Remote Working for Small Law Firms: a Practical Guide
December 21, 2022
According to the United States Census Bureau, nearly one out of five employed people (17.9%) worked remotely as of 2021, a percentage that translates to 27.6 million people and a 3X increase compared to 2019. In addition, according to a McKinsey survey, 87% of individuals that were offered remote jobs accepted them.
So as the number of industries joining in on the remote work revolution increases, you have probably found yourself asking, “Can lawyers work from home?”. The short answer is “yes”, but doing so requires law offices to adopt cloud-based software and proven remote work best practices.
You can find comprehensive information about remote work for attorneys, as well as the basics of remote work as it pertains to small law firms, in our practical guide for law firms working remote.
We take a deep dive into questions like, “Can you work from home as a lawyer?” and provide you with a business development roadmap that you can use to create a successful remote law practice.
Can Lawyers Work Remotely?
The answer to this overarching question — Can lawyers work remotely? — is a confident “Of course, they can”. Be that as it may, there are several potential pitfalls that your law practice needs to be aware of before adapting to working remotely.
Developing strong relationships with clients is undeniably critical to the success of any law firm. The most obvious and probable snag regarding remote work, though, is that it may make those initial meetings with clients difficult to set up and have. With that in mind, you may want to consider transitioning to a hybrid model as opposed to having your attorneys work from home 100% of the time.
For instance, you could structure your office hours and meetings in a way that allows attorneys to work from home most days per week but still requires them to report to the office for one or two days during that time frame. A hybrid approach would enable you to build strong relationships with your client base while also reaping the benefits of working from home.
Another major hurdle associated with working from home involves document management. Your law firm — like most, undoubtedly — manages thousands of important legal documents, many of which include confidential client information. When working remotely, your attorneys will still need access to these documents, but manually signing and sending out physical documents multiple times per week is inefficient and labor-intensive.
Therefore, you should use this as an opportunity to go digital by adopting case management software like Smokeball. With such technology at your disposal, you will be able to modernize all facets of law firm document management while also allowing your attorneys to work remotely.
A third notable hurdle that you will face when working from home is encountering hidden costs on occasions when lawyers working remotely need to meet in person, though fortunately, this pitfall is quite easy to overcome.
First off, consider transitioning some support staff to fully remote positions. Doing so will reduce your operating expenses, given that you will be able to lease a smaller office space. Next, reroute those funds toward investing in new technologies that will improve the efficiency of your practice and therefore minimize the need for in-person meetings.
You should also create a clear remote work policy that encourages lawyers to conduct video meetings whenever possible and provides clear protocols for reserving conference room space. This way, your attorneys will know how to facilitate an in-person meeting with existing clients, co-workers, and the like.
Organizing Remote Work for Law Firms: 4 Main Aspects
Now that we have answered the question, “Can you work from home as a lawyer?” and discussed some of the pitfalls that you might encounter as you work to create a remote practice, let’s shift our focus to what you must address to succeed in this endeavor.
Four considerations that you must account for include the following:
1. Law Firm Remote Work: the Organizational Aspect
When transitioning to a remote practice, your law firm must:
Incorporate Remote Work into the Company’s Policies
When creating a work-from-home policy, it is critical that it fits in cohesively with your law firm’s existing policies and procedures. It cannot read as an afterthought or a cobbled-together framework for remote work.
Instead, it needs to exhibit the same tone as each of your other pre-existing policies, reflecting your company culture. It must outline working hours, set guidelines for communicating with clients, address any questions your legal professionals may have about your new work model, and include safeguards for protecting client data.
An ideal remote work policy will provide your attorneys with flexible hours and the leeway to adjust their schedules around other obligations. Flexible work hours are one of the most appealing aspects of working remotely, which is why you must preserve this component in your policy if you want your program — and by extension, your firm — to flourish.
Naturally, you must tailor your policy around the needs of your law firm and the requirements of your practice area. Regardless, any great remote work policy for a law firm must:
- Outline when working from home is acceptable;
- Set clear guidelines for attorneys;
- Protect client data.
As long as your policy accomplishes all three of these objectives, it will set the stage for the success of your program.
Communicate Changes with Clients
If your legal practice suddenly transitions to a remote work model, your clients will want to know why, so make sure to keep each of your clients in the loop about any upcoming changes.
When communicating these changes to clients, take the time to explain why you are making the transition and what benefits it will provide them while also ensuring that they will still be able to communicate with your practice via phone calls or video meetings.
Some law firms allow attorneys to respond to client houses when switching to a remote business model. If this is something your practice plans to incorporate into its policy, remember to inform clients of this change as well.
2. Law Firm Remote Work Consideration: Technical Aspects and Creating a Virtual Law Office
Whether you have recently graduated from law school or bid farewell to your alma mater decades ago, your coursework was certainly devoid of any information on the technical nuances associated with running your practice from a remote location.
