COVID-19 and the social distancing requirements created by the ongoing pandemic forced law firms and legal organizations to re-engineer themselves and find new ways to continue performing their essential work. For the most part, this emergency transition has been extremely successful, and thousands of legal professionals now work remotely but effectively.
However, what was needed to help legal practitioners successfully move to a virtual office environment? Did the promise of cloud-based repositories and applications meet expectations? A case study of two law firms — one small, one large — suggests, perhaps unexpectedly, that law firms already leveraging the cloud were relatively well prepared for this massive business process shift and were able to move to pandemic-aware operating conditions without material business disruption.
Small law perspective: Nothing really changed
The XPAN Law Group — a small boutique law firm specializing in cybersecurity, data privacy, and information governance, along with related legal services — was founded by lawyers who met and worked together as colleagues in the broader industry before joining as business partners. XPAN has existed since its founding as a virtual law firm without a central office; and from the beginning, its attorneys have relied heavily on cloud-based services to complete their legal work, conduct internal business, and communicate with clients.
XPAN’s internal technology leverages Google productivity tools, along with Slack channels for additional in-house communication and collaboration. The firm relies on Google and secure cloud-based storage, storing little content locally and relying on the cloud to back up and share work product. The net result has meant that XPAN’s attorneys are able to work securely from almost any location and can use cloud-based tools to connect internally and with clients. “Google Meet has been a highly effective addition to Zoom and WebEx, giving the firm multiple cost-effective choices for communicating and collaborating with clients,” said Michael Simon, an XPAN attorney who focuses on e-discovery, GDPR, and data privacy issues.
Even before pandemic-related travel restrictions went into effect, XPAN relied heavily on traditional distance collaboration tools — telephone and e-mail — to coordinate work with clients, along with video chats when face-to-face client meetings were necessary but travel was impractical. In March, when remote working became widespread, XPAN did not need to significantly adjust its internal operations. “Many of our clients had already implemented IP telephony with their organizations, so we didn’t even need to update any of our contact information,” Simon explained. “All in all, not much has changed.”
Ultimately, law firm leaders feel well positioned to continue XPAN’s ongoing business operations and believes that it is well positioned to grow further as needed. “The cloud has let XPAN recruit team members based on their skills and interests, rather than their geographic proximity to a fixed office,” said XPAN Law Group co-founder Jordan Fischer. “We offer our team the ability to engage in cutting-edge legal work, without their need to leave their preferred living and social environments. It’s is a win for everyone.”
Big law perspective: Existing tools but new urgency
Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe is one of the largest law firms in the world. International in scope, Orrick has 25 offices in 11 countries, including 14 locations within the United States. In response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Orrick encouraged its lawyers and staff to work from home across its offices in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.
Orrick’s decision to move to a fully distributed work environment took place on short notice, but the tools that permitted the law firm to respond to this situation, particularly Orrick’s public and private cloud solutions, had already been deployed for some time. As a result, any disruption to ongoing business was strictly short-term and largely resolved within the initial few days.
Orrick has invested significantly in technology. Its management team includes a Chief Technology Officer and Chief Innovation Officer who oversees a comprehensive team of lawyers, technologists, developers, project managers, and business professionals. In thinking about the tools and workflow for completing work within the firm, Orrick selected a few general tools, such as Microsoft Office365, for firm-wide deployment. However, due to the diversity of its practices and offices, Orrick also made available a slate of overlapping tools and solutions for remote connection and remote collaboration, giving case teams and practice groups choices in the way they collaborate and organize their work.
Orrick places high value on collaboration and client engagement. In addition to its Skype and Teams components, Orrick also uses Zoom and Miro to facilitate team whiteboarding. Recognizing the security limitations of Zoom and Miro (i.e., externally hosted services with broad terms of service), legal teams are cautioned to avoid posting or otherwise sharing confidential information through these sites. More case teams are experimenting with Microsoft Teams as the platform has swiftly upgraded itself over the past six months, and as Orrick Innovation Project Manager Manyee Chow notes, this is a tool whose use within the firm continues to expand as the tool evolves.
In addition to these tools, Orrick has also developed Joinder, a cloud-based digital workroom and file-sharing solution that the firm is now spinning out as a separate company. Intended to serve as a secure environment for managing teams and projects across organizations, Joinder serves as a comprehensive file repository and task management platform, while also providing a real-time dashboard of case and matter status. The platform also includes machine learning to automate the management and organization of files; and it is already in use with many Orrick clients and also is available to the public.
The pandemic closed offices in March, Orrick’s case teams were already fully equipped to work remotely. Orrick’s Joinder service had already virtualized client and matter files, and IP telephony and soft phones meant that lawyers could receive telephone calls on their workstations and laptop computers as if they were still in their physical offices. And Office365 offered a secure way to stay productive, from a variety of devices. “All the tools were already in place,” explained Chow. “But the March office closures really accelerated the adoption of remote access and collaboration tools by all matter teams, not just some of them.”
Chow further noted that Orrick is proactive about the shortcomings of a fully virtualized office and remains concerned about “videoconferencing fatigue.” Firm management has encouraged case teams to find additional, creative ways to communicate and collaborate, with some teams experimenting with virtual reality rooms for real-time conversation, though this remains at an experimental, information-gathering stage. “It’s a challenge to replicate the unscheduled and random interactions people might have in a hallway or breakroom, but this approach shows some promise as a way for lawyers to meet new colleagues and interact with others in a unique setting,” said Chow.
As the global COVID-19 pandemic has forced law firms (and all businesses) to find new ways to conduct their business, the experiences of these two law firms demonstrate that existing technology can be leveraged to effectively virtualize offices and keep them fully equipped to service clients.
Now, while most lawyers look forward to a time when they can resume “regular business,” it is helpful to know that they have multiple ways to remain engaged and productive.