COVID-19 and Working Remotely
The Law Gazette
21 August 2020
Embracing the Changes and the Challenges In a Pandemic. In this roundtable discussion, experts share their experience and insight around workplace trends and the value of technology tools to drive productivity and engagement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we work and forced millions of employees and business leaders to handle their jobs remotely. The idea of working together while apart has prompted many law firms to reevaluate and analyze their strategies for operating safely, securely and efficiently.
Innovative technological tools offer essential real-time software and management solutions that allow users to share and update information virtually. In this roundtable discussion, these experts share their experience and insight on how technology tools and software solutions are driving productivity and engagement during these uncertain times.
Paul Walker (PW), Controller, Snow Christensen & Martineau. Paul Walker joined Snow Christensen & Martineau in 2011 and has over 10 years of experience in both financing and business leadership roles. In his role as Firm Administrator, he successfully manages the financial and business activities and overall operations of the firm.
Stephanie Sorkel (SS), Chief Operating Officer, Pedersen & Houpt. Stephanie Sorkel is an accomplished business leader, whose diverse background covers the banking, product management and professional services industries. Over the past 25 years, she has led the advancement of both corporate and privately held entities and worked directly with executive officers, boards of directors, and shareholders.
Tom Obermaier (TO), CEO, SurePoint. Tom Obermaier is an accomplished leader with a 30-year track record of working with high-growth software and service companies as well as global law firms. He has held senior leadership roles with Deutsche Bank AG, Bankers Trust Company, and was formerly a practicing attorney with Skadden Arps.
Q: Given the current environment, do you anticipate a spike in law firms embracing cloud-based services and legal management software? What must firms do to ensure due diligence when it comes to protecting their information in the cloud?
SS: Yes, law firms have and will continue to embrace cloud-based services and legal management software solutions, including servers. Currently there is a spike, but law firms will continue to have a hybrid approach with its solutions.
Security and performance (speed, reliability, redundancy, etc.) remain at the top of the list for internal and external service provider controls. The most important part of performing due diligence will remain: what is the frequency in which a cloud-based service provider reviews and advances its security, testing and disaster recovery program? Law firm technology leadership is regularly testing and advancing security measures along with a thorough review of its disaster recovery plans.
TO: We are seeing a tectonic shift, far greater than a spike. Traditional drivers for the switch — cost, reliability, security, constant upgrading, peace of mind — have only been accented by the now urgent need for remoteness and availability to empower their attorneys and staff while keeping them safe. Almost all firms now understand that experienced and reputable cloud services providers afford the safety and security that is needed to move a financial system to the cloud. The legendary Silicon Valley maxim — invest in core, outsource the rest — has finally come to the legal profession.
Because the pandemic has been so widespread, it has created the social proof and, unfortunately, the acute pain and anxiety that was missing even during the financial meltdown of 2008. Law firms have been forced to think about disaster mitigation and planning in ways that they have never considered — meaning thinking beyond financial implications. Health and safety are at the forefront. (Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). As a result, the cloud arguments are now centered on access from any place, at any time, security, AND the health and welfare of employees. Any firm believing that now isn’t the time to move to the cloud is ignoring a clear and right-headed market migration in the other direction.
PW: Absolutely. The firms that had cloud-based solutions were able to transition much quicker to working from home. I think firms are starting to see the value in mobile, flexible solutions. Protecting information should be important when looking at cloud solutions. Your IT department should be evaluating the security of your cloud solutions.
Q: How might technological tools such as legal management software and e-signature and e-payment tools contribute to a work-from-home environment, and which are most essential to ensure that a law firm can function virtually?
PW: These have become vital as we have been working from home.
SS: Any technological tool that can provide access to client-matter information in real-time with the ability to update it and securely share it using any device in any location is essential to working remotely from the office.
Q: What strategies and tactics can firms implement to specifically drive productivity and engagement in a virtual environment where there are potential distractions not present in an office setting?
TO: Successful firms are attacking the challenge on three fronts: 1) staff engagement; 2) client success; and 3) financial performance.
On the management front, far more is involved than transforming from a “Manage By Walking Around” to “Manage By Zooming” environment. Thriving firms have radically accepted that these different times are driving a need for further engagement in three areas: 1) transparency; 2) shared purpose; and 3) flexibility. Firms now share financial performance metrics across the firm. They note trends, challenges and areas for improvement. More importantly, they do so to emphasize the role of every employee in helping the firm. Firms that have adopted this approach see a huge increase in timely entries of billable hours. Not only does this promote a shared purpose, it also leads to leadership examples that can be copied. Case studies of successful, productive employees provide a wonderful ground for emulation. Flexibility is self-obvious to all of us working at home. Family life now forces us to do more off-cycle — early in the morning, late at night, the weekend. Embrace this and allow your staff the full day to complete their work.
What works for staff engagement also works with your clients. Transparency and flexibility, combined with compassion and frequency, drive real success for your clients. Successful firms see that compassion leads to increased collections. Understand your client’s situations, but don’t let that lead to bad business decisions. Their business is important to you, but your work should also be important to your clients. Work with them on real solutions that work for both of you. Also, double, triple, quadruple your client interactions. Don’t limit them to all business. Share stories of successes and challenges. And do not forget to ask about their families. Family stories build bonds and friendships. Focusing on what is important, builds the very best client relationships.
PW: I think transparency is key. We have been sending an hours report daily to all of our timekeepers. It helps everyone be accountable and also helps us to distribute work to attorneys in need. Individual coaching and mentoring is key now more than ever. If you see an attorney or paralegal’s production slipping, reach out to them. Find out what is wrong and help them find a solution.
