Is this the new normal? Will lockdown be extended after the three week period? And even if the lockdown isn’t extended, how long will it take business to return to normal? Months? Years maybe? And actually, will it ever return to normal? Has it changed forever, and if so, how will law firms do business in the future?
I was pleasantly surprised last week after a phone call to one of our large international clients where the person I spoke to told me that although they were in lockdown, it was pretty much business as usual. Sure, they expected a dip in income starting in April, but they were speaking to clients to reassure them that they would still be practising virtually. Although their revenue would be lower, some aspects of the practice were performing way better than they did in “normal” conditions.
When I asked her how they were able to continue working remotely at such short notice, she explained that they had moved to browser-based software application a few years ago already, partly because it was easier to manage deployment, but also because they needed a good disaster recovery strategy.
Of course, this isn’t unique to international firms, and a number of South African law firms also made the change to browser-based applications some time back, with some forward-thinking firms beginning their change as early as five years ago.
So what are the key elements of a disaster-recovery strategy? One needs to consider what type of disasters firms might encounter. A fire at the office (where water used to douse the fire does the most damage); theft or mechanical failure of a server; and as we are now experiencing, a forced “work-from-home” situation. All of these would require firms to “work from anywhere” at short notice. And that means Cloud-hosted, browser-based software applications.
But is the Cloud safe? Whenever I am asked this question, I answer that law firms have been doing banking in the Cloud for over 10 years now. It is generally accepted that hosting providers such as Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services invariably do a much better job of managing your server than you would using your own IT consultant or staff member. That’s because it is their focused business, and they cannot afford to drop the ball. It might surprise you to learn that over 50% of all AJS legal accounting clients now run in the Cloud.
So what applications are critical in this work-from-home world?
The most obvious one is email, right? Many firms today already have hosted Microsoft Exchange (Outlook) email servers, so they can access email remotely. And for smaller firms Gmail is already Cloud-hosted. So for most firms, email is already accessible remotely.
Telephony & switchboard
Next most obvious would be telephony. While everyone has a cell phone, ideally firms should have a hosted VoIP phone system which, in times of a disaster, will allow their employees to simply plug their physical phones in at home and carry on working as if they were at the office. Regular extensions would work as normal, and even the firm’s switchboard would be portable – ensuring that clients can still contact your firm. This solves the communication problem. And this isn’t new technology. It has been around for years and many law firms are already using such a system. Sadly, most firms that have a VoIP phone system don’t have a clear plan for what to do when their staff is forced to work from home!
Closely related to telephony is video conferencing. While this sounds futuristic and expensive, there are some very reasonably priced alternatives for this, beginning with Skype which is free. Zoom is also popular, as are Microsoft Teams, Slack, and GoTo Meeting. (Zoom offers up to 40-minute conferencing sessions for free, although at present they don’t seem to be policing the 40-minute limit.) You can download these applications from the Internet, and they will help you to stay close to clients and colleagues.
Accounting, billing, bookkeeping
Next in the list would be the firm’s time recording, billing, bookkeeping and document management systems. (Accounting and Practice Management.) While browser-based legal accounting and practice management applications have been available in South Africa for a few years now, only two local software vendors currently offer their products in a Cloud-hosted browser environment. For those firms that are on a hosted browser-based accounting system, working from home is no problem, provided they have a reasonable Internet connection at home. Work-from-anywhere is especially important for bookkeeping staff during a crisis such as this, but equally important for fee earners that capture their own time.
Electronic banking has been Cloud-based for over 10 years now, so bookkeepers and accountants working from home can access their banking in the same way that they normally would.
Since some of the more advanced accounting systems also offer matter-centric document management, fee-earners working from home can even view attached documents and correspondence remotely.
Most employees have Microsoft Office on their home computers, and if not, MS Office 365 can be rented (from Microsoft) relatively inexpensively. This allows your staff to continue generating documents remotely, and by uploading these to the accounting system (or emailing them as attachments) they can be shared with other users at the firm.
Conveyancing case management
Most firms have a conveyancing documentation “case management” solution, and while most of the vendors do not yet have a Cloud-based version, it is possible to work remotely on two of the products.
Document automation (templates)
Some progressive firms have embraced document automation software, where they run templates to generate agreements and forms rather than using cut-and-paste methods. Document automation has been available in the Cloud for some time now, so users of those systems have full access to templates from home.
But what can firms do in this crisis if they aren’t using Cloud-based applications? While remote access is more difficult and more costly if you aren’t using a Cloud-hosted (browser) solution, it is still possible for your employees to work remotely.
Firms can also use Remote Desktop/Terminal Server for remote access, but if you do make use of this option it is recommended that access to the firm’s server should be via a secure virtual private network (“VPN”) since unsecured access could open the firm up to a ransomware attack.
Another way to do this is to set up TeamViewer on your server so that remote computers can connect to it. You can subscribe for this service online, and your IT provider could configure it remotely.
So is all of this necessary, and why can’t you wait until it blows over in a few weeks’ time?
Firstly, it is my view that this is the new normal. Firms have no choice now but to embrace technology, and to begin working virtually – because close personal contact is going to be a problem until there is an effective vaccine available. Hopefully that will happen sooner rather than later.
Most of the legal software vendors are working virtually during lockdown, so there is nothing stopping you from moving to a Cloud-based application now. As to which aspect to change first, you should decide which application will bring you the greatest financial relief. That might be your billing, or it might be your case management.
It is said that the Covid-19 crisis will change the way we work forever. That is going to be even more true for the professions. It is also probable that even after the Covid-19 crisis is over many employees will continue to work from home, reducing costs, “creating more time” by avoiding traffic, and enjoying better work-life balance. There are also many other benefits of such a strategy, such as attracting quality staff working far from the office, easier maternity leave, and the possibility of reducing office space.
Get on with it!
But by far the most important aspect for law firms during this Covid-19 crisis is that they need to get on with it. While some firms simply sent their employees home for the three-week lockdown period, many firms actively decided to keep doing business any way they could.
As abnormal as this situation is, this is the new normal. Business just went virtual. And law firms need to shape up quickly or face the prospect of closing their doors permanently.