The current pandemic of the rapidly spreading coronavirus has had a major impact on the economy and numerous businesses. State laws have required all non-essential businesses to shut down temporarily and have also required the continuation of social distancing. In most states, law firms are considered an essential business and are legally allowed to remain open. There are many things to consider to survive as a business all while adhering to the current guidelines. Here are a few tips to survive COVID-19 as a law firm.
Remote Office Plan:
Create a plan involving mail, phones, document filing, and preservation, including maintaining confidential information. This is important if you and your employees are working remotely, you must have a plan of action. Consider having all phone calls forwarded from the office number to your cell phone number or the receptionist’s number. Forwarding phone numbers and routing calls can be done using several software programs. If you can’t use an automatic line transfer there are other ways. Try recording a voicemail on the firm’s mainline with the new number to call.
You will want to come up with a plan on how the mail will be handled. Make sure the firm has a plan for handling mail. Foward the mail to your home or have someone visit the office to retrieve mail with all the appropriate precautions. They should wear gloves, not touch their face and lose disinfectant wipes. Your law firm will continue to receive mail, including confidential documents, letters to be signed, personal client information, receipts, and more. One must assign the task of retrieving the mail from the office around 2-3 times a week. Also, you may request a temporary address change and have the mail directly forwarded to your home.
Check out these helpful tips on how to stay productive when working from home.
Tools to use for Remote Office Plan
Try to use online tools to host virtual meetings from anyone’s home. You and your staff members may not be used to working remotely. It is important to communicate with your staff to make sure everyone is on track and knows their responsibilities. Your staff must have clear assignments and instructions when working from home. Hosting virtual meetings can be done using numerous amounts of online tools. These tools include Facetime, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams. These systems allow you to speak with staff through video, chat, and voice calling.
If your firm decides to continue to work at the physical office, there are a few things to consider. There are additional things you must do in order to follow the current national, or state, workplace regulations.
If you plan to keep your office open, your firm should try to limit the number of people working. You can do this by creating a schedule for who will be working from home and in the office to limit. Rotation schedules could be used so everyone will have the chance to come into the office for things they might need. They can meet with clients in the office, access documents, or receive mail and/or messages.
In some states, no more than ten (10) people can be in one area. Also, many states even have the maximum amount of people at three (3) in an area. Also, placing the tape on the floor every six (6) feet can help your clients feel safe and secure.
What to do with Clients?
Things to consider are where they will wait, where they will sit, and how they will fill out paperwork. These are all things that need to be altered for sanitary reasons. For example, for paperwork, you might find it useful to have an unopened package of “clean pens” and a bin of “dirty pens”. This way clients feel more at ease about being in your law firm and feeling safe while completing necessary paperwork.
Your firm makes changes to where the customer will be seated and/or wait. Any changes should be communicated to the clients verbally and with signs posted in the office of your new protocols. There should also be rules about your staff or client’s sicknesses posted. If a client sneezes or coughs, it is in the best interest to reschedule or have your meeting done electronically. This is also important to communicate through signs in the office as well as verbally. While following the CDC workplace guidelines, your clients should feel safe and comfortable working with your firm.
Additionally, your law firm will want to make sure the entire office is properly disinfected daily. The last thing you want is your clients to feel scared and worried about your law firm. Cleaning your business accordingly will give your clients the security they need to continue doing business with you. Proper sanitizing includes disinfecting keyboards, mice, desks, phones, writing utensils, doors/doorknobs, any sort of handle, drawers, and even chairs. Communicating with your clients via social media, phone, or physical signs in the office can help. It shows you are taking extra precautions by disinfecting the office multiple times a day will make them feel safer.
In your law firm, your clients, especially elderly clients, might be very scared and worried because of COVID-19. They will most likely voice their fears and will have numerous questions about protocol and safety. Try to answer all client’s questions politely and effectively so they can continue to trust you. Communicating what your firm has been doing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus will be appreciated by them.
Your firm will want to update all forms of advertisement that provides information about your establishment. More likely than not, your traditional law firm and/or call hours will change due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is essential to communicate all changes and make it very easy for your clients to receive all updated information. You should update things like the firm’s website, email signature, Google My Business profile, and voicemail. All these platforms should include updated hours and phone numbers where clients can continue to reach you.