SS: Driving productivity can be achieved by first listening to the needs and feedback of all users across the law firm regularly. Firm leadership gains productivity and improves financial results quickly by engaging users (what’s working? what’s not? what’s missing?). All Practice Group Leaders, Section Leaders and direct supervisors must remain connected and in regular communication with client teams and practice group members through various forms of communication (Webex, Shared Work Groups, Email, Text, Phone) so that people engagement remains strong. Leadership in the law firm must demonstrate ongoing support of all the firm’s goals, starting with its people, from the human element of how employees remain, and gain, in productivity. Technology leadership is focused on making adjustments for all users who are virtual. If a larger monitor is needed, it is deployed. If a headset may be helpful, it is deployed. If training is needed, it occurs virtually with known familiar trainers to provide on-going support in order to build the learner’s confidence and to disallow any employee to fend for themselves and become isolated in a virtual environment.
Q: Are there any existing tools that could potentially be improved upon to help make remote work easier for the tech team, the lawyers, and the clients (e.g., “Zoom is useful but would serve our needs much better if it could X”)? Are there needs for which there isn’t yet a technological solution?
PW: We need a project management tool that is tailored to the legal industry. Something similar to Slack or Trello. In my experience we are still emailing or calling people within our firm to get things done. A project management tool could really help law firms be more productive, especially if our workforce is working from home.
SS: Some business and technology reports indicate that Zoom may pose security risk issues, although it is convenient for most end users to master. Most law firms keep security issues at the top of their list when evaluating which systems to use and for what purpose. It is critical for Technology Leadership to continue to work with trusted, proven, secure, tested software and reliable vendors. Future advanced technology is ready to deploy beyond our imagination in order to work more efficiently and effectively, but the real challenge for law firms is preparing the workforce for change and to remain open to perpetual state of change and learning … to embrace and adopt new technologies and workflows. Learning the new and un-learning the old will be a major theme for all law firm technology to come.
Q: Some IT departments have been struggling to support attorneys who are now working remotely and grappling with new technology. What can law firms do to bolster tech support at this time, and to prevent this issue in the future?
TO: Our entire client community initially struggled with this. Lots of trial and error. The most successful firms overcame this challenge by embracing three practices: 1) increasing availability; 2) automating the “noise”; and 3) embracing BOTS. Newsflash: your attorneys and staff are not working normal shifts while working at home. Family, home schooling, pets, home deliveries, new client demands have transformed the workforce. Many of your attorneys and staff are not working regular shifts. Your tech staff needs to embrace this reality.
Be flexible. Shift resources to the early and later parts of the day. And make sure your vendors do the same. Second, automate routine tasks. Tasks like manual check printing and manually marking up bills became outdated decades ago. In today’s environment, it is more than just outdated, it is a competitive disadvantage for firms that operate this way. For example: ACH to replace check printing, paperless billing and electronic workflows to replace manual markups, cloud applications that eliminate the need to manage on premise hardware and allows for remote access. Finally, love your data and embrace AI. Gather stats on your top 100 inquiries. Put your answers on video and embrace new AI technology that links your staff or client inquiries to your video answers. That is what works in this age: instantaneous satisfaction.
PW: I think firms need to embrace the fact that technology isn’t going anywhere. Constant change is the new norm. Attorneys and staff need to understand that the days of buying a piece of software and using it unchanged for a decade is over. Instead of fighting change, embrace it. If this is your culture you will have very few problems supporting your firm with new technology.
SS: It is critical to provide 24/7 support to individuals, including a mix of proven and familiar internal and external technology support contacts. The investment made today in ensuring that all members of the law firm can work remotely will pay dividends today and moving forward. Technology departments need to look at this extraordinary period of time as an opportunity to achieve greater heights and results for the law firm than ever before. Keep in mind, all administrative departments are fully engaged and responding to more incoming requests for assistance for both clients and practice group members. All departments, not just technology call centers, need to deliver excellent service each day, especially during a world crisis or productivity will be negatively impacted. Firm leadership and ongoing communications must remain dynamic to have the most positive impact in delivering the desired financial results. Law firms must keep their foot on the technology accelerator in order to remain competitive.
Q: What are the most common mistakes law firms make when it comes to technology used for billing/accounting purposes?
PW: When first implementing a new product I think the most common mistake is trying to take on too much at once. There are all these new bells and whistles, however trying to implement them all at once usually leads to burnout from you and the end user. In my experience, a phased approach has been where I’ve seen the most success.
For longtime users I think implementing new parts of the software is difficult and usually doesn’t happen. There are many new parts of your accounting software that could probably save you time and money if implemented, however most firms are probably still using the version or tools they were trained on when the software was first implemented.
SS: Most common mistake: technology will solve everything. Technology is the tool and engine used to grant access and provide knowledge to the users in order to address clients’ needs for greater efficiencies more so than ever before in providing real-time financial status of their matters. It is a common requirement that billing attorneys are able to address directly client inquiries.
TO: The current environment presents the greatest opportunity in 50 years to revolutionize billing. That is not an overstatement. Standardize your definitions and processes. Build client and billing partner templates. Marry the two. Publish compliance guidelines across the firm. Automate the control process so no attorney, paralegal or vendor can enter time or allocation that is not compliant. Finally, unite the firm around probability. The number of billable hours is, quite frankly, irrelevant. Educate on efficiency and collectability. Let everyone know best practices on profitability. Develop case studies and, like all good closings, tell that story, tell it again, and tell it a final time so it is fully embraced.
In recent days, we have seen clients turning on all capabilities in our systems. We have seen all types of AI-enabled tools being embraced for the first time – to predict billing concerns and to highlight further opportunities for growth.
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