January 01, 2021 The TECHSHOW Issue

In the Office, Out of the Office: Remote Challenges Outside, Safety Inside

At last, the transformation of the practice of law moves forward.

Mary E. Vandenack
With almost no notice, law firms of all sizes found themselves functioning remotely.

With almost no notice, law firms of all sizes found themselves functioning remotely.

Dave Weatherall via Unsplash

A global pandemic found its way to the United States in March 2020. With almost no notice, law firms of all sizes found themselves functioning remotely. While fully virtual law firms have existed for quite some time, the fully virtual law firm is entirely different from a typical in-office law firm with lawyers and staff working remotely. Even in the typical in-office law firm, many lawyers have long worked remotely at least some of the time, but taking a full firm remote, on a sudden time frame, posed challenges for many firms.

A variety of factors affected how law firms had to adjust to functioning amid a pandemic. Firm size was a factor. Firm geographic location was a factor. Firm management was a factor. Even as the pandemic ultimately passes, firms should evaluate the changes that should be incorporated in the long term. Additionally, law firms should use lessons learned during the pandemic to update disaster plans for other types of disasters.

To provide a variety of perspectives as to how firms responded to the pandemic and what changes may be made permanently, we interviewed law firm partners and administrators from different size firms across the country. Lance G. Johnson is a solo practitioner concentrating in intellectual property and located outside Washington, D.C. Mary E. Vandenack is managing partner at Vandenack Weaver LLC, a small boutique tax, business, trusts and estates firm located in Omaha, Nebraska. Kim Ess is the chief operating officer of Nilan Johnson Lewis, a midsize firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Law Practice: What were the most significant challenges for you in taking some or all your office remote? How did you solve these challenges?

Lance G. Johnson: When I established my firm, I had no desire to incur a large, continuing overhead cost of a physical office since the vast majority of my clients were outside the D.C. metro area. I set up, from day one, as a remote practice that relied completely on cloud-based applications for document storage, docketing/billing and accounting. This allowed me to use part-time service providers that were not necessarily located near me for my paralegal and bookkeeping needs. When the COVID shutdowns came, I was already remote. However, I did rely before the pandemic on travel and conventional face-to-face meetings for meeting new clients and maintaining my existing client relationships. Zoom helped me transition, while also cutting the costs of travel. That system is so easy to use that it has become part of my standard toolkit.

Mary E. Vandenack: The reason that I left a big law firm in the early 2000s was because I wanted to use technology to deliver services more efficiently and cost-effectively. We have long focused on process automation, document automation, web-based services and apps to connect with clients and provide innovative approaches to legal services. While most of our attorneys are able to work remotely, we are in a state where rural internet can be spotty at best. Some of our attorneys and staff live in remote areas. As a result, it is difficult for some attorneys to work remotely. Additionally, some of our paraprofessionals had never worked remotely.

We had to adapt. For our attorneys and staff with poor internet, we gave them in-office priority. For those who had never worked remotely, we had to resolve issues of equipment, security and learning to effectively work remotely. Because our server is currently in the cloud, we purchased laptops, with cameras and microphones, for our remote workers to avoid the use of personal equipment. We divided into teams. Each team leader held a morning huddle, a mid-day huddle and an end-of-day huddle using Microsoft Teams. Each remote worker provided a daily work plan for review. (This practice was so effective in terms of productivity that we have continued the practice as we returned to the office.) We also held a weekly computer training/issues meeting once a week where every employee could identify issues with working remotely so that we could work to resolve the issues.

Kim Ess: The biggest challenge was making sure everyone had access to needed technology for remote work. Our attorneys and paralegals were accustomed to working remotely, and all had firm-issued laptops and were accustomed to working in our firm’s virtual environment. But other staff, including legal administrative assistants and administrative staff, did not have laptops and had not previously worked from home. Some staff were able to access our virtual environment from home computers; others received laptops and other equipment including monitors and scanners for their use at home. We acted quickly, getting ready a week before Minnesota’s stay-at-home order went into effect, which allowed ample time for everyone to bring equipment home. In addition, we needed to ensure everyone had access to and was trained on using videoconferencing technology from their computers. Our new office space (which we moved into just five weeks prior to the order) includes integrated Zoom conference rooms, so many employees had been trained on the use of Zoom but did not have much opportunity to use it. To transition to working from home, we made sure that everyone had the Zoom technology installed on their laptops and then we provided directions on how to schedule and host a Zoom meeting, as well as other videoconferencing tools.

