Management Assistance Program
Fall and Winter 2020: Plan Now to Succeed in This Unprecedented Time
By Jim Calloway
“Winter is coming,” was the often-repeated warning phrase in the HBO megahit Game of Thrones. Fall and winter 2020 are now coming, and like the rest of 2020, it will present more challenges than we can forecast. Law firms and courthouses have reopened, although conditions are definitely not the same.
Colder weather brings new management challenges for law firms in 2020. Let’s focus on three areas that should be an important focus of your planning for the next several months.
EMPLOYEES AND LAWYERS BECOME TEMPORARILY UNAVAILABLE TO REPORT TO THE OFFICE
Like it or not, cold and flu season will have a whole different meaning during pandemic times. Perhaps the number of people wearing masks means we won’t have an extreme cold and flu season, but like so many things, we just don’t know. What we do know is people will become ill, and sometimes the symptoms might be similar to COVID-19.
People are likely going to be exposed and have to self-quarantine. Schools and colleges may be changing to virtual only, impacting your employees’ lives (in fact, if you read between the lines, several institutions seem to be planning on all virtual after Thanksgiving). Many possible scenarios lead to employees needing to self-quarantine. If any employee who is paid hourly is supposed to quarantine, do you really want them to choose between their livelihood for two weeks or coming into work, especially when they don’t “feel sick”?
Lawyers have been working from home for some time now, off and on. So, let’s consider the rest of the team. The successful law firm should now be positioned where any quarantined employee can easily switch to working from home as needed. We may see a lot of this throughout the remainder of the year. Success comes from planning. Law firms need to plan for something that is at least a distinct possibility. At this point, it is triage time, because winter is almost here.
I am now addressing smaller firms and solo practitioners. Larger law firms working with their IT departments have already addressed many remote access challenges.
Address This Challenge
Software. Lawyers need their important data to be stored safely in the cloud where it can be accessed and used. While we strongly recommend practice management software as a long-term solution, the triage solution is to subscribe to Microsoft 365 Business Standard (formerly Office 365 Business Premium) for $12.50 per month or Microsoft 365 Business Premium (formerly Microsoft 365 Business) for $20 per user per month with an annual contract. You can purchase and set it up within a week and store all current documents and forms in OneDrive where they can be easily accessed. We are still believers that Oklahoma lawyers should be using a full-featured practice management solution, but the change of going to these tools is not something you can easily implement in a week. While you won’t learn nearly all the features of Microsoft 365 in a week, you can easily have the basics operating in that time. Many law firms use the Teams function for videoconferencing. This is an upgrade you need to make.
Hardware. If you are going to have law firm staff working from home, the safest and most appropriate solution is to provide them the computer to use for work. Yes, the small law firm needs to provide laptops for remote workers. The most important reason to provide a laptop for an employee to take home is that the device will be used only for office work and not schoolwork or other recreational browsing. Family members may tend to visit less secure websites. You also do not need to preload much software as your Microsoft 365 license allows installation on more than one computer used by the same individual. If the laptop will be used for videoconferencing frequently, then you do not want a cheap, underpowered laptop. See my prior column, “A Videoconferencing Guide for Oklahoma Lawyers.”
Wi-Fi Router. It may be a good value for the law firm to give a bonus to some employees in the form of a brand-new Wi-Fi router. Many employees do not know when they bought their router or what security standard they are using. It is often simpler to just buy them a new router than try to determine whether what they have is appropriate. Plus, there will probably be a performance boost. Some standards are out of date. The current standard is WPA2-PSK (AES), the most secure option. On some devices, you may just see “WPA2” or “WPA2-PSK.”
Virtual Receptionist Services and Virtual Legal Assistants. Some may explore setting up a virtual receptionist service like OBA member benefit Ruby or online legal assistant services like Legal Typist. If a firm is understaffed, transferring the phone answering duties for a few hours can be very helpful. The service can text you or forward a call to your cell phone if you are waiting on an important call.
KEEPING THE CLIENTS SATISFIED IN COVID-19 TIMES
Long ago, there was a phrase, “The customer is always right.” For lawyers, it did not work that way with clients because sometimes the rules of professional conduct wouldn’t allow lawyers to do everything the client asked. Lawyers could still improve client satisfaction by promptly returning phone calls, meeting any deadlines and generally doing what you said you would do when you said you would do it.
With COVID-19 protocols in the office, the customer (aka client) can be always right. You don’t want to lose any clients because they were concerned you were not sensitive to their health-related opinions. We are already seeing law firm websites in Oklahoma mention “contact free” and “virtual legal services.” No matter what the public opinion is on the street, you don’t want your clients or law firm team exposed to serious health risks you can take action to mitigate or avoid. Toss aside your personal opinions, whatever those may be, and design a law office experience for that one potential client with congestive heart failure who is also undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Everyone will benefit. Mask wearing has become a flashpoint of controversy, but it still seems better to err on the side of too many precautions protecting your diverse clientele than not enough. You likely have been in other businesses servicing the public and have some ideas.
Address This Challenge
- Have hand sanitizer in several locations, accessible to the clients.
- Remove some chairs from the waiting room or block some off with tape.
- Discuss changes to the intake processes, including offering appointments by video conference.
- Give clients the option to call in from the parking lot and wait in their car until it is time for someone to escort them inside.
- Have a supply of disposable masks for clients who may show up without one.
- Purchase a Plexiglas barrier for the reception desk with a passthrough opening for documents and payments.
DIGITAL ‘TOUCHLESS’ OFFICE PROCESSES ARE HERE TO STAY
Hopefully, we will get this pandemic under control, and we will not experience another of this magnitude during our lifetimes. But some things have changed. We will see people wearing masks in public for a long time, particularly at airports and during cold and flu season.
Law firms will be coping with these changes, which is nothing new for our profession. But, for many lawyers who love their paper files and paper-based processes, it becomes more apparent every day that digital processes are superior in so many ways, including easily locating information. Law firms focusing on serving consumers, as opposed to businesses, are compelled to consider many “upgrades.” The digital office checklist now includes:
- All documents in client files are maintained in digital format, secure and accessible to the law firm team from any location.
- A website describing the services your law firm provides to the public.
- Sharing documents with clients securely via a portal or encrypted transmission.
- A social media account to share information quickly. It is fine if you do not use this account frequently, just so you have it available to tweet or post great accomplishments (with the client’s permission, of course).
- Online digital payment processes are in place and communicated to the client.
- More use of the cloud so that data is always continuously backed up while still available for use.
- The ability to video conference on demand. See my previously noted videoconferencing guide.
- Clients being able to schedule appointments online.
- Understanding when and how you can use electronic signatures and online notary services in your practice.
- Appropriate cybersecurity measures are installed and maintained.
We know this is a lot to take in. Pick one area that needs improvement and upgrade it this month. Winter is coming, but hopefully, so is a new year that will be better than this one.
Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 800-522-8060, jimc at okbar.org. It’s a free member benefit.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal — October, 2020 — Vol. 91, No. 8