It’s been a couple of months of working remotely — figuring out what works for us, learning new words (Zoom, N95, sourdough starter), and settling into an alternate rhythm of work and life. Some remote work tips have been eye-opening (why haven’t we done this before!?), while some have been frustrating. It’s run the gamut from finding the mute button, to getting the damn printer to work, to setting up security tools.
So, we decided to ask our experts: What lessons have you encountered during the shutdown? And, going forward, what’s your best advice on using technology to get work done remotely and keep your business healthy?
Here’s valuable guidance from Sheila Blackford, Brett Burney, Jim Calloway, Andrea Cannavina, Natalie Kelly, Sharon Nelson, and John Simek, and Camille Stell.
Sheila Blackford: We Are a Resourceful Bunch
I was a toddler when Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, launched on Oct. 4, 1957. I think that Sputnik had a major effect on how I would continue to view each subsequent milestone: Amazing achievements will always be enabled by embracing technology. Law firms have turned lawyering in the time of COVID-19 into their firm’s Sputnik 1.
The human spirit is resourceful. People quickly got on board, for example, with videoconferencing as a means to meet with bosses, colleagues, clients, and buddies who used to come over for Friday night pizza and a game of cards. They got candid about figuring out how to join a Zoom meeting and enable video and audio. And lawyers throughout the shutdown have learned how to use technology, known and unknown, one step ahead of their clients.
So what’s next? I think the New Normal is that law firms are going to be more cost-conscious through the better use of financial reporting features in their accounting program or practice management all-in-one program. And now that firms have experienced working remotely and worked out kinks, more will decide to adopt a virtual law firm model, or an organized teleworking workforce with scheduled in-office time — for example, multiple attorneys sharing an office on alternating dates.
Sheila M. Blackford (@SheilaBlackford) has been a Practice Management Attorney for the Oregon State Bar Professional Liability Fund since 2005. She is the author of the ABA book “Trust Accounting in One Hour For Lawyers,” co-author of “Paperless in One Hour for Lawyers,” and a contributing author to “Flying Solo: A Survival Guide” and the Oregon State Bar “Fee Agreement Compendium.”
Sharon Nelson and John Simek: Put Security First
The first step in being successful in a work-from-home environment is to do so securely. As an attorney, you have an ethical responsibility to protect the confidentiality of your client’s information. That means making sure you are taking steps such as having a secure configuration for your computing device, regularly applying all operating system and application updates, connecting to a secure home network, etc.
In line with working in a secure environment, the No. 1 question we get is, “How do I use videoconferencing (e.g., Zoom) to securely communicate with clients, colleagues, and the courts?” Don’t be resistant to using Zoom because of any histrionic press you’ve seen. Most reported Zoom problems have been user error and a lack of knowledge about how to securely configure Zoom. Read our post “Getting Start With Zoom — and Using It Securely” here.
We’ve learned that attorneys can be taught new tricks (when they are forced to!). In addition to videoconference tools, many are successfully using virtual private networks (VPNs) to perform their daily tasks. They’ve quickly learned how to digitally sign documents using a product like DocuSign. They are now using multifactor authentication in more places. They are extending secure endpoint protection to home machines.
As for us, we have learned that, in these tumultuous times, we are working harder and put in more hours than we did in the office. Mind you, we are grateful for that!
Sharon D. Nelson (@SharonNelsonEsq) and John W. Simek (@SenseiEnt) are President and Vice President of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a digital forensics, legal technology, and cybersecurity firm based in Fairfax, Va. They have written 16 books published by the ABA, including “The Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guides” and “Encryption Made Simple for Lawyers.”
Brett Burney: Embrace Some “Talking Head” Fun and Minimize Frustration
Like everyone else, I’ve mutated into a virtual talking head on a screen for meetings, webinars, conference calls, virtual lunches, and cyber-cocktail hours. While I’ve heard the laments about missing face-to-face interactions, this is where we are and it’s a waste of time to bemoan what we’ve lost.
Embrace the potential of what this opportunity provides … and have some fun! I’ve got a small collection of unique and jovial virtual backgrounds for Zoom that let me insert a bit of personality behind my 2D headshot. You don’t have to use a green screen, but it does help, even if you just hang a green (or blue) sheet behind you. Then tell Zoom to remove that color from your background and replace it with a scene from planet Hoth, or the Brady Bunch, or a wall of toilet paper.