Communicate Schedule Changes
Because of COVID-19, most of your law firm will have canceled appointments including trials, depositions, hearings, mediations, and arbitrations. It is important to communicate and continue to update all clients about cancelations or postponed dates. Sometimes these procedures are not canceled and are scheduled to take place. Before proceeding, you must consider the client and whether to go through with it depending on the client. If the client is elderly or has underlying health conditions they are an “at-risk” group. Your meeting with your client should then be rescheduled to a later date or switched to a virtual meeting.
With any cancelations or rescheduled dates, one must always communicate with the client. You should always apologize to show your gratitude and understating of their frustration. It is vital to your business continuity to properly communicate with your clients. Communication is the key to keeping staff and clients informed and on the same page as the firm.
Appointments and Deadlines
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, one’s firm most likely had numerous appointments and deadlines scheduled throughout the next few months. But because of social distancing, there has been a sudden change in protocol and unexpected court closure. You and your staff must follow up with all the scheduled meetings. They must discuss the next steps, the protocol to follow, and/or reschedule. If needed, request waivers for deadlines including discovery exchanges, interrogatories, depositions, and mediations. Sometimes, mediators may provide services via video chat for both parties involved, in lieu of an in-person mediation. If you and your client wish to do this you should speak to your mediator for more information.
Clients and firms alike are struggling with the coronavirus, restrictions, and new regulations. Be mindful and as empathetic and helpful as possible to everyone involved.
Handling Documents Online
If your firm isn’t already operating electronically, now is the time. Using online and cloud-based software systems to save and share documents is very helpful. You have to decide to keep your business running in-office or remotely. Nevertheless, moving to electronic data sharing and document storage during this pandemic is quickly becoming a necessity. Regarding COVID-19, the future is essentially unpredictable, and the government is imposing new rules and regulations every day that passes. It is important to have your business prepared for whatever might happen in the next coming weeks.
There are multiple software systems you can use in your law firm to become cloud-based and work remotely, as needed. When online, make sure there is a clear protocol in handling electronic documents since they may contain secure information. The system may include only accessing via remote desktop, no saving of documents to your local device or computer, etc. Document handling is one of the most important factors to think about. Employees will be accessing these files on their personal computers and devices, so security is important.
Handling Documents In-Office
Your firm may not have completely gone to the cloud (online). If so, your employees may need certain documents that are not accessible if working remotely. If you have to send an employee home with physical files make sure everything is logged and accounted for. As an example, you may have a simple sign in and sign out a spreadsheet. It should be signed by a supervisor when taking files out or putting them back into the physical file system.
Law files contain highly confidential information. Because of this, you should relay to your employees how they will be handled and stored while in their possession. Create a system with specific instructions on how the documents will be delivered, picked up, or even delivered from home. You might not want clients to know your home address. If so, encourage them to set up a meeting place or delivered directly to the client’s home.
Another factor to consider is the potential effect on fund disbursements and receiving payment for services rendered. Because of the COIVD-19 situation, there will most likely be lockdowns in the future. Because of this, in-person banking may not be available. Firms will need to determine the next steps and form a plan of action for handling monies. Firms should create a plan for how they will collect checks, payments, and deposits. You should try to collect payments electronically as much as you can. If you use mobile check deposits, know they will only take up to a certain dollar amount. So your law firm might want to consider accepting electronic payments from clients for the time being.
Prepare with Multiple Back-Up Plans
The future of COVID-19 and its influence on your law firm is uncertain. It is important to have multiple plans of action. It is very possible that you or one of your staff members may suddenly become ill. Your law firm should have a back-up plan for handling cases by others in the firm. This can be prepared by creating plans as to who will cover whose case(s) given an employee gets sick. Staff should also create case summaries (if you have not already included this as part of your current process). If someone becomes suddenly sick, and a fellow attorney must take over, it will be easy to understand.
Another tip to stay prepared is to consider keeping a secure list of passwords, bank account numbers, and other information. People in your firm might need to access it if you as the firm owner become ill. It is important that you prepare for what is to come and continue serving your clients while doing so.
Remember, we are all going through this together, not just as a nation but globally. Utilizing these tips to survive COVID-19 as a law firm can help you stay successful. Everyone should feel safe and comfortable. Unfortunately, accidents can still happen, and issues will still come up. If you and your staff can be there for your clients during this time your firm can make it through this pandemic.