By David C. Smith.
So, here we are in the middle of a pandemic. And no matter how many science fiction shows I have watched that discuss the pandemic scenario, not a single one of them talks about the effects of this situation on maybe the most important professions in our society, lawyering.
Of course, that may be our collective opinion, still until there is a vaccine, we all do have a crucial role here to deal with legal issues while we wait for “normal”.
So, here are some tips that I have compiled based on my own experience for remote offices.
- Create a paperless office. All offices should have or develop a system for scanning all documents, including mail, faxes and client materials. At this point, there is no real reason not to have a system and at least scan all documents for new clients. Like a lot of things, at first this will seem ominous, cost prohibitive and time consuming. We have been scanning our clients’ documents for over ten years now and, at first, is was very difficult to make this change, Now, it really does run smoothly. Benefits? When you and your staff remote in, you can obtain direct access to your clients’ materials without pulling a file or taking a paper file home. The cost is reasonably low depending on the size of your office. For example, a sole practitioner with one paralegal can use a variety of low-cost scanners to scan. The only real issue is how to store the data. So, you will likely need a computer professional to help, keeping in mind taking this major step will open the door to remote computing. Also, we stopped holding client’s original materials years ago, eliminating the risk of inadvertent lost or destroyed documents. Most practitioners have a scanner and a centralized database, so the cost of doing this should be mostly in training and reeducation.
- Centralized Calendar and Contact Database. If you are keeping your own paper calendar and contacts instead of using outlook or some other product to centralize that activity, you should switch over to that immediately. The benefits here are obvious. Every person who works for you can access your calendar in real time. We set up one account with Microsoft using Office 365 for the sole purpose of having a centralized calendar and contact system. Instead of having a calendar for each person and sharing one of them, there is a generic email account that includes calendar and contacts. We never use the email function and only use the calendar and contacts. It costs about $5 per month, but it is well worth it for smaller firms considering the function you wish to have all staff access.
- Faxes and Voicemail should be emailed to you and your staff. My office uses efax.com for faxes and comcast.net for voicemails. With efax.com, we purchased a phone number directly from them and costs about $240 per year. The beauty of this system is that 1) we don’t need a fax machine for incoming faxes, and 2) all the faxes are emailed directly to me and my staff. Voicemail through comcast.net, our business line provider is also emailed to me and my staff and is converted to text automatically. My staff will review the emailed faxes and voicemails to determine if there is a need for further communication with the sender and then will get back to me. We have a fax machine for outgoing faxes, which my staff can access from their computer to fax things out.
- Office computers should have at least two monitors. Because of the reliance on files in the computer to work on case files. There should be at least two monitors on each staff persons desk. One monitor can be used for emails and remote communications and the other can contain case files that you are working on. My staff and I all have three monitors on our desks. The key to the multiple monitors is the ability to move documents from one screen to another seamlessly. Think Tom Cruise in Minority Report where he is moving information and documents on a large screen from place to place. I am Tom Cruise in that scenario.
- All staff should have remote access. I and my staff have been remotely accessing our computers for many years. We use “Remotepc.com”. I have found that that product is reliable and easy to use. So the idea is that your computer at your office is mirrored at your home or remote office. If you have more than one screen, Remotepc can handle multiple screens. So, while you are typing at home, it is also typing at your office at the same time. The screen on the office side can be displayed as a blank screen to prying eyes cannot watch what you are doing. The benefit is obvious during this pandemic situation. You and your staff can work on the computer you work with everyday, so you will have limited issues with client confidentiality. In addition, your staff person’s computer at home or remote office won’t have your client’s information residing on it. Each of my staff have a complete mirror of their work computers. For example, my paralegal has a computer with three monitors. So, her desktop at her remote office looks exactly like the desktop at the office. And, since we are a paperless office, there isn’t an issue with not having the documents available to perform the work. Cost is about $30 per year for each desktop, which is way cheaper than any other product out there.
- Skype or Zoom access should be available for communication with staff and clients. We have been using Skype, and more recently Zoom.com for communicating with staff. Both products are reliable and generally are safe to use. The benefit of using skype or zoom is that your non-verbal communication (think scrunchy face about a particular thought), is not lost in the mix of communicating with some other method such as cell phone, text or email. One of the benefits of using these products is that you can “share a screen”. This allows your staff or your client to see what you are typing and creating in real time. It is truly an efficient use of time to share a screen with your staff or client. In fact, I am doing that right now. Jessica, who works for me, is reviewing this article while I am typing it and giving me input as to things to communicate, in real time. Skype is free for communicating with other people that have Skype. Zoom costs about $16 per month, but allows you to send an email with a link for the other person to Zoom in for an unlimited amount of time. The difference between the two is that Skype requires another Skype user, while Zoom does not.
During the pandemic, I was working at my office and my staff were working remotely. My wife is the office manager/accountant, so she was also able to work at my office. Skype allowed me to purchase telephone numbers that can be called for $6 per month for each line. Using Comcast’s “be anywhere” function, our phones at the office ring at the office phone and my staff’s remote office at the same time, like we were in two offices next to each other. That created the illusion that my staff were in the next office over. All of this was done a very low cost with a fairly seamless result.
There it is! My thoughts on remote computing. If you have any ideas or thoughts about this subject, or have questions, please send me an email, email@example.com