October 20, 2020 Feature

Technology for Virtual Staff: What You Need Now and for the Future

Benjamin K. Sanchez
Virtual staffing is here to stay. Make sure your team has the appropriate technology to serve you effectively.

Virtual staffing is here to stay. Make sure your team has the appropriate technology to serve you effectively.

Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision via Getty Images

The Great Pandemic of 2020, brought about by COVID-19, has changed the way many people do business, especially those who offer services based on knowledge and information. While creative types have been using technology to attract customers, perform their work, and deliver final products, lawyers (as is typical of our relatively conservative profession) have lagged far behind.

COVID-19 has forced us to reevaluate our use of technology and need for physical space. Lawyers throughout the nation have found that they have too little of the former and too much of the latter. As governmental restrictions and school closings took place, employers found that many of their employees were forced to work from home. The legal industry was no exception. Although most jurisdictions included lawyers as essential workers, the reality has been that our staff has been forced to stay home to take care of their parents, children, and other family and friends. We and our staff have had to focus on homeschooling and keeping our families safe and healthy while still managing a workload and somehow getting clients to pay. Most importantly from our perspective as employers, we lawyers have had to figure out how to keep our staff working while they are home.

Whether we are investing in technology for our own staff now working from home or for staff that has always been virtual, we need to ensure that those who work for us in one capacity or another have the appropriate technology to fulfill their responsibilities to us and our clients. Even when the pandemic subsides, we will find that how we do business will not return to our old ways. Many lawyers have determined that physical space is unnecessary, and thus lower overhead is a blessing as long as the work can still be done. Of course, the big law firms will continue to have their massive offices, but we solo and small firm lawyers will see the way we work—and the way we work with our staff—forever changed. I offer below some tips to help you adapt, regardless of how your practice is set up.

Hardware

Although most people immediately think of software when setting up arrangements for virtual staff, the best first step actually involves hardware. There are all sorts of ethical quandaries if you force or allow your staff to use their own equipment for working on confidential client matters. I suggest that you ensure that all virtual staff who are actual employees of the firm have firm-owned computers at home to use when doing work for the firm. Not only will this minimize the threat of confidential client and firm information being comingled on your staff’s personal computers and thus more easily susceptible to being exposed, but also the firm will maintain control for updating the hardware remotely or wiping the hard drive in case the computer is stolen or an employee is terminated prior to the firm getting the computer back from the employee.

Computers: Specs. Given how much can be done online in a secure environment these days, the specifications for a virtual staff computer are quite minimal. I would suggest minimum specs of 8 GB memory, Intel Core i5, and 256 SSD (solid-state drive) on a full-blown computer, not a tablet. As I will discuss below in this article, given that much of the everyday communications and practice management can be done online, the computer’s hardware will be used primarily for word processing, creating presentations, and sustaining a constant Internet connection with multiple tabs open in the browser. The hardware specifications I have listed above should suffice for your virtual staff to keep up with those demands.

Computers: Type and brand. In addition to specifications, you must decide what type and brand of computers you will get for your virtual staff. While you can possibly get by with a Chrome OS computer, my advice is that you don’t skimp on the computer for your staff. The last thing you want to hear from your staff when you are trying to satisfy a client or respond to a judge or opposing counsel is that your staff is unable to assist or get the work done due to computer malfunctions. You should give your staff reliable computers from trusted brands. Because Apple makes its own computers, you can generally trust them to be of sufficient quality. The real wildcards are Windows-based computers. I long ago learned to trust the big brands for my law firm. Ten years ago, when I had three associates and 12 staff members, my firm was a Dell workplace. These days, now that I am a true solo and farm out work to contract virtual paralegals, I use a Microsoft Surface Pro (https://www.microsoft.com) and bring it with me everywhere I anticipate working (I am no longer confined to a single office to get my work done). I highly recommend Microsoft, Dell (https://www.dell.com), and HP (http://hp.com) computers. Although there are many other brands, you don’t want to learn in a crisis that your off-brand computer has little to no support from the manufacturer or that repairing the computer won’t be as easy as you thought. Maximum uptime is key for your virtual staff’s computer, and thus reliability from a trusted brand is paramount.

