The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we knew it in ways we will not fully grasp for the foreseeable future. The way we live and the way we work are unlikely to go back to how they were anytime soon, at least for most people. This includes the intertwining of living and working, with more employees in home offices than ever before.
After two months of employees working remotely, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided they may do so permanently if they choose, even after office locations reopen. Will this be the new normal? And if it is, what will happen to the millions of square feet of Class A office space currently leased by law firms, corporations, and other organizations in major markets throughout the country and around the world? What will become of co-worker relationships and the mentorships that employees and organizations alike rely on for growth and continuity?
An important question, both now and for the long term: What are the implications of remote working for critical organizational infrastructures like data security and information governance?
Law firms are particularly anxious to answer these questions, given they routinely handle sensitive client data and must manage outside counsel guidelines alongside their own IG policies. A few firm IG leaders recently shared their experiences with me as part of an informal discussion about remote working challenges and their implications for IG.
Putting plans into action
Epidemiologists have warned for years of the potential for a viral epidemic, but until 2020 it seemed more likely to occur in a Hollywood production than something most of us would experience firsthand. Even so, many organizations have at some point established business continuity plans that provided a starting point for them in determining how to deal with the sudden shift to remote work.
While the current global pandemic has put firms’ information management capabilities to the test, overall the consensus among those taking part in our conversations is that their prior investments in disaster recovery and business continuity planning, as well as the infrastructure required for agile working, have paid off. One firm shared that its incident response team met every morning for three weeks to deal with specific issues as they arose.
Several weeks into the crisis, it seems most firms have been able to adapt reasonably well to remote working for all lawyers and staff under the circumstances—without a significant impact on client service delivery. That said, they shared several critical areas where they are striving to address specific gaps, adapt firm policies and procedures, and minimize security risks. These include:
- Availability of laptops, monitors, peripherals and other remote working equipment for all support staff (in addition to lawyers)
- Secure remote access to documents in firm-managed information repositories for all employees in compliance with firm policies
- Defense against cyberattacks and an increase in COVID-19-related phishing scams.
- Adoption of electronic signatures and notarization
- Adoption of secure document scanning apps on employee smartphones
- Use of image-on-demand services to retrieve paper-based records as needed
- Migration from paper-based billing review processes to a digital review of invoices
- Collaborative review of certain types of documents such as title plans, maps, and deeds
- Consistency of application delivery across all platforms
As they make changes to their internal processes, IG leaders are understandably concerned about maintaining compliance with information security standards such as ISO 27001, as well as regulatory requirements and clients’ outside counsel guidelines. One leader specifically expressed concern about where employees are storing data, and whether paper files are being properly secured or disposed of in their home offices, which the firm may address in possible modifications to its IG policy.
An accelerated transition to digital
To what extent do those IG leaders view the current crisis as an opportunity to advance IG initiatives? A strong consensus emerged that the current situation has demonstrated how important it is to “go digital” and become less reliant on paper as a matter of necessity, with one leader noting that this shift may push firms into addressing some areas of IG.
There is also agreement about prioritizing that any progress made in adopting good remote working practices not be lost when things return to “normal.”
Stuart Whittle, partner and business services and innovation director at Weightmans, shared, “Assuming we come out of the other end of this, I don’t want to waste a good crisis.” He continued, “It has been remarkable how we have almost completely digitized our law firm over a few days at the beginning of the crisis. I am very keen we capitalize on this and that our working practices don’t revert. What was, heretofore, ‘completely impossible and unworkable’ has within a matter of days become the norm.”
Firms are learning new things about their day-to-day business operations and will need to make decisions about how best to invest in preparations for future business interruptions.
In terms of next steps, the discussion participants had a range of responses depending on where they are in their respective information governance journeys.
Ken Kroeger, CIO at Kutak Rock, listed the following points as lessons learned for the future:
- “Notebooks for everyone. Seriously, we redeployed another 120 old units that were in the destruction pile and have already discussed with management about eliminating desktops altogether.”
- “Training, training, training on all the nuances of remote access and remote application use. We are at 95+% notebooks at the attorney level, but just having one doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to get the most out of it when remote.”
- “More formal disaster recovery processes and procedures. We have a DR plan, but this happened office by office, region by region—way too much local discretion at first—but we caught it early.”
Steve Dalgleish, head of technology at Shepherd and Wedderburn, said regarding his firm’s response to remote working, “I think (touch wood), we’ve done pretty well… If anything, it will put a focus on digitizing those remaining paper-based processes.” He also offered, “I can’t see us going back to fully office-based, and there’s no reason now for all processes not to be accessible regardless of location. I think this will change our business continuity picture now too—where we previously had options on room space at external locations for BC [before COVID], we have proven working from home is effective and removes a cost.”
In addition to comments about updating IG policies being a renewed priority, a prediction was offered that the pandemic may accelerate the implementation of and compliance with existing retention and destruction policies. There was broad consensus that remote working will become more commonplace in the future, with the suggestion that greater reliance on alternative work environments may be used to better manage expensive real estate.
Transitioning to the long term
The transition to a fully digital, remote-capable work environment goes beyond setting up laptops and VPNs. For some firms, culture and behavior must be addressed. One leader shared that attorneys who previously resisted work in a DMS are finding operations are more difficult when their team is no longer within shouting distance.
Fortunately, regardless of where they currently are on their IG journey, firms can get there with modern technology that allows them to:
- Centralize management of multiple information repositories – including both electronic documents and physical records—by providing an integrated view via a secure web-based system
- Automate classification of documents and assignment of the correct retention policies
- Enforce retention policies by identifying physical and electronic records that are due for disposition and managing workflows for review, approval, and destruction
- Reduce the volume of physical records stored and transition to a paperless or paper-lite environment
- Ensure compliance with regulatory and client requirements and capture an audit trail of all activity
IG solution providers may collaborate with consulting services partners that can assist with updating IG policies and procedures as needed in our new reality. While we all have many urgent issues to address in these challenging times, an integrated approach to information governance and records management will yield dividends as your firm digitizes and progresses toward even greater agility.
About the Author
Darrell Mervau is a co-founder and president of FileTrail Inc., a global leader in information governance and records management. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.