January 01, 2021 The TECHSHOW Issue

Practicing Law From a Safe Distance Using Microsoft Teams

Law firm staff can chat, meet and collaborate.

Ben M. Schorr
Using Microsoft Teams can help to bridge the distance and make live collaboration a reality.

Using Microsoft Teams can help to bridge the distance and make live collaboration a reality.

via Pogonici / iStock / Getty Images Plus

The events of 2020 dramatically, and suddenly, changed the way many law firms had to operate. Lawyers and their staff were, almost overnight, exiled to their home offices and dining room tables, to continue serving their clients. It became critical for employees to use remote collaboration and communication tools.

Using Teams to Connect With People

First and foremost, Microsoft Teams is a platform for collaborating with your firm. Within your individual teams and channels, you can have conversations via persistent chat, collaborate on files, meet via voice or video, and even integrate other tools that can help you work together to achieve your goals.

Conferencing

Probably the biggest difference in the modern workplace is that so many of us are now working from home. Our beautifully decorated conference rooms aren’t getting much use right now.

Teams can help you keep those team meetings on track with voice and videoconferencing features. When you create a Teams meeting, people can join using their microphone and speakers on their computer, or with a compatible headset. If they have a webcam, they can choose to turn it on so you can see their smiling faces.

Having been in this work-from-home world for a few months now, separated from my team, I’d encourage you not to underestimate the value of having the webcam turned on even if only briefly. Your team may not fully appreciate how much they miss each other until they actually see each other again. And the occasional pet or child making an appearance in the meeting is almost always a nice moment.

Tip: If you’re running Windows, CTRL+SHIFT+M in a Teams meeting will mute or unmute your microphone. CTRL+SHIFT+O will turn your camera on or off. If you’re running macOS, use Command+Shift+M for mute and Command+Shift+O to turn your camera on or off.

Inviting People

There are two primary ways that I invite people to a meeting in Teams.

I create a new meeting item in Outlook, like I always did, and make sure to select Teams Meeting from the ribbon before I send the invite. Note that you can invite people outside your firm to Teams meetings, too, and if they don’t have Teams installed they can join using Teams for the web in their browser.

If I’m creating a meeting with a group of folks I have a Team for already, like the “Intellectual Property Practice Group” at the firm, I’ll just go to that team and create a meeting in the appropriate channel there. That will invite all the members of that team automatically.

Whiteboarding

During your Teams meetings, you can use a shared whiteboard to draw or diagram ideas as a group, just as you would a physical whiteboard in a meeting room. Select the Share icon in the share tray of the meeting, and in the Whiteboard section select Microsoft Whiteboard. The Whiteboard app will open and everybody in the meeting will have the ability to write, draw or sketch on the whiteboard collaboratively.

Screen Sharing

Another powerful feature in Teams when you’re working remotely is the ability to do screen sharing. You can choose to share the entire monitor, or just a specific app currently running on your system. Select the Share icon in the share tray of the meeting and then pick the monitor or app you want to share.

If you share an entire monitor, as opposed to a specific application, make sure there isn’t anything else on that monitor that you’d rather folks not see. It could be embarrassing to close your PowerPoint deck, or Word document, and suddenly everybody on the call can see your email inbox. Best to close any sensitive files or applications that you didn’t intend to share in the meeting.

If you want to share something that has sound, like a video, make sure you select the toggle to Include computer sound when you share your screen; otherwise everybody will see your video, but not hear it.

If you’re only planning to share a PowerPoint slide deck, consider selecting PowerPoint from the Share tray rather than a monitor or the PowerPoint app. You’ll then be able to select any slide deck that you have in OneDrive or SharePoint. Sharing your deck in this manner can use less bandwidth than sharing it the traditional way and give a better experience to participants on slow connections.

Consider recording the meeting. You should probably get consent from all the attendees that it’s OK to record, but by recording the meeting you can make it available to people who weren’t able to attend, or who missed part of the meeting. The recording will appear in the meeting chat a few minutes after you stop recording.

