Article by Lim Seng Siew. This article was first published in the Law Gazette: ” LAW IN THE TIME OF COVID, PRATICE MATTERS, MAY 2020
With the issuance of the Infectious Diseases (Workplace Measures to Prevent Spread of COVID-19) Regulations 2020, gazetted on 1 April 2020, working remotely is no longer a luxury or optional benefit. It is now a requirement and is likely to remain the “new abnormal’ for the foreseeable future.
Many government services are already geared towards working remotely. Singapore Land Authority, Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority and the Judiciary all have web-based solutions for most, if not all, of their services. Legal research can be done online with LawNet and Legal Workbench. This leaves only the law office. What does the law office need to do to enable working remotely? This simple guide is for law practices embarking on this journey.
Of course, fundamental to working remotely is a good internet connection. Chances are you already have fiber-optic cables to your homes. However, your spouse, children and helper are all competing for that same bandwidth. If everyone is either video conferencing, playing online games or watching online movies, the bandwidth is very quickly eaten-up. Your home router can fail or your internet service provider may face an outage.
Having a Plan B is good. Many of us already have that Plan B in our mobile phones. Use it as a hotspot for our laptops or PCs to “tether” onto. Just remember to password-enable the hotspot and switch it off when no longer needed.
First off, a quick solution that is useful as a temporary stop-gap measure is logging in remotely to your work PC from your home PC. While setting up such a solution is fast, the solution can be slow, unreliable and clunky to work with. If your work PC is down, you will need a colleague in the office to reboot it. It also presents significant cybersecurity hazard risks. This approach also necessarily means that any documents printed to the office printer will need to be physically retrieved.
Examples of applications that can do this are TeamViewer and AnyDesk. There is also some remote access functionality built into the Chrome browser and some versions of Windows. Be extremely careful when considering quick and “free” solutions that may at best be unreliable, and at worst, phishing attempts or which could otherwise expose your systems to other cybersecurity risks.
For a longer-term strategy, a law practice will need to consider solutions for the following:
- your e-mail;
- your calendars/diaries;
- your fax;
- your phone system;
- your internal team communication;
- your audio/video conferencing;
- your file or document management system;
- your e-signature; and
- your legal practice and accounting management software.
Unless you are on a very, very old e-mail server, chances are your e-mail is already cloud-enabled and you can send and receive e-mails remotely outside your office. You just have to make sure that the functionality is enabled and your e-mail client (i.e. the application that is on your home PC or mobile phone or tablet) is properly configured.
If you haven’t done so, do it NOW. It is not difficult to configure this setting but you may need to reach out to your administrator.
If you are already using a cloud-based legal practice management and accounting software (see below), it likely will have a calendar/diary feature. Use it. Calendar your meetings, your court hearings and your deadlines. Share them with other members of your team. Then everyone will have access to one another’s schedules and the embarrassing situation when meetings are “double-fixed” will be drastically reduced.
If you don’t have such a legal practice management software, make use of other calendaring applications such as Outlook Calendar or Google Calendar. They are either free or already come with the suite of office applications that you are using. Just remember to configure them correctly so that confidential information remains confidential.
If your law practice is still using physical fax machines, this will be almost impossible to deal with working remotely. Someone will have to be in the office to pick up the fax, scan it and e-mail the scanned copy to the correct people.
The best solution: do away with faxes. Then everyone will e-mail you.
If you can’t do away with faxes, consider using an electronic fax service. Such services provide you with a fax number. Faxes sent to this number will be sent to you via an e-mail that you specify. I suggest using a “group” e-mail so that the fax goes to a group of people.
You can also send out faxes, either by “printing” the fax to a special fax software or through an online web portal.
Your Phone System
Mobile phones as your primary “phone system” will probably work for solo or very small law practices. However, the cost and practicality of this approach rapidly breaks down when the number of users increases.
The solution: a virtual or hosted PBX system where everyone in the law practice, whether they are working in office or off-site, functions as if they are in the office. The operator can channel the call to your mobile phone but the caller will remain none the wiser. Some systems can even channel the call to a “soft phone”, a telephone software that turns your PC and headset into a fully-functional office phone.
Your Internal Team Communication
E-mails are terrible for short messages and ongoing group dialogues. “Conversations” very quickly get lost among the deluge of e-mail clutter.
Tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams are designed as easy to use instant messaging apps, directly between co-workers or to a group/channel of co-workers. They work on mobile phones as well as on PCs. Many allow you to share documents among your co-workers.