(For seven helpful tips on using Zoom on your iPhone or iPad, check out my video.)
And to schedule those meetings and lunches?
Avoid the lengthy and aggravating back-and-forth emails about what day and time to meet (whether it’s on Zoom or, going forward, in an actual office, in person). Use tools like Doodle or Microsoft FindTime to have attendees pick a time that works for everyone. Or, I enjoy sending people my Calendly link so they can pick a meeting time based on the open slots on my calendar. Not only does Calendly automatically schedule the appointment on my calendar, but it’s also connected to my Zoom account so it includes the necessary links!
It’s a simple matter of automating the things that frustrate you the most. And we all need to minimize the frustration we allow into our lives these days.
Brett Burney (@BBurney is Principal of Burney Consultants LLC, an independent legal technology consulting practice. He is also a sought-after trainer and presenter for lawyers who seek to integrate Macs and iPads into their practice. Brett is a past ABA TECHSHOW Planning Board Chair and a popular speaker on legal technology.
Jim Calloway: Watching Work-From-Home Barriers Fall
The question of whether lawyers should use the cloud has now been settled by circumstances. Law firms with all pertinent client information inaccessible online files have fared better with the challenge of quarantined, long-term working from home than those with critical information located in folders and filing cabinets. Lawyers can no longer say they do not know how to work remotely, for we all had a crash course. And the utility of having a method by which all firm personnel can remotely access all information they need has been proved. Most of the remaining law firms tied to paper files will now go about converting to secure cloud storage. The final barriers to working remotely in legal are falling.
Working from home is not going to disappear. None of us know what the rest of the year will bring. But apart from infectious disease concerns, partners’ meetings may soon have half the participants attend via video rather than in person, and a prediction of stormy weather may cause more lawyers to decide to just log in for work that day.
Many have changed their thinking on remote working and its tools. That is what happens when something is transformed from “a thing I know I should know more about” to a lifeline in troubled times. Zooming became a verb not just because videoconferencing was the right tool for the times, but because, for all its limitations it has offered a chance to see people’s smiles and their reactions to discussions.
How to take those lessons forward?
Apply the lessons you have learned over the last months to “upgrade” your work-at-home space, even if some financial investment is required.
If you work from home 10 or 15 days a year, you can work on the kitchen table or curl up on the sofa with your laptop. However, semi-regularly working from home for full days requires a more ergonomically friendly situation. You may want to invest in a higher-quality home office chair. But the major must-have is a keyboard drawer or other office furniture that puts the keyboard at the appropriate level for comfort. You can do this now or wait until the carpel tunnel syndrome says it is time.
As the crisis loomed, I ordered a nice USB external webcam and a high-quality headset. I knew I’d be participating in manlessy videoconferences and recording videos. And the headset mike means you will never be that speaker or participant who turns their head away from the microphone so no one hears their conclusion. I got mine in a few weeks. Now it might take months. So order now.
I believe in a scanner at every workstation because it is the way we now place documents and notes into the digital client file. Apps like the Adobe Scan Digital PDF scanner or Microsoft Office Lens let you use a phone to create PDFs, but taking pictures of each page will get old. In a home office, a scanner/printer multifunction machine may be a reasonable option.
Most every lawyer needs a laptop. Working on the same machine as you change locations is an anchor of familiarity, as any road warrior knows. And it makes security simpler if you have children or roommates. “No one uses the law firm laptop but me.” Consider purchasing port replicators for different working areas to speed up the physical connection process at either location.
If the budget allows, you also want an additional monitor in the home office. If you own a tablet, there are apps and cables to allow it to function as a second monitor.
Jim Calloway (@JimCalloway) is Director of the Management Assistance Program for the Oklahoma Bar Association and author of several ABA books. He blogs at Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips and co-produces the podcast The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology.
Camille Stell: Managing a Remote Workforce Using Microsoft Teams
When managing a remote workforce, it is important to communicate with your team on a regular basis. While we have had access to Microsoft Teams, it is only when we went remote that we began to use this collaboration tool regularly.
