ADDING VALUE TO REMOTE LAWYER-CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS AMID A PANDEMIC

Written By: Indraneel Chakraborty & Anshit Minocha

Indraneel and Anshit are third-year law students from the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun. Their interests lie in Information Technology Law, Data Protection, Constitutional Law, and Intellectual Property Rights. They are also the Associate Digital Editors of UPES Student Law Review and have a keen interest in legal writing and literature.

 

Abstract


The advent of the Novel Coronavirus pandemic has entirely transmuted the ways we used to live by previously. With crippling economies worldwide and unemployment at its pinnacle ever since the ‘The Great Depression’, a lot of individuals have been laid off from their means of living. While some employers are fortunate enough to still have a steady source of income, they are oftentimes oblivious about the technical expertise and remote working stratagems in order to shift their business model in a successful e-business archetype.

Remote work is the only credible ray of hope for lawyers as well as law firms to endure this difficult period of adversity. Therefore, adding value to lawyer-client relationships in a virtual setup is equivalently important as its physical counterpart. The debacle of looking down upon remote work and putting it on an inferior pedestal will bring forth devastating upshots for lawyers as well as law firms. While the problems of remote work have been deliberated on from time to time, barely any fruitful conversation oriented towards discussing the probable solutions has been instigated.

The ensuing article entails a solution-focused brief therapy approach to unravel a few persuasive recommendations to effectively reinforce lawyer-client relationships in a remote working pedagogy in this Coronavirus-inflicted world and the road ahead. The article further illustrates how can attorneys practically cater to their clients without even leaving their doorstep and also highlights the pros and cons of this newfound remote working paradigm. The concluding part of the article sheds light on the ethical obligations of telecommuting attorneys and enshrines a “3Cs” model to tackle the virtuous conundrums.

Keywords: pandemic, remote work, value-addition, virtual, telecommuting, 3C model


Preface:

COVID-19 has coerced every professional fraternity to indoctrinate a digitalized philosophy for work, it has unfortunately not answered the most important question: “How?”. One such profession to have been substantially affected by the sudden shifts in the technological spectrum is the field of Law. While law firms continue to shut their offices and individual legal practitioners learn to get acquainted with remote working approaches, it indeed is an incredibly tormenting period for the noble members of the legal fraternity.

Since a cordial relationship between a lawyer and his client is solely established on the foundation stones of trust and communication, the absence of physical presence and a formal ambient workspace can significantly diminish the prospects of a long-term relationship between lawyers and clients by wrecking the work ethic and the engaging rapport between the two parties. This is where remote working strategies come into play. Whether we come to terms with the truth sooner or later, we cannot promptly deny the fact that a large portion of employers, as well as employees, will continue working remotely, even after the looming pandemic meets its fate. Therefore, it becomes ever so exigent to deliberate on remote working strategies in order to add value to lawyer-client relationships before the ship leaves the shore.

 

The Value of Remote Work:

Thankfully, law is a demanding profession and lawyers are expectedly adept at juggling contradictory tasks as well as requirements, this tenet can be acclaimed as the ‘hallmark’ of the legal profession.[i] With law firms around the world revolutionizing their conventional in-office model to a virtual schema, the primary lacuna affecting the efficacy of the business remains to determine the level of trust which their clients can virtually invest in their organization.

Adapting to a brand-new digitized business model might seem to be a herculean task preliminarily, but on proximate scrutiny, we might decipher that it has some significant positive upshots as well. Technology has always thrusted lawyers, judges, advocates, solicitors, jurists, as well as paralegals to incorporate a new modus operandi to their archaic working strategies and setting new standards for the legal career paths, and remote work is no exception either. Lawyers have an implicit ethical obligation to learn because it is their professional duty of competence. And part of such ‘competence’ comprises of remaining conversant with the latest technological advancements in order to fruitfully facilitate clients.[ii]

Remote work can not only enable law firms to significantly save expenses in hiring external counsels, but it can simultaneously save valuable time, energy, and logistical resources which can then be fruitfully invested in better projections. If tamed right, technology can be a lawyer’s best friend to help him cope in this digital epoch and once he embraces this skill, the horizon of opportunities available to him become virtually endless. Research studies reveal that remote workers are even outperforming cubicle workers and this trend is going to substantially assist law firms in retaining top talent and seek the required amount of vocational flexibility.

 

The Answer to the Paramount Question: ‘How?’

