The advance of wireless and mobile technology was prescient in its hinting at what’s possible for modern workers.
However, neither Internet connectivity nor the ubiquity of smartphones fully prepared us for the cloud-based world we live in today.
Unfortunately, as the global events of early 2020 have shown us, using technology to work remotely isn’t just a modern convenience, it’s essential to survival in a fast-changing industry. Covid-19 not just forced millions to work from home, it also closed businesses for indefinite amounts of time, and brought us to a reckoning about how we do our day-to-day business.
And yet despite this, many small legal and conveyancing businesses do not have the correct software in place to facilitate efficient remote work. If the time to move to the Cloud was yesterday, the time to plan for working fully remote began this morning.
Fortunately, it’s not too late. This brief guide walks you and your firm through the necessary things to consider as you scale up. Everything from best practices to best technology is covered here so that when the time comes (if it hasn’t already), you’re ready to work in a decentralised office without fear of lost productivity.
Quite the opposite, with the right plan (and software) your firm may be more successful than ever.
Establish Clear Communication
Before you find new clients, research a case, or collect on an invoice, you must follow one— and only one—cardinal rule: establish clear, consistent communication across members of your business, and with your clients. Regardless if you’re the only one working remote, or if your firm is moving to a decentralised, “virtual,” office, you need to make sure that your entire team are in constant communication to maintain productivity and data security, and to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks.
While many small law firms may initially rely on text messaging and mobile phones to remain in touch, it’s best practice to have a central place that is not only set aside for work conversations, but can also be archived as needed in the future. Likewise, for data security, make sure that your central communication hub is secure and can handle large files (which SMS text messages cannot.) Here are some of the easiest, most popular communication channels to get your team consistently using:
1) Smokeball’s Communicate tool
If you’re a Smokeball user you already have Communicate, which is a secure file sharing and messaging platform plus internal messaging service all rolled into one. With Communicate, you can message every user in your business, keep a paper trail on what was said, and automatically save messages to your relevant matters. Every case-specific conversation is automatically saved to the matter so that you never have to search through old messages.
Additionally, Communicate has no file size limits, which means that you and your colleagues can share files without worry. Your clients, too, can access messages that you designate for them so that they don’t feel left out if you move to a digital office model. Establish Clear Communication Before you find new clients, research a case, or collect on an invoice, you must follow one— and only one—cardinal rule: establish clear, consistent communication across members of your business, and with your clients. Regardless if you’re the only one working remote, or if your firm is moving to a decentralised, “virtual,” office, you need to make sure that your entire team are in constant communication to maintain productivity and data security, and to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks.
2) Microsoft Teams and Slack
Microsoft Teams is automatically included in your Office 365 subscription if your office uses Microsoft products. While it doesn’t automatically save files to your matter folders, it does allow for file sharing that interact with other Microsoft products like Office Online and OneDrive.
While Teams isn’t as integrated as Smokeball Communicate or as social as channels like Slack (see below), it is a good, centralised professional space that your colleagues are likely to only use for work purposes. This makes it attractive for later archiving and bookkeeping. Meanwhile, when you’re all working remotely, you’ll miss the water cooler and hallway conversations that keep everyone feeling part of the team. However, these aren’t superfluous things: it’s really important that you all stay in touch to keep up casual colleague communication.
Slack is a useful tool because you can instant message one or more team members to chat about work. You can likewise share files and discuss them. You can also create what are called “Channels” on Slack. Channels are like a chat forum for a particular topic. It could be a “Food lovers” channel where you share recipes, or a channel for “Drafting help” where you need to brainstorm the perfect wording for a contract or order.
Channels bring your team together to work smarter when you’re physically apart, and they also let everyone enjoy a little light entertainment now and then, boosting team morale.
3) Monday and Trello
There are many ways to stay organised while communicating. Smokeball’s all-included platform includes tasks, workflows and legal calendaring to keep everyone on the same page and make sure no tasks slip through the cracks. Other platforms like Monday and Trello do similar tasks by assigning task owners, due dates, and a central platform to host files and links. While not as integrated and secure as a practice management software tool like Smokeball, these platforms offer free trials so that your dispersed team can have a collective To-Do list to keep everyone up to date.