LP: After COVID shutdowns, many law firms now see the need for disaster planning differently. Can you provide your top five tips for evolving your law firm disaster planning, whether the disaster is a pandemic or something else?

Johnson: Number one for me is to back up everything on the computer at least once a month. I have decent local security, but hard drives still die without warning. I lost a motherboard three years ago from a power spike, so I picked up a new box at Office Depot and had it running by the next day. The work product was all online, and I had a solid backup of the old system. I could download and install the Microsoft Office 365 apps and get started with a fresh install fairly quickly. Number two for me, as a solo, is to have a personal backup plan for access to the docket and handling the personal due dates in the event that I am taken offline for what might be an extended or indefinite period. My plan includes an experienced paralegal with full access and a working relationship with another IP firm who can step in quickly should the need arise. My number three tip is to have a fully configured and updated laptop in case my desktop software goes down for any reason. Number four is a good tablet with cellular capabilities. If the power goes out in the house/office, I can still get communications in and out with the cellular connection. Number five is to be sufficiently paranoid about the possibility of failure for tips one to four that I continue to reevaluate and refine them by tracking the newest tools and technologies that make economic sense for a solo.

Vandenack: First, be prepared to go entirely remote quickly. As part of this, reconsider firm equipment. We are transitioning to docking stations with laptops so that each employee can take their laptop to their remote location. Additionally, train all employees on how to work remotely. Second, identify the essential functions that you have historically concluded must happen in the office. Reconsider. We found that almost every function that we had once concluded was an essential in-office activity could be conducted remotely if necessary. (This does require a firm to be paperless, so if that is not yet your situation, make that a priority.) Third, managing attorneys and staff working remotely is very different from in office, but the strategies that work while working remotely likely will facilitate better in-office production. Create remote work teams, establish remote team leaders and have a plan for how work is organized and facilitated when working remotely. Fourth, identify the significant security issues that arise from remote work. Develop a security plan and educate the entire firm on security measures. Fifth, create an effective system to ensure that all client documents are part of the firm’s document management system. One of the benefits of having firm laptops to send home is that each can be set up to access the firm server and policies can be created that require saving documents to the client’s files on the server. This will save the malpractice issues that can result if members of the firm begin saving documents locally where others do not have access. Sixth (one extra), review your backup procedures. Consult a professional and make sure that the backup procedures you have in place will be as effective if your office goes remote as if you are in the office.

Ess: As part of our disaster planning, we maintain an employee list sorted by the location of their home. This list has been used quite a few times for minor and major events so we can quickly determine which employees may be at risk and to check on them to ensure their safety and well-being. We are proud of our disaster planning plan, and we regularly test it to make sure everyone on the team knows the plan, so we can determine how we may need to update it; a plan that sits on a shelf may not be relevant when a disaster strikes. Several of these tests used a pandemic as a scenario, which was a tremendous help in our COVID-19 response. We also followed our mantra: communicate, communicate, communicate . . . and then communicate more. Employees need to know what you are doing to keep the business in business. When you aren’t sure what might be coming, admit it and then follow up with them when you do know. Share your financial information. What you don’t share is being made up in the minds of your employees, so give them information including how the financials look. We found it beneficial to do semimonthly updates via Zoom with smaller groups. We have also used calling trees to stay connected and provide opportunities to hear individual concerns.

LP: As you returned to the office, did you make changes to the physical layout? What policies or procedures did you adopt to keep law firm employees and clients safe?

Johnson: No changes needed for me. Working and staying in quarantine are the same thing for me.

Vandenack: Initially, we brought our crew back in waves. We gave priority to those who had poor internet or who were struggling to work remotely. We adopted policies that created a safe environment. We had plexiglass barriers made for our reception area. We placed them on tables and used them for document signings. Clients could enter our front door, sit down, sign documents and leave. The attorney or paraprofessional would be on the other side and could answer any questions. We have clients who prefer in-person meetings for certain issues. We closed our small conference rooms and structured our large conference room with 6-foot spacing. We require all incoming clients or professionals to wear masks. We require all our staff to wear masks when they are not in their personal office. We designated each person’s office as their safe space. No one can enter unless invited. We use Teams within the office for larger meetings. We provided individual coffeepots for the offices of those who wanted them. We have put germ-reducing filters in each office and conference room, and we have created an approach to the use of restrooms that has no more than one person in the restroom at any given time.