Having discussed about remote work and its paramount significance in the future of the legal fraternity, it becomes imperative to illuminate the path to achieve a harmonious relationship between a lawyer and his client through remote work. Enumerated below are some credible recommendations that might allow law firms as well as lawyers to strengthen their interpersonal relationship with their clients and deliver outcomes as per their expectations:

 

  1. Strengthening Communication:

Communication can be the key factor in determining the fate of a remote business. Since distance demands frequent communication, remote workforces must strengthen their communication roles in order to eradicate the dependence on physical proximity and delegating trivial roles.[iii] Face-to-face virtual meetings, whiteboarding sessions, online project management tools, etc. are some reliable technologies that might assists lawyers in leveraging collaboration and propagate an effective vocal exchange to set tasks and expectations. This will eventually help lawyers to connect with their clients and gauge improved client response and receptiveness.

Communication allows a lawyer to dive inside his client’s mind and ascertain what the client actually requires. Paying attention to the mental health of clients is vital in this global pandemic and it is the duty of lawyers to be proactive in genuinely comprehending their concerns. This doesn’t only envisage the task of regularly updating clients about legal consequences but also constantly reassuring them that professional help is always available to them.

 

  1. Setting Realistic Expectations & Targets:

The sudden shift to a virtual workspace isn’t necessarily a boon for everybody. And without prior foresight about the possible implications of such a drastic pronouncement, the results might not be necessarily in our favor. Analysis of monthly, quarterly, and annual targets across all departments in an organization and their affected variations in a virtual paradigm is a mandatory measure that all law firms must abide by. And since remote work is an unfamiliar concept to the majority of workforces, it’s important to plainly communicate to all employees that what is expected of them on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.[iv]

 

  1. Creating a Design for Remote Office Operations:

This might be considered as the blueprint or a compilation of some key strategies which are going to be furnished in the final business model. These might include:[v]

  • Establishing a communication plan – Creation of a hierarchy-oriented employee database containing all requisite communication details such as e-mail addresses, phone numbers, residence addresses, of all employees. Setting up VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phone systems is also an ingenuine inkling that might allow seamless and effective formal communication between employees, thereby ultimately improving client satisfaction.

 

  • Fabricating Digital Payment/Payroll Platforms – Switching to a secure and reliable online payment platform will ensure that clients can effortlessly pay the requisite fee without any hassle and avail the auto-generated payment receipt for any future correspondence. Similarly, an automated payroll system will ensure that all employers are automatically paid off their duly earned wages with any applicable incentive or bonus that they might have received for exemplary performance.

 

  • Data Policies & Protection of Client Data – Every organization must be enormously vigilant regarding the utilization, storage, and deletion of redundant client data and they must be fairly transparent in their data protection policies with their clients. The clients also must ensure that their data is stored safely and is not susceptible to any kind of computational fallacies or data breaches. Ignorance in encrypting client data is a facetious pretext devoid of any professional rationale.

 

  • Securing and Taking Stock of Office Hardware Assets at the Earliest – As soon as it becomes feasible in the pandemic to access the organization’s inventory and secure the hardware, it must be done immediately. Thereafter, the hardware utilities might be evenly distributed to all the moderating staff members working remotely in the most productive statistic.

 

  1. Endorsing Cloud-Based Technologies:

Storing sensitive data and important files on physical servers are stories of the past. Due to the courtesy of cloud-based practice management software applications like Azure from Microsoft, or Amazon Web Services (AWS) from Amazon, the concept of data storage and sharing has been wholly transformed.

Cloud-based technologies allow law firms to store data virtually and permit access to specific datasets to designated individuals in an organization. Moreover, it requires significantly fewer hardware utilities to set up a cloud-based service and law firms can even hire third-party services to look after the maintenance and administration of the virtual servers. Cloud-based technologies will allow law firms to:[vi]

  • Access data from anywhere without any residential constraints
  • Secure the vulnerability of confidential data by ensuring military-grade ASL encryption technology
  • Navigate through any modifications as well as automate tasks to regulate workflow
  • Interlink any external practice managements tools/utilities to work prolifically
  • Create exclusive dashboards and progress reports to track individual as well as collective team performance

 

  1. Increasing Accessibility via Social Media:

In the words of Stacy West Clark, former attorney at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius:[vii]

For improving client satisfaction, do a hard check on how easy it is to reach you right now. Check how many rings it takes to get into your voicemail and once in it, how helpful is your message?

While telephonic conversations and e-mail exchanges are classic methods in approaching established business organizations, the current world scenario pushes boundaries beyond those outdated resolutions. The gamechanger in this regard is ‘Social Media’.