Accessories: Webcam, microphone, headphones. In addition to the computer itself, you must not forget accessories that we normally wouldn’t need if our staff were in our offices. Specifically, a good web camera and microphone are necessary, and headphones are suggested. While it is true that we can conduct telephone conversations and thus impart and receive information without this equipment, the reality is that we need to bring as much human connection as possible to the virtual relationship. Being able to videoconference with our virtual staff through any number of methods discussed below is key to ensuring that we maintain morale and productivity, and that loneliness doesn’t set in.

Many webcams these days offer microphones, as do many headphones. For a solo or small firm attorney, finding a combination that works consistently and then sticking to that setup for each virtual staff member is key. It allows you not to waste time figuring out why one person’s webcam isn’t working and another person’s microphone is barely audible. With the same setup, there are fewer variables, and thus uptime is maximized. Because of this, I recommend a Logitech HD webcam (https://www.logitech.com; $100 or less) and headphones with built-in microphones or headphones with a separate lavalier microphone. Over-the-ear headphones are not necessary. In fact, simple Apple EarPods with the built-in microphone are sufficient. Wired headphones and microphones are recommended because there is less chance of transmission breaking up due to a bad Bluetooth connection and also because wired transmissions can’t be intercepted like wireless transmissions. The last thing you need is a nosy neighbor or interested bystander in a coffee shop hacking your employee’s wireless transmissions. To be honest, headphones are not absolutely needed if your virtual employee works from home, but because of the feedback often associated with a microphone and speakers working in close proximity to each other (and given how cheap an earpod/microphone solution is these days), ensuring your employee has headphones is a minor cost compared to the benefit of consistent, clear communication.

Software

Once you have a reliable and trusted hardware setup that can be easily replicated for your employees (current and new) and easily wiped should they not be returned or fall into the wrong hands, you can turn to the software side of technology. Such software falls into three major categories: work production, practice management, and communication. As recommended for hardware, the more trusted and reliable the brands, the less headaches you’ll have with your virtual staff.

Work production. There is not much more to work production in the legal industry than writing and creating presentations. True, there is some accounting and exhibit preparation, but much of what we do (including preparing exhibits) can be done with word processing and presentation software. Given the right hardware setup and sticking with major software, you will be 98 percent of the way to ensuring a successful technological setup for your virtual staff.

Word processing. In the legal profession, the primary form of work production is writing. We expect our administrative staff to write letters and our paralegals to write pleadings, motions, and discovery requests or responses. Thus, word processing software is key to getting our work done. In this day and age, Microsoft has won the word processing war. Although WordPerfect is still around and open-source software such as LibreOffice (https://www.libreoffice.org), OpenOffice (https://www.openoffice.org), and others exist, for maximum work production that is universally accepted, Microsoft Word is the juggernaut. Every few years, I test out Google Docs, and each time I am disappointed that it is not fully robust enough to replace Microsoft Word. Although Microsoft offers Word Online, I would invest in the full-blown version that operates on the computer rather than through the cloud. There isn’t much that Word can’t do, and it has the backing of Microsoft and thus rarely breaks down. Even for Apple users, I suggest using Word over Pages. I have been a diehard Apple user for my gadgets such as iPhone and iPad, and for a while I used Apple computers in my firm. However, once I got away from the expensive hardware for everyday use by my staff, there was no need (and really no way) to keep using Apple work production software.

Creating presentations. The second common form of work production for lawyers and their staff is presentations. Whether we are creating exhibits for trial or a slideshow for mediation or a CLE seminar we are teaching, presentation software is increasingly becoming a part of our regular work. If you’re in the Apple world, Keynote is fine software. Because presentation files are not normally given to others in their native format, the software used to create them is not as important. If you are not an Apple user, then Microsoft PowerPoint is the powerhouse presentation software to use. Quite frankly, however, as much as I advocate for one word-processing package in particular (Word), presentation software runs the gamut, and most can be used without a care. I would be sure that you and your staff truly know how to use whatever presentation software you adopt.

As noted above, do not give your presentation files to others in their native format. Instead, convert them to PDF files first. When creating exhibits for trial that will involve mixed media (written word, audio, video), I will create PDF files to give to the court and opposing counsel. This ensures that my files will be viewed correctly and will be less easily manipulated by others. For my own, non-courtroom presentations such as CLEs and speeches, if someone else will be handling the technology for me, I give that person both the native file for presentation and a PDF version for backup.