Keeping Your Team Engaged

One challenge with web conferences and presentations is keeping everybody’s attention. When you’re all in a conference room it’s easier to keep them with you. Even if they’re sneaking glances at their smartphone under the table, they still have you and the other audience members there to draw energy from. With a web conference, especially one where the cameras are turned off, it’s too easy for people to mentally disconnect from the meeting, do other tasks or even get up and walk away.

Take that into account when planning the meeting and try to organize your content for maximum audience interaction and participation. Showing a page of tiny text for 20 minutes while one person monologues is a fast way to remind the work-from-home audience that they haven’t checked to see what’s new on Disney+ lately.

Finally, when scheduling multiple meetings, make sure you are building in breaks between them. In the office, breaks tend to happen naturally as people walk to other rooms or drive to other buildings. Online there is a tendency to schedule meeting after meeting, since people just have to click a couple of times to get from one to the next.

Build time into the busy schedule for people to have at least a few minutes between meetings to refill their beverage, visit the restroom, step outside for some air and mentally prepare for the next meeting.

Private Channels

When you create a team around a practice area or matter, everybody that you invite to the team will be able to see all the content and conversations in the team. But there may be times when you want to have a separate channel that is reserved only for specific team members. That’s when you want to create a private channel.

You create a private channel the same way you create a normal channel. Select the button to the right of the team name (it looks like three dots) and then select Add a channel. On the Create a channel dialog box that appears, you should see a privacy setting toward the bottom that lets you select either Standard or Private.

If you don’t see that privacy setting, that means that you’re not an owner of the team and the owner of the team hasn’t enabled the setting to allow team members to create private channels. You can reach out to the team owner and ask them to edit the team settings to allow it, or you may just have to create a separate team.

Everything done within the private channel, including shared files, is only accessible to the members of that private channel. I should point out that currently not every feature of standard channels is available to private channels, but most are. Planner and Forms are two examples of features that aren’t currently available to private channels.

Phone System Integration

If not having access to your desk phone is causing you grief in the work-from-home world, you might want to consider switching your phone system to Microsoft Teams. Depending upon the Microsoft 365 plan you have and where you’re located, you may be able to use Teams for your phones (we do). Then your office calls can route through your computer, your mobile phone or even a VoIP handset on your dining room table. Clients will never know you’re not at your desk.

Collaborating on Files

Every channel in Teams has a files library that you can easily access from the Files tab at the top of the channel. Files stored there can be read and edited by any member of the team. The files don’t have to be Office files; you can store PDFs, videos, photos or any other kind of file in the library.

If the files are Office files, you can open and edit them in the Office for the web client in your browser, or you can select Open > Open in App to open the file in the desktop version of your Office app (Word, Excel, etc.).

Once you’ve opened the file you’ll be able to quickly return to it in your Office desktop app, without even going to Teams directly, from the File menu. It should appear among your Recent files, and you can pin it to the list if you expect to work on it often.

One of the most powerful features of sharing files through Teams is that the Teams files library is a SharePoint library, which means that multiple people can edit the file at the same time. No more getting locked out because your associate or paralegal has the file open!

Adding Tabs and Apps

At the top of your channel window in Teams is a set of tabs for common features like files, a Wiki and other things. You can click the + sign to add more tabs there and there’s a surprising amount of power under that + sign.

First off, you can add tabs for websites your team might need often, like the court or maybe a relevant research site. You can add tabs for internal SharePoint sites, OneNote notebooks, forms and more. You can also add tabs for a growing number of third-party apps, like LawToolBox or Clio, that you may already be using in your practice.

Making these tools conveniently accessible right within Teams can help your firm save time and find things more easily.

Go Mobile

As long as you’re working remotely, you might occasionally want to go all the way. There are free Teams apps for iPhone and Android that you can use to join meetings, collaborate in chat and even access files from anywhere you have a data connection.

Closing Argument

This is a new, and often disconcerting, work environment that we find ourselves in. Some people find it more productive; others not so much. The distance can stifle creativity and firm culture, even while the lack of commute may add an hour or more of productive time to the day. Using Teams can help to bridge the distance and make live collaboration a reality.

Ben M. Schorr

Senior Technical Writer

Ben M. Schorr is a senior technical writer at Microsoft. beschorr@microsoft.com

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