Tips and Tricks for Fully Remote Legal Teams

Yesterday, Closing Folders was proud to host a panel of speakers to learn how legal departments have been managing the transition to remote work over the past few weeks amid the COVID-19 epidemic.  While our speakers 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. For those who missed it, we’ve summarized some of the key points that came out of the discussion.

You Need the Right Tools to Get the Job Done

All of the organizations represented by our panelists 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 reveals there’s more to being at work than access to a computer.

Erin Zipes, Vice President, Assistant General Counsel at Shopify reports 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 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 it as they see fit. Many lawyers quickly transitioned much of their workflow to these systems.  He 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 onto a digital medium.  It also has a great 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 powerful organization to keep all your information organized.

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

All of our panelists highlighted the importance of creating deliberate separation between work and home.  Setting defined start and end times for work hours and taking breaks helps. If your home permits it, creating as physically a separate space as possible 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 panelists agreed 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 interactoins 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 suggests designating a few key speakers on an all-hands call and soliciting questions from the rest of the team in advance.

An audience member asked the panelist what their favourite form of communication while remote working.  While Michael and Philip both said phone, Erin encouraged the audience to try video calls. Once you get over your picture being visible, the visual aspect of the conversation really helps develop relationships in the office more than phone calls do.

Setting a Positive Example

With the unique circumstances of COVID-19, Erin highlights the importance of in-house departments to set positive examples for outside counsel.  Be understanding with people who no longer have child care 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 be working from home. By many reports, it could be several months. We asked panelists 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 panelists discussed the cultural challenges with remote work.  Physical offices are great for helping people develop personal relationships over watercooler gossip or morning breaks in the coffee room. These interactions don’t happen naturally when the team is completely remote. It takes intentional planning to facilitate them.  Panelists 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 recordingan MTV Cribs style walkthroughs of their homes to share with coworkers.

So how about you? What’s working for your organization? What are the challenges? Drop us a note our comments on LinkedIn. We look forward to hearing from you!

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