Over the years many of us have imagined what the world would be like in some sort of global pandemic. There have been books, movies, and short stories all “imagining” the day a global pandemic might hit. The time, tragically, is upon us. For those of you who have geared your practices toward a remote working environment, you are several steps ahead of the game. For the majority, now is the time to consider what tools you should have in your toolkit to survive this and perhaps future experiences. Fortunately, we have not had to experience a mass disaster such as an earthquake, but many of the concepts discussed in this article are applicable to all sorts of disasters.
Tip 1: It's about your hardware. Needless to say, having an iPad, a laptop, or a home computer is the first, most important way to connect remotely. Although you could certainly use your smart phone, having an adequately sized piece of hardware is critical to getting the most out of your out-of-office productivity. For the last 20 years, I used a laptop to connect to the office remotely, but over the last five, I have abandoned the laptop and use an iPad exclusively when working remotely. The current generation of iPad I am using is the iPad Pro 12.9 device. It truly is, at least for me, a laptop replacement. Using the iPad Pro with the Apple keyboard (although there are several third-party keyboards available as well) provides enormous amounts of productivity wherever I am. However, there are several manufacturers that produce fantastic laptops to be considered as well. What’s great about the iPad is that rather than having to lug around a separate computer charging cable, the iPad Pro cable is easy to carry, and with just a replacement, the lightening plug works with the same adapter. As an aside, my firm is totally PC-based; therefore, even though the iPad is an Apple product, I almost exclusively use Microsoft software on my iPad.
Tip 2: Software. You must ensure that you are using software that allows you to connect to your office remotely. In my firm there are two ways for users to connect to the office remotely. The first is through Citrix, which is a software system that allows remote connectivity to my office's servers using a remote connection. The other option is LogMeIn, which is software that allows you to connect remotely to your actual desktop computer and work as though you were literally sitting at your own desk at the office. I really enjoy LogMeIn because of this experience. The backbone for all of this remote connectivity is Tip 3.
Tip 3: Internet connectivity. When you are remotely connecting to your office, it is important that you have good, stable internet connection, as well as the appropriate security. (I will deal with security in Tip 4.) It is important that you are connecting to your office through one of at least three different methods. The first method is a wired internet connection at your home to connect to your firm's computers. If you are working somewhere where you do not have direct internet connectivity, another option is hardware with built-in wireless connectivity. For example, the iPad has two versions: one is a purely Wi-Fi-based connection, and the other is Wi-Fi plus cellular. I have the iPad Pro with both Wi-Fi and cellular access because sometimes there may not be Wi-Fi available, and I do not want lose access to the internet. However, if you do not have a cellular iPad, you could use your own cell phone to create a wireless “hotspot” to connect with your iPad. For example, my iPhone 11 Pro has a feature to connect my remote device through the Sprint network to the internet. In other words, if I did not want to use my iPad’s own cellular connectivity, I could turn my iPhone into an access point for connection. When I have traveled outside of the United States where the cellular connection does not work on my iPad, I can actually use my iPhone to connect the iPad wirelessly. That said, it tends to be expensive to use my iPhone to connect my iPad to the internet. You can also purchase a cellular providers’ “hot spot,” which is a separate device that serves as a gateway between your laptop or iPad and an internet connection. Nevertheless, those are your options for internet connectivity as we begin 2020. There are several companies working on developing a blanket around the world of access points that would essentially create Wi-Fi for all no matter where you are.
Tip 4: Security. It is important that your communications with your firm remain private. The one way to ensure privacy in your communications when working by Wi-Fi is using a virtual private network (VPN). When using a VPN, your communications are encased in a steel tube so that no one can penetrate the contents of your communications from your device to your office systems, assuming you are accessing a secure connection. You may have seen the following designation: “www.https://.” The “https” designation denotes a “s”ecure connection. When you visit a bank website, for example, you will notice it is designated as an httpS, meaning it is secure. However, the connection is only as secure as your initiation point. Whenever I am using a “public” wireless connection, whether at a hotel, an airport, or a Starbucks, I always initiate the VPN software on my iPad. VPNs are readily available and cost a minimal monthly amount for their use. There are numerous amazing benefits to a VPN, but they are beyond the scope of this article. However, if interested, I would encourage you to find out more about VPNs and how to use them. It is sufficient to say that if you are not entering your firm’s network from a secure location, such as your home, you should absolutely use a VPN.
