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  Feature

Is It Time for Your Firm to Reconsider Remote Access?

June 2009
Many attorneys find that working remotely provides a better work/life balance, and here are more reasons to consider it for your office.

Although some people seem to think that work/life balance has gone the way of the Dodo bird in this economy, in fact, it’s more important than ever for lawyers to find ways to work more efficiently and effectively and to maintain a balance between the personal and the professional. In a recent article (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202431102186 ) on the Law.com site by Susan Beck of The American Lawyer, Beck notes that big firm lawyers cannot possibly continue practicing in the same way they have been practicing for the past several years; it simply isn’t a good long term strategy. As Beck notes, “Expecting lawyers to devote every ounce of their energy to their firm and its clients is not sustainable.”

Some lawyers, particularly large firm partners, have difficulty warming up to remote access and ‘telecommuting’ because they are used to equating hours in the office with productivity and hard work. They feel that they need to ‘see’ lawyers in the office to ensure that they’re working. But merely showing up in the office doesn’t guarantee that work is getting done – and for years, lawyers have learned how to ‘game’ the system by leaving a suit jacket draped over the back of their office chair, leaving their lights and computer on, and other tactics designed to ‘fool’ passers-by into thinking that the lawyer was in the office working, even when they weren’t. Even billable hours and timesheets don’t tell the whole story. Firms are realizing more and more that it’s the quality of the work performed, the service provided to the client and the amount of work produced, rather than the hours expended or the location where the work is performed that counts.

Contrary to what some might believe, lawyers interested in work/life balance aren’t afraid of hard work; they’re simply looking for better ways to incorporate both the personal and the professional into their lives in a meaningful way. While crusty long time law firm partners may see lawyers who want to attend their children’s baseball games or school plays as slackers, allowing lawyers to fulfill their personal and family obligations creates more loyal, well-rounded team players who are better able to provide excellent client service.

One of the ways that lawyers can be more productive and still achieve work/life balance is by allowing lawyers to access their law firm documents and systems from a remote location. Lawyers can leave work at the end of the ‘normal’ business day to have dinner with their families or attend a social function and connect with the office remotely later, working as if they were sitting at their desk. When the lawyer returns to ‘work’ through a remote connection, they’re more likely to work longer and be more focused than they would if forced to remain in the office, with no break, distracted by thoughts that they should or could be elsewhere.

But work/life balance isn’t the only advantage to implementing remote access, and big firms aren’t the only ones who can use remote access effectively and economically. While many lawyers use smartphones such as the iPhone, BlackBerry or Treo to receive email when they are away from the office, email is only one application with limited use. A smartphone alone will not allow a lawyer to review a file document, obtain information from the law firm’s database or enter billable time. Remote access can provide all of these capabilities, allowing a lawyer to work literally from anywhere, at any time, as if the lawyer were sitting in front of their office computer. A lawyer to review and work with documents and information contained on the law firm’s servers without migrating or saving that information to the lawyer’s own computer or laptop, thereby maintaining security and client confidentiality and eliminating confusion arising from multiple drafts or versions of the same document.

Before remote access was available, lawyers had no choice but to work long hours in the office to complete a brief, prepare for a trial or finalize a contract. The alternative meant lugging heavy files and paperwork home – if the firm allowed removal of those files from the office in the first place. Problems abounded when an attorney would remove a file and not return it – or forget that he’d taken it out of the office in the first place – prompting constant searches for missing files and file materials, and a barrage of, “Has anybody seen the Jones file” emails. New technologies allow lawyers to work from home without disturbing the firm’s files or removing sensitive material from the office.

Combined with high speed internet, scanning capabilities and the increasing push toward “paperless” law offices, new remote access technology can be especially powerful. Using only your laptop and an internet connection, you can convert formerly unproductive downtime, including time waiting in court, between appointments or commuting, into ‘billable’ time working on client matters – and you can enter that time directly into your firm’s time and billing system, too. Instead of carting stacks of documents or entire client files to court, or being caught unprepared because you didn’t anticipate the one document the court would want to see, you can bring your laptop - anything (and everything) you need will at your fingertips.

