Best Practices for Managing Virtual Law Firms
Many attorneys work in law offices that have become at least partially virtual without their knowing it. How so? By working remotely, attorneys and staff have transformed how law firms operate. Teams collaborate from home, client offices, or court, utilizing the various hardware and software tools that are now ubiquitous. Other attorneys have made the leap to virtual staff, employing paralegals and legal secretaries who work entirely remotely.
While attorneys have been quick to adopt the technology that enables them to work outside of the office, they have been slower to adopt management techniques to adapt to these new realities. Giving thought and adopting processes for managing remote staff can come with substantial benefits, including greater efficiency and improved oversight.
If you haven’t thought about how to manage your virtual staff, here are some suggestions for tackling the project.
1) Clear Cut Responsibilities
Organizations will often have a general idea of what an employee’s responsibility will be upon hire and then allow that person’s responsibilities to grow organically. In many offices, an attorney may simply stop by the desk of a paralegal or an associate and ask if they have time to assist with a particular matter. The paralegal or associate who has extra time may run into a colleague in the firm’s breakroom and see if there are any matters where they might be able to assist.
These informal processes work well where everybody works together in the same office, but they don’t crossover well into a virtual environment. Therefore, the virtual worker’s role needs to be clearly set forth and systems need to be put in place to assess the worker’s availability.
When bringing on staff that will work primarily remotely, consider doing the following:
- Implement a System for Tracking Staff Availability: Don’t wait for an attorney or staff member to raise their hand and say that they are available for work. Have a system in place that tracks the number of hours that staff members are available, the number of hours a week they are currently working, and what they are working on.
2) Have Set Technology Systems In Place
In order to work effectively with remote team members, you need the right technology in place. There is generally speaking a bundle of different software functions that each law firm needs:
- Document Management – You need a place to store and access documents. Versioning and sharing capabilities are key, as is document security.
- Calendars – Syncing and sharing ability across platforms is key so that your schedule is up to date across all of the hardware you use.
- Accounting and Invoicing – It’s important that these functionalities be integrated with one another to avoid duplicative data entry and bookkeeping errors.
- Project Management – Many attorneys don’t have a formal project management system in place. This is a mistake. Project management software provides easy-to-use interfaces for tracking work.
Attorneys have the choice of utilizing practice management software, like Clio, which often bundles many of these functionalities together. A significant advantage of practice management software is that these different functionalities integrate with one another. Alternatively, attorneys can utilize separate software for each of these functions. This may appeal to offices where certain software functions need to be added, but the firm wants to avoid reinventing the wheel.
Once in place, be sure that your staff has ample time to understand and familiarize themselves with the bells and whistles of your new technology. It’s also important to make sure that your employees know what not to do. Prepare an IT policy and make sure that your staff has access to it.
3) Systems for Remote Supervision
Attorneys are required to supervise subordinate attorneys and staff that operate on behalf of the firm. (Model Rule 5.2 and 5.3). This is not only mandated practice, but sound practice for managing a law firm. When your staff works remotely, it’s important to implement systems that will keep them engaged in the firm’s work and ensure that projects are getting completed in a timely manner. These systems can include:
- Scheduling regular and reoccurring meetings with your staff
- There are nuances that can be lost in translation when using emails for professional communication. At a minimum, conference calls should be regularly scheduled to allow people to raise issues with relevant decision-makers. Another solution is using video conferences. A video call encourages participants to be present, attentive, and engaging, rather than a passive listener.
- Use checklists, not emails, to ensure projects are completed
- Virtual task managers like Notion and Trello are great virtual checklist tools that allow for multiple users. To keep track of long-term commitments, be as detail-oriented as possible when creating your task lists.
- Create standard operating procedures
- Without in-person supervision, it’s important that your staff has the guidance they can turn to from home. Written standard operating procedures can help fill the gap. These procedures are particularly helpful for recurring administrative tasks, like billing, conflict checks, and client intake.
4) Promote Communication Across Your Remote Workforce
Because remote employees do not have physical spaces in which to interact, your firm should provide a virtual forum for asking questions and creating a sense of cohesion for your firm. A number of applications that have social media and/or IM-like functionalities can make it easier for employees to interact. Examples of such applications include Zoho Teams and Slack. These applications provide a common space to share firmwide updates, tap the collective wisdom of the firm, and poll staff about everything from their level of engagement to tools that would assist them.
Just introducing this technology is unlikely to be sufficient. Adoption of the technology must start at the top. Only if firm members with real authority are using these applications to communicate will others see it as a valuable tool.
5) Track Performance
Working virtually also makes it more difficult to provide the sort of informal feedback that often accompanies in-office work. It’s one thing to stop by somebody’s desk after you’ve been working side-by-side getting a brief filed to talk about what could have been done better. It’s another thing to call a remote co-worker afterward for a discussion or prepare an email.
Making clear how you will evaluate performance and set times to discuss that performance will aid your firm’s ability to optimize performance out of your remote workers. Performance tracking should focus on both hard and soft metrics. For example, when evaluating a remotely working attorney, hard factors to be analyzed could include the value of client accounts that the attorney has brought in, damages awards and settlements, and hours billed. Softer metrics could include work quality, team management, and development of client relationships.
Once your firm has decided on standards, make sure that those being evaluated are aware of how you are evaluating them and set aside time to do so. These can take the form of annual or bi-annual reviews or they can be more frequent and less formal. However, the firm needs to ensure that employees are receiving feedback on how they are doing regularly.
Law firms are fundamentally about human capital – the talents of the firm’s members to collaborate to produce the best representation for clients. Firms can now harness this human capital remotely, expanding their access to talent and providing more flexibility to their workers. Putting the right software and systems in place will allow your firm to get the most out of your remote team.
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