Tip 5: Telephone calls. Most office phone systems now allow you to call-forward your office line to your remote device. If you have a direct dial at your office and can call-forward your direct dial to your remote device, whether it's a cell phone or a home number, it is important that you have the ability to call-forward your main office line. However, at a small firm, you may need to simply direct the main number for your office directly to one individual, like a receptionist, who can take and process all calls. In times such as these where your offices are essentially vacated, you must have someone monitor your telephone system.
Tip 6: Video communication. I have been a power user of Zoom, a U.S. web-based video teleconferencing system, since 2012. Zoom is one of several companies that offer real-time video connectivity between yourself and anyone else who has access to the Zoom network. There are certainly several competitors to Zoom, but I personally find the ease-of-use and scalability of Zoom preferable. You are able to call as few as one to as many as 1,000 individuals at the same time. On a smaller scale, you can use Apple's FaceTime for basic, peer-to-peer videoconferencing. Ring Central offers videoconferencing, as does Microsoft meeting. I find, especially during these isolating times, that the ability to see people face-to-face is absolutely necessary to maintaining your sanity when working.
Tip 7: Speech-recognition software. Those of you who are challenged in your typing skills and do not currently have access to support staff might need to look into speech-recognition software for assistance. I have used Dragon NaturallySpeaking for almost 25 years. Dragon translates your spoken word into typewritten text one word at a time and is the program I am using to prepare this article. Whenever I am doing any sort of word processing, I dictate my work directly into Dragon and subsequently proofread, cleanup, and then send. I oftentimes dictate using Dragon and then forward to my legal assistants to clean up my dictation, deal with formatting issues, and then finalize the pleading, correspondence, or even an article like this. I highly recommend Dragon NaturallySpeaking as a fantastic complement to your remote work environment.
Tip 8: Screening your calls. Google Voice allows you to force callers to identify who they are before the call gets forwarded to you. I oftentimes choose not to give out my cell phone number in favor of my Google Voice number. When you pick up a Google Voice call, the individual calling you is first announced and then you can choose whether to accept or reject the call—a nice feature when working remotely. At the office, you might have your receptionist or secretary "screen" your calls for you, but when working remotely you lose that opportunity. Google Voice solves that problem. Unfortunately, Google stopped supporting Google Voice in 2019, but there are several alternative products available, and you should research which one might be best for you.
Tip 9: Cloud-based computing. Although my office has continued to use on-site servers, several of my colleagues in larger firms have migrated to cloud-based software providers. Essentially, a cloud-based system allows you to work remotely as though you were in your office wherever you are in the world. Unlike the options mentioned earlier through Citrix or LogMeIn, if you are a cloud-based user, your law firm software resides somewhere in the world. It really doesn't matter to you where it's located so long as you have consistent access to your data. Although I prefer having all of my client files, documents, and other information reside at my office, if your firm uses a cloud-based computing platform, you have access to the entire suite of information wherever you are based. This certainly would be true if there were some sort of a mass catastrophic event that took your office out of service. Currently the pricing of cloud-based computing is expensive enough that I prefer housing my servers at my firm along with the concomitant outside vendor support, but in the future, that will probably change. In short, it really doesn't matter whether a cloud-based office is physically open for business or where in the world you are in order to access your data.
Tip 10: Password managers. All of us have dozens of sites that we access daily that require password access. Whether you are accessing your office’s computer system, your Apple account, your Google account, or even your grocery store, managing your passwords is an important task. I have used for many years Dashlane to manage my passwords. I have over 300 different sites maintained in my Dashlane account, and these passwords synchronize among my devices. In other words, I have Dashlane at the office, at my home, on my iPad, and on my iPhone, and anytime I change one password, all of the other devices connected to Dashlane synchronize through the cloud and update every other device. It is not a good idea to use the same password on every website. Although I realize it is difficult to use multiple passwords because it is hard to remember which password is for which account, that is the beauty of Dashlane. It automatically remembers and recalls for you the password you've used for each individual website. One trick to think about for your passwords is to use a phrase. Studies have shown that a series of lowercase letters, capitalized letters, symbols, numbers, etc. is not as effective as a long password, such as a common phrase that only you know. For example, you could simply vary the end of the phrase “hickorydickorydock” depending on the website.
Needless to say, there are a whole lot more than 10 tips, but this is a pretty good start when working remotely now and in the future. Be safe and be healthy!