Ess: We instituted a number of changes to our physical office. We marked traffic flow and directions throughout the space, added social distancing markers, minimized touch points, marked entrances and exits, increased cleaning and sanitizing of high-touch surfaces and common areas, and placed signage in numerous locations to remind people of our policies. We also changed our procedures for those who came to the office. Anyone in the office was required to wear a face covering. The number of people allowed at any one time was strictly limited, and we closely tracked attendance in the office and developed contact tracing procedures in the event of a positive diagnosis. We restricted office access to employees and essential business guests only, and attorneys were asked to only allow clients or other counsel in the office if absolutely necessary. Finally, we instituted travel restrictions, and prohibited anyone who had traveled to high-risk areas to stay away from the office for 14 days.

LP: As a result of working remotely, did you make any changes to how you use technology in terms of internal operations?

Johnson: No. I started out with the plan that I would be permanently virtual and avoid the overhead costs of an actual office. It would be nice to have a conference room, but I can rent those when (and if) it becomes necessary or continue to connect by Zoom.

Vandenack: We used the pandemic as an opportunity to review, evaluate and improve all our internal technologies. We considered anything that we did that seemed time consuming and tedious. One area that we achieved great success in automating was our billing process. Prior to the pandemic, we still went through the process of distributing WIPs and having a staff member make changes based on attorney notes. We trained attorneys on how to edit the WIPs electronically. Our attorneys found great satisfaction in being able to get the bills to say what they wanted to without having to revise three or four times. We cut down the time consumption of our billing process by more than half. Additionally, we reviewed our financial reporting software. We were always struggling to get the exact data that we wanted. We worked with a consultant to install an overlay financial software product that would pull the data we wanted to review and organize it into reports that made sense to us. Each revenue producer has the ability to readily review his or her own reports on a daily basis and each group leader can readily review the performance of his or her team. As a result, we are seeing better management of production with improved results in billing and realization.

Ess: We rolled out a new softphone system in November 2019 that provided capabilities for most firm employees to access their phone line through computers and mobile devices. Our new system also included videoconferencing and instant messaging features. We were able to push out the softphones to all staff to allow for seamless access to make and receive calls with their office phone number. This was a huge benefit to ensure we were able to still meet client needs and remain responsive. The instant message tool was introduced as an alternative way to stay connected. We increased our Zoom licenses and provided training and resources to help everyone become familiar with using Zoom for videoconference calls. We increased the number of virtual meetings substantially. We were still reliant on paper for two of our main accounting functions, proforma editing and expense reports, but quickly rolled out procedures to accomplish these tasks in a fully digital manner.

LP: As a result of experiences from the pandemic, have you used technology or otherwise changed the way you deliver client services? Which changes will you continue and why?

Johnson: There has been no substantive change to my practice after the pandemic, although I am busier than I was before. That change may be due to economics and the unique nature of my practice than any pandemic issue.

Vandenack: We concluded that the pandemic created the opportunity to push our technology to an entirely new level. While we have long offered clients the ability to initiate certain legal services online and offered client portals, we decided to take these services to a new level. We have significantly enhanced the automation of processes. The pandemic raised awareness of mortality and the need for access to estate planning documents. We created various ways to facilitate the creation of estate planning documents and to make them readily available online or via an app. We have added care management services, family office services, digital asset management services and personal effect inventory services. We have affiliated with companies that offer complementary services for our clients, and we have worked to provide them through online means to the extent possible. Many of our add-ons were in the planning stages before the pandemic, but the pandemic highlighted the intense need for moving services along immediately. We also created affiliations with like-minded law firms across the country to ensure that we could help as many people as possible in as many ways as possible in dealing with all the ramifications of the pandemic.

Ess: As we adapted to using videoconference technology for formerly in-person events, client meetings, depositions and witness interviews, we learned this could be an effective and a cost-saving option for our clients. We expect to continue using this option in the future when traveling could be avoided. We were able to move our main reception line and plan to continue using a “mobile/virtual” phone answering structure going forward. This will allow our receptionist to focus on hospitality and concierge services without interruption. We will likely add additional videoconferencing rooms beyond the three Zoom rooms we have now and include multiple platforms. We feel there will be higher demand, and it is helpful and effective to have multiple individuals in the same room during a meeting. 

Mary E. Vandenack

Founder & Managing Partner

Mary E. Vandenack is a founding and managing partner of Vandenack Weaver LLC, in Omaha, Nebraska. She is vice chair of Law Practice magazine. mvandenack@vwattys.com