Some practical tips for lawyers working from home
Lockdown. A word that will make history, and a situation that has unilaterally pushed all lawyers and their firm’s operations into the unknown without consultation. Most firms will by now have likely pivoted toward remote working of some kind, albeit perhaps a bit slower and clunkier than usual. But by the time you’ve read this, some of the logistics and hurdles of an entire office working remotely for an extended period of time will likely be glaringly obvious. If not, it soon will be. The good news is there’s lots of ways law firms can get through any temporary business operational speed-bump utilising resources you probably already have, or which can be easily and cheaply implemented - even in Lockdown.
Microsoft Office 365 suite
It’s hard to imagine that any law firm and its employees aren’t on Microsoft Office 365 business licences of some kind or other these days. For the uninitiated, Microsoft Office 365 is the software that gives us Word, Excel, OneDrive, email and so on, enabling users to log into it on any computer from anywhere at any time. But in addition to those more commonly known Office 365 suite products, there are also a number of other useful solutions and apps to help with remote working that your office probably don’t use, or may not be aware of.
One of the best bits about Office 365 is you get Sharepoint: a virtual, real-time, private cloud server intranet that’s the perfect shared workspace platform, accessible to every user in your firm 24/7 from anywhere – kinda useful in a business continuity emergency situation like the one we’re in now. The second best bit? You probably already pay for Sharepoint and a tonne of cloud storage as part of your Office 365 licence + you can buy more (and it’s cheap). This means you probably don’t need to pay for that expensive physical back-room office server, or for your IT company to provide secondary ‘emergency back-up and off-site storage’ in the first place: at the end of the day it all ends up on the Microsoft servers (I believe in Australia) or some other cloud storage provider your IT company uses (because they need to have secondary backup too).
So how does Sharepoint Intranet work? Well basically within the Office 365 Sharepoint web server portal, document libraries are created containing the firm’s document precedents which are then synchronised (synced) to user computer desktops for shared access. Private documents can still be saved to your personal Onedrive. Synchronising (syncing) to your desktop (rather than the web portal itself) makes it easier to manage files using Explorer and ‘trees’ of ‘yellow folders’ and sub-folders that continually sync and back-up into the O365 server in real time. Our office hooks directly into the Sharepoint server using our laptops as desk-top hard drives every day. One folder contains our office’s document precedents, and another contains subfolders for each client matter. We pick up a document precedent, work on it, and save it to the client folder. We also save some emails and attachments to the client folder. Our use of Sharepoint looks similar to the example below taken from the Microsoft website:
To find out about getting started with Sharepoint click here. The Office 365 website has excellent step by step instructions, and any business licenses have free tech support available too – you can lodge an online help ticket, and they’ll even call you if you need (these services are part of the licence price).
Shared generic email inboxes
I rather suspect that you’ll soon be noticing your inbox clogging up fast being tagged in on every email that comes in and out. One solution to this is that Office 365 lets you have email addresses that can be shared with any number of people within your office – without needing to pay for another licence. These can be called whatever you like. For example, you might use a shared email address/inbox for various separate employee teams or immediate workgroups within your firm to avoid everyone being tagged in every email. We use a shared ‘office@’ address for sending and receiving a variety of documents and correspondence so we can all see what’s come in and gone out. Users with access to the shared inbox can see it on their email address directory and can send correspondence from the shared email address, too.
Microsoft Office Teams
And on the subject of email overload, what can you do to further reduce copious quantities of day to day internal email communication between employees? Install Microsoft Office Teams. Teams is great collaboration app that integrates with Office 365 and is free if you have a licence. Teams enables collaboration by instant desk-top messaging, video calling (ie: instead of Skype), sending attachments and sharing files. You can even access Sharepoint documents directly from the Teams platform. Even if you don’t want to implement all the different parts of Teams right now, instant desk-top messaging is the immediate solution to avoiding email over-load between people in your office. Microsoft recently announced a clever marketing response to Covid-19 offering free Teams access to anybody for 6 months. That link also has further links on how to set up and use Teams.