Social media is a well-equipped contender in aiding the communication of business organizations directly with their potential customers. Social media allows real-time interaction in a familiar environment and allows for engaging clients in things of their particular interest. Eminent social media platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and the like, can help law firms as well as individual law practitioners to reach out to the masses and elevate the quality of customer service.[viii] This also helps in generating constructive client testimonials that help in increasing the overall brand awareness as well as the reputation of the organization in its respective fraternity.

 

  1. Generating an Online Client Review Platform:

Law firms should generate surveys, questionnaires, and performance-related emails to their clients on an annual basis to evaluate their customer satisfaction ratio. This will enable law firms to determine their strengths as well as their shortcomings and will help them formulate an unbiased opinion about themselves. Reflections on self-performance might be uncomfortable to endure initially but it is way better than taking cognizance of the blind spots before a valuable client is lost. Law firms can be in a position to provide value only when they devote their necessary time in hearing out the opinions of their clients.

 

The Pros & Cons of Working Remotely:

Pros:


While we are facing one of the worst economic catastrophes in world history, working remotely can significantly benefit employees as well as employers to cut any redundant overhead expenses. Lawyers who prefer to work from home might save an exorbitant amount of money for their law firm since a fewer number of employees will amount to leasing fewer offices in due course.

Moreover, this redefined convention will single-handedly benefit a lot of clients since it will eliminate their trouble of trudging through gentrified skyscrapers, scurrying from desk-to-desk, and waiting perpetually for scheduling a meeting with an attorney. Clients will now have the liberty to meet with their attorneys either virtually via video-conferencing platforms or even at their favorite French café. The independence in choosing your own workspace is ironically starting to eclipse the idea of having a traditional office set-up in the first place for a lot of employees as well as employers.[ix]

These radical shifts in the legal industry will allow remote employees to be more energetic, relaxed, and focused on fulfilling their mundane responsibilities since it is an undisputed fact that home is miles less demanding than office. Remote work offers feasibility in managing expenses that will gratifyingly cater to law firms and will not only allow them to have a prolific remote workforce but also slash expenditures on furniture, electronic gear and equipment, and even parking charges, gym memberships, or other similar perks offered to employees in premium law firms.[x]

 

Cons:


Every coin has two sides and so is the case for remote working pedagogies. Albeit working from home might sound fascinating at first blush, the pragmatic realities might tell a different story. While lawyers are known for their aristocracy and state-of-the-art professionalism, remote work can potentially tamper the deservingly earned antique reputation of lawyers. For instance, if an attorney, working for a big-tier law firm, insists his client to meet him in a restaurant or a coffee shop, it might intimidate the client and make him inquisitive to know the reason behind meeting in a noisy public place instead of a soundproof, private cubicle in an office.

There can be a host of parallel concerns of remote work that might invoke consternation among lawyers as well as their clients such as the inability to track consistency, clients losing out on opportunities to interact with other attorneys, meeting the slated needs of demanding clients, and the like. Furthermore, since a lot of conventional attorneys lack technological proficiency, working remotely might rouse an arduous learning curve for them.[xi]

Since it might be immensely painstaking and nearly impracticable to work remotely on a smartphone device, individually operating attorneys will certainly require a desktop computer or a laptop device to facilitate their digital work transition. Additionally, they might be prompted to purchase professional office suite software or e-research legal libraries from their own pockets since they have no superior executive authority to reimburse those costs unlike attorneys working in law firms. The plight doesn’t end there as it might take them a considerable amount of time to get acquainted with the interface and other computational semantics.[xii]

A revolutionary change in our working methodologies is not an overnight episode and in these unfortunate circumstances when some lawyers are struggling tooth and nail to make ends meet, the hope of successfully overcoming the adversities is probably too optimistic to appear on paper for many beleaguered attorneys.

 

Ethical Conflicts: The “3Cs” Model

In this pandemic-stricken society, lawyers are acutely believed to resolve issues, and not exacerbate them. And in order to fruitfully solve a legal issue, lawyers are expected to adhere to an implicit code of ethical policies. Compliance with ethics is an eternal hieroglyph of the legal fraternity and remote work must not overshadow its due significance.

While telecommuting was once a pipe dream for a majority of lawyers, it has now been turned into a dwelling reality, courtesy: COVID-19.  But, if remote workforces begin relishing the liberty of transgressing ethical obligations while working for their clients, it will eventually lead to the contravention of the good old notions of equity, justice, and fair conscience. Therefore, to uphold the sanctity of good faith and establish a robust lawyer-client relationship, lawyers must emphasize the inclusion of a “3Cs” work-model to successfully tackle any ethical enigmas.