Brian M. Mittman, a partner at Markhoff & Mittman in White Plains, New York, a firm with seven attorneys and 18 staff, has been using remote access methods for the past eleven years. He’s tried a number of different remote access methods in an attempt to find the most reliable and stable platform that is easy to use, reliable and secure. In addition to remote access capabilities, Mittman also has a modified VOIP system that “really makes it a snap to work from elsewhere,” and the firm uses the same systems for its remote office locations.

Lawyers who are able to connect to their office computer or network remotely save the firm time and money. Several lawyers or staff people can work on a file at the same time from several different locations. Despite concerns raised by some lawyers that allowing lawyers to have remote access to firm systems may lead to a decline in productivity or work product, Mittman has found that one of the biggest advantages is that he can log in to his system and see what the attorneys at hearings or in the field have done during the day. And even if he is out of the office, he can easily get documents and information to others in the office who may be at different locations. Best of all, using remote access has allowed him to move out of his New York City office to within 10 minutes of his home.

Integrating VOIP technology with remote access capabilities may reduce the firm’s overhead by reducing one of the biggest expenses law firms grapple with – space. For some firms, remote access had led to the creation of ‘virtual offices’ - eliminating the need for a “brick and mortar” office entirely.

More and more lawyers are seeking to set up virtual law offices, like San Francisco’s Virtual Law Partners and Kimbro Legal Services in Wilmington, North Carolina, but even attorneys that are part of more ‘traditional’ law firms can benefit from remote access. One of the greatest benefits of remote access is the availability of information almost anytime, from almost anywhere. This instantaneous access to the firm’s documents and information brings responsiveness and client service to a new level.

Heritage Law (http://www.bcheritagelaw.com/bcheritagelaw ), a small firm in Vancouver, BC, Canada, specializes in wills and estates, family law and mediation. Most of Heritage Law’s four lawyers and six support staff work primarily from their homes. Heritage Law is "paperless" and utilizes practice management software to centrally manage billing, time tracking, matter information, contacts, appointments, documents and document assembly.

Nicole Garton-Jones, one of Heritage Law’s lawyers explains, “Since the firm’s documents, data and information are all stored electronically, each employee of the firm can access and ‘see’ the information at the same time, regardless of where they’re located. All staff log into one remote, secure server over the internet which is a repository for all firm data and software applications. Each staff member has a computer, high speed internet, a VOIP phone and a scanner at their home offices, but all that is required for a staff member to access and begin work for Heritage each day is a Windows PC and an internet connection. The Windows PC does not have to have any special applications installed on it, and might be a home PC, a borrowed PC, a laptop on the road or any other PC to which the staff member has access throughout their work day.”

The news has been filled with stories of delayed offers and layoffs, making retention an even bigger concern for firms; Lawyers that have retained their positions are likely to be the top producing or rainmaking talent. A recent article in the New Jersey Law Journal noted that a recent study of women lawyers in New Jersey revealed that women were more likely to leave their firms as a result of lack of flexible working arrangements, and more lawyers are seeking firms that offer such arrangements. In order to keep those lawyers happy, firms may have to reconsider flexible working arrangements and remote access, not just for lawyers with families, but for all types of key professional and non-professional staff. Whether lawyers and staff work remotely all of the time or only some of the time is up to the firm, and may depend upon several factors, including practice area, client expectations, level of experience and firm culture.

My former firm, with three offices and over 50 attorneys, started a program of remote access after much discussion among the partners. Even after it was implemented, there was skepticism about whether remote access capabilities should be granted to all attorneys or only to some – and there didn’t seem to be any consensus with respect to allowing non-professional staff to access the firm’s system remotely. The objections raised were many of the typical objections - some of the partners worried that giving lawyers access to the firm’s system would promote laziness during office hours or encourage lawyers not to come into the office at all. Some feared that allowing lawyers to work from home would make it more difficult to assess an attorney’s performance, commitment or the quality of their work product.

