The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly upended the legal profession.
Prior to this life-altering health crisis, law firms maintained a largely face-to-face business model. Courts generally required in-person preliminary conferences and compliance conferences, despite their relative inefficiency in comparison to telephone or video conferences.
When important documents were signed and notarized, everyone traditionally gathered in the same location, even though it would be more convenient and cost-effective to notarize documents remotely.
In the last several months, this has all changed, of course. Many law firms have been forced to adapt to a remote-work environment. This can place an unprecedented burden on law firms’ technological capabilities.
These stressors can build up over time, creating unfortunate opportunities for lawyers to make mistakes – which can lead to negative outcomes, such as unhappy clients, loss of business, malpractice liability, and even disciplinary proceedings.
There is some good news. As lawyers, you are all trained to handle new problems and help others do the same. You have figured out ways during the pandemic to effectively implement a continuity of operations; better understand the technology tools at your disposal and how to use them; and how best to navigate changing court rules and changing client expectations.
Software & Continuity
Maintaining continuity may have been the biggest challenge for many lawyers the past several months. The pandemic forced us to do this suddenly rather than gradually.
Brent Hoeft, of Hoeft Law LLC in Madison, has operated a web-based law practice for many years and also specializes in the usage, security and ethics of technology in law firms. He says continuity in your law practice is not only necessary, but achievable.
“So much is about maintaining routine and finding ways to do that from home,” Hoeft said. “Some things are as simple as getting up at the same time as if you were going to work, getting dressed in clothes you might normally wear to the office, and setting up a designated spot in your home where only work happens.”
Technology can also help to keep continuity when shifting to working from home. To keep in touch with firm members, video conferencing and team messaging apps can help.
Hoeft suggests having a morning check-in with firm members. This allows everyone to brainstorm over client matters as well as talk about what worked the day before and what didn’t and how it can be improved upon. He says,
“The ‘face-to-face’ of video conferencing helps to maintain the team atmosphere for a firm. It helps all members to be able to see and interact with each other and prevents anyone from feeling like they are out on an island during any of this.”
Team Messaging Apps
Messaging apps are a great way to quickly communicate either on-to-one or more broadly with firm members to keep all necessary people in the loop on matters throughout the day. “When smaller issues arise that don’t necessitate making a phone call or video conference, sending a message via messaging apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Chat in GSuite are great,” Hoeft says.
If your firm is set up on Office365 Business Premium Edition, you can use the Teams software to do both messaging, video conferencing, and more with your firm members.
In addition, having a way for all firm members to get to client files is very important.
Hoeft says, “The two common ways to do this is through remote access programs like SplashTop, LogMeIn, GoToMyPC, TeamViewer, to name a few. This way is popular because it can be easily set up to allow remote access to law office servers or personal workstations.”
It’s been several months since the pandemic hit, of course, but some lawyers are still considering ways to set up a virtual law office, if they need it. Hoeft says a quick way to set-up a virtual law office is by using one of the web-based practice management software offerings out there.
“There are a lot of options to choose from but some of the biggest and most established players in the market are Clio and MyCase. These practice management systems provide so many tools to keep members of your firm on the same page but also allow clients to stay up on their case and feel connected through the use of client portals these systems offer. You can do client scheduling, intake, e-signatures, secure document sharing, secure messaging, online billing and payments, all from within the practice management system.”
Obviously, the livelihood of attorneys depends on the ability to preserve confidentiality and protect client information from unauthorized disclosure to 3rd parties. SCR 20:1.1, Comment 8 expressly applies the competency requirement applicable to the use of technology in your law practice and states:
“to maintain the requisite knowledge and skill, a lawyer should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology, to maintain the requisite knowledge and skill the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology…”
Hoeft says some things to consider in taking all reasonable efforts to protect against disclosure would be:
Always do due diligence about any software or service that you are thinking of using as a tool for working from home. There are a lot of options out there and the levels of security steps taken by these providers can vary greatly. If possible, try to stick to services that are geared towards business rather than personal use and, if you can, find some that are designed for use by lawyers and the legal industry.
