September/October 2020

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The Next Normal—Don't Fall Back

Catherine Sanders Reach

During the Great Recession of 2008, many articles were published about the “the new normal.” They focused on law firms’ need to make changes to be more flexible and client focused. The topics included better financial management, alternative billing practices, adopting project management and streamlining processes for efficiency in response to the economic downturn and its effects. However, when the economy stabilized, many firms went back to the old ways of doing things. Today the new normal facing law firms is the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic upheaval. Firms have pivoted to adopt technology to deliver remote services. They have reviewed and revised policies, budgets and procedures. They embraced, or at least accepted, working from home. Instead of characterizing this shift as a new normal, law firms should instead view it as the “next normal.” There will be more new normal environments, so preparation for the next normal would help frame a mindset of constant iteration and improvement, adopting and adapting to change as it is thrust upon us. What are your next steps to prepare for the next normal?

Financial Preparedness

Individuals are advised to keep at least three months’ worth of expenses in reserve in case of an emergency. Similarly, a law firm should have, at minimum, three months of expenses—including salaries—held in reserve. Many firms already experience seasonal cash flow fluctuations and are used to having lean months. A budget is a crucial instrument in monitoring expenses and income throughout the year. Sole practitioners especially should budget to pay themselves in case the firm’s profits become unpredictable.

Law firms are businesses. Do not sit on top of uncollected fees. Establish a pattern of quick and consistent invoicing and diligent follow-up on unpaid bills. Make it easy for clients to pay you. Accept credit cards, ACH payments and e-checks. Consider which services could be converted to flat-fee arrangements to take payment upfront.

Before cutting staff or reducing pay, take a hard look at your firm’s expenses. What services and technology could be consolidated or dropped? Are there secure, free alternatives? Can you negotiate for reduced prices or deferred payments in the short term? Do you have redundant products? As an example of potential cost cutting and consolidation, if the office is paying for Microsoft 365 Business Standard (formerly Office 365 Business Premium) and is also paying for Acuity or Calendly, could Bookings work as a substitute? Could the firm reduce the number of Zaps it pays for by transferring the automations to Microsoft Power Automate? Is the firm paying for services that could be brought in-house like scanning? Or could you seek outsourced or contract work instead of hiring part-time employees?

Cybersecurity

When state governors issued orders to stay at home with a few essential business exceptions, many law firms had already anticipated the order and acted to send their teams to work from home. In the haste to move operations to a remote working environment, some security protocols were quickly established. If your firm is still allowing remote work, now is a good time to review what steps were taken, what can be improved and what more needs to be done.

For firms reliant on servers for files and applications, many already had a VPN (virtual private network) in place. However, re-evaluating your VPN to make sure that it allows users to easily and securely access what they need from the firm’s servers can help ensure that people use the protocols. If the VPN causes lags and disruptions, people may find workarounds.

Whether your firm hastily added laptops for users or already deployed laptops, make sure that basic security settings like password-protected access at login, password-protected lock screens and hard drive encryption are in force. If staff are using personal laptops, make sure that the laptops are secured based on firm protocols and that the laptop is logged as a firm device. The firm should review the bring-your-own-device policy and ensure it is up to date and meets the needs of any changes to the firm’s working environment.

Provide instruction for your remote workforce to secure their home Wi-Fi routers. Require that they check to see that WPA2-AES has been set on their router for security. Their home Wi-Fi network should use a long and strong password to access it. Many home internet services provide the ability to create a separate network, so have them check with their provider for instructions.

While the firm may have suggested adopting a password manager to end users and required a long, strong password to log in to firm resources, firms should consider adopting enterprise password management. Password managers deployed across the firm can make quick work of enforcing password best practices, changing all a user’s passwords and reducing the user’s ability to let the browser remember and fill the passwords. Many popular password managers offer business versions such as LastPass Enterprise, 1Password Business or Dashlane Business.

Part of your security protocol includes adequate backup. If the firm set up work from home in haste, there may be machines that are not covered by the firm’s backup. For cloud-based services, your firm likely had backup in place, like Backupify for Microsoft 365 or G Suite backup. However, if end users save files to their local drives, are these files covered by your backup procedure? Make sure to check that any cloud-based backup, like Carbonite or Backblaze, is capturing any data stored on laptops or desktops in use by your team.

Your firm may have had a “clean desk” policy in the office, which needs to be in place if people are working at home. Some of the equipment that makes this possible in the office, including locking desk drawers and shredders, will not be a practical reality in a home office. Instruct the remote workforce to maintain a clean desk policy at home, even including the reimbursed purchase of a locking file box.

Paperless Office

For firms that were already paperless before the pandemic, the move from an office to a remote environment was likely a little easier. However, few firms are truly and completely paperless, so some people probably whisked up paper files to take with them. In firms that rely on paper files, the move was more complicated. If your firm found that it was a struggle to deal with paper files, it is time to evaluate your process. Technologies like dual monitors, up-to-date PDF manipulation applications like Adobe Acrobat or Kofax, e-signature and e-contract tools, and scanning apps can help mitigate the reliance on paper and reduce the need to print documents.