There’s also a Teams mobile phone app enabling instant messaging + access to Sharepoint documents if you’re out and about (post-Lockdown of course). We’ve all had issues with our Telcos phone lines being overloaded, so this app is useful for messaging without the need for phone calls and/or text messages, too.
Printing – without a printer
It’s unlikely everybody in your office has been sent home with a printer, or a very robust one at that. But there is a way to store downloaded documents, forms, titles or other searches for printing or accessing later: Microsoft Print to PDF. When wanting to save and store something you’ve downloaded you simply select the print icon (or ctrl+ p to print from your keyboard), scroll down the list of printer options until you find ‘Microsoft Print to PDF’, select that and then select where you want to save the document. We save ours directly to our shared Sharepoint client folders, others might use Drive or Onedrive. Not perfect, but it does mean you’ve got that downloaded item saved somewhere and can access it as needed.
Trello - Project/Client Management
Trello is a free, really cool project management/productivity app that’s not a Microsoft product, but does integrate with Office 365 and Teams. Trello enables users an overview of what’s happening with individual client matters and workflow throughout your firm (remember, everyone’s at home ... there’s no paper file ... what’s happening on those documents for the Smith matter ...). Note Trello is not a workspace, so avoid the temptation to save a bunch of documents to it unless it’s a key document that others are working from. Trello is simply a brief overview of what’s done, or to be done, or other key information. Each client matter gets a project ‘card’ on which users can add details, due dates, comments, check-lists, document attachments and more. You can also add Trello as an email integration, and sync with a mobile app. Take a look here.
Clockify – Time Recording
If you’ve concerns about capturing billable time spent on client matters while everyone’s in lockdown, and you don’t use any other form of time recording programs (or can’t easily access your usual programme remotely), Clockify might be a solution. Again, it isn’t a Microsoft product, but it’s easy to set up, the base version is free, and your whole team can be added as users. It also has a synced mobile phone app. To set up a new matter/client/project or you just click ‘add’ and type in the client name and file detail: ‘J & D Smith – Lease issues’. Don’t get technical: new clients/matters need only be set up as and when a file is worked on. To time record, select the client/matter, type a brief overview of what’s being done on the file (eg: ‘draft notice’), hit ‘record’ and ‘stop’ when finished. You might also set up non-billable time recording options so any non-billable office work done remotely by your team is also recorded. Clockify provides surprisingly comprehensive user time and matter reporting too. Check out Clockify here
Security and privacy
Unfortunately, it goes without saying that the current Covid-19 pandemic presents opportunities for the usual cohort of hackers and wrong-doers trying their luck accessing resources and systems, sending phishing or scam emails etc. Data security and privacy are always important considerations, and to avoid third party security issues on any business or personal devices that might be used by your employees (including mobile phones), some form of security software is recommended. Trend Micro Security is one that’s quite good value which can be bought online for multiple devices, or even AVG free (or paid) depending on your firm’s needs and budget. Just get something in place to get you through the next month or so, and do check that whatever you buy is in NZ dollars, not US.
I personally do not recommend BYO devices of any kind for data security and privacy reasons (including dual sims), plus it blurs the lines between business and private, and information may end up being accessible by people other than your employees. There’s valuable IP in any phone numbers owned by the firm, too. I’m also of the view that any employee can download/copy/take photos of anything and pass it on – if they’re going to do it they’re going to do it, regardless of whether it’s in the office, on a mobile phone or on a laptop on the kitchen table.
Keep focusing on interim business continuity ...
During Lockdown, and the weeks after, the focus and objective should be on keeping your firm functioning as best possible in the interim with minimal disruption, keeping people collaborating, and enabling as much work continuity as possible. No solution is perfect, but hopefully your firm might find implementing one or two of these ideas could help alleviate some of the remote-working logistical hurdles and pain-points that will undoubtedly crop up over time.