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Digital transformation: Firms at home in the cloud

Digital transformation: Firms at home in the cloud

By Karin Derkley

Practice Management Technology 


The pandemic has shown lawyers that technology to support remote working doesn’t need to be complex, but how to properly manage people working remotely remains a challenge.

Tips for managing lawyers to stay connected
  • Build technology around the needs of people, not the other way around.
  • Check in regularly with team members via phone chats as well as electronically. 
  • Don’t micro-manage productivity.
  • Make yourself available to chat with your team on Zoom.
  • Record thoughts and insights on video to share with your team 
  • Allow junior lawyers to observe you via a screen app.
  • Set up chat channels on WhatsApp or Teams with and without a manager. 
  • Set up ongoing on-screen video with breakout rooms.

One of the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was bringing a notoriously conservative profession into the digital world. Suddenly, by pure necessity, lawyers who had only just got their heads around electronic case lodgement were becoming experts at videoconferencing and remote working. 

Working from home, once feared as undermining productivity, has become so normal it has allowed us to switch back seamlessly, if reluctantly, to remote working through multiple lockdowns.

Sparke Helmore Melbourne managing partner Kerri Thomas says that while the firm has been offering flexible working arrangements to fee earners for around 20 years, the pandemic was the first time the entire firm, including support staff, had to work from home.

What surprised her was how readily and easily everyone adapted to working flexibly. “There was initially some suspicion that people wouldn’t be working as effectively or efficiently. But supervisors were surprised to see the uptick in people’s productivity with working from home, and that has been sustained over the months since.”

That’s doesn’t surprise Fionn Bowd, whose firm Bowd Law outsources lawyers to other firms. Most of those placements occur remotely, and in some cases law firms and lawyers have never met. Ms Bowd even engaged her business partner during COVID-19 and has never met him in person.

Legally Yours CEO Karen Finch is another whose business is largely made up of people working remotely. What the pandemic showed is that the technology to support remote working is not particularly complex. “If you had asked anyone pre-COVID-19 whether courts could run a trial online they’d have said absolutely not. Now they’ve shown it can be done.”

Legal tech consultant Eric Chin says the trend towards cloud computing in the last five years is one of the things that made it possible for lawyers to access those technologies remotely. “This has eased the transition to remote working for the majority of lawyers, as they can now access client files and collaborate online. It has allowed law firms across Australia to transition successfully to remote working, allowing firms to uncover further efficiencies as well as providing segments of the market with the flexibility and balance they have craved.”

But while we might all have become at home in the cloud, relatively expert at Zoom, Teams and WebEx, and adept at dealing with electronic documents with the help of long suffering IT teams, it’s not just the technology itself the profession has had to master but how to properly manage people who are working remotely.

“We’ve been forced to be creative and come up with ideas around what does it actually mean to develop a relationship in a remote working context,” Ms Finch says. 

At Sparke Helmore, after the initial rush to set everyone up to work remotely, the challenge was to ensure people felt connected over the following months of isolation. “What we realised was that the most important thing to make it work for everybody was to make a concerted effort to stay connected with the team,” Ms Thomas says. 

Pre-pandemic collaboration and networking events, office morning teas and the monthly catchups in the boardroom were quickly replaced by regular practice group meetings via WebEx that focused on connecting the team as much as on client and work-related matters. “Managing partner Phillip Salem made short daily webcasts to communicate across the whole firm, HR checked in regularly with people to see how they were going, and individual partners put in a lot of effort to make sure their direct reports were travelling OK,” Ms Thomas says.

“Sometimes it has been simple things like them picking up the phone instead of sending an email, and using that opportunity to have a quick discussion with someone about how they’re going, how their families are going, how home schooling is going.”

Some managers in other businesses have recreated the ambience of the office environment with an ongoing on-screen video connection that includes breakout rooms where team members can connect during the day, and the team manager can check in on from time to time. 

Others have set up chat channels on WhatsApp or Teams that include an official chat in which the manager is present, and an unofficial unmonitored channel that aims to replicate the environment in which chats take place over a coffee in the break room in the office. 

