Many firms have already established remote-work policies and procedures. Our firm recently revised our remote work practices, and I wanted to share some tips with firms that may be transitioning to remote work now or in the coming days.
This is a checklist of work-at-home considerations for attorneys and law firm staff, particularly in smaller firms, as attorneys and the courts adjust.
Calls With the Court
Many courts are moving scheduled in-person hearings to teleconferences, and may rely on the parties to set up the calls. With the recent explosion of remote work, there have been reports that some teleconference providers are overloaded, potentially resulting in complications with scheduling or connection issues. Even if you already have a teleconference provider, consider selecting a second in case there are problems.
Look into your teleconference provider’s web services. Some providers offer web sites to manage calls, including the ability to tell the culprit of unwanted noise and mute them if needed (for example, if someone starts having an outside conversation without muting their phone).
To make a call into the teleconference line for a hearing, consider using an Internet Protocol-based phone service over a wired internet connection, rather than relying on a cellphone or Wi-Fi calling. A service that can use a wired internet connection is much less likely to suffer from reliability problems or temporary interference.
Modern office phone systems typically support forwarding incoming calls. Before you leave the office, forward your calls to the phone number you will be using, e.g., a mobile phone number or IP-based phone number.
If your system does not support call forwarding, consider setting an out-of-office message with a contact number and forwarding that number to clients.
If you have issues with cellular reception at home, most cellphone providers support Wi-Fi calling. Wi-Fi calling routes calls through your home internet connection rather than the cellular connection, and can help alleviate cellular reception issues.
Remember that many home internet providers offer multiple speed tiers, and users can often upgrade instantly. If you find that you have bandwidth issues, e.g., if your connection is slow or inconsistent, consider upgrading.
Watch out for data caps. Some providers cap the total amount of data that can be transferred per month, and heavy use of teleconferencing and video streaming services (e.g., by others who are also staying home) may cause you to hit those caps, resulting in slowdowns or fees. Luckily, many providers have temporarily waived these caps in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
If you do not already connect your home computer to the internet via a wired Ethernet connection, consider setting one up. Any typical laptop can connect using a USB Ethernet adapter and an Ethernet cord to your Wi-Fi router. An Ethernet setup offers a more reliable connection, and may also offer faster speeds depending on your setup.
In implementing work-from-home requirements or programs, firms are often using videoconferencing apps to replace in-person meetings. There are many options to choose from, including Skype, Slack, Microsoft Teams and many others. The main concern is that everyone is on the same system, and that there is a backup option in case the primary service becomes unavailable.
Be sure to close your email app and mute any notifications before joining a video conference. Screen sharing can be helpful to review or edit documents, but be careful to close anything you do not want others to see, including privileged and confidential documents, before sharing your screen. Do a test call to make sure that the right microphone is being used and that the person on the other end can hear you without major echo, static, or other issues.
Think about setting up your workspace at home in an area without background noise, and where your video or teleconferences will not disturb others. Also, consider what is behind you. A bright window may make it difficult for others to see you, and if you have privacy concerns, many of the videoconferencing apps allow you to blur your background or choose a background.
Keep in mind that laptops can use external mice, keyboards, monitors and webcams. USB or Thunderbolt docking stations are available for most laptops that allow configurations, including multimonitor setups, that are identical to your office setup.
Modern instant messaging platforms such as Slack and Microsoft Teams can help replace face-to-face communications. If your firm hasn’t already adopted one of these platforms, now is a great time to consider it. These are largely cloud-based and can often be implemented quickly and can help keep team members connected. As with videoconferencing, it is easiest if everyone in the firm is on the same system.
For services that allow sending and storing files, such as Microsoft Teams, the firm should set clear expectations about what kinds of documents may be sent using the apps or should disable those features.
Most firms use a document management system. Cloud-based document management systems often work from outside of the office with little difficulty. For local document management systems, a remote desktop setup is needed.
Either way, it is important in remote-work situations that attorneys and staff continue to store their documents and emails in the document management system. When working from home, it is easy to fall into the habit of storing files on a local computer or sending files to a personal email address, which can lead to a variety of issues down the line. Being disciplined from the start, and storing all documents in the firm’s existing document management system, will help prevent problems.
If your offices are closed, think about who will retrieve the mail and what will be done with it. For example, you can designate a person to visit the office to scan and forward important messages. For small firms that have not yet fully transitioned to cloud-based backups, someone may need to go in to change backup media (or, for that matter, to water the plants).
Backups remain just as important when working from home. If all documents are stored in a document management system, this should be taken care of already. However, attorneys should ensure that all documents stored outside of a firm document management system (for example, if a system is unavailable) are adequately backed up in an off-site backup. If this is not already set up, many cloud providers offer easy-to-set-up secure cloud-based backup services. If a cloud-based backup system is used, consider configuring it to make the initial backup at night, so that remote work during the day is unaffected.
Attorney work product and client confidential information must be treated carefully under the standards of professional responsibility. This information should not be placed on any home computer that is shared with others or that is not properly secured. Otherwise, the attorney and the firm risk a data breach that could have serious repercussions, including client management issues. Likewise, normal attorney-client privilege and work product rules apply, and there is no reason to risk waiver arguments or confidentiality issues by storing confidential materials on a shared computer.
Firms should communicate clear policies about where confidential information can be stored, including whether it can be stored on personal computers or sent to personal e-mail addresses.
All told, many attorneys and firms have already adjusted to remote work due to travel, but the current coronavirus situation may require a longer work-from-home period than we are used to. Staying disciplined about technology and document management, and setting clear expectations from the start, can help ease the process for yourself and those you work with.
Andrew Russell is a partner at Shaw Keller LLP and a former IT and software development specialist.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
 For example, Microsoft offers incoming and outgoing call services through Skype.
 Microsoft Teams, for example, recently experienced an outage as a result of coronavirus-related demand.
 For example, if you have a laptop and an external webcam, make sure that the video conferencing app is set up to use the webcam microphone, not your computer’s microphone.
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