/sync application like OneDrive, GoogleDrive, ShareFile, Box, Dropbox, etc. then you’ll just need to make sure everyone has the login information and access they need and how to save files to the appropriate folder. The same holds true for files stored in an online document management or practice management application.
If the firm stores files on a physical server in the office, you will need to set up access via VPN or remote desktop (see above) and provide login instructions so your team can access the files.
If your firm is still largely paper based, most of the documents generated in the firm are “born digital”. If the firm has allowed people to store those files on individual laptops or desktops because the shared file is the print file, then get an online document storage application and have everyone move their files from the local drives to the cloud drive. It is as easy as drag and drop. Some attorneys may have already created their own online file storage, they should be instructed to move those files to the firm’s account.
For paper files that were received by the firm and not scanned you will need to do a bit of triage. First determine, based on deadlines, statutes, and order of importance what paper files need to be dealt with. Then either scan them and save them to the shared online document repository or bring what you need with you.
Productivity Suite – Office or Google
If you are using Google GSuite for productivity applications like word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. then make sure all of the team knows how to login. All of the tools are available in most web browsers (Edge, Safari, Chrome, Firefox, etc.)
For users of Microsoft Office 365, users may be unaware that in addition to opening their files in the installed software (Word, Powerpoint, Excel) they have access to those same applications and more through a browser. Just go to Office.com on a browser and login. Each licensed user for a Microsoft Office 365 Business and Business Premium has up to five installs of the Office suite. If someone working from home is more comfortable using the software they can download it on their device, with permission of the firm. The Office app for iOS and Android combines Excel, Powerpoint and Word and connects with OneDrive, Dropbox and other online document storage.
Law Practice On-premise applications (time/billing; accounting, practice management, litigation support, etc.)
For firms using installed or client/server practice management, time and billing, accounting or practice specific software you will need to set up remote access. If the application is on a server you can access the application through a VPN (see above), though users may also need the client software installed locally. Talk to IT and the software vendor. If the software resides on users’ desktop then products like LogMeIn can be deployed to access the software on the device if it is not portable.
Law Practice Cloud applications (Time/billing; accounting, practice management, etc.)
If your law office applications are cloud based, or hosted on cloud servers, then ensure that the team knows how to log in via a browser.
For attorneys who are used to using dictation, there are some options in Windows 10, Word, and Outlook. You can dictate text, open applications and perform other tasks by voice. To enable and customize speech recognition in Windows 10 press Windows key + H. If you haven’t enabled speech services, you will be guided through the process via Settings. Like other speech recognition tools, you’ll need to say “period”, “comma”, “new line”, etc. when dictating. If you need to correct something just say, “undo that”. You can also have text read back to you, which may help identify tone and word choice. There are a lot of options and features you can leverage with the speech recognition tools. If you don’t want to turn on speech recognition operating system-wide, Word and Outlook for Office 365 have their own dictation tools built-in.
Website and Online Presence
If you make any changes regarding phone numbers, fax numbers or other communication methods make sure those changes are reflected on your firm’s website, your GoogleMyBusiness Listing, your social media pages, as well as directory pages you have access to like Avvo.
Your firm may also issue a statement through email to current and former clients, on the web and through social media, about how the firm will continue to do business, and measures you are taking to maintain a safe environment and continue to serve their needs. There are many, many businesses that have issued these types of letters to customers. In fact, it is unusual in a state of emergency NOT to get some sort of commitment to service from a provider.
Put a sign on the door of your office telling clients, as well as other visitors, how to get in touch.
North Carolina Lawyers Mutual has a social media and crisis communication policy that addresses how the firm (lawyers and staff) will use social media and how the firm will communicate in a crisis.
Intra Office Communication
Law firms will want to maintain ongoing communications with their teams if the firm transitions to remote work. One significant shift in work behavior stems from the inability to walk down the hall to chat, jump into the conference room for a quick meeting, or place a sticky note on someone’s desk. Firms will need to establish ways to communicate with each other, as well as provide support and reduce feelings of isolation.
