The Governor of Pennsylvania just announced that all non-life sustaining businesses are to close their offices by 8:00 pm on Thursday, March 19. I know that some lawyers have not yet closed their offices. In some cases, they are still going into their offices but not seeing clients.
That will need to end as of Thursday evening. We cannot know how long this closure will stay in place.
My suggestion is that if you are not yet set to work from home, you spend the next bit of time getting yourself together so you can. It is everyone’s responsibility to do everything they can to keep Coronavirus / Covid-19 from spreading. And that includes staying home as much as possible.
Over the past few days, I have been making some suggestions to solo and small firm lawyers on tools they can use to make their practices more home-friendly. I will add to this list as things occur to me or as other people make suggestions.
I wrote this post quickly to provide information and help people beat the deadline, so please pardon typos.
Lawyers tend to live by their phones, so let’s start there.
The least expensive option is Google Voice. You can set up a Google voice number for free, and then forward that number to your home or cell phone. Google offers tools including message transcribing (to text or email), recording of conversations, and do not disturb (so you won’t get calls in the middle of the night). If you are on a traditional copper landline, and I know a lot of you are, reach out to your phone provider and ask about forwarding your number to the Google Voice number. That way, once this is over, you can just end the forwarding.
There are a lot of VOIP providers (Voice Over Internet Protocol). They vary greatly in quality and price. The two I think are best are 8×8 and Ring Central. I think they are best due to service quality, redundancy, and security.
You can set up many VOIP providers very quickly. If you want to port your office phone number, that can take some time, so you may want to just have your office phone number forwarded to a new number for now so you don’t risk losing calls. Discuss it with the phone provider.
Many business VOIP providers do not even require you to buy a phone. You can use an app with your cell phone so your business number shows. You can also use an app on your computer. I suggest you get a headphone if you decide to do this. You can also buy a phone that works with VOIP, but who knows how long it will take to get one delivered right now. If you do buy a phone, you can plug it into any ethernet connection and have full service. Just make sure whatever phone you buy works with your provider. In some cases, you can use a regular phone, you just need to add an adapter. Again, who knows how long it would take to get one delivered.
There are other options for VOIP too, many extremely inexpensive, some free. However, I am focusing on what is easiest and fastest, as well as the most reliable.
Another option is a virtual receptionist. These are companies that are in the business of having a human being answer your phone, ask and answer questions as you require, and then sending you an email or a text. I have never used one and I cannot recommend one in particular.
Leave a Message?
I am not sure just letting people leave a message on your voicemail is the best way to go during regular business hours. People may go elsewhere, especially if they are a potential client. However, it is certainly an option.
Don’t laugh non-lawyers. A lot of lawyers still have to fax. Many VOIP providers provide e-fax service. There are also stand-alone e-fax services. You can sign up for any number that will send faxes to your email address as a PDF. You can port your fax number to your e-fax or you can just get a new number and go with that. There are too many services to mention. Your basic plan is normally about 10 bucks a month.
Initially, I recommended that people look for virtual mail services. These are services that receive your mail, scan the envelope to let you know you received mail, and then follow your directions as far as what to do next. That is, you can have them forward the mail to your home address unopened, open, scanned and sent to you as a PDF, or thrown out. Confidential items need to be forwarded unopened of course. The problem with recommending this right now is that many of these virtual mailbox businesses will have to close.
You might look into whether your business is eligible for premium mail forwarding from the Post Office though. Scroll down towards the bottom of the page and you will see some options for businesses.
You should have an email address, of course. If you don’t, I don’t even know where to begin. However, some lawyers still use email that does not sync between devices. Also, a lot of lawyers are not using a service that syncs calendars and contacts properly. I recommend that you take a look at Office 365. For 5 bucks a month per seat you will have a cloud-based email with an address connected to your domain name. If you have employees, you can buy an account per person. Then everyone can sync their calendars and contacts.
I do not recommend free services such as Gmail. Here is the thing about free services. If a company is not charging you, it means that you are the product. Any free Google services are about collecting information for marketing purposes. Google has a business suite though, which includes mail connected to a domain, syncing of calendars and contacts.