4) VoIP and landline phone systems
If your office has VoIP (voice over Internet protocol), it may be plug and play. This means that for many systems, your staff can take their desk phone home with them and plug them in and have instant access to all the functionality they have in the office. It is worth checking your network and security settings with your VoIP provider in case any extra set-up is required (some providers charge for additional licenses if using from personal phones.) If you have a landline system, you’ll need to forward calls to another number. All major providers should have similar capabilities by searching “Call Forwarding” on their sites and apps.
5) Zoom, Skype, FaceTime
Video conferencing can be a realistic way to get literal face time with both your team and your clients without being in the office. Doing so helps to keep engagement high, and adds a level of authority and trust for clients who are unable to meet with you in person. At Smokeball, we’ve tried many video conferencing tools and have ultimately landed on Zoom being our top choice It’s easy for both sides to use, the call quality is reliably good, and calls are free to use for 30-minute sessions.
Clear communication is the basis for all good remote work. Colleagues feel more engaged, clients feel safe, and work gets handled in easily trackable ways.
Planning for Working From Home
Of course reliable communication is not enough to guarantee a seamless transition from office to home. There are subtle, yet important, considerations that many lawyers and conveyancers overlook as they move practice to a remote location. While none of the tips in this section are groundbreaking, they are essential to keep top of mind to ensure that your firm remains as productive as ever.
As you juggle technology, employees, and clients (not to mention family and normal home duties), keep the following tips in mind:
1) Plan ahead
A little planning goes a long way when you’re working remotely. Be sure to let your colleagues know not just that you’ll be out of the office, but when you expect to be active at your desk. Many firms try to keep regular business hours while working remotely, and while this may make the most business sense, keep in mind that colleagues who are caregivers or have other responsibilities may need to alter their work hours accordingly. It can seem like a pain to balance a new normal for a working day, but taking these sorts of proactive steps help minimise the stress of being away from the office, and can help you focus while you’re working.
2) Prioritise tasks
In addition to the daily task/workflow/calendar apps mentioned in the previous section, be sure to keep a list of daily/weekly/monthly goals for you and your firm. The main reason remote workers tend to fall off in engagement and productivity is because they don’t check in regularly with each other about their goals. But simply stating goals is not enough, be sure to set up regular check-ins on progress as well as celebrate when goals are accomplished. Likewise, be sure to re-prioritise tasks on a rolling basis if/when demands change.
3) Bring tech tools
Working away from the office is easiest when you have all of your equipment. Don’t forget to pack your laptop, mobile phone, and all of the necessary charging devices to keep you up-and-running when you’re not plugged in at your desk. Headsets and earphones will be necessary for audio communication. Once you’re charged and stocked, be sure to pay attention to ergonomics and well being. Many first-time remote workers utilise their kitchen tables or couches to get work done, but your neck and wrists will eventually tell you this isn’t the best choice. In addition to ergonomic chairs and desks, encourage the use of wireless keyboards and mouse devices so that your productivity doesn’t continue at the cost of your posture.
4) Keep a sense of humour
You don’t need us to tell you to try to laugh every once in a while, but a decentralised office does miss out on the little human connections that make everyday life worth living. During a break, check in on your colleagues, share a favourite link or meme, and talk openly about the difficulties of working remote.
The Importance of Cloud-based Legal Software
Working remotely is an omnipresent aspect of the modern workforce, and while we’ve come to expect certain cloud-based capabilities around email, online documents, and some billing software, many legal and conveyancing businesses are not fully integrating their cloud services into one platform.
As we’ve already outlined in this short guide, one can cobble together an army of cloud-based apps and programs to accomplish the modicum of work needed in a typical law firm. Likewise, many of our competitors require over a dozen add-ons (each for an additional fee) to approach the capabilities offered in Smokeball’s all-in-one product. Before we address why using a hybrid-based cloud software like Smokeball is advantageous, it’s first necessary to understand what cloud-based software is and how you can still work remotely even if you don’t currently have it.
Working without Cloud-based software
Is your software cloud-based? If you’re using Office 365 with online capabilities or Google Drive then at least part of your approach is based in the cloud. However, if you’re saving anything to local computers—including client files, bills and invoices, personal files, etc.—then you’re not fully in the cloud, and that could be risky.
If your software is not cloud-based, you’ll need to use a tool like Windows Remote Desktop, TeamViewer, or Chrome Remote Desktop on each staff member’s computer so that they can log-in from their home computer/ laptop. It can be a little technical to get this set up, so perhaps get some help from your IT person (or a retail expert) if you’re unsure about anything.