Practice management. Practice management software creates great divisions among solo and small firm attorneys. We tend to be loyal to a particular brand despite the fact that something better has come along. We also tend not to want to change how we manage our practice because we fear change. Please understand that this article is directed to you, the solo or small firm attorney who has a choice and decision-making authority, rather than big firms or even government attorneys who are locked into whatever the employer uses. Given the choice, my recommendation for a virtual staff arrangement is to use a cloud-based practice management software that is not dependent on syncing between the various computers used by you and your staff. With a cloud-based system, not only will all of you be using real-time information as it is input in the software, but the consistency of the same information for everyone will ensure that all are on the same page about each case, client, and firm business.

Most cloud-based practice management software comes in a subscription model based on the number of users. Some charge more for attorneys than non-attorneys, but most have determined that there really is no use in charging a different price for different types of users. Regardless of the pricing structure for firm users, almost none charge for client access to client portals connected to such software. The biggest names in this space are MyCase (https://www.mycase.com), Clio (https://www.clio.com), PracticePanther (https://www.practicepanther.com), CosmoLex (https://www.cosmolex.com), and Rocket Matter (https://www.rocketmatter.com). There are a ton of brands in this space, but like your hardware, I suggest sticking with known, trusted brands in a virtual staff arrangement.

I have used and tested most of the big brands and others not listed above. While I personally settled on MyCase several years ago, I recognize that the features of these applications are ever-increasing and warrant a review every so often. Given that our practice management software is the lifeblood of our business, be sure to choose wisely. Even if you decide later that you want to change software, getting information out of your current software and into the new software could be a major hassle if you are not with a big brand. You also should choose a brand that allows you to download your information. You don’t want to be locked in as a subscriber for life just to have access to your information in the future. This same tip rings true for computer-based applications. If your software brand goes out of business, a proprietary software file may do you little good in the future.

Communication. I use the term “communication” very broadly. In the most basic sense, I mean videoconferencing software that allows people to see and hear each other and share documents and computer screens. Such software includes Zoom (https://zoom.us), GoToMeeting (https://www.gotomeeting.com), Microsoft Teams, Webex (https://www.webex.com), and the like. Each brand has its strengths and weaknesses, but courts and government agencies have most commonly adopted Zoom and Microsoft Teams. GoToMeeting is popular among bar associations, and Webex has a strong corporate following. Regardless of which you choose for communication with your staff, you should be prepared to have all of them to communicate properly with your different audiences. Many allow recording of the meetings and have chat rooms, but beware that courts generally forbid recording and will have chat turned off. There are entire articles and white papers on videoconference software, and it is beyond the scope of this article to dive deep into the particulars. Just know that most of these applications have a component that must be downloaded to a computer before use, so be sure to have your applications installed and tested before using them for the first time in an important situation such as court, mediation, or client meeting.

Wrap It Up with Good Internet Service

Now that you know the basics of virtual staff technology, I close with an admonition that being virtual requires a good Internet connection at all times. Given that our staff’s Internet service varies widely depending on service provider, plan levels, and affordability, it is not enough simply to trust that our virtual staff’s Internet connection will be sufficient. You should ask each staff member to have a minimum level of bandwidth with a service provider that will guarantee at least 98 percent uptime. If your staff member doesn’t have such Internet service, you should consider paying the difference to upgrade him or her to a reliable connection suitable for business work. Although this is an expenditure, it is still cheaper than the monthly square-foot cost you pay for them to be in your office and is less costly than your virtual staff member not having access to you, co-workers, clients, opposing counsel, and courts at crucial times.

Virtual Staffing Is Here to Stay

Virtual staffing is here to stay in one form or another. Whether your virtual staff members are actual employees or are employed on a contract basis, you should ensure they have the appropriate technology to serve you effectively. You are not responsible for the technology expense of independent workers, but you should verify they have the minimum that you would require of an employee. I believe that once the pandemic subsides, many solo and small firm attorneys will not go back to brick-and-mortar offices but will instead navigate nimbly through virtual staffing, thus making our advantage over bigger and slower behemoth firms even greater. Now is the time to set up your virtual staff technology and get your firm to use it efficiently and effectively so that your firm is well ahead of the curve when the pandemic ends.

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Benjamin K. Sanchez has a general litigation practice based in Houston, Texas, and focuses on business, consumer, real estate, and family law matters. In addition to his law practice, he has a leadership training, speaking, and personal/business coaching company (Kirk & Hazel Company) and is certified by John C. Maxwell and licensed by Les Brown to train and speak on their respective material. Benjamin has been a solo/small firm Texas attorney for 21 years.