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Tips and Tricks for Remote Legal Teams

Inside iManage

Recently, the iManage Closing Folders team spoke with several industry leaders to learn how their legal departments and firms have managed the transition to remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. While our interviewees hailed from an in-house legal team, a mid-sized law firm, and a large international law firm, there were many common themes in their experiences with this massive transition.

You need the right tools to get the job done

All of the organizations represented by our interviewees had long provided lawyers with the flexibility to access their work from home, either by laptop or remote desktop. However, working full-time without stepping into your office quickly revealed there’s more to being at work than access to a computer.

Erin Zipes, Vice President, Assistant General Counsel at Shopify, reported that the company provided all employees with a $1,000 budget to set up their home office. Members of her legal team quickly put this to work to procure monitors so they could display documents side-by-side like they were used to in the office. Philip Taylor, Partner at Chaitons LLP and member of the firm’s executive committee, said getting everyone on the team a physical phone was essential, citing early issues with bad cell phone connections.

Philip also sang praises of the iPad and the new Apple Pencil. The firm invested heavily in the technology providing lawyers with both devices and letting them use the tools as they see fit. Many lawyers quickly transitioned much of their workflow to these systems. He also pointed out two Apps that have been game changers for him. LiquidText is a must have for marking up drafts of documents, allowing him to easily transition the pen markups he was used to doing throughout his career into a digital medium. It also has a search feature which allows you to retain context as you look at instances of a particular term across an entire document. GoodNotes is a note-taking app that lets you take notes with the Apple Pencil but be able to search them like text, with organization to keep all your information properly sorted.

Michael Elder, Associate at Blakes Cassels & Graydon LLP mentioned how Closing Folders has seen increased adoption on the firm’s M&A transactions in recent weeks. In a world where it’s no longer possible to convene all the parties to a transaction in a boardroom, having a digital single source of truth for a transaction closing is more important than ever.

Separating work and home

The leaders we spoke with all highlighted the importance of creating deliberate separation between work and home. Setting defined start and end times for work hours and taking breaks both help. If your home permits it, creating as physically a separate space as possible also helps tremendously. In smaller spaces, rotate use of rooms between office and family use throughout the day to simulate that separation. Clearing laptops and other work paraphernalia out of common spaces at the end of each day can also help create boundaries. For lawyers working with confidential legal documents, this step is essential.

At the same time, Erin from Shopify says we shouldn’t always strive to hide our kids, pets, and partners in the background of video calls. Creating a culture where employees don’t feel they have to hide their real life helps foster deeper connections between team members.

Communication is more important than ever

In the office, communication happens naturally. People pass one another in the hall, pop their heads into offices, or go grab lunch together and catch up. All of this goes away in a remote work setting. As a result, our interviewees all felt that more communication is required than ever before.

Philip stressed the importance of upgrading conversations from text messaging to phone calls as soon as possible to avoid confusion. Michael talked about the challenge of asking quick one-off questions of others. The kinds of questions you would ask as an aside in the hall or during a quick office visit seem silly to schedule a phone call for. Legal teams need to be intentional about finding natural ways to facilitate these types of interactions remotely.

As for communicating to the group, Philip stressed the importance of many one-on-one calls to communicate ideas to the whole team effectively. The firm had tried all-hands conference calls but found that the number of participants hampered the discussion. Erin suggested designating a few key speakers on an all-hands call and soliciting questions from the rest of the team in advance.

While Michael and Philip both felt that phone calls were the best way to communicate while working remotely, Erin encourages her team to try video calls. Once you get over your picture being visible, the visual aspect of the conversation really helps develop relationships in the virtual office more than phone calls do.

Setting a positive example

With the unique circumstances of COVID-19, Erin highlighted the importance of in-house departments to set positive examples for outside counsel. Be understanding with people who no longer have childcare or are having to help care for family members in need. Determine with your stakeholders what the most essential projects are and relax expectations and deadlines around other items.

Looking into the future

At present no one knows just how long we may need to work from home. We asked our interviewees what long-term challenges they see ahead. One problem Erin says Shopify is beginning to deal with is onboarding new lawyers into a fully remote team. Prior to moving to remote work, everyone on the legal team had pre-existing relationships and working styles. Bringing new employees into the culture of the organization and training them without a physical office will require a major rethink.

All of our interviewees also discussed the cultural difficulties with remote work. Physical offices are great for helping people develop personal relationships over watercooler gossip or morning coffee breaks. These interactions don’t happen naturally when the team is completely remote. It takes intentional planning to facilitate them. The leaders we spoke with are experimenting with different strategies for this. At Shopify, the team has daily photo challenges asking people to post a picture of their office or their mug. Now the team is discussing recording MTV Cribs-style walkthroughs of their homes to share with coworkers.

Although working from home has its challenges, legal teams that put in the effort to communicate with each other and maintain their culture are poised to succeed in any environment.

Learn more about what Closing Folders can do to simplify your legal transaction process no matter where your team is working. 

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Inside iManage

Inside iManage blogs are reflective of a combination of authors among our various teams.