The COVID-19 era has demonstrated to law firms that the physical office is secondary. The heart of a law firm is its employees, its technology, and the knowledge management (KM) to achieve an optimal use of lawyers’ time and abilities. Therefore, your firm needs to have a well-considered and actionable contingency plan. Be ready to adapt—often immediately—to any type of mass displacement from the office.
Whatever makes your firm’s personnel have to relocate, you must ensure that clients will experience the same quality of service, regardless of where your lawyers are. Here’s where your knowledge management department plays a major role. As Jenni Tellyn, a consultant at 3Kites, said in a recent Thomson Reuters podcast, KM boils down to “getting the right information to the right people at the right time.”
What should a contingency plan include?
A law firm’s contingency plan should fulfill a set of core objectives. The goal is for the firm to be as functional during an emergency as it is during normal conditions. These objectives include:
- Communication continuity/security, internal: Lawyers and staff need to be able to work together and share documents, despite being in remote locations.
- Communication continuity/security, external: Clients need to reliably communicate with their lawyers, with no disruption of service.
- Remote access to firm resources: Lawyers should have secure access to all data and documents needed for a case.
Keeping internal lines open
A core task for a law firm is to ensure, at the onset of an emergency, that lawyers and staff keep talking to each other. This will need a range of technological applications, from encrypted email to video conferencing applications like Zoom or Microsoft Teams to internal communications networks like Slack.
In the early days of the COVID crisis in 2020, some law firms were faced with tech-resistant lawyers who had, for example, never used electronic signatures before nor had participated in video conferencing. The first weeks of lockdown found them scrambling to get up to speed. In 2022, such hesitancy is no longer acceptable. Firms should expect a measurable degree of technological fluency.
One goal could be having all lawyers compliant with local standards, such as the American Bar Association’s Model Rule 1.1, which asks lawyers to “develop sufficient competence in technology to meet their obligations…after a disaster.”. Doing so may include attending regular training sessions and fulfilling tech-related objectives (such as lawyers learning how to run a virtual meeting with breakout sessions, or to conduct virtual document mark-ups).
The COVID era has been a graduate course for developing technology best practices. Years of remote conferencing have led virtual meetings to be tighter and more productive. For example, meeting organizers have learned to open with energy and drive, rather than having the meeting sputter to a start while everyone logs on. And if a meeting is held at the end of a workday, a Zoom-fatigued staff may fare better with their cameras off.
Getting lawyers tech-fluent means that introducing new systems should be as intuitive as possible. A lawyer working remotely due to a crisis may contend with several issues, from handling clients to personal matters. The last thing they need is to have to master a complex new platform in their downtime.
How to make the contingency plan seamless for clients
Another central piece of contingency planning is ensuring that clients don’t feel the disruption your firm is experiencing. Clients should never wonder, in the event of a crisis, how to get in touch with their lawyer. Everything that was originally intended for the physical world (such as an arbitration hearing) should easily move to the virtual one if necessary.
A good rule of thumb is the ABA’s Model Rule 1.4, which states that in disaster conditions lawyers should be able “to create, on short notice, electronic or paper lists of current clients and their contact information. This information should be stored in a manner that is easily accessible. In these early communications, clients will need to know if the lawyer remains available to handle the client’s matters, or, alternatively, if the lawyer is unavailable because of the disaster’s effects, and may need to withdraw.”
A law firm should establish a chain of responsibilities: who maintains and updates case and client data; who is responsible for contacting each client during an emergency; and what the process is for replacing a lawyer expeditiously. The latter may mean having “understudy” lawyers for particularly time-sensitive cases.
Resources: getting tools into lawyers’ hands
The only way that a law firm’s contingency planning can fully succeed, however, is by having all necessary client and case information available remotely.
Using cloud-based litigation management ensures that all information about a case is located in a hub that’s separate from the physical office. Law firms can stagger access by setting up different levels of authorization: main case attorneys will need a greater degree of information than lower-level staff will.
As a result, expect a fundamental change in the firm’s documentation and storage practices. Consider a library of case folders at the office. A lawyer knows where these documents are and can easily get them by walking down a hallway. But if you’re no longer in the office for an extended time, what happens when you need these files? Moving to a near-paperless environment, in which all pertinent information is on a protected cloud server, goes a long way towards solving this question. As Tellyn said in the Thomson Reuters podcast, it’s essentially taking knowledge out of a cupboard and into a system.
Contingency plans as a means of change
A good contingency plan may also inspire a law firm to improve its operations. Not only in using technology to make lawyers’ work more efficient, but by rethinking aspects of work life to achieve its DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) objectives. For example, a disabled employee may find it more productive to be spared the long and potentially wearying commute to work. Having employees based in other locations than the main office could also broaden your pool of potential candidates, allowing firms to increase hiring from underrepresented groups.
Contingency planning doesn’t simply mean bracing for the worst to happen. Consider it an opportunity to make a law firm more adaptable, diverse, functional, and ready to handle any challenge.