The 3Cs represent:[xiii]

  • Competence: Lawyers might be expected to give advice or perform services oblivious to their knowledge every now and then. Therefore, a lawyer must possess a keen sense of duty towards expanding his/her aptitude and professional skillset in all contemporary domains of law to exponentially increase his efficacy and individual potential. For instance, even during a worldwide pandemic like the Novel Coronavirus, a lawyer is compelled to exercise due diligence such as ensuring the identity of their clients and say, certifying their testamentary capacity to make a will, whether it be remotely or in person.

 

  • Communication: It is a prudent obligation of a lawyer to keep his/her clients well informed about the current status of their legal matter and promptly notify them in case of any fresh developments. Moreover, a lawyer is also supposed to abide by any reasonable requests for information by their clients and proceed in relentless accordance with their client’s objectives. Telecommuting attorneys are liable for meticulously advising their clients on the modus operandi to be envisaged in order to accomplish their desired objectives. Remotely working attorneys shall also attend to text messages, e-mails, and courier packages at the earliest possible for a seamless work-from-home experience for both parties.

 

  • Confidentiality: Dependence on technology raises concerns for the breach of sensitive data. Careful utilization and disposal of extraneous client data are of paramount importance and lawyers must be extremely vigilant regarding the same. On top of data security, lawyers working remotely shall abstain from sharing their workspaces or computer devices with others to sustain all precautionary measures to protect client-attorney privilege and vindicate their privacy. Attorneys must treat classified information such as phone numbers, bank account credentials, electronic evidence, with added care and they should testify that such data is securely encrypted on a separate hard drive or a cloud-based digital storage service.

 

Culmination:

In a world where webinars have become more mainstream than seeing the faces of people without masks, it is evident enough that virtual presence has indeed overshadowed physical juxtaposition for the time being. Working in a remote work culture might indeed be challenging, but adversities are an indispensable element of life, and working remotely is certainly better than being unemployed.

There are plenty of people who are now proficient in working successfully from the comfort of their homes and might be even willing to continue the same for the rest of their vocational tenures. Though we may like it or not, we must learn to adapt to our remote work profiles, at least till the end of this lethal pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all and it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that we come out stronger, sharper, and better out of it.  Sanguinely, that day will arrive soon when we can go back to our workplaces and start cursing ‘Mondays’ all over again. Until then, lawyers must appreciate the value of remote work and instill all necessary measures for the welfare of their clients with a bona fide intention.

To conclude in the fitting words of Winston Churchill –

Never let a good crisis go to waste.

 

References:

[i] Haley Altman, Managing Evolving Client Relationships Remotely, Litera – Blog (Apr. 01, 2020), https://blog.litera.com/managing-evolving-client-relationships-remotely.

[ii] Elizabeth A. Colombo, 4 Ways that Companies Can Adapt to Remote Work, Lexology (Oct. 30, 2018), https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=aec88590-f5ba-43a7-a96e-37fb16e02d8b.

[iii] Id.

[iv] How to Manage A Remote Law Firm (The Complete Guide), Litify (last accessed Aug 26, 2020, 12:15 PM), https://www.litify.com/resources/remote-law-firm/.

[v] Nicole Black, How to Create a Remote Working Plan for Your Law Firm, Mycase (last accessed Aug. 25, 2020, 11:11 PM), https://www.mycase.com/blog/2020/03/how-to-create-a-remote-working-plan-for-your-law-firm/.

[vi] Supra note 4.

[vii] Stacy West Clark, Remote Marketing Strategies: Deliver Value-Added Services Virtually, Part 2, 261 (No. 99) The Legal Intelligencer 2 (May 21, 2020).

[viii] Jeremy Boudinet, 5 Ways to Communicate with Customers While Working Remotely, Customer Think (Mar. 27, 2020), https://customerthink.com/5-ways-to-communicate-with-customers-while-working-remotely/.

[ix] David Dorion, Working Remotely: How It’s Impacting the Legal Industry and Your Firm, Law Crossing (last visited on Sep. 08, 2020, 10:58 PM), https://www.lawcrossing.com/employers/article/900048761/Working-Remotely-How-It-s-Impacting-the-Legal-Industry-and-Your-Firm/.

[x] Id.

[xi] Elizabeth Grace Saunders, 5 Ways to Demonstrate Your Value – Remotely, Harvard Business Review (June 01, 2020), https://hbr.org/2020/06/5-ways-to-demonstrate-your-value-