Operate Your Law Practice Remotely During (and After) the COVID-19 Pandemic

I hope everyone reading this is safe and well. In the coming weeks, there is a good chance that many of us will take measures to protect our health, possibly including quarantining at home. Some of us may already have done so. With this in mind, I wanted to reach out and share some of the resources we use and know of for working remotely.

I believe the contents of this article can help you limit any potential remote-work-related disruptions for your clients. Just as importantly, all of these tools and resources are free (or free with a premium option), sustainable and take minutes — not hours or days — to start using.

 

Overall Strategy 

I would recommend keeping things simple and familiar. You probably already have access to more remote-work tools than you know, and compatibility will always be better “in the family” so to speak. Here are some essential free (often with paid upgrades) remote tools grouped with their corresponding company:

  • Microsoft: OneDrive (file storage and sharing), Teams (team chat), Outlook (both mail and calendar), Skype (video conferencing and chat)
  • Apple: FaceTime (video calls), Messages, Calendar, iCloud (file storage and sharing), Mail etc. Note: I would not recommend Apple in general as it limits compatibility, but it is suitable for some things if everyone has the requisite equipment.
  • Google: Docs, Google Calendar, Hangouts (video conferencing and group chat), Gmail, Google Drive (file sharing and storage) etc.

As you start to get comfortable working remotely, you might consider expanding your toolkit. Think about Toggl for time tracking, Evernote for to-do lists, Dropbox for secure file sharing or Slack for group chat. Some of these may offer additional utility, better free features or an easier-to-use interface than the more integrated option. All are appropriate for small-to-medium-sized teams and scale up if necessary.

In any case, a web search should take you to a sign-in or download page for most of these applications. Most will contain a brief (1-3 minute) tutorial for new users, which I would suggest following if you have the time.

 

Streamline Incoming Leads

Temporarily it is probable that some existing and new clients will not be walking through your door physically, but you can automate handling of incoming leads with a service that provides support for managing and analyzing customer relationships — CRM, in other words. There are many options, including Salesforce, Zoho, Microsoft Dynamics 365, Mailchimp and so on.

I would recommend Zoho specifically because it integrates easily with some of our partner services at FORWARD marketing, such as the call-tracking software we use. There is an “entrepreneur” edition that is free for up to three users.  We are happy to help get you set up on this platform as well as integrate with your call tracking, if that is a technology you are currently utilizing.

It is also worth noting that Zoho is giving away free access to its remote-work suite due to COVID-19. This set of applications is called Remotely, and the free pass lasts until July 1st, 2020.

 

Answer the Phones

For more traditional leads, your receptionist can take calls from your office number on any phone you choose. To do this, you will need to set up call forwarding. You should be able to find instructions on how to do this on your phone company’s website. For example, on a Verizon or AT&T landline, the steps are as follows:

  1. Pick up the office phone and dial *72.
  2. Dial your receptionist’s number when you hear the tone.
  3. Your receptionist’s phone should ring.
  4. Once the ringing phone is answered, you have set up call forwarding.
  5. To deactivate this service, dial *73 from your office phone and wait for two short tones. To change the forwarding number, repeat steps 1-4 with a different receiving phone number.

If you decide to have your office work remotely temporarily during this time, hopefully you can do this before you relocate home, but you should also be able to change your settings from anywhere by using an app, an online portal or by calling customer service. The details could be different based on your service provider.

 

Prepare for Video Calls

Video conferences will help you maintain an “in-person” interaction with your clients and potential clients. You probably already have an account on two of the most popular services for this: Skype and Hangouts. These also double as text and voice chat programs.

As I mentioned above briefly, Microsoft owns Skype. Just download the application and use the same password and user name you would with Outlook or any of the Office cloud products. Similarly, Hangouts is part of Google. You may not even have to sign in to use it. Just navigate to the Hangouts page and start a “New Conversation” with the contact or contacts you wish to speak with.

Most other video apps are simple to use and require only a phone number to start a new account. If your client asks to conference with you via a particular app, you can probably agree. Chances are that the process of downloading a new application and getting started will take you five to ten minutes at most.

  • FaceTime: Apple’s proprietary video chat app is a stable, reliable choice if you and your client both have Apple products. It is currently not available for Android phones, such as Google Pixel or Samsung Galaxy, or for the Windows operating system.
  • WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Viber, Line, Zoho, WeChat and so on: Many chat apps and CRM services offer group video calls of varying simplicity. Some only offer voice — Telegram, for example.

