I have spoken to some attorneys who have no idea where to begin when it comes to bringing their law offices home. Unfortunately, due to the situation, they probably will be unable to have the technical support they would normally receive as they move from an old-fashioned practice to one that is able to be managed from home. I have no doubt that many business owners find this thought unsettling and are not sure where to begin.
I already provided a list of some tools to consider, but if you are feeling overwhelmed about where to begin, maybe it will help if we look at the places that are most important to start.
The three key items you need are:
- Accessing/sharing your documents
- Receiving/making phone calls
- Handling your email/contacts/calendar
Accessing Your Documents
Obviously, in a law firm, the key thing is being able to access your documents and client files. This is the first place to start while setting up a home office.
The first question you need to ask yourself is whether your files are mainly in electronic format already, in which case you are in a pretty good position, or if most of your documents are mainly in paper format, in which case you have a lot of work to do. Then, of course, you need to be able to share your documents. This could be with your clients, staff, or other lawyers.
Files Mainly Electronic Format
If your documents are mainly in electronic format and/or you are already set up to get your documents into electronic format, you are in a strong position to access your files from anywhere. The key is whether your documents are organized in such a way that you can easily find them. By this I mean, are you naming and organizing your files properly and consistently.
Files Not In Electronic Format
If your files are not already in electronic format, you have some work ahead of you. You need to start scanning. If you want to buy a small scanner, I suggest the Scansnap. The price ranges from about $300 to about $800 on Amazon, depending on which version you purchase.
Naming & Organizing Your Files
Regardless of whether you are starting from scratch or you already have your files in electronic format, you need to name and organize them properly. There are more articles and books on proper naming conventions than you can shake a stick at. A Google search gives plentiful results. The key is picking a consistent system and organizing your files in a structure that makes it easy for not only you to find your documents, but anyone. Even if you are a true solo, remember, if anything happens to you, someone else needs to be able to go into your system and find things without too much trouble.
Put Your Files in the Cloud
The absolute easiest and fastest way to get started with putting your files in the Cloud (that is online) is to use something like Dropbox or Office 365. Office 365 includes OneDrive. These are tools that sync your files in the cloud and on your computer. You can easily share the files with anyone. Make certain if you are sharing files with people outside your firm that you understand what you are sharing and that you do not share with the wrong people. Some services have internal tools that enable you to expire links (so they only work for a certain period of time) or set up passwords for links. The key is to understand how the sharing works and to make sure you are not creating vulnerabilities in your data. There have been cases of lawyers sharing entire folders or systems with the wrong person. Make sure you educate yourself before you share anything.
Document Management Tools
Keep in mind, there are programs you can purchase that will organize your files for you. One example is a program called Worldox. I would recommend that no matter what program you choose, you make sure it has a cloud-option. This way you and your staff can access your files no matter where you are, as long as you have an Internet connection.
There are also programs that serve as entire case management systems, including storing your files and providing easy ability to find them. Two tools to consider are Clio (which is a PBA partner) and RocketMatter. There are many other options to consider as well.
Don’t Forget Ethical Rules and the Law
When you are considering your options, make sure you think about your ethical and legal obligations to protect client data. The Pennsylvania Bar Association has a very good ethics opinion that provides a list of factors to consider when choosing a cloud-based provider. I suggest you read it and consider it when you are reviewing your options. I have uploaded a copy of the opinion to my website. Hopefully, PBA will forgive my copyright violation given the circumstances.
Accessing Your Work Computer From Elsewhere
If you do not want to put your files in the cloud, or you want to only put new documents in the cloud, you might consider setting up a tool so you can access your office computer from home. Even if you manage to put all of your files in the cloud, if you have specialized programs on your work computer, the ability to connect to that computer means you can use those programs without installing them at home.
As I mentioned previously, the fastest way to set up access to your computer from home is to use a tool such as GoToMyPC. GoToMyPC is software you install on your work and home computer. It enables you to log in to your work computer from your home computer. There are myriad options that perform the same task. Look around and find one that works for you. It just so happens that GoToMyPC is the one I have used previously. The cost is $30+ a month per seat annually and $40+ a month per seat monthly.