One of the biggest challenges for firms has been bringing in new starters and developing junior legal staff in a virtual environment. Junior lawyers have traditionally learned by shadowing senior staff, sitting in on meetings with clients and team meetings, but that is much more difficult to do when people are working from home.

During last year’s lockdown Ms Thomas had to train an associate completely remotely via WebEx. “We made it work, but it wasn’t the same as being able to take someone downstairs for a coffee and have a chat to them or going for a quick pub lunch.” One team member who started in September came along to the small Christmas get together and said it was the first time she’d actually met anyone in person, Ms Thomas says.

As someone who has brought in many members and partners she has never met in person, Ms Finch says it’s not impossible. “We’ve onboarded lots of members and partners who I’ve never physically met in person, but there is absolutely trust and a relationship there.”  

Ms Bowd says one associate in another profession allows new starters to observe her for a few days via an on-screen video application, “just as they would be able to do if they were in the office with you and they were able to walk around with you and shadow you.” 

“So you’d share your screen with them and they’d get to hear you when you’re in a phone conversation, and when you’re in Zoom meetings with clients or when you’re working through documents. The only time the person would have to leave the room electronically was if it was a really confidential discussion, but the rest of the time they would stay in,” Ms Bowd says.

Another recorded videos for her team talking about what she was working on, or thoughts she was having on a matter, “just talking about the kinds of things that she would talk about if she was seeing them physically. So they would feel connected with her as their manager,” Ms Bowd says.

“These are the things that build relationships and culture and trust within a physical environment. So we need to find all those elements and recreate them electronically and give permission to people and be part of that sort of ecosystem.” 

None of this requires fancy tech, she says. “The tech is already there. All that is required is a shift in mindset and a willingness to be creative, plus the emotional intelligence to manage your team in the new virtual world, and understand who needs what and see how you can adapt or modify.”

That might mean making yourself available to chat unscheduled on Zoom, or to pick up the phone to talk about a matter rather than rely purely on email. “Talking on the phone for a few minutes is a great way of connecting with your people,” Ms Finch says.

What is not welcome is the idea of closely monitoring the productivity of staff. 

Ms Bowd says her firm hired an assistant from the Philippines and was told they would be provided with an activity log and a video recording of their activity for the whole workday. 

“We said, we don’t want that. We don’t want to surveil this person, that’s not in accordance with our ethics. Turn it all off, we trust them to do their job.”

Mr Chin agrees that staff monitoring and surveillance tools are “a step in the wrong direction, at least for the average worker. The pandemic-induced move to remote work has gone a long way in showing hesitant employers that staff can be trusted to complete their work when working from home.”

Ironically, at many firms the bigger concern became ensuring that people didn’t let their work take over their whole lives. At Sparke Helmore, Ms Thomas says supervisors were well aware of how hard people were working without needing to monitor them closely. “We knew people were home schooling and looking after small children, and for many of them they were working after 3.30 and then logging on again after dinner. We’d have to say you can’t be working 18 hour days to get through work.” 

“It’s important for people’s mental health to have that marker at the end of the day where you put your laptop away and do something like go for a walk to make that break between the working day and your home day.”

What the pandemic showed is that technology works best when it is centred around people and their needs, says Eric Chin. “Technology projects that fail at law firms are those which start with technology that gets thrown at the firms’ internal processes, leaving staff to try and work out how to use the technology to solve their problem.” 

That means lawyers and other users are as crucial to technology roll-outs as the IT team, he says. “Successful technology projects start by defining the problem that lawyers are faced with, then working with lawyers to understand their pain points by mapping out the existing process. Technology should be the last step in a technology project because it is meant to enable the process and people that solve the problem, not the other way around.”

One day, when we are in a position to live with COVID-19, will everyone go back to the office? Surveys find that around two thirds of workers want to work from home at least a couple of days a week. In the US a law firm survey found the same figures for lawyers, with just 14 per cent saying they wanted to go back to the office full-time. 

Law firms will have to cater to that, says Ms Bowd. She says firms that go straight back to the old ways after the pandemic ends are likely to see lawyers who value flexibility jump ship to firms that will continue to allow flexible and remote working. ■

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