Most of these options, including Facebook and WhatsApp, work on phones, tablets, desktop computers or laptops — some even have apps for smartwatches. You can use the same account across all of your devices. You could conduct professional initial consultations with your computer and make quick responses on your smartphone, for example.

 

Sign Documents Remotely

Currently, it is very easy to register for remote-signing services that will allow you to continue contracting with new clients remotely. You can do so in just a few clicks by navigating to the website in question and using an existing account, such as your Google ID, to access the service.

DocuSign is the leading brand in remote signing. It is also relatively expensive. There is no free plan, and the cheapest option is an annual contract for $120. Although this is a competitive entry-level price, it will only get you 5 signatures per month and some extra features, such as reusable templates. Here are some alternatives with free plans for low-volume signing:

  • Zoho Sign: 5 documents/month,
  • SignRequest: 10 documents/month
  • Adobe Sign: 2 documents/month

These three services all have higher-level plans if you need more signatures, with prices similar to DocuSign’s lowest level of service. You can also find various free trials, including one with DocuSign. However, I would recommend establishing something sustainable if at all possible.

 

Improve Your Video Presence

Even seasoned trial lawyers sometimes feel uncomfortable on video. It’s unnerving, akin to hearing a recording of your own voice played back to you. You will get used to it, but there are also some steps you can follow to improve your appearance on video calls with clients. You can accomplish all of these without buying any new equipment:

  1. Get a good angle. Position your camera directly in front of you at roughly eye level. If you use a built-in laptop webcam, you may need to raise your computer on a stable base to reach the right height.
  2. Place the camera far enough away to capture at least your head and shoulders, at most from your waist up. Leave a small amount of empty room above your head in the picture.
  3. Place a diffuse, strong light behind the camera, such as a shaded desk lamp with a full-spectrum bulb. The overall goal is to provide even light, eliminating harsh highlights and dramatic shadows.
  4. Choose a neutral or professional backdrop. Try a plain wall, a wall with diplomas or a bookcase with legal reference material.
  5. Use a Bluetooth headset — or a directional microphone, if you have one — for clear audio. Without any special equipment, make sure to call in a quiet area.
  6. If necessary, give your family members a probable timeline for the call and close the door to avoid interruptions.

 

Form an Action Plan

From a managerial and leadership standpoint, I would recommend erring on the side of too much interaction and oversight when transitioning to remote work. If nothing else, this will let you keep abreast of changes in your team’s dynamics.

This would be my process for a firm with no remote tools or experience:

  1. Set up call forwarding if you decide to have the office work remotely during this time.
  2. Create team-level group chats using a relatively streamlined “all-in-one” service that supports at least video conferencing and chat search — e.g., Skype, WhatsApp and Hangouts. A single chat group would be fine for a firm with 3-10 attorneys.
  3. Create a group calendar and ensure each member has rights to view and edit it.
  4. Create a shared file folder that everyone can view and edit.
  5. Confirm that everyone has downloaded latest versions of the relevant calendar, chat and file-sharing apps on their remote-work devices
  6. Create a private leadership calendar with reminders to check in, provide general feedback and motivate your team.
  7. Schedule an initial and weekly teleconference or video conference.
  8. Probably the most complicated step: Choose, set up and then explain new workflows for essential practice processes, such as document signing and managing incoming calls. Preferably provide the explanation in writing, with screenshots as is applicable, so team members can reference this material easily.
  9. Set clear and realistic expectations about availability, case ownership and progress.
  10. Maintain contact every workday, provide useful answers publicly and continue to be the leadership resource online that you were in person.

As you can see, I would prioritize communication before processes. I believe this is the best way to minimize interruptions. After all, you can only address your most pressing challenges if you know what they are.

 

Thank You, and Stay Safe

I hope this resource will help. Overall, each suggestion here is based on up-to-date information (as of mid-March 2020), representing a cost-effective and simple resource for conducting your practice safely from home until the current crisis passes, which it will!!!!  If you have any questions at all or if there is anything we can do to help facilitate if you decide to implement any of these processes, please don’t hesitate to contact our office by calling (888) 590-9687 or talk to a live chat representative on our site, and someone will be in touch with you shortly thereafter.  If you are a law firm that we don’t work with, we’d be happy to help as well.  No expectations and no strings attached.  Thanks and be well.

 

-Matt Stark

 

 

 

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