You can also use “free” apps like WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram. But, how many times have we (embarrassingly) sent private messages to the “wrong” group? With law practices, there is the additional danger of breaching confidentiality obligations.
Your Audio/Video Conferencing
To replace the physical meeting, you will need a video or tele-conferencing system. All video conferencing systems require large bandwidth, some more than others. Many, if not all, have an audio-only function which requires fewer resources. Some team communication applications (like Microsoft Teams) have audio/video conferencing functionalities. Many work on mobile devices as well as PCs or can be used directly from a web browser without having to download an app. Some require special headsets and microphones. Even when they are not required, the audio quality often improves greatly with dedicated headsets.
You can use such applications for online meetings, within your team or with clients. The courts are also using them for some of their chambers and mediation hearings. Members should be mindful of privacy and security issues that may arise and consider password-protected online meetings.
Common applications are Webex, Skype and Zoom.
Do be mindful of potential scams targeted at the use of these applications, for example, phishers sending fake Zoom invites.
Your File or Document Management System
On-premise file servers and network drives are not easy to configure for remote access. There will be cybersecurity issues that have to be addressed by configuring remote access properly. VPNs are a common option to allow you to access your office network from a remote location as though you were in the office, but often require advanced know-how to set up.
For smaller law practices, a basic cloud-based file system (like Dropbox, Microsoft One Drive, Google Drive or Box) can be sufficient. They can be used in almost the same way a network drive is used. So the learning curve is very easy.
For larger practices, you may want to consider using a dedicated cloud-based document management system with some enterprise level tools to manage the documents. Such tools include version control, documents check out, and e-mail integration.
If you are working remotely, you may also want to consider e-signing documents. In many situations, an image of your signature affixed onto a document would be sufficient. Singapore’s Electronic Transactions Act calls such signatures “electronic signatures”. You can apply basic electronic signatures with free applications such as Adobe Reader DC.
If greater security is required, there are dedicated applications where the user of the electronic signature is verified and authenticated. Any changes to the document after it has been e-signed will be highlighted. Such signatures are either secured electronic signatures or digital signatures.
Commonly used e-signature applications for secure electronic signatures are DocuSign and Adobe Sign.
Please refer to the Electronic Transactions Act and check for any notices from regulators and government bodies on temporary measures when determining the enforceability of an e-signed document. A number of documents, such as wills, deeds of trust and powers of attorney, are not recognised if signed electronically.
Your Legal Practice and Accounting Management Software
Finally, a dedicated legal practice and accounting management software, ideally, a cloud-based system, is essential. A practice management software is the nerve-centre of any legal practice. Unfortunately, many are premises-based, especially those used by larger law practices. Some of such premises-based applications, but not all, have a web-enabled interface.
If you have a cloud-based system, many already have (a) calendaring or diary tools; (b) internal team communication tools; and (c) file/document management tools or integration with a dedicated file/document management application.
Tech-celerate for Law has grants that help a law practice acquire solutions such as Tessaract.io, Clio and CoreMatter.
Collateral to the “hard” technologies that are listed above, working remotely will put your “soft” skills to the test. Just because technology now allows everyone to work 24/7 does not mean everyone should. Unless there is an urgent or essential matter, remember that working hours are 9am to 5pm. This applies to yourself and, if you supervise a team, to members of your team.
How you supervise your team members will also change. Micro-managing work activities is practically impossible when working remotely, so you have to switch to an “outcome-based” supervision. However, this does not mean that you should wait until the dateline when the “outcome” is to be delivered to check on its progress. You should have progress checkpoints so that issues and problems can be caught early. Clear communication is also important, both on the part of the supervisor and team members. That is because points at which mis-communication are usually caught and corrected will be fewer when remote working.
Supervising trainees and interns is also a different kettle of fish. Trainees and interns have little or no experience of what goes on in a law office. They also have little idea of what is expected of them. The “watch and learn” method of teaching trainees and interns will have to be adapted for remote working. Shorter but more frequent video conferencing. Impressing on them what is meant by client confidentiality, which includes deleting all drafts, documents and e-mails at the end of their internship or training period.
Not Just COVID-19
The biggest take-away is that with the implementation of the above tools and changes to how we run a law office, remote working isn’t just for times of crisis but can and should be how a modern law office/practice is run. Even COVID-19 has its silver lining.
Set out below are videos and tutorials of the various software mentioned above, put together by the IT Committee of the Law Society.
The author thanks the Information Technology Committee 2020 for their contributions to this article.