The U.S. legal industry headed into March with a full head of steam, aside from some growing concerns about a novel coronavirus that appeared to be spreading. By the end of the month, our very way of life in America had been turned upside down and organizations from every business sector have been forced to change the way they do business in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Most law firms were forced to transition from a workflow in which lawyers and professional staff were based in offices to a 100% work-from-home (WFH) model in just a matter of days. This was a stunning and unprecedented workforce migration that some firms were more successful in managing than others. We thought it would be a useful exercise — while this experience is still fresh in our minds — to recap some of the crucial immediate lessons learned by law firms during the WFH transition of 2020.
- Hardware inventory. The firms that were able to pivot quickly and return to full productivity within two weeks were those that had a ready supply of laptops and mobile devices — or an existing relationship with a trusted provider that could immediately deliver those assets. Some firms struggled with the transition out of the gate because they were unable to equip their workforce with these basic tools for mobile operations.
- Systems capacity. The firms that are thriving right now had business continuity plans in place that made it possible for them to quickly scale up their software licenses and IT systems necessary to handle a spike in mobile access from their workforce. Some firms were caught off guard by the unexpected wave of remote working conditions and are still working through problems with access to applications, networks and even sufficient home bandwidth for Internet service.
- User support. Another key lesson learned in this crisis has been the discovery of how the law firm IT user support function is absolutely mission-critical in 2020. Those firms that were able to scale up their help desk support to work remotely (e.g., Virtual Desktop Interface, Virtual Private Networks, etc.) and to handle increased call volume were the ones mostly likely to manage the WFH transition quickly and with limited productivity impacts. Unfortunately, some law firms lacked this scalable user support structure and are experiencing ongoing challenges with lawyers needing help to access their documents, idle professional staff waiting for assistance to log onto the network, and other IT support frustrations.
- Data security. The human response to the COVID-19 pandemic from our health care professionals and public health authorities has brought out the best in human nature . . . but it has sadly brought out the worst as well, such as an increase in cybersecurity threats including phishing emails, scams and crypto-attacks by bad actors trying to exploit people and organizations during this crisis. This is a key issue for law firms during this WFH transition because home computers can have outdated software and settings that expose employees to these attacks. Moreover, an improperly configured network can allow compromised files or devices to infect the entire firm. The law firms that have best managed this transition have been those with data security controls in place to protect against these rising threats and a thoughtful information governance plan to mitigate these risks.
- Operations efficiency. This crisis has brought to the surface some clear answers to a very simple question: How much of your law firm’s day-to-day business operations requires someone to come into an office to get their work done? The firms that were best-equipped to migrate their workforce to a fully WFH model were those that were ahead of the curve when it comes to the “paperless law firm” vision that we have been discussing in the legal services industry for years. While some firms barely skipped a beat as they were already functioning with primarily digital workflows, others have been hamstrung by operations that required employees to come to the office in order to prepare and send out invoices, process and pay bills, or even manually handle payroll.
It is clear that those law firms that had the appropriate IT strategy and business architecture in place to support a mobile workforce were able to migrate to a WFH model fairly smoothly and are positioned to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with minimal disruptions. Firms that were unprepared with their technology infrastructure and operations have struggled to pivot quickly to the demands of a mobile workforce, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage.
Now is a good time to take stock of how your law firm fared during the WFH transition and assess your results. If you conclude that your firm could have performed more successfully, it may be wise to partner with a law firm advisor or managed services provider to shore up any gaps and put in place a business continuity strategy that is designed to address the existential challenges of tomorrow.
For more information about how to assess your IT infrastructure or steps that your law firm can take to be better prepared for the future, please contact me.