We use Microsoft Teams to talk about work projects, answer client questions, or check-in to see how everyone is handling the crisis personally. We have a channel for all employees and a channel for managers that we use frequently throughout the day. Through Teams, our IT department can screen share, and troubleshoot technology or workflow problems as soon as they develop.
Our Employee Committee is working hard to keep morale high. The committee created a Home School channel where parents can share advice, offer tutoring or answer questions for one another. The committee also created virtual scavenger hunts. Each week, we hunt for something — a childhood photo, our favorite art, or photos of our pets. Everyone who participates is eligible for a gift card drawing. On Wednesdays, we share wellness tips.
We have used the video component of Teams for a “company all” meeting, for our recent quarterly board of directors meeting, for a happy hour to celebrate an employee retirement, and for biweekly manager meetings. Departments have set hours during the day when they use video to work jointly on a project, and individuals schedule video calls to collaborate or just to stay in touch.
We are using Teams to let our employees know we are concerned about them, to foster a cooperative work environment, and to provide encouragement to us all.
Camille Stell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services and a specialist in working with lawyers on building modern law firms, as well as retirement and succession planning.
Andrea Cannavina: Use the Right Tool for the Job
As a remote professional with almost enough years under my belt to count in decades, my No. 1 remote work tip now is simple: Use the right tool for the job.
Just a few weeks ago, a Twitter connection of mine, Mike Whelan, chuckled when we were testing my connection to Zoom for his LawyerForward conference and my phone rang. He stared at me through the computer and asked incredulously, “Is that a phone? Like an actual phone phone?”
Yes, Mike. And while I have an actual rotary dial phone from the 1940s in my living room (which works even when the power goes out), my desk phone is more modern. And it came with five wireless handsets, which I use when I want to get up and walk about my office while speaking.
Since I have had unified messaging technology in place for well over 15 years, I have always had the option to use my cell to take and make calls. But if a call is with a client or if I need to be focused, I use my real phone and sit at my desk. This is for a few reasons, including:
- When I am at my desk, I am in “work” mode. This is a mental thing that has been with me since I opened my office in 2001. (And my family knows if I am at my desk on the phone, don’t interrupt me!)
- The signal and sound are much better on my desk phone. I don’t have to worry about the connection being garbled or getting cut off.
- I can cradle the phone to take notes or find the website my caller is directing me to without putting the phone down. A cellphone was not designed for holding long business conversations given one usually is taking notes and the form of cellphones is too small to cradle with your neck.
So if you are planning on making your home office a part of your daily life, I highly recommend that you invest in a second line (VoIP is fine) and a real desk phone. Your callers and your neck will thank me!
Andrea Cannavina (@AndreaCan) is a personal productivity coach, LegalTypist CEO and Director of the Virtual Bar Association. She specializes in helping stressed-out professionals run organized and efficient offices.
Natalie Kelly: Persevere — and Get Organized!
The slowing of work production, learning new ways of doing things, and navigating reopening have taught me to value flexibility — and a great remote work tip, hone organizational skills.
Perseverance is on display each day as we push past another day where it’s tough to go outside. As we shift from ordering online to ultimately going to the grocery store for masked human interaction. As we make it plain to clients we are still at work for them, and ensure workflow is smooth from wherever we may be. Taking steps to keep working is very important during these unusual times.
So, my tips for going forward:
- Shore up inefficiencies in your workflow and procedures.
- Take time to outline goals and create, with more detail, Plan B and Plan C for yourself and your business.
- Try pivoting your practice area to be in the direct line for new business and to model your workflow to address downturns and slower times.
Stock up and store reserves like you are arriving at the eighth-mile in a marathon, where you are tired, but still moving, and know the finish line is ahead somewhere. Drawing on your experience and training will get you there.
Finance and marketing concerns loom for lawyers. New business models, new practice offerings, and new solo offices are being contemplated and forced with firm layoffs, cutbacks and restructuring. Again, focus on the basics to prepare yourself and actively engage to best manage your new working environment, whatever that may be.
Natalie R. Kelly (@NatalieRKelly) is Director of the Georgia State Bar’s Law Practice Management Program and a past ABA TECHSHOW chair. Natalie is an attorney and certified consultant for multiple legal software applications and speaks and writes extensively on law office management and technology.
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