ABA Ethics Committee Provides Tech Guidelines for Practicing Remotely

On March 10, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility published Formal Opinion 498 permitting the virtual practice of law. A year into pandemic shutdowns which included the widespread closure of courts and law offices, this is unsurprising. With much of the industry forced to practice remotely during this period, it’s become clear that it can indeed be done.

Much of what the committee reviews in this opinion is predictable and general, reinforcing that a lawyer’s ethical responsibilities stand even under abnormal circumstances. The document gives particular attention to potential issues of confidentiality that may arise when lawyers work from home.

Taking client calls a few feet away from a family member or roommate who is not under the same ethical obligations as a law firm colleague could, for instance, expose confidential details of a client matter. On a similar note, the committee recommends a “clean screen” policy so work documents aren’t visible to others in the home.

Perhaps what is most interesting about this opinion is the committee’s decision to reference specific uses of technology. Handy for lawyers new to practicing virtually, it could be used as a starting checklist for a remote office. Beyond simple steps like shutting off smart speakers that listen for voice commands, the opinion also includes instructions for ensuring privacy in how client data is stored and shared through third party platforms.

While opinions from the American Bar Association are advisory in nature, they are also frequently referenced by regulatory authorities in determining actual standards of conduct. This means that Formal Opinion 498, in detailing ethical responsibilities around remote work technology, may raise standards relating to lawyers’ use of particular categories of software and hardware. It is possible, going forward, that lawyers could be disciplined for failing to follow specific language regarding the use of technology.

While it does indirectly reference a prior opinion focusing on lawyers’ duties during an emergency, Formal Opinion 498 establishes that the Rules of Professional Conduct apply fully to virtual arrangements outside of these circumstances as well. The virtual law practice is here to stay, and this opinion provides useful information. Pronouncements regarding the uses of technology, especially in a home environment, cry out for some application of a harmless error rule or related doctrine. But given the composition of the committee, its history, and its mission, it is probably asking too much to expect an opinion with that kind of nuance.

A Better Way to Generate New Client Leads: The Zoom Roundtable

In the early months of the pandemic, many lawyers were especially attentive to their key clients and referral sources, recognizing the importance of checking in. Firms reassured their clients that business would continue on without interruption, emails were exchanged to offer support to anyone who might need it, and Zoom calls were scheduled to connect in virtual happy hours.

There’s a natural tendency to lose this momentum over time, so the challenge becomes finding sustainable practices for maintaining those professional relationships as the risks of in-person meetings remain high.

When the demands of personal life have risen for many, especially those with school-aged children, and Zoom fatigue is setting in, it is increasingly important to find a way to continue connecting with potential clients and referral sources.

Fortunately, there is an effective alternative. Rather than dedicate an enormous amount of time to one-on-one calls, you can strategically select anywhere from three to eight people to catch up with at once. In addition to majorly cutting down on the burden these networking activities have on your schedule, this will allow you to offer great business development opportunities to your contacts.

Seven Tips for Running a Successful Zoom Roundtable

  1. Your selection of invitees is the most important aspect of this process, so make sure you are giving plenty of thought to its business purpose for your work and how you can create value for the others involved.
  2. Choose each group of people (start with three or four people) so that it makes sense for them to meet one another. For instance, you could organize a meeting around a particular clientele served by each attendee in a different way.
  3. Consider having a co-host to share your networking duties.
  4. As the host, you should send out information a day or two ahead that gives some background on who is going to be there.
  5. Have attendees bring their calendars so you can schedule the next roundtable at the end of the call.
  6. Imagine that lots of other people will be hosting similar remote get-togethers, so limit the call to an hour or so.
  7. Ask your first group whom they know that would fit well and consider making it a recurring event with rotating combinations of people. You could have, say, twenty members with eight people meeting at a given time.

As we continue settling into this prolonged period of remote social life, these small groups represent one of the most efficient and effective paths under the present circumstances to generate leads and attract new clients.

Strategies for Managing Your Remote Law Firm Workforce: Communication

The shift to working remotely came suddenly for most without much lead-time for planning. Law firms adapted to the new normal thinking it would be a few months or maybe just a matter of weeks. It’s become clear, especially in cities like Los Angeles where social distancing measures haven’t contained the virus, that we are now looking at a much longer period of fully or partially remote work.

This means that firm leadership should be implementing strategies for managing a remote workforce over the long haul. In advising our clients on this issue, we’ve been able to provide a number of specific strategies for maintaining efficiency and employee satisfaction. Today, we’ll start with communication.

When your team members aren’t in the same office, an information vacuum is likely to appear, as each memo or notice needs to be consciously relayed to those whom it concerns. Email is a great way to pass along information that many workers need to know, but more frequent phone calls will help to re-create a space for ideas and suggestions that would have been tossed around casually from one desk to another.

If you aren’t holding staff calls in addition to one-on-ones, you should be. Whether these are for the whole firm or separated by practice area will depend on the size and scope of your firm, but these calls can be key to keeping everyone on the same page and making sure all concerns are heard. If you are a senior lawyer, it might feel like you are constantly communicating with colleagues, but the perception of more junior workers is often different. More frequent phone calls with smaller groups of junior attorneys, paralegals, and staff are especially important now.

More communication doesn’t need to mean more of a burden on your workforce. Send agendas in advance for staff calls whenever possible, and keep department meetings to an hour or less. Checking in with each person on your team for twenty minutes a week can also be extremely effective without interrupting their work or yours.

Finally, while Zoom was all the rage when stay-at-home orders went into effect, don’t insist on video conferencing when it’s not adding to the conversation. There are instances when you might want to share a screen or where you could expect some benefit from seeing each other’s faces, but much of the time, this is just more intrusive to your workers and wasteful of their time as they coordinate their appearance, the room’s lighting, and the activities of others in their households. So stick with traditional phone calls unless there is a very good reason not to.

Even as law offices gradually reopen going into 2021, it’s increasingly unlikely that all of your people will be in the office at the same time. Thus, you need to obtain feedback regularly from the full range of your workers to determine how your modes of communication need to evolve to keep up with the needs of a remote workforce.