As the nation grapples with the COVID-19 outbreak, most lawyers are under state directives to work from home. Some of the data indicates the distance we’re putting between ourselves is helping — it’s slowing the spread of coronavirus. But no one knows when the stay at home orders will be lifted.
Some lawyers look at the adjustments they’re making as a stop-gap— what is it going to take to bridge the time between now and when they can get back into the office.
Other attorneys are grabbing hold of the chance to give remote work a test drive! Every day, they look for ways to optimize working from home. Now, they are starting to recognize and grow accustomed to advantages of remote law practice as a model—not just an occasional Friday here, Friday there kind of thing.
Regardless of how we feel about the situation, we’re all in the same boat. We have to practice law at a distance from coworkers and clients, which necessitates relying extensively on technology to stay connected and productive. We’re all strengthening our skills with remote access tools and approaches.
I propose that you look at the situation as a unique window of time to experience firsthand a law firm that can give freedom from long commutes, expectations of extended hours, unproductive meetings and unhealthy pressure—even if temporarily.
At Practus, this is simply our model. When you commit to working this way, the tools and systems of a virtual law firm just become second nature. So, when we say take your at-home practice of law to the next level, we’re not talking about bringing your laptop to an upstairs bedroom. There are real ways to get more done in fewer hours from home than you would ever be able to do from the main office. Here’s how.
Be Flexible Like Stretch Armstrong
There’s no such thing as an “out of office” message when the office is you. Remote lawyers have to be more flexible to be accessible and responsive to their clients. It requires an entrepreneurial mindset in place of a nine-to-five convention. Rather than working for the clock or because you’re around other lawyers, you’re working because you’re intrinsically motivated to provide a service. That might happen at eight AM… or it might just as well happen at eight PM. Our clients need us to see the world through their unique and time-sensitive lens – meetings are often scheduled on the fly, decisions are made in sequential steps based on best available information and updates and amendments are often needed at short notice. “Clients want to know that we can attend video and audio conference calls, share documents and exchange ideas and drafts via email without regard to time zones and ‘standard’ business hours limits,” says Practus Partner John Grady. Flexibility in the name of service is fundamental when you’re virtual.
Conduct Online Meetings Like a Boss
Streaming video meetings are growing so popular, they’re quickly rivalling the conference call. Everyone’s jumping on the online meeting bandwagon, and you’ll want to step up your game as you connect and conversate several times a day. It’s time to videoconference like you mean business.
Check your surroundings
Be aware of what’s in view behind you. Do a dry run with a friend or family member and look at what they see. We’ve all seen news anchors with questionable home décor. For added functionality, Microsoft teams allows background blurring. Zoom lets you drop in a virtual background (image from your desktop) even without a green screen. If you explore virtual backgrounds, be sure to fit the tone and nature of the call. Internal? Have some fun. Client? Look sharp as per usual.
Direct the camera so your eyes are 2/3 of the way up the screen, you’re centered, and your whole face is visible. Lift your computer (camera) to be close to level with your face.
When lighting, pay attention to where the windows and lights are in the room. Backlighting is bad— you may need to reposition so the window is in front of you. If you really want to step up your game, professionals use the three-point lighting technique: one key light focuses on the subject (you), with two softer lights balancing out the setting.
Be present and participate
Limit multitasking. Ask that teammates do the same. Limit the call to essential participants. Be inclusive. Pause for others to say something. Monitor meeting chat and non-verbal cues. Solicit input from other participants on the chat. Keep calls short and to the point with a set agenda and expected stop time. Ending an online meeting can feel more abrupt, so honor the clock or agenda and end gracefully. (Note: in the free version, Zoom meetings with three or more callers end after 40 minutes, ready-or-not.)
Work Safe and Secure
Safety and security are taking on new weight in our work lives. You need your documents and communications to be secure. Most lawyers can practice from home using any number of apps and sites with a standard internet connection. Some firms may set guidelines to connect via VPN or remote desktop. Keep digital security in mind and adhere to cautious safety practices for your sake and your clients’. Is your home network password protected using a strong password? Are you passing documents over email or via cloud storage?
Lately, the video conference platform Zoom has been in the headlines because of security missteps. Several school districts have dropped Zoom as an approved app. Zoom may still be en vogue, but at Practus we leverage Microsoft Teams for our client work. We use Zoom for internal culture-building activities like virtual team happy hours or wine tastings.
Be safe in the physical world. Pay attention to what the governor in your area is specifically ordering. Be diplomatic and polite but firm in the event that a teammate or a client asks you to do something or meet somewhere in a way that breaks social distancing. (We practice law for our valued clients, we don’t skirt the law for them). Practice safety with an abundance of caution as requirements eventually begin to relax.
Collaborate for Value (not Visibility)
Traditional law firms are known for being “teaching hospitals,” with double and triple staffing. Junior lawyers shadow the more senior partners who are responsible for the work. That kind of overhead and redundancy doesn’t cut it in the virtual model. And if you try to re-create that double staffing approach, you’ll just be bending over backward to share documents and expand meeting participation unnecessarily. It’s pointless.
People adding value are the only ones who should be brought together in virtual work environments—not passive participants. There are many exceptional platforms to facilitate collaboration in real time. We use Microsoft Teams and Microsoft OneDrive, part of the same brand family. There is also Drop Box, Box.com, Slack, and Google Drive (if your firm hasn’t set up a VPN with access to your server).
You can even explore purpose-build collaboration software like Microsoft White Board that lets you doodle and sketch and put up a flurry of post it notes, just like the energy you would create in a conference room. Virtual law was never about working solo. It’s about collaborating in real time with self-motivated colleagues and clients who add real value.
Be Open to Adapting—for Good!
So, as you’re discovering new ways of doing what you’ve always done, be open to the idea that some changes are a welcome improvement. You might start to grow accustomed to the advantages of virtual working, and want to find ways to keep going beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. You’re probably tackling some types of work with greater efficiency and focus from home. You’re probably not missing the commute one bit.
Do you find that you’re cutting out or trimming down time spent (lost?) in meetings? Your golden retriever has no expectations of you putting in face time. You can video chat with your parents at lunch. You can knock off at 4:30 if the work’s done. And get back on again at 9 if the client is in a different zone. It’s your show.
We’re living through a lot of change in a compressed time frame. The shifting day-to-day work arrangements affect us all. Will you be the home-office-half-empty or home-office-half-full kind of lawyer?
Ultimately, you may want to assess in what ways will you be open to change following COVID-19? And how will your firm be open to change? Then, evaluate if those two answers line up.
We hope these tips help you feel confident in getting the basics down pat, so you can start to explore and appreciate the benefits and freedoms made possible through extended remote work.
Stay healthy out there.
Managing Partner and Founder
Practus is an innovative law firm that is disrupting the outdated ways of practicing law. By leveraging mobile technology, cloud-based solutions, and an agile infrastructure to deliver legal services, both clients and attorneys benefit from this visionary model.