The start of 2020 has been quite the year. It has shaken up law firms, businesses, communities, and individuals in ways we never thought possible. In many instances, it has exposed weaknesses in the way we work, but it has allowed for growth and change in industries that may not have advanced so quickly without it.
At the beginning of 2020, much of the legal industry continued to operate as it long had. After all, it is an industry built on precedent. Team collaboration, office support, and proffering client advice were all optimized toward in-person interactions. Then suddenly, none of those interactions were permitted.
Life and legal practice must go on, and the need for quality legal counsel to navigate the shifting sands of the pandemic is more critical than ever. The tips in this article will help you establish a more secure and effective practice, and help you join the ranks of legal groups that will innovate through changes and provide even more value to their client base.
First and foremost, remember that what is true in the office is still true during remote work – the weakest point in your security chain are the members of your team. No amount of technology can fully prevent user error or the violation of security policy. Review security policies and remote policies, update them and share them with your team members, and encourage them to re-read them. Invest in security training for your team members, especially updated training that relates to working remotely. Make sure the training is fun and engaging, like simulated phishing attacks, to help your team identify weaknesses in current security practices. The risk of user error is higher in a remote environment, because team members are more likely to make the following high-risk security mistakes: connecting to the internet via public Wi-Fi, allowing multiple users to access their computer for other purposes, downloading work documents to a personal device, or writing down logins and passwords and leaving them out on the desk.
Encourage your team to work in a quiet and distraction-free workspace that is not shared with other members of their household. This will allow for greater effectiveness as well as security. If a dedicated workspace is not practicable, alternatives like placing all work-related materials (including the work laptop) into a sealed box while others utilize the area. A high-speed, password-protected internet connection is also critical to both productivity and security. Important requests from clients and team members can be missed if the internet is not adequate.
When data must be transferred for work, it is critical to use secure, encrypted methods of data transfer. Sending attachments over email is not a secure method of transfer and is vulnerable to compromise. Perhaps more importantly, your team should evaluate their workflows to minimize points where data must be transferred. For example, saving an email attachment to your desktop, uploading a document to a collaboration platform, or saving a document from your local computer to your company’s network storage all involve data transfer and copy. If all work on a document can be performed within the collaboration platform, it would be best to design a workflow that does not involve any data transfer. Remember, every time data is transferred there is a risk of compromise, and every location where a document resides is a potential point for exfiltration that must be secured. Minimize data transfers and minimize data replication at every point possible. And when your work requires data transfer, make sure that a secure method is used and that data is only stored on secure systems under the management of your IT team.
When advising your clients, it’s important to adapt the above practices to how you work with your client. Clients will have their own security infrastructure and policies, so the best place to start is to have a conversation with your clients about how they would like to interact and work during the pandemic. Often, clients can give you access to their systems in a secure manner that will allow you to share information and collaborate with their team(s) remotely. This is preferable, because it leaves the security controls in the hands of the client rather than the members of your legal practice who are often catering to the security needs and practices of a diverse array of clients. Make sure you carefully read your clients’ access instructions and policies to ensure you don’t become their weakest security link.
As with your own practice, minimize data transfer and replication between you and your client. Circulating and saving multiple versions of documents creates additional security risks. When possible, achieve this collaboration through video calls, screen shares, or document platforms that allow for multiple authors to edit the same document. If you are evaluating clients’ data to provide advice, it is preferable to review data on their systems rather than transferring the data to your own infrastructure unless you have robust procedures and security infrastructure to execute those transfers.
Finally, when accessing client data, make sure you spend time on strategy and planning on the front end to ensure that only the minimum amount of data is accessed and reviewed. Don’t request access to an entire system if you only need to review five documents. Don’t transfer entire mailboxes out of an organization for e-discovery and litigation if the client has the infrastructure to run search terms and culling prior to the transfer. A little more effort upfront will allow faster and more valuable service to your clients while also protecting their security.
Remote work is likely here to stay during the pandemic and after. Currently, remote work may be more unusual than standard remote operations. Having to suddenly work remotely has brought unique challenges that may not occur in common remote work situations. Firms and companies were forced to go remote almost overnight, taking teams that were solely in office to abruptly instructing them how to operate off-site with only hours of notice.
Whether the reason for the previous in-office requirement was security, ease of access to the staff, or even teamwork and collaboration, the environment has shown us that many jobs can be done remotely. It’s not all bad news and challenges. The opportunity to meet the needs of clients through remote work has led to creativity and innovation. The needs of our teams, like our clients’ needs, are not one size fits all. The opportunity to use a variety of collaboration tools have come to fruition. Most firms and companies in the digital age have emails, chats, and video calling capabilities; but expanding how we use the tools can function to create and increase communication and collaboration. With remote work, you can’t clarify a point by walking into another’s office; and without seeing full non-verbal cues, the understanding in a conversation may be limited.