These concerns are shared by law firms of all sizes. Rachel Foley, a solo practitioner with a bankruptcy firm located in Kansas City, Missouri, initially decided to implement a remote access system because, as a solo, she often worked in the office from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. or later. She wanted the ability to access her office files and documents from home, when necessary, rather than staying in the office without a break day and night. But giving employees access to the firm’s system was another story. Foley was afraid that employees would abuse the privilege of working from home. What she found instead was that some employees actually work better from home – and they’ve become even better employees as a result, because they’re happier and more loyal to the firm. The key, Foley says, is “choosing the right employees.”

Foley now logs in through a virtual private network, or VPN, although she says that initially, she was intimidated by VPN. At the time, she wasn’t working with an IT professional and didn’t know how to set up a VPN that would work with her system, which uses a combination of PCs and Macs. Initially, she chose a free product by LogMeIn (www.LogMeIn.com ) not only because it was free, but because she found it to be more user-friendly and more secure. She now uses another LogMeIn product, LogMeInPro, at minimal monthly cost, as a backup to her VPN system, which she uses as her main method of remote access. The VPN system was installed by an IT professional who was able to develop a network that would work with all of her hardware.

Interruptions are the biggest time waster for any busy professional. Working remotely helps increase productivity by minimizing interruptions while keeping the lawyer connected to the office and able to handle any emergencies that may arise. Lawyers across the board have reported that when the lawyer is in the office and staff knows the lawyer can answer a question, the staff gets lazy – they’ll ask the lawyer rather than figuring it out themselves. But when the lawyer is working remotely, staff is less likely to contact the lawyer or partner with small questions.

Not only does working remotely minimize staff interruptions, but it minimizes client interruptions as well. While some office locations may be ideal for attracting ‘drop in’ business, those locations may also encourage clients to believe that they can come to the office any time, without an appointment, and expect the lawyer to drop anything to meet with them. While client service is important, this behavior can be a productivity killer. It’s much more difficult for a client to understand that a lawyer is in the office but ‘too busy’ to see them right away than it is for a client to accept that the lawyer cannot see them because she is out of the office, in court, or attending a meeting. In those cases, clients are also more willing to allow someone else in the office to address their problem or question if it doesn’t require the lawyer’s specific advice or expertise.

While larger firms may use their own VPNs or set up a terminal server with the help of their IT professional, there are plenty of options for solos and small firms as well. The Law Practice Management section of the ABA recently published an article by Sharon Nelson, John Simek and Michael Maschke entitled, “Remote Access Tools and Tips for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers,” which can be found here: http://www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/articles/v35/is2/pg22.shtml. That article gives a good overview of remote access options and tips to consider.

The lawyers and law firms that have implemented remote access policies have found them to be invaluable. Lawyers no longer need to be tied to their office. They can go home at a reasonable hour and go back to work a few hours later, but without the commute. And Foley has found unexpected advantages as well: not only does the remote access system perform better than she expected and allow her to spend more time out of the office, but she also sleeps better at night. When awakened by a nagging fear that she may have missed a deadline or forgotten to complete a project, rather than fretting all night and losing sleep, Foley simply logs into her office using her VPN, confirms the deadline was met and the work was done and goes back to sleep.

Regardless of which option you choose, remote access can help decrease stress, increase flexibility and productivity and save money and help you sleep better at night – what more could you ask for?

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About the Author

Allison C. Shields, Esq., President of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc. is a former practicing attorney and law firm manager who helps lawyers create more productive, profitable and enjoyable law practices. Visit her blog at www.LegalEaseConsulting.com or her website at www.LawyerMeltdown.com.

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