I’ve long believed that a modern-day appellate lawyer should be able to work productively from anywhere in the world. As we face the reality of widespread office shutdowns, self-imposed quarantines, and government mandates designed to slow the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread, lawyers equipped to practice away from the office—and at home—find themselves at an advantage.
This post overviews the technology essentials lawyers need to work productively from home, regardless of practice area.
If you’re hustling to figure out how you’re going to do this and are willing to adapt and learn, read on.
The hardware required for remote work generally depends on the depth of the work you’ll be doing away from the office and for how long.
A smartphone is good for short bursts, but won’t cut it for an extended period.
Some might try to get by with a tablet. Tablets are suitable for reading emails and PDFs, internet research, and relatively light document drafting or revision when used with an external keyboard. But a desktop or laptop computer will greatly increase comfort and productivity for most.
Consider getting some noise-canceling headphones. Quarantine may mean working in an enclosed space with others around, and dramatically reducing external noise will make it easier to concentrate. For ultimate versatility, I recommend the Apple AirPods Pro, which connect to your devices via Bluetooth and allow you to talk on your smartphone or participate in a video conference hands-free without everyone else hearing both sides of the conversation.
If your computer doesn’t have a webcam built in, you may want to add one. I recently bought the Logitech C920 Pro and have been pleased. The unit produces very high-quality images and is more than suitable for video conferencing or recording.
You’ll also need some basic software tools, a number of which you likely already use.
For many lawyers, the Microsoft Office suite is a necessity. If not provided by your firm, you can purchase an Office 365 license for around $10 per month. This permits you to install the office suite (Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint) on up to five computers (PCs or Macs) and to download the iOS and Android versions on your tablet.
You’ll also need a program allowing you to create, manipulate, and organize PDF documents. Adobe Acrobat Pro is the standard, but PDF Expert (Mac only) is my favorite. Both are now cloud-based and available by subscription. You can use them to sign documents remotely if signing documents is important in your practice.
Your biggest adjustment software-wise may be implementing video conferencing programs like Skype or Zoom in place of live meetings. I have used Zoom for years and highly recommend it for quality, reliability, and ease of use. FaceTime can also work well if you don’t mind giving away your mobile number.
Group Chat Software
Email is a highly inefficient way of communicating with your team. Internal asynchronous communications—those not in real time—are better handled through group chat software such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. You can create channels focused on specific topics or functions and control who has access to them.
My firm uses Slack to discuss everything from conflict checks to matter openings and closings, travel arrangements, and billing. Slack is the backbone of our team communications and helps us stay connected and get things done wherever we are.
Lawyers with paperless practices will better adapt to working from home full-time. Anyone who hasn’t gone paperless will need to get up to speed quickly. This means converting analog documents and storing them in the same location as native digital documents.
Whoever handles the paper in your practice should have a digital scanner. The Fujitsu ScanSnap iX1500 is the one to get. It works with Mac or PC systems and will scan 50 pages at a time.
Smartphone scanning apps are good companions to a dedicated scanner. Several apps let users take quick snapshots of a document and convert them to PDF. Most will also let you save the PDF into several of the cloud-based file-management services mentioned below.
Cloud-Based File Management
If your firm has a centralized file system permitting remote access to client files, then go with it. If not, cloud-based alternatives permit file storage, organization, and management and can be set up cheaply and efficiently.
The best-known examples of these services are Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and iCloud. All work on PCs or Macs and interact well with both iOS and Android devices. These services generally involve setting up a folder structure on your computer that is automatically backed up as any changes are made to the local files. The folders and files are synced to any other computer setup to access the cloud-based system.
I built my firm’s file system entirely in Dropbox Business. Each computer has shared access to certain Dropbox folders containing administrative documents, matter files, and forms. Other folders are shared only between users needing access to them, such as my assistant, paralegal, or bookkeeper. I can access the latest version of any document on the system using my laptop, iPad, or iPhone.
A practical approach to maintaining case information digitally is to set up your folders to mirror how the same bits of information (e.g., pleadings, motions, or research) have been maintained in hard files. The difference is that the digital files allow instant access using electronic devices that aren’t tied to a specific location.
The goal is to come up with a set of subfolders that you would expect to use in each of your cases, so you can locate the information you need when you need it. Document-naming conventions that start with YYYY-MM-DD result in files within each folder being sorted chronologically.
Troubleshooting Tech Problems
Practicing from home requires a certain amount of independence. Being away from IT staff or co-workers who can help you troubleshoot technology problems requires self-sufficiency and resourcefulness.
Most troubleshooting involves searching for well-known solutions to common problems. You’ll have an easier time working from home if you’re good at solving common problems via Google search.
The idea of working from home is foreign to many lawyers. But the right equipment, software, and mindset—and a good internet connection—will help you be productive.
After settling on hardware and software, getting comfortable with the technology and becoming proficient at using it are important next steps in making the necessary mindset shift.
This article was originally published on the Smith Law Group blog and has been edited and reprinted with permission.
D. Todd Smith is the founder of Smith Law Group, an all-remote civil appellate boutique based in Austin. He is president of the Austin Bar Association and a candidate for District 9 director for the State Bar of Texas. He can be reached through the firm’s website, appealsplus.com.