One of the innovations we have created is the use of virtual meeting rooms for our review teams. Many groups use video calling for meetings, but expanding use and access can increase communication and collaboration. We have found that setting up calls during the workday that stay open during work hours helps teams collaborating when working on the same project. Our teams log into the call almost as if they clocked into the office on the old clock-in machine of yesteryear. Everyone is muted on entry, but when someone has a question, they can unmute themselves to ask their manager questions or even share a document for others to see and discuss. Using the technology you already have in slightly different ways can help you function as you would traditionally in the office.
Of course, remote work has drawbacks that will need to be overcome. Employee oversight can be much harder. Distributing projects, tracking tasks, and dividing workload can be harder for managers. It can be less obvious who is overloaded when you can’t directly see the person working. Even though not having a commute can shave hours off someone’s day, not everyone likes to be working at home.
For managers, in particular, it can be challenging to lead a team that is not near you, especially when coaching and training new staff. It can be hard to ensure everyone interprets the same message in the same way. Even with video calling, it can be challenging to pick up social cues from team members to see how they feel about a particular project or task. From an employee perspective, the days and hours can get longer because employees are always able to log in. It can also be hard to set boundaries to separate ‘work time’ from ‘home time’.
When working with our colleagues, it can be much harder to interact and bond as a team when not in the same location. Losing the human connection can leave you feeling lonely and isolated. Those in-person connections can make all the difference in feeling part of the workplace. Many daily interactions are simple, such as saying “Hello” as you walk to get water or ask colleagues about their day. Small interactions can make all the difference in someone’s workday, because we don’t tend to have the same human interactions with each other online as we do in person. In a video meeting with numerous people, you are less likely to ask your colleagues how they are doing or how their night was. Before, you would have asked others when walking into the meeting and taking a seat. The connections we make in person are not the same as the connection we make online. Work connections can make all the difference in teams working together to accomplish tasks. Taking the time to interact with each other while distributed can be crucial to workplace satisfaction.
Finding time during remote work to keep the team engaged, connected, and motivated can be very difficult for managers and team members alike. Team members may start to feel insecure in their jobs because it gets harder to feel like they are being noticed for the hard work and dedication they are putting in. Managers forget to praise individuals for a job well done, and doing so on a video call in front of others may be awkward or inappropriate. Being motivated in a group is sometimes much more comfortable than when working in isolation. Firms need to focus on keeping folks engaged in the values and work they are doing. Staying motivated when isolated can be very hard.
Coming up with ways to manage engagement while being separated can be difficult. Many companies have come up with virtual happy hours, talent shows, and games to encourage social interactions among team members. One of the biggest team motivators we have done was “Happy Half-Hour.” We combined a talent show, getting-to-know-you activities, and a game of virtual Scattergories to bring the team together. Watching each other share talents was fun; and seeing how competitive people were at board games, gave the team a lighthearted lift. It gave everyone in “Remote land” some normalcy and time to engage with each other. Companies will have to make their own team experiences, but doing so will bolster the team and its ability to work with others even when not physically together.
Even with the drawbacks, the benefits seem to outweigh the hardships. Remote work is likely here to stay in numerous different formats. The pandemic has changed the outlook for most of us; and instead of a potential possibility of remote work, it is now an actuality. If we can serve clients under the current stresses by working remotely, we should be able to adapt the system post-pandemic to ensure the best working environment for our team members. Adaptations will come in many different forms, likely hybrid models where remote and in-office work become the norm. If team members are supported in either or both environments, we should give clients our best foot forward.
As you transform your practice to thrive in the new normal, keep in mind the following questions; Are we doing this in the most efficient and secure way possible given the technology that’s available? Are we doing this in a way that creates risk for the client? Does every step of our process create value for the client? These questions will help balance the challenges and opportunities in our new remote work environment while enhancing value offerings to the client, and solidifying your law practice as an adaptable and innovative business partner.
About the Authors
Catherine A. Pray is director of managed review at BlackStone Discovery, an e-discovery and computer forensics services firm. She manages onsite teams in Blackstone’s Salt Lake City office along with distributed and remote teams across numerous states. Derek M. Duarte is president of BlackStone Discovery. Most recently, he was named one of Silicon Valley’s 40 best business leaders under the age of 40 (40 under 40) by the Silicon Valley Business Journal for leading BlackStone Discovery’s rapid growth and disruption of the e-discovery industry