Use a VPN
Always use a virtual private network (VPN) when connecting to the internet even while on your home network and doing business online. There are a lot of options out there. There are also a lot of review sites that are quite helpful in making your decision. The main thing is to choose a commonly used VPN and always choose the paid version. The free accounts of even good VPNs are not reliable and can be very slow.
Because lawyers have a duty to take reasonable efforts to become competent in the technology tools that we are using in our practice, we can’t just jump right in and start using the tools without understanding the tool and its default settings, how to change these settings to become more secure, and what setting options are available to make the use of the tool is as secure as possible to use in a law firm setting.
Wisconsin Ethics Opinion EF-15-01: Ethical Obligations of Attorneys Using Cloud Computing concludes that:
“‘cloud computing’ is permissible as long as the lawyer makes reasonable efforts to adequately address the potential risks associated with it.”
Hoeft says there really are only two ways to go if you have a firm consisting of more than one person and you would like to work remotely.
“There is the remote access software that allow for you to remote into the computer or server in your physical law office to access files and business critical items. Or, you can use a web-based practice management system. This is, in my opinion, the way to go. However, many firms cannot easily switch to that option in the short-term.”
As for using a separate computer at home for work, Hoeft says:
“I would absolutely recommend using a separate computer for work and personal use, if possible. The more personal things you do on the computer like email and social media the greater the risk of things like phishing, ransomware, viruses, and malware to get onto the system.”
Cyber Security Considerations
The same cybersecurity risks that are threats at the office exist when working from home. Hoeft says during the pandemic, the threats have jumped in frequency.
“The focus of hackers has been the people in the organization, or in the case of lawyers, the firm,”Hoeft said.“People are looked at as the weakest link in the security chain. Humans can be tricked, manipulated, and distracted. With the coronavirus pandemic we are seeing a lot of phishing scams focusing on people’s desire for information about what is going on with the virus, as well as people seeking recommendations on what to do and how to protect themselves and their loved ones.
Additionally, the huge increase in the use of ZOOM for video conferencing has not gone unnoticed by hackers. They are targeting businesses through fraudulent video conference invites that will either take you to fake landing pages meant to steal your login credentials or launch ransomware attacks.”
Hoeft says the best way to stay on top of phishing and ransomware is to make sure your staff is educated and trained on cybersecurity awareness, so they have the tools to spot these threats.
He also says using a VPN is always recommended.
“Both while you are trying to access your law firm server via remote access software but also when you are doing anything else online. For privacy and security reasons you should be connected to a VPN while you are on the internet,” says Hoeft.
He also encourages lawyers to make sure they have antivirus software installed and updated. In addition, he says,
“Make sure you update the operating system as soon as security updates come out as well as updates to other programs on the system. With the increase in the use of remote working tools there has been an increase in the number of updates to software as well. Stay on top of these as many of the updates may be patching security holes in software.”
There are many considerations during this pandemic when trying to maintain good client communication, maintain continuity in your office and from home, and making sure your staff is up to speed on all the changes that are occurring.
Hoeft reminds lawyers to keep track of what works and what doesn’t. Discuss it at your video conference meetings with your staff and other attorneys in your firm.
“Some things may not be able to be implemented for the short-term but still make notes of these so you can change the way you do things in the future to make things more manageable in the future. Much of what we’re doing now will become and has become permanent. So look to the future when determining how best to maintain your law firm operations.”
Finally, if you do not have written policies on how your firm should operate on a daily basis, as well in times of crisis and emergency, now is the time to do it. Hoeft says,
“These include work from home policies, information security policies, business disaster policy, and security awareness and training policies. They are all good to have so everyone in your firm knows where to turn to in a crisis rather than everything being done in a reactionary way.”
Unfortunately, we all had to react quickly in March when the pandemic hit. Hopefully, we all have had time to find the best ways to continue working, and for lawyers, that means maintaining great client service, having sound technology security, and being as efficient has possible, even during these highly unusual times.