In light of this, you — like many other lawyers — may find mastering the technical aspects of remote work to be an extremely difficult task. The good news, however, is that creating a virtual law office is actually a relatively straightforward process, providing that you do the following:
Incorporate Law Practice Management Software
Leading law practice management software from Smokeball includes robust tools and attributes that will allow you to seamlessly manage your remote practice. Some of its top features include:
- Billing Software: Smokeball allows your clients to pay online, which makes the entire process of using your services seamless and efficient. Smokeball’s billing software also precisely tracks transaction records for accounting, tax, and compliance purposes.
- Automatic Time Tracking: When working remotely, tracking the billable hours of all of your attorneys can be challenging, but Smokeball eliminates this potential remote work pitfall by automatically tracking all billable hours, ensuring you can accurately charge for any services rendered.
- Legal Calendaring: With Smokeball’s legal calendaring tools, clients can book meetings with their attorneys with just a click of a button. The calendaring tool will send automatic appointment notifications to your team, so they never miss a meeting with clients.
- Email Management: Managing emails is critical to protecting client data and keeping each of your legal professionals on the same page. Smokeball’s email management tools are powerful but user-friendly, making the process no longer represent a pain point for your firm.
- E-FIling and e-Signatures: No remote work management platform would be complete without e-filing and e-signature capabilities. With Smokeball, attorneys can send electronic documents to clients, obtain signatures, and file those documents with lightning-fast efficiency.
- Legal Matters and Document Collaboration: Smokeball’s leading practice management software enables multiple team members to effortlessly collaborate on documents and legal matters at once, affirming that team collaboration remains high despite staff members working from separate locations.
Law practice management software that includes all of these effective capabilities will serve as the cornerstone of your new remote practice.
Communicate Securely with Clients
When you inform clients that you are transitioning to a remote or hybrid business model, many will likely be immediately concerned about the security of their information. You can put those fears to rest by ensuring your clients that you have taken steps to protect all of their confidential data.
Once again, legal practice management technology represents the most practical means of keeping your client’s data safe and establishing secure lines of communication. Top options will include features like a law firm client portal, which is a password-protected interface through which each client can interact with your practice.
Hold Professional Video Meetings
When your team starts working from home, video meetings will become a staple of your new business model.
They make getting your team together more efficient, as everyone simply needs to log into your designated communication software instead of commuting, and they will also frequently be used to connect with clients.
Whether you are communicating with a client or another attorney, it is vital that you take steps to keep these interactions professional, which you can accomplish by:
- Using Your Mute Button: When meeting with more than one person over a video call, the mute button is your best friend. Activate your mute button to ensure that sounds from your end of the feed do not disrupt other speakers. Minor amounts of background noise may not seem all that distracting, but remember that the current speaker will hear feedback from all participants. With that being said, however, consider ditching this rule if you are meeting with only one attorney or client; the conversation will be more fluid and fast-paced.
- Investing in a Headset: A high-quality headset will ensure that you can clearly hear the other person and vice versa. Your laptop’s microphone may be pretty reliable, but it won’t be nearly as effective as a dedicated headset and microphone. If your home gets noisy during the day, consider headphones with noise-canceling capabilities.
- Staying in Frame: Turning off your camera to roll your chair out of frame might seem like good etiquette, especially for a sip of coffee or to type during the meeting, but the opposite is actually true. If you mute yourself and turn off your camera, other attendees might think that you are failing to pay attention, which can create friction with the client or attorney that you are speaking with and potentially have a long-term impact on your relationship.
- Installing LED Lights: If you are still using old-school incandescent bulbs, consider upgrading to LEDs, as they are more energy-efficient and will have a positive impact on your video quality as well. Don’t go too bright, though, as doing so can diminish video quality.
- Proactively Preventing Distractions: If you are working from home, you must account for potential distractions, like kids playing or a dog barking at the postal worker. Ensure that your pets are away from your office space, and let your client or fellow attorney know you are meeting them with your children at home. The person you meet with will be more understanding if you notify them in advance.
- Minding Your Background: Remember, whoever is on the other end of a video call will not just get a close-up of your face. They will be able to see a large portion of the area behind you. With that in mind, ensure that you are sitting in front of a clean, professional background, keeping your home office space tidy or using a virtual background if necessary.
Be Reachable by Phone
Even though you are going to be out of your usual office space, you must be available for phone calls during work hours. While most clients will take advantage of more advanced communication options, others may still want to dial your number and speak directly over the phone.
If your firm is transitioning to a hybrid model and you have a dedicated office number, enable call forwarding on the days you’ll be working from your home office. Doing so ensures that your clients can easily get a hold of you should they have a pressing legal concern.
If you are constantly unavailable, your reputation will suffer, which will leave a lasting, negative impact on your legal career. On the other hand, if you cultivate a reputation for being responsive to the needs of every client, you will thrive.
3. Law Firm Remote Work: the Social Aspect
Remote legal work will have a profound impact on the morale and well-being of your employees. While there are many benefits associated with it, the transition can be stressful for some employees, especially those that crave face-to-face interactions.