Another option, and my preferred option, is to set up a VPN. VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. I prefer VPNs for a number of reasons, including the cost (one-time expense of buying the hardware and setting it up), faster nature of the connection, and greater control. The problem, of course, is it is unlikely that you will be able to find someone to set up a VPN for you right now. If you are reasonably technologically savvy though, you may be able to purchase what you need and set it up yourself. However, it is critical that you know what you are doing. If you set your VPN up incorrectly, you could create a security hole large enough to drive a truck through. This means, in most cases, setting up a VPN is not a do-it-yourself project.
In order to set up a VPN you need to buy a VPN router that you put in your office. It is important to buy a router that provides the appropriate security and size for your needs. You most likely will want a business-class router because of the security. You can find a VPN router on Amazon. Simply search for VPN hardware. Read the reviews, both on and off Amazon, and pick one that meets your needs for security, speed, and number of connections. Even if you cannot install a VPN router now, I suggest you consider one for the future, so if you need to work from elsewhere after we are able to go back to our offices, you will be set.
Getting Your Mail
Obviously, to keep working you need your snail-mail. I suggest you contact the post office and see if you qualify to have your business mail forwarded to your home address. If you have a scanner at home (such as the Scansnap) you can scan the mail, name and organize it, and you will be all set. This way no one needs to go into the office to check mail.
I already provided detailed information about setting up your phone at home in my prior post. If you already have a VOIP service, my recommendation is that you call your provider and ask what tools you have at your disposal to handle your calls elsewhere. If you do not have VOIP provider, this is the time to look into getting one. If you are not sure what VOIP means, if you have your phone service through cable or fiberoptics, then you have a VOIP. If you are using traditional copper lines, you do not have VIOP.
If you have a traditional phone service, call your provider and ask if you can forward your business number to a home or cell service. That way, while you go through the process of setting up a new service, you won’t miss any calls. If you want to protect your privacy when you make outgoing calls from home, during this period, I suggest looking into Google Voice. You can make calls from your cell using a Google Voice number.
Once you make sure you won’t miss any calls because they are all being forwarded, you can start researching options for VOIP. Make certain that you choose a service that provides appropriate redundancy and security. When you are looking into redundancy, choose a provider that has servers in different parts of the country. It won’t do you any good if you choose a provider that only has servers in Philadelphia and Cherry Hill if the Philadelphia and New Jersey areas get shut down. Use the cloud computing ethics opinion to look at the factors you should consider. The factors are much the same for picking a VOIP provider as for any other cloud service.
Email, Contacts & Calendars
When I first started practicing law, a surprising number of lawyers did not have email. Now, most lawyers have email, but a surprising number are using free services. You should not be using a free service for your email. If you are, you probably have some ethical issues.
Check Out Office 365 for Email
In my prior blog post, I explained that the best option is Office 365. The good thing about Office 365, is aside from the email service, it comes with OneDrive. Two birds, one stone. Another option is Google’s professional suite, which I also mentioned in my prior post.
Aside from the ethical issues that come from using free email, you are missing a major branding opportunity. When people see your email address, they should think of you. This means you should be using a domain name that works with your website.
Sharing Calendars and Contacts
If you have a domain name and you are using email that came with your website host or domain name registrar, you may be using a service that does not sync your contacts and your calendar. In such a case, this means that when you change a contact or a calendar entry in one place, it does not change it in another. You also may not be able to share contacts and calendar entries with your co-workers. Using Office 365 or Google Business Suite addresses this problem. Some web hosts provide the option to choose Office 365 as an add on. Compare the pricing between your host and Microsoft, but if your host offers a managed service, that means it will help you if you run into problems. From experience, I can tell you that dealing directly with Microsoft tech support when you are a tiny business can be challenging on the best of days.
If you are uncertain where to begin as you move from working in an office to working at home, you should start with your ability to access and share your files, make and receive phone calls, and manage your email, calendar, and contacts. If you start with these three items, you will be in a good place to keep your office running no matter where you find yourself, as long as you have a strong Internet connection.