With Chrome Remote Desktop from Google, for example, each user can install, make sure they’re signed into a Google account, and then remotely log on from another computer if they sign in through that same Google account. It may be slow to work through remote desktop, but in an urgent situation it will give you the ability to work from home.
All Cloud-based legal software is not the same
Most legal and conveyancing software are cloud-based to some degree. Unless your firm bought a license and downloaded it directly to their machines for one-time use, you’re using the cloud (at least in part.
Like most of our competitors, Smokeball is cloud-based, which means working remotely is seamless from end to end. However, unlike our competitors, Smokeball is a hybrid cloud-based software. What this means is that Smokeball is both downloaded to your local machine(s) and available anywhere via internet and mobile app.
This is important because only Smokeball gives you all the benefits of working in the cloud while also giving you the freedom to work offline. One of the major assumptions in this guide is that users will have access to reliable and speed-sufficient internet access. But due to power failures or dead zones in courts or with clients, lawyers may not be able to safely assume connectivity.
Only Smokeball provides a failsafe alternative to other cloud software by ensuring that your work will get done, and get saved, regardless of internet coverage. With a local download you don’t need to access a browser to access your client data. And with a hybrid model, you don’t need to be online to enter information either. Once your computer is back online all of your work automatically saves to the cloud and into your local Smokeball program.
Communicate through the Cloud
Though we already mentioned Communicate at the beginning of this guide, it’s important to briefly mention it again here to clarify what it is, and why it is such a life-saver for clients who use Smokeball.
In a nutshell, Communicate is Slack meets Dropbox. Imagine being able to communicate securely with your colleagues, no matter where they are, and to save those conversations directly to relevant matters. Just like Slack allows for real-time conversations to flow without the need for long email chains, Smokeball’s Communicate provides functionality while also providing a clear paper trail to use in the future of your cases.
But unlike Slack, Communicate is also a great file delivery and storage area. Now imagine sending remote colleagues every relevant file related to a matter in a single click so that they can take over remotely. Because Communicate is secure and has no file size limits, you can do just that without having to rely on a third-party software like Dropbox.
Everything saved in one place so that everyone can be on the same page. Many pieces of Cloud software can accomplish this individually, but only Smokeball does it in one place, and without adding any additional fees.
How Will Clients React to Remote Businesses?
Most of this guide is dedicated to tools and tips for working remotely. But just because you and your firm are confident in the transition doesn’t mean that your potential clients will be. Even as many Australians work from home due to a pandemic, clients still have an engrained idea of what a “real” law firm should look like. As you begin to work remotely, there are pros and cons to weigh in how you continue business as usual vis-à-vis operating in the new normal of remote work.
For the legal and conveyancing profession, there are both potential profits and pitfalls in remote work. To achieve the best results, your firm should approach conversations about remote work thoughtfully and with an open mind. Both your colleagues and clients need to understand the risks and rewards of remote work.
The following list will help you think through some of the ways that you may need to plan and react in order to stay on top of this conversation:
Face-to-face client meetings are an essential part of the client relationship. When working from out of the office, options for face-to-face meetings may be restricted.
When possible, face-to-face client visits are always preferable. However, there can be an intense intimacy that clients appreciate in speaking regularly on the phone or on video conferencing. One way to spin this new normal is by checking in more often, using the time you’re not spending on commuting to reach out.
Legal work requires reams of documents. When lawyers aren’t gathered together in one office, the necessary documents become harder to access, and the possibility of confusion and miscommunication rises dramatically.
It’s time to go digital. With programs like Smokeball, businesses can securely organise and store crucial client files in the cloud and access every file, anywhere, all the time. Cloud-based digital filing makes remote work simple and possible. While you certainly can make use of platforms like Dropbox and OneDrive, these third-party sites require more clicking and searching once you’re looking for a file. Smokeball will keep every matter in one place for easy searching.
Remote work may come along with added costs when employees need to meet in person as a team or with clients.
If some members of your team work remotely full-time, your firm can save costs on office space, and apply the saving toward these costs. Programs like Smokeball can also help members of your team work efficiently on one project even when they are apart, reducing the need for travel and in-person meetings.
Making your law firm a virtual law firm
Regardless of the need to work from home because of crisis, a growing number of law firms and solo practitioners are embracing the virtual law firm as a primary way to serve clients and deliver legal services. But what, exactly, is a virtual law firm?