Most email can be accessed through a browser, even if the firm uses an on-premise Exchange server. With a hosted or local Exchange server ensure that OWA (Outlook Web Access) is enabled. Then even without Outlook software installed the team will be able to access their inboxes, as long as they have the OWA link and know their username and password. Firms using Gmail or another online email application will have only to log in to the application through a browser. Firms using Office 365 may not realize their email is available to them through the browser. Just go to Office.com and login and then click to go to Outlook. As with the Office 365 productivity suite, if an Office365 user prefers to use the software versus the browser version she can download the software.
For less formal communications amongst the team, law firms may find that they already have many tools to leverage threaded chat applications to discuss work, make unscheduled calls and conduct a video chat with each other. These chat tools help a firm maintain constant contact while working remotely and can help reduce feelings of isolation. They can also keep your inbox from exploding with additional emails.
For firms using Office 365 you have Teams for video and audio calls, group chat, individual chat and more. You can learn more by watching this video from NCBA CPM. For firms using G Suite (f/k/a Google for Business), your firm can use the G-suite Hangout Chat.
If your firm uses neither Office 365 or G Suite there are plenty of options or additional options to consider. Several practice management applications, including Smokeball and RocketMatter, have built-in chat features. Check with your provider to see if there are chat options available.
A very popular and freemium chat product (free for limited use) is Slack. In the free version, Slack allows your team to chat, hold 1:1 audio and video calls, share files and integrate with G Suite, Office 365 and many other products. Slack has excellent tutorials for beginners and tips for remote working.
Workflow and Task Management
While working offsite it may be more difficult to stay on top of tasks and deadlines, especially when much of the work for clients is held in individual inboxes and calendars. Your firm can create or share calendars in Office 365 and G Suite, or leverage shared planning tools to immediately triage upcoming deadlines and tasks.
In Office 365 users have several options for task management. MS Planner is a Kanban-style task management tool that is available as a stand-alone or can be integrated with Teams. Office 365 also offers To-Do, which is based on the Wunderlist task management product that Microsoft bought. In To-Do users can easily create a list, invite other people in the firm to collaborate and create a running list of tasks. A list could be a client’s matter, with appropriate tasks. Tasks can be assigned to a collaborator. You can add reminders, due dates, files and steps within each task.
Many practice management applications have task lists, shared calendars, procedures and workflows built-in. Check with your practice management provider for options.
Many attorneys have some experience working remotely or offsite, but support staff may not be as familiar with working from home. Everyone will need to exercise patience.
Some firms may already have an operations and procedure manual. Make sure to put these in a shared repository and let the team know it is there. If the manual is in print then scan it and share it. If the firm does not have written procedures and someone has been tasked with compiling a manual there are great guidelines from the Lawyerist in “Law Office Operations & Procedures Manuals” and from Law Technology Today in “5 Policies and Procedures You Should Have in Place for Your Firm.
For firms using new features of existing technology or leveraging new applications, most instructions on how to do things are a web search away. Don’t spend time getting frustrated, there are plenty of written instructions, YouTube videos and more available from the vendors and third parties.
If you decide to leverage a chat tool you can create a channel for the team to share tips for ways to work in the new remote environment.
If your firm needs help to redirect calls, answering phones, setting up appointments and other tasks that may not have been centrally handled, there are virtual assistant and virtual receptionist services the firm can leverage on a short term basis, including Ruby Receptionist and Smith.ai.
The firm may not be able to put together much guidance on remote work immediately and everyone who has not worked from home before will experience some uncertainty. There are many, many articles about how to maximize productivity, create your home office, reduce feelings of isolation, and create a work-life balance. For those who have worked remotely let those who haven’t know that you are willing and available to answer questions.
You and your team may be experiencing anxiety, stress, and depression during this unprecedented event. This article from Wired “Don’t Go Down a Coronavirus Anxiety Spiral” and from Gretchen Rubin “11 Tips for Staying Calm During the Time of the Coronavirus” were suggested by Jeena Cho, author of The Anxious Lawyer. Jeena has a number of guided meditations on her Facebook page and is leading guided meditations and seminars online. She also has many other articles and helpful information about dealing with stress and anxiety. Additionally the CPM article “Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out” has some tips and techniques to reduce technology-induced anxiety.