Therefore, you must address the social aspects of remote legal work if you want to ensure that your employees thrive with the new business model. Specifically, you should aim to accomplish the following:
Hold Regular Check-Ins with Team Members
Periodically reach out to your employees to see how they are doing. Establish a framework for performing these check-ins to ensure that you do not inadvertently overlook any of your staff members.
You can check in via phone calls, text messages, or video chats. During each, touch base with your employees to see how they are enjoying the new work model. Determine whether they need any additional resources to fulfill their responsibilities, and take a few moments to gather feedback.
These small meetings will strengthen morale and let your staff understand that you know they can be successful.
Use Collaboration Tools for Law Firms
Collaboration tools can fill the void that emerges when you transition to remote legal work, at least partially so. Like with check-ins, video chat and messenger applications will encourage your team members to collaborate, communicate, and interact with one another.
If you adopt a messaging application like Slack, you can use the platform to host weekly team-building contests as well. For instance, you could ask everyone to share their favorite recipe and give a gift card to the response that receives the most likes.
Additionally, you should consider hosting weekly or monthly in-person team meetings. During these gatherings, your team members can catch up over a cup of coffee and effectively strengthen their bonds with one another.
Think about Mental Health
A study from Kennesaw State University titled “I’m Not Working From Home, I’m Living at Work” looked at 370 white-collar workers. 60% of those surveyed had not previously worked remotely, and 70% of those who had previously worked from home had done so 15 or fewer hours per week. So working from home was generally a new experience for nearly 90% of respondents.
Throughout the height of the pandemic, the average stress perceived increased for all participants. Furthermore, it increased significantly for workers who were not offered the flexibility to work from home prior to the pandemic.
Three issues were identified as being the most challenging, which are as follows:
- Maintaining an appropriate level of communication with team and colleagues — 21.36%;
- Managing technology and communication tools — 19.20%;
- Managing time — 18.42%.
Fortunately, you can combat the potentially negative consequences of remote work by using these proven tips:
- Take a Step Back: When you work from home, it can be all too easy to spend hours in front of your screen as you chip away at your daily tasks, which is particularly true if you are passionate about your practice and clients. There’s nothing wrong with putting in a hard day’s work at your home office, but you also need to step back every now and then to recharge. Try not to exceed your standard work hours and take a few breaks to get up and stretch your legs.
- Stay Connected with Coworkers and Friends: Just because you work from home does not mean that all of your office friendships must go by the wayside. Make it a point to connect with at least one friend or coworker every day. Spending even just a few minutes socializing can give your mental health a boost and keep you from feeling alienated or isolated. You should also try to make it a point to meet up with that friend in person at least a few times per month.
- Create a Routine: When you initially begin working from home, it is easy to feel out of sorts and directionless. It’s likely you were more than accustomed to arriving at the office every day at 8 a.m. sharp, but you now just walk into your home office and log in to your computer around the start of your shift. If you want to avoid feeling lost when working from home, create a routine and stick to it. For instance, make it a point to “clock in” every day at the same time and knock out your daily tasks in a consistent order.
- Establish Consistent Working Hours: While your firm may allow you to work flexible hours, you should be consistent in regard to the volume of work you complete each day. As an at-home lawyer, it can be easy for the lines between your personal and professional lives to blur. Therefore, setting clear boundaries for yourself and avoiding logging too many hours will help prevent burnout.
- Don’t Lounge Around: Even if you do not have any meetings scheduled for the day, don’t lounge around all day in your favorite pair of PJs. Instead, start your morning by getting dressed for work, even if you plan on spending your day in your home office. You may not need to don a suit jacket and tie a perfect Windsor knot, but at least throw on a nice pair of slacks and a button-down shirt. Doing so will make you look and feel more professional and motivated.
4. Law Firm Remote Work: the Accountability Aspect
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Attorneys and support staff are both generally very dedicated and passionate individuals. That said, however, you need to address employee accountability when implementing a remote work model. Your policies regarding accountability must manage common concerns, such as logging billable hours, managing project deadlines, and ensuring that each of your employees is “showing up” for work each day.
If you fail to address the accountability aspects of your remote legal work, your firm’s productivity will plummet, leading to a drastic decrease in client satisfaction and possibly even causing long-term damage to your brand’s reputation. Therefore, you must create and implement carefully-written accountability protocols and policies. Doing so will help hold you and your staff accountable, even on the days when any of you are out of the office.
When implementing accountability protocols, technology will be your greatest ally. You will need to invest in a law firm reporting platform that includes collaboration tools, billable hour tracking, and employee management software. Such a platform will enable you to not only hold your staff accountable but also maximize the productivity of your law firm.
Remote Working for Lawyers: the Bottom Line
As you can see, the answer to the question “Can lawyers work from home?” is a resounding “Yes!” but in order to embrace home lawyer jobs, your firm must first implement the right policies, procedures, and technologies. The latter is particularly critical to the success of any work-from-home program.
With that in mind, you should explore Smokeball’s legal practice management software. Smokeball will streamline all legal practice management processes, regardless of whether your firm uses a remote, hybrid, or traditional business model.
To learn more about Smokeball legal practice management software, book a demo today.
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