There’s no singular rigid way to exist as a virtual law firm. Essentially, a virtual law firm is an online lawyer service that primarily provides legal services remotely with the assistance of lawyer apps and cloud-based law firm software. An online/remote lawyer may not have an official and permanent brick-and-mortar office but they may get clients online through their law firm website, stay on top of appointments with an online legal calendar, and communicate with clients via email or some client portal.
Some of the most common characteristics of a virtual law firm include:
- A solo-practitioner or a core group of virtual lawyers operating under one legal entity.
- Usually this group of online lawyers practice their own speciality but procure clients under that single entity. Sometimes the online lawyers practice in the same area or in areas that complement each other.
- They don’t usually share the same office. The virtual law firm may have online lawyers working from home or in offices in different cities. And they may use practice management software such as Smokeball that allows them to update client and matter information in one shared virtual space and collaborate in real time.
- The online law firm usually has very low overhead because they don’t have to pay rent for office space and they avoid paying all the expenses associated with an office space such as furniture and utilities.
But it’s important to understand that while the above listed characteristics are common for virtual law firms, online lawyers may operate in a hybrid fashion. Maybe only some of their lawyers are working primarily online while the majority work in an office or some other variation. As law firms experiment with providing virtual legal services, virtual law firms may evolve.
Benefits of providing virtual law firm services
As traditional law firms figure out how they can be served by technology such as case management and collaboration tools to better serve clients and help their practices thrive, more benefits of virtual law firms will become evident.
But right now there are some core benefits of virtual law firms that every lawyer should know about:
- Capture legal savvy clients. There are a lot of people who use the internet to get a basic understanding of their legal issues. They recognise that they have a legal problem and they understand enough about the internet that they use it to get more information. Some clients may stop there because they feel confident that they can solve the legal issue with the basic information they found. But an lawyer with a virtual law practice has an opportunity to connect to this type of client. Virtual lawyers can provide basic information to legal savvy clients but also help them understand that solving their legal problem may require the expertise of a seasoned lawyer who understands the nuances of the law. Having a virtual law office provides a low-cost and low-effort way to capture this type of client.
- Retain existing clients. Leveraging a virtual law firm to provide deeper information to existing clients can help retain those clients. By providing content that helps a client understand the legal aspects of their issues a little more deeply, virtual law firms can help them understand why they should maintain an active relationship with a law firm. This is especially the case with any client (such as a business) who needs ongoing attention to their legal issues.
- Expanded reach. Since having a virtual law firm doesn’t require that all the lawyers on the team be physically in the same room, online law firms have an opportunity to expand in ways that is more expensive and more difficult for traditional law firms. It’s a lot cheaper to hire a lawyer in another city who’s working from his home office than it is to open up a physical location that requires leases and signage and the purchase of office equipment.
Adapting to change
Resistance to change is normal, especially in the legal industry. Some law firms are resistant to the idea of a virtual law firm for several reasons: they fear they’re not as productive, they’re concerned about the perception of professionalism, they worry about client confidentiality, and other things.
But let’s take a look at a few things that law firms should think about as they seriously consider the benefits of moving toward virtual law.
- What do clients really want? If you look at the true desire of clients, they want good value for their money. Having a traditional law firm means very high overhead and very high prices for legal services. Many clients would prefer to pay lower legal fees and some of them won’t mind that they’re working with a virtual office.
- Good customer service. At the core of any law firm is the ability to provide good customer service. Professional lawyers want to deliver quality legal services in a way that makes the client happy that they’re doing business with that firm. There is no reason that a virtual law firm can’t maintain high quality customer service without maintaining a physical office. As long as the law firm has a strong system to communicate and instill a culture of quality service, an online law firm can be just as high quality as a brick and mortar one.
- Quality information. The days of clients staying in the dark about their legal troubles have ended. More clients want quality information about their legal issues so that they understand what’s happening even if they hire a lawyer to represent them. Whether a law firm is in a physical office or a virtual one, providing quality information on legal issues is imperative to winning client trust. Many law firms use secure messaging platforms to accomplish this, and Smokeball’s Communicate tool (described above) is a way of giving one-to-one attention.
The Covid-19 global pandemic of 2020 has taught us that if legal and conveyancing businesses want to thrive in the next 30 to 40 years, they may need to seriously consider the advantages and benefits of running a virtual firm. While no one is saying that traditional brick and mortar law firms are going anywhere, the mandatory work from home policies we’ve all encountered should give us all pause as we consider what we’re prepared for, and what we still need to do to prepare.