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November/December 2020

Tech From the Trenches

Recommendations for the New Normal

Barron K. Henley

Much as been said about what the legal industry will look like post-COVID. For law offices operating on a mostly analog platform, the stay-at-home orders were significantly disruptive. Other, more digitally progressive offices were less affected. Regardless of how it affected you, the pandemic is going to change the way law offices operate going forward. From a business perspective, the new reality is going to be better than the old one. Here are few technology and practice management recommendations for the new normal.

Upgrade your web meeting game.

Obviously, a high percentage of meetings are going to occur online in the future. Therefore, it makes sense to take steps to improve the web meeting experience. The first step is to get a better camera than the ones typically built into laptops or all-in-one PCs. For example, Logitech makes a wide variety of superior webcams for every purpose. Generally speaking, you’ll look better and clearer. For better audio, a headset is an easy upgrade (see the Plantronics Savi devices, for example). Some web meeting services can blur or replace your background with photos or other images. However, you never know what you’re going to get with someone else’s web meeting service. If you would like to conceal what’s behind you, backdrops are an easy fix. For example, I have the Emart Photo Video Studio Background kit, which comes with black, white and green backdrops. Finally, even an excellent webcam cannot completely compensate for bad lighting. For that reason, it may be worth improving your lighting. If you do a web search for “videoconference lighting,” you’ll see that there are hundreds of options. I went with a pair of dimmable LED video lights so I could put one in my home office and the other in my regular office.

Electronic filing systems are required.

It’s pretty simple: If you want complete remote access to all client files, you need an electronic filing system. So, complete electronic filing systems should definitely be on the agenda for every law office. Electronic files are remotely accessible and easy to share, copy and back up. They’re also easier to update, and they require little to no physical space for storage. Lawyers who prefer to print documents and review them with a pen will find that doing the same thing on an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil is a very similar experience although it’s all digital. Reading documents on a computer can also be made much easier by getting larger monitors that can rotate to portrait layout (rather than landscape) so users can see a whole page of text without having to scroll. Finally, law offices are going to need a better storage vehicle for all those electronic files (and email). A convoluted folder structure no one can make sense of and nonsensical file naming conventions will not cut it going forward. Therefore, document management systems are going to begin moving from optional to mandatory for many offices. Example programs include NetDocuments, Worldox, iManage Work and OpenText eDOCS, among others.

Digital signature platforms.

As the era of roundtable closings or signing documents at someone’s office declines, lawyers will need the ability to get documents securely signed by remote parties. Lawyers may also need to sign documents themselves this way. Digital signature platforms make this easy, and it makes sense for all law offices to have this as an option going forward. There are many options for this, including DocuSign, RightSignature, Adobe Sign, OneSpan and HelloSign. Generally, the individuals signing documents this way do not need an account with the platform vendor, nor do they need to buy anything. Further, documents can be signed on any computer, tablet or phone with an internet connection. Finally, if your state allows for electronic notarizations (notary is physically present, but documents are digitally signed) or remote notarizations (notary is not physically present), it may be worth going through the approval process. In Ohio (where I am), there’s an additional test that must be passed to become an authorized online notary public.

Digital communication upgrades.

We’ve probably all been involved with phone conferences where one or more of the participants were on a cellphone and the connection wasn’t good. Since you can almost always tell (from the poor quality) when someone you’re speaking with is on a cellphone, they’re not the best option for business communications. Therefore, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems are going to become even more popular, particularly systems that allow users to use a USB or wireless headset connected to a computer. For example, our office uses a hosted VoIP phone system that is completely untethered to a physical office. We use software to make and receive calls, and although traditional desk phones were an option, everyone uses wireless headsets instead. For our VoIP phone system to work, users need a laptop, internet connection and headset. Although no one was in any of our offices when COVID hit, our phone system was perfectly operational; and although we have employees in 13 states, we’re easily all on the same system. Another communication tool that should get more attention is secure instant messaging or chatting. Many team collaboration platforms offer this, such as Microsoft Teams, Microsoft Kaizala, Slack, Google Meet, Google Chat and similar services. Instant messaging offers a more real-time communication experience than email and helps people stay connected with each other.

Document automation will become standard law office technology.

Lawyers attempting to become more self-reliant with finalizing work product often hit a roadblock when it comes to drafting complex documents. In some cases, lawyers simply cannot type well due to a lack of training or disability. In other cases, lawyers can get the raw content into a word processor document but lack the ability to clean up the formatting. Finally, some lawyers use a voice recorder for dictation, but they can’t unilaterally finish the process because transcription requires help from support staff. Document automation (aka document assembly) systems overcome all those problems. At its core, an automated drafting system presents a dynamic interview on the computer, and after all the questions are answered, a perfectly customized and formatted document appears in Microsoft Word. Even terrible typists can usually get through the interview without trouble, and the documents come out perfectly formatted. Document assembly platforms can be used to automate a lawyer’s own documents, and depending upon practice area, there may be document assembly subscription services available where the content is provided by the service (see WealthCounsel as an example). In any event, lawyers seeking to produce final documents without assistance are increasingly going to lean on document assembly technology such as HotDocs, Contract Express, XpressDox, Doxserá and similar platforms. Finally, if you dictate but don’t want to invest in document automation, you should at least investigate the speech recognition products from Nuance (Dragon Professional, Legal or Anywhere) and BigHand. Either option will speed up your process and largely eliminate the expense of transcription.

In summary, the new normal will be interesting and, in many ways, better. The best thing we can do is examine the lessons we learned and take steps to make sure that if another event like COVID-19 happens in the future, we’ll all be ready. 

Barron K. Henley


Barron K. Henley is a lawyer and founding partner of Affinity Consulting Group, a legal technology consulting firm focused on automating and streamlining law firms and legal departments. Henley heads Affinity’s document assembly/automation and software training departments, and he teaches CLE classes throughout the United States and Canada covering a wide variety of topics related to law practice management, technology and ethics. [email protected]

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