The idea of working where and when it’s most effective for the employee is gaining popularity — and a sound business case. Studies show that the flexibility to work away from the office improves employee productivity, reduces absenteeism and leads to better work/life balance. In the recent 2013 global LinkedIn What Women Want @ Work study, 65 per cent said they would like “more flexible work conditions.” In Forbes’ 2011 list of 100 best companies to work for, 82 per cent offered a flexible work option.
But can the legal profession, which places so much emphasis on making billable targets and putting in lots of face time, ever agree to allow lawyers to work where and when they are most effective, focusing on performance rather than presence?
“One of the questions that law firms need to ask themselves is what happens if they ignore this trend,” says Robyn Bews, executive director of WORKshift, a company dedicated to workplace transformation and accelerating the adoption of flexible work programs. The way people work has changed — especially for the younger generations, she says. Companies that don’t keep up “run the risk of becoming an organization that the best and brightest don’t want to work for anymore.”
So unless you want to wipe your slate clean of millenials (who are going to make up 50 per cent of the workforce by 2018), offering flexible work programs will help your law firm attract and retain talent in the future.
And that’s just one benefit. In a 2013 study of 500 Canadian businesses conducted for BMO, 65 per cent of respondents that offered telecommuting said it had a positive impact on employee productivity; 58 per cent said it improved the quality of their work; and 54 per cent reported that it reduced office and overhead expenses.
David Goldenberg, one of the founders of VLP (Virtual Law Partners), found virtual work made sense for the type of services that VLP provides. “We were able to devise a firm where we can use technology to free us from the workspace, and free our clients from the high overhead costs of expensive office space.”
And give the lawyers free rein to choose, at least some of the time, where they can do their most inspired work, even if it is in their pyjamas at their kitchen counter. Who says the best ideas happen in an office during core business hours, muses Bews. “I would argue that organizations that can figure out how to implement a WORKshift culture are future-proofing themselves.”
Top apps for lawyers working remotely
Microsoft Office 365: Great for collaborating on Word documents and accessing them from virtually anywhere.
Insightly: A powerful and free contact management system. Clio — It keeps all aspects of your legal practice (matters, documents, contacts, billing, calendars and tasks) at your finger tips.
Yammer: A private social network that allows you to share information across teams from anywhere. A lot of Fortune 500 companies trust it and use it with their employees.
Box: Allows you to store and share your content online securely. In 2013, Box announced the new integration IntApp, which will allow law firms to monitor the security of any documents stored in Box.
Dictamus: An app that allows you to dictate and send directly from your phone or tablet with secure encryption. Saying it can sometimes be faster than writing it.
Skype: It’s the virtual ‘facetime.’
Find My Phone / Find My iPhone: An app that helps you locate your lost or stolen phone.
The Hybrid: Going part virtual
Some practices are well suited for a virtual platform; others aren’t. What can often work is a hybrid model, where a firm adds virtual elements to their traditional model.
If you are thinking about entering the virtual world of law, here are some key aspects to think about:
Evaluate existing model
Look at all the existing services that the firm provides to clients now, and try to break down and unbundle what those components are and identify what could be taken virtual. And then, says Stephanie Kimbro of Burton Law, “re-bundle it in a way that makes sense to integrate online offering with those services.”
Security & privacy
It’s really important to do proper due diligence on whichever service provider you are using to get your technology into place, Kevin West of Skylaw in Toronto suggests. “Ask questions about security and make sure that you are able to satisfy the rules of professional conduct and maintaining the confidentiality of your client’s documents.”
Policies and Procedures
Before you start delivering services online, it is important to write a policy and procedures manual outlining how and when you are going to use the technology so that everyone in the firm is on board. Kimbro states, “if the support and training isn’t there, it is really hard to implement it and make it happen for the clients.”
Advice from the experts
Kevin West, founder of SkyLaw
“Every lawyer has a virtual practice these days to varying degrees, even if all they use is a BlackBerry or iPhone. It is a question of figuring out where your clients are located, how much office space you need and how you want your staff and other colleagues to collaborate together. We have three full-time staff and office space, yet we use technology effectively so that we are nimble and efficient. I am currently in China and in the process of closing a deal in Toronto. Except for the time zones, there is no difference from a client perspective when I work on it on my MacBook Air while in China or on my iMac at my desk in my office, because everything is in the cloud.”
Robyn Bews, executive director of WORKshift
“You need to understand what your organization values; how you’re going to continue to communicate your successes and your deliverables; (and) how you set up a construct so that you and your manager are in sync. Think about how you are going to let your colleagues know that just because you are not at your desk doesn’t mean you aren’t ‘at work.’ In our office we have WORKshift white boards and people write ‘workshifting’ when they are working remotely so colleagues know they can email or call them about work. I think really basic questions about how you want to make sure that you continue to be accessible for your colleagues are very important.”
David Goldenberg, partner VLP Law Group (Virtual Law Partners)
“Make sure that you fully appreciate and understand the virtual lifestyle. One of the things that we screen for at VLP when we hire someone is whether they will be a good fit for a virtual attorney. Things we might look for include: Are you self-motivated? Can you work on your own? Do you mind not being in an office environment? There’s some real soul-searching for the lawyer that's considering this path.”
Stephanie Kimbro, virtual law firm Burton Law LLC
“Time management and the ability to work independently is key. Technology is great because it gives you more freedom to work when and where you want to — and offers more ways to communicate with clients and with other firm members — but if you can’t manage your time and manage the technology, then it’s not going to work. So I say anyone considering e-law really needs to look at themselves and how they use technology and decide whether this is really something that is going to benefit them and work for them.”
Cloud computing checklist
By The Law Society of British Columbia
This checklist raises important issues for consideration prior to a law firm or lawyer moving data to the cloud.
Workshift: Future-Proof Your Organization for the 21st Century
By Jason Morwick, Robyn Bews, Emily Klein and Tim Lorman
This book offers a blueprint for organizations transitioning into the virtual workplace and looking to implement more flexible work arrangements.