The COVID-19 era has demonstrated to law firms that the physical office is secondary. The heart of a law firm is its people, its technology and the Knowledge management (KM) to achieve optimal use of lawyers’ time and capacity. Therefore, your business must have a well-thought-out and achievable emergency plan. Be prepared to adapt, often immediately, to any type of massive shift from the office.
Whatever the reason for your firm’s staff having to relocate, you need to ensure that clients will receive the same quality of service, regardless of where your lawyers are located. This is where your knowledge management service plays a major role. As 3Kites consultant Jenni Tellyn said in a recent Thomson Reuters podcast, KM comes down to “getting the right information to the right people at the right time.”
What should an emergency plan contain?
A law firm’s emergency plan must meet a set of fundamental objectives. The goal is for the business to be as functional in an emergency as it is under normal conditions. These objectives include:
- Communication continuity/security, internal: Lawyers and staff must be able to work together and share documents, even if they are in remote locations.
- Communication continuity/security, external: Clients need to communicate reliably with their lawyers, without interruption of service.
- Remote access to firm resources: Lawyers must have secure access to all the data and documents necessary for a case.
Keep internal lines open
One of the main tasks of a law firm is to ensure, from the onset of an emergency, that lawyers and staff continue to talk to each other. This will require a range of technology applications, from encrypted email to video conferencing apps like Zoom or Microsoft Teams to internal communication networks like Slack.
At the start of the COVID crisis in 2020, some law firms faced tech-resistant lawyers who had, for example, never used electronic signatures before or participated in video conferences. The first weeks of lockdown left them scrambling to catch up. In 2022, such hesitation is no longer acceptable. Businesses should expect a measurable degree of mastery of technology.
One goal could be to ensure that all lawyers comply with local standards, such as the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 1.1, which asks lawyers to “develop sufficient technological skills to meet their obligations… after a disaster.”. This can include attending regular training sessions and completing technology-related goals (such as lawyers learning how to run a virtual meeting with breakout sessions or how to mark up virtual documents).
The COVID era has been a graduate course in developing technology best practices. Years of remote conferencing have made virtual meetings closer and more productive. For example, meeting organizers have learned to open up with energy and momentum, rather than seeing the meeting get carried away while everyone logs on. And if a meeting happens at the end of a workday, Zoom-weary staff may be better off with their cameras turned off.
Making Lawyers Tech-Savvy means that the introduction of new systems should be as intuitive as possible. A lawyer working remotely due to a crisis may face several issues, ranging from managing clients to personal matters. The last thing they need is having to master a complex new platform in their downtime.
How to make the contingency plan transparent to customers
Another central part of contingency planning is making sure customers don’t feel the disruptions your business is experiencing. Clients should never wonder, in a crisis, how to get in touch with their lawyer. Anything originally intended for the physical world (like an arbitration hearing) should easily transition to virtual if necessary.
A good rule of thumb is the ABA’s Model Rule 1.4, which states that in the event of a disaster, attorneys should be able to “create, on short notice, electronic or paper lists of current clients and their contact details.” This information should be stored in an easily accessible manner. During these initial communications, clients will need to know if the attorney remains available to handle the client’s business or, alternatively, if the attorney is unavailable due to the effects of the disaster and may have to step down.
A law firm should establish a chain of accountability: who maintains and updates case and client data; who is responsible for contacting each customer in the event of an emergency; and what is the process for rapid replacement of a lawyer. The latter may mean having “duplicate” lawyers for particularly urgent cases.
Resources: putting the tools in the hands of lawyers
However, the only way to fully succeed with a law firm’s contingency planning is to have all the necessary client and case information remotely available.
Using cloud-based dispute management ensures that all case information is located in a separate hub from the physical office. Law firms can scale access by implementing different levels of authorization: lead case attorneys will need a greater degree of information than lower-level staff.
As a result, expect a fundamental shift in corporate documentation and storage practices. Consider a case file library in the office. A lawyer knows where these documents are and can easily get them by walking down a hallway. But if you’re away from the office for an extended period of time, what happens when you need those files? Moving to a near-paperless environment, where all relevant information resides on a protected cloud server, goes a long way to addressing this issue. As Tellyn said in the Thomson Reuters podcast, it’s basically taking knowledge out of a closet and putting it into a system.
Contingency plans as a means of change
A good emergency plan can also inspire a law firm to improve its operations. Not only by using technology to make the work of lawyers more efficient, but by rethinking aspects of working life to achieve its DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) goals. For example, an employee with a disability may find it more productive to be spared the long and potentially tiring commute to work. Having employees based in locations other than head office could also broaden your pool of potential candidates, allowing companies to increase hiring from underrepresented groups.
Emergency planning doesn’t just mean preparing for the worst. See this as an opportunity to make a law firm more adaptable, diverse, functional and ready to take on any challenge.