On 23 March 2020, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced a strict lockdown due to Covid-19 that immediately affected many businesses throughout the UK, including law firms.
His announcement was that you should only leave home to go to work “where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home”.
Most lawyers took the message to mean that they should shut their offices and work from home.
Of course, we could all see it coming and many law firms, like my own, had already been transitioning to work from home during the course of the previous week.
At Inksters we perhaps did not have to adapt as much as some law firms did.
We moved our computer systems to the cloud in 2011 and installed a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system in 2013. We had a cloud based digital dictation system many years before that in 2006.
This enabled our solicitors to work remotely from home or elsewhere and, indeed, we have many that did that habitually already.
This clearly was not an option at all law firms. One of our team received an e-mail on a conveyancing matter from a solicitor on the other side of the transaction to say that they would have to go into their office to progress matters, if that was required in advance of the lifting of movement restrictions. The inference was, let us just wait until movement restrictions lift and then progress things.
Many solicitors still rely on paper files rather than storing everything in electronic files accessible via the internet. They can take those paper files home from the office and many will have done that very thing. I imagine those that do so will be reconsidering their practice in light of Covid-19. They will be looking at adopting technology to make life easier for them should this situation arise again in the future.
Our back office support staff have always worked at our HQ in Glasgow. Being cloud based made the transition to working from home an easy one for them. This was especially so with our cloud based computer and digital dictation systems.
Telecoms and VoIP woes
However, we encountered an issue with the VoIP system in that within the office environment the power for the handsets is via the Ethernet cables that connect them to the system. If you move one of those handsets outside the office and connect it to a home broadband router, it needs, in addition, a power pack.
We had never thought to buy an emergency supply of power packs just in case we ever needed them. Now there was a world shortage of them because of COVID-19 and many workers moving their handsets from office to home. No power packs were available to purchase from the supplier and the lead in time to getting them was unknown. Thankfully, our phone company had a few kicking around that they were able to give us for the more essential phone users. Others who had to relocate from our HQ were happy to use their existing mobile phones or landlines. Ultimately, I did source a supplier and was able to order the power packs online. We, therefore, do now have VoIP phones operating from home where required.
Our VoIP system is seven years old and does not have the functionality that some newer systems have. The ability to convert any device (such as mobile phones or laptops) into a fully featured desk phone exist with systems that are more modern. That is something we will probably now look at upgrading to.
We relocated our VoIP switchboard to a team member’s home and they answer and patch through calls to our solicitors no differently as if they were sitting in our office.
However, it is clear that many law firms are struggling with their telecommunications when working from home. I have phoned law firms where a recorded message tells me to phone a mobile number. When I do so, a receptionist who cannot transfer calls answers my call. Instead, they must take a message to pass onto the solicitor that I want to speak with to return my call via their mobile phone.
I have also seen it stated on the websites and/or social media channels and/or e-mail correspondence of certain law firms not to use their usual office landline number but instead to contact solicitors by e-mail or mobile.
These law firms, who do not have the luxury of a VoIP phone system, could of course use call diversion which BT and I am sure other phone line suppliers provide at a modest additional charge.
Dealing with old tech
The only other particular issue we had to address was the question of faxes. This is still the preferred means of communication by some banks especially for issuing redemption statements and receiving certificates of title in conveyancing transactions.
Our existing system turned incoming faxes into e-mails but we did not have the ability to send outgoing faxes by e-mail. To overcome that issue we set up an account with eFax. This now means that anyone at Inksters can send a fax remotely from anywhere just using his or her PC or laptop.
We also adopted Microsoft Teams for the first time. This has been useful for disseminating information amongst our team and retaining a social aspect to interactions. However, not a real game changer or a must have to enable work from home.
On social media, the legal world was agog with news of lawyers and support staff working from home. There were numerous posts about law firms transitioning hundreds of their staff to work from home and how many laptops they had purchased to achieve this amazing feat. The following week there were no follow up posts about the fact that half or more of those who had transitioned to work from home were now on furlough with those shiny new laptops sitting idle.
“Virtual lawyers” are nothing new
Some solicitors who were now working from home were calling themselves “virtual lawyers”. Some were hailing this as a new dawn in legal practice. However, my take was that most solicitors were already working “virtually” but not singing and dancing about it.
When working in an office most solicitors were using the same technology that they were now using at home and indeed many would have been using that technology from time to time from home or when travelling elsewhere in any event. They were using predominantly Microsoft Word and Outlook to prepare documents and to communicate. They were still doing so. Unless they had a VoIP phone system, where again nothing had changed, phone calls were now being done more often on their mobile phone rather than on an office landline. No big change there really.
When doing legal work for a client, unless you have to hold a face-to-face meeting or attend a court hearing then most work is virtual in any event. You communicate by post, e-mail and telephone. Where you are sitting at when you do that your client does not care and does not really need to know. It could be an office, a shared workspace, a café, your home, a train, a hotel room or lobby. In fact, we are now working less virtually than we ever have before, because we are all just working from home and not from the multitude of different places that we used to work from pre COVID-19. We are not virtual lawyers; we are stay at home lawyers.
Videoconferencing gets a shot in the arm
We are stay at home lawyers who have discovered Zoom. Lawyers were not using video conferencing technology much pre COVID-19. Now everyone and their dog is using it. Again, some are proclaiming that as another new dawn in legal practice. However, is it? I first experienced video conferencing when seeking a traineeship in 1991. Yes, nearly 30 years ago. A large law firm was using it at an open evening for law students to connect between their Glasgow and Edinburgh offices.
Today it suddenly appears to be a novelty. Lawyers from large conservative law firms are having internal meetings on Zoom or on Teams in fancy dress and posting the corresponding images on LinkedIn! They would never have done this in their offices. Why now in lockdown?
Also suddenly, you need to meet from the bridge of the Starship Enterprise or from a tropical beach or from an Ikea home set via Zoom backgrounds. It is apparently okay whilst doing so to wear a shirt and tie with just boxer shorts or pyjama bottoms, as you will just be visible from the waist up.
The reality is that use of Zoom is perhaps more beneficial for social interaction with family and friends during lockdown. Yes, the courts are bringing it on board in certain circumstances. Yes, you can use it (in Scotland at least) to witness certain deeds. However, why use it to replace the telephone? There really is in most cases no need. Sometimes old tech is the best tech. Seldom is it actually legal tech.
In summary, here are my recommendations for law firms dealing with lockdown and working from home:
- Cloud working – if you have not already done so, move your systems, software and documents into the cloud.
- Telecoms – make sure your lawyers and support staff have adequate phone connectivity and that calls can be re-routed accordingly. If you are using VoIP, ensure you conduct a thorough review to ensure this can be used remotely.
- Faxes – software for converting faxes to email and vice-versa exists: use it!
- Hardware – if lawyers are working from home, make sure they have suitable laptops and smartphones. But there’s no point buying new hardware if employees are furloughed.
- Videoconferencing – this can be useful to maintain social interaction, but it’s not necessary for most work.
Brian Inkster is the founder of Inksters Solicitors. He was winner of the Managing Partner/Team of the Year award at the Law Awards of Scotland 2014. He blogs on the Past, Present and Future Practice of Law at The Time Blawg. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter @BrianInkster.