Team Communication

As law firms started working from home, email volume increased dramatically. Many firms explored intraoffice communication tools to reduce email and to team build. Tools like Microsoft Teams, Slack and even chat tools built into practice management applications give lawyers a different way of communicating that reduces the need for each person to manage, file and store email. Threaded, searchable chat logs help keep everyone in the loop. Many of these tools also build in quick audio and videoconferencing. Team building and community can be established by creating “watercooler” channels to encourage remote employees to share and chat like they would in the office. If your firm did not explore non-email communication tools for office communications, they are worth investigating.

Task Management

Many firms found that with team members working from home, staying on top of tasks was no longer a matter of walking down the hall for a quick update. Emailing about outstanding tasks or the status of a matter is inefficient. If your firm has not explored task management tools, it is not too late. There are workflow and task management tools built into many of the practice management applications. Other options include tools like Planner, To Do and Teams available through your Microsoft 365 subscription. Third-party tools for project management like Asana and Trello are designed to help business stay on top of tasks, assignments and deadlines. If your firm already has task-based checklists, these can serve as a basis for your electronic task management templates. Refining your tasks with dependent and subordinate tasks will take some trial and error. Ultimately you can design templates that can be reused for different types of matters. Task management tools make it easy to delegate and follow up on outstanding tasks and deadlines, so everyone is on the same page immediately.

Videoconferencing

During the pandemic lockdown, lawyers found themselves using videoconferencing daily with the courts, with clients, with bar associations, for mediation, for conferences, for meet-ups and with their teams. Meetings abruptly shifted from in-person to online. Participation in online videoconferencing reached such a pitch that “Zoom fatigue” was added to the lexicon and articles about how to cope with it were published. While videoconferencing will not replace in-person meetings forever, there is no reason to abandon it entirely. Videoconferencing can eliminate travel headaches, even if to avoid going from one side of town to the other in rush hour traffic. It can also provide cost savings when compared to an in-person meeting, potentially reducing space and equipment rental, travel expenses and time.

Document Collaboration

There are lots of ways to collaborate on documents that do not involve a printer or emailing it to another person. Emailing can cause version issues. Printing adds a lot of extra work to edit the digital version. Microsoft Word through Microsoft 365 provides several collaboration options. You can email a link to a colleague who can open it in their browser and comment on it or edit it. You can revert to previous versions and see changes by author. Google Docs offers similar capabilities. Adobe Acrobat DC lets you share a document for comment or redlining. These tools can be used with the internal team or with clients. Learning all the options, features and workflows can cut out a lot of unnecessary steps and confusion. When the firm is spread out and printers are scarce, learning and using online collaboration tools can significantly improve productivity.

Collecting Client Information

During the pandemic shutdown, lawyers and clients found a lot of creative ways to get work done while socially distanced. Some used videoconferencing, some did estate plans through a window and some created “parking lot” closings for real estate. States came up with various ways to handle virtual notarizations. In many cases to get signatures and review, there were not many options. But there are firm workflows that can be greatly improved. One common part of almost all firm workflows is getting information from a client. Some firms do an in-person interview and the information is written down and then added to a practice management system. Why not just pull up the practice management system and input directly into the system? Many firms send the client forms to gather information. These forms are sometimes PDF documents or, worse, Word documents. If the client is home without a printer and the form is poorly designed and difficult or impossible to use, it puts the client in a predicament of having to figure out how to deliver the information. And, when the firm receives the information, someone likely has to re-key the information. Some firms require documents that contain sensitive information from clients and often ask that the client mail the documents. However, there are so many ways that information can be collected so that it is easily reused without typing it in, transcribing it, scanning it or taking three steps when it could take one. Efficiency for the firm and a positive client experience should be the goal for any firm gathering information from a client. Firms can use client interviews online with tools like Community.lawyer to gather information. Or use Gravity Forms for WordPress to collect information and use Zapier to send the information to Clio. Or use a client portal for a client to easily upload sensitive documents instead of printing them or emailing them with little security. Or collect information via JotForm, review the response in a spreadsheet and then use mail merge in a word processor to drop the variable information from the spreadsheet into a template. There are so many options to make gathering information easy, convenient and hassle free for the firm and the client. Whether in or out of the office, there are many ways to improve on this workflow.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many firms to rapidly change how they do things. With time to reflect on what worked, what did not, what can be improved and what should be reviewed, firms can be better prepared to face the challenges ahead. The reality of business is that firms should position themselves to proactively anticipate shifts in the economic and social climate and be prepared to act as necessary. Your firm likely made many changes to react to the pandemic. Take the opportunity to improve on and adopt these changes, with an eye toward making the firm more prepared for the next normal. Do not fall back into pre-pandemic law practice patterns. 

Catherine Sanders Reach

Director

Catherine Sanders Reach is director of the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association. Formerly she was director, Law Practice Management and Technology for the Chicago Bar Association and the director at the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center. She served on the ABA TECHSHOW Board from 2007-2009, 2014- 2016, was co-vice chair in 2019 and was co-chair for 2020. csandersreach@ncbar.org

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