I personally prefer Office 365. It is what I use and what I recommend. If you need the full suite of programs from Office, you can sign up for the annual program.
E-Notaries are legal in Pennsylvania. They are also allowed in other states. The notary must be approved as an e-notary in Pennsylvania and must use approved technology. You cannot just use any random notary. Whether an e-notary is acceptable for your specific document is something you will need to determine by reviewing the appropriate statute. I cannot advise you on whether a specific document may or may not be e-notarized.
A Note about Wills and Powers of Attorney
A number of people have asked me if it is possible to use an e-notary for a will or a power of attorney in Pennsylvania. The answer is I do not know. A number of people who know estate law have commented to me that they do not believe that an e-notary would work. I do not practice estate law and am not in a position to opine on specific situations when an e-notary would be ok or would not be ok. If someone knowledgeable provides me with a solid answer, I will let you know.
Lawyers like to see their clients and potential clients. Clients like to see their lawyers. Body language is important. Since we cannot physically meet, we can use video so that we can still see each other. There are many options. Most of these options allow you to share documents.
Skype is free and readily available. It works well on pretty much every platform. However, I do find that a lot of people have trouble setting it up. You can share documents using Skype. Skype is owned by Microsoft.
Zoom has a free service and can be used with no limitation for 1-1 communication. Once you add a third stream you are limited to 40 minutes, but you can restart. It is possible Zoom will remove this but I cannot say. The pay version is not particularly expensive. Zoom is cross-platform friendly. I think Zoom is the easiest of the products to use. It is great for sharing documents. Please note, there are currently some serious security concerns about Zoom. As such, there are questions about whether it is appropriate for lawyers to be using it. (Updated March 31, 2020).
Microsoft is offering Teams free for 6 months. Teams is a great tool not only for video but for other forms of collaboration. Teams comes with some of the plans discussed in the Office 365 portion of this post above. Teams is cross-platform friendly.
If you have an iPhone or iPad you have Facetime. However, this will share your cell phone number, and you need the other person to have an iPhone or an iPad. As a result, Facetime is of limited use. I would leave Facetime for personal communications.
Accessing Your Office Computer
You don’t have much time to set up access to your computer. I would normally start telling you about VPNs and all sorts of things, but let’s face it, you probably don’t have the knowledge or time to set one up. What I suggest is that you install something like GoToMyPC on your computer in the office. Then you can connect to your office PC from your home PC. Yes, there are other options, but you don’t have time right now.
I’ll write more about other options later.
Hopefully, you have a website. If you do not, look around and see about getting one made for you. A simple one-page website is better than nothing. People need a way to find you and most people find lawyers on websites.
Leaving the existence of a website aside, I recommend that you put a banner on your website mentioning the virus and your status. That should lead to a blog post or page explaining that though your office is closed you are still working and still taking on clients. You should make it clear that you are staying on top of cases, and that people may call, email, or video chat with you. People need to understand that though they can no longer meet with you face-to-face you are still there for them.
Staying in Business
A lot of lawyers, like a lot of other people, are scared they won’t have a business to go back to when we are able to get back to whatever our new world will be. My suggestion is that you think about what people might need right now and what they might need later. Let your current and past clients know about the services you are providing right now that they might need. To a non-lawyer, it may sound gruesome, but people need proper Powers of Attorney right now. Ask your clients if they have one or need theirs updated. We are here to protect our clients, and that means making sure they have what they need if the worst happens.
This is a good time to study a new area of practice. Think about areas that will grow due to the inevitable economic downturn. For example, as unpleasant as it may be to think about, bankruptcies always grow during economic problems. There are a lot of online CLE programs and no doubt you can find many that will help you begin to understand new practice areas. Just make sure, before you begin practicing in a new area, that you are competent to do so. Look for a mentor to advise you.
I am done writing for now at 6:30 on March 19, 2020. I will add more when I think about it.
Please, stay safe. Stay home as much as possible. We are all in this together and we are counting on each other to do what is right to keep everyone safe.
Be good to each other.