None of us expected when this year began that by the end of March, we would be asked or required to avoid going to the movies, restaurants, or even to the office, all of which would dramatically change our standard ways of working, our standard workflows and processes and our own outlook on the world to which we had become accustomed to. The world of COVID-19 mandates that we seek to be physically distant from one another, most of us work from home (if we’re fortunate), and where going to the grocery store or park feels as dangerous as walking outside in the midst of a tornado and necessitates wearing a mask.
But despite the fact that most conversations these days revolve around how we are staying healthy or the rising number of infections of a dangerous and super-contagious virus, one fact is unavoidable: People enjoy being with other people. It is hard to be asked to not do so. For lawyers, many of us rely on working with and collaborating with others. Now we are being asked to do so from afar. For law departments, and perhaps especially for law firms, the traditional ways in which business has been conducted have been upended for an indefinite period of time. This can be and has been an immense challenge, particularly when many have operated under the same set of static circumstances for a long time.
In light of current circumstances, then, which tools are available to support working remotely in a productive and collaborative manner? The number of remotely hosted services has increased exponentially over the past decade, and as a result, the number of tools to help you work remotely has also increased exponentially, allowing all of us to work from home fairly easily.
Technology Tools to Help Lawyers Collaborate When Working Remotely
Given the number of tools that exist, for the purpose of clarity, I am going to categorize each set of tools and then talk about each category in general terms while also referring to specific examples of each type of tool.
- Conferencing Tools
The first is one we have all become intimately familiar with – video conferencing. I have had many more video conferences in recent days than I recall having over the past few years. Among the more popular of these types of tools are Zoom, Go-To Meeting, and Google Hangouts. When choosing the right tool, some key considerations include ease of use, reliability, and price. Security is another major consideration, but I shall leave that to another article, since it is a big topic and relevant to all remote working tools. However, it is important to note that Zoom, in particular, has come under heightened scrutiny for its security practices.
- Legal Practice and Workflow Management
The second type of tool is one that many law firms find especially helpful—tools to manage the ebbs and flows of the business. Features of these tools include calendaring, billing and invoicing, matter tracking, and document management. I would be remiss if I didn’t first and foremost mention that before using any such tool, as a lawyer, you have an ethical duty to understand how these tools work, and more importantly, how they will process any data you provide to the tools including storage of data, access, and exporting of such data. You also should know how long the company making the tool has been in existence, which integrations with other solutions it offers, how long the vendor has been in existence, and how well-funded the company making the tool is.
Price, of course, is another important factor to consider. Many of these tools operate on a subscription model, meaning that the price you pay in part is determined by what limits you are willing to accept on functionality or what features are available to you, the number of users you can have, and/or what kinds of integrations you can have. Most of these tools, however, even at their lowest subscription tier, offer a standard set of features, including document management, time tracking, and billing. Calendaring is also a common and powerful feature offered by this type of tool. Calendaring functions can include things like to-do lists, appointment management, or rules-based calendaring for tracking court-imposed deadlines or statutory-imposed deadlines for filings.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you want a more focused tool for a particular part of your workflow, there are solutions that can help with specific aspects of practice management —like project management, email management, and the like. Personally, I have found that many of these tools are very effective given their tight focus on specific parts of a workflow. Some examples of such applications include ZERØ and Proxy. (For the sake of full disclosure, I serve on the advisory board of Proxy.) More generalized and broader applications include Clio, MyCase, and Filevine.
- Document Collaboration Tools
These types of solutions are used by pretty much all of us already and include Office 365 and Google Docs, as well as legal-specific document management systems like iManage, NetDocuments, OpenText, and Worldox. All offer a set of tools to create, edit, collaborate, share, and revise documents with others. As with law practice management software, you again need to ensure that you know how each tool processes your data, stores your data, and allows you to export your data. Individuals appear to have strong views with regards to which document collaboration tools they prefer. I will not wade into that debate here, but suffice it to say, all have their benefits and disadvantages depending on your needs, the size of your team, and the number of individuals to whom you or your team need to involve with certain types of documents.
- Operational Tools
For this category, I am referring to tools like ones that can scan documents for those who are aiming to operate paperless offices, speech-to-text tools that allow you to speak to write instead of typing, and voice-over-IP (VOIP) systems that allow you to make calls over the internet instead of using a traditional phone line. All of these tools can help with the essential logistics of running your office remotely by making these logistical tasks easier and more efficient. For more information about these types of tools, check out this article on speech-to-text dictation and this one on paperless scanning, which go into great depth about finding the right tool for you for these tasks.
How to Find the Right Collaboration Tools for You and Your Firm
The points below will help you assess how to find the right solutions for your specific challenges and workflows:
- Do not look for a panacea. Legal technology is not that. It is a group of applications that can aid in your work by helping you become more efficient, more effective, and most importantly, more attuned to the needs of your clients.
- Before looking at tech, have a firm understanding of your existing processes and where your pain points are.
- Ensure that you and whomever else will be involved in implementing and/or using a tech tool is willing, able, and prepared to do so. Doing these things will take time, but the time will be well-spent as it will lead you to look for the right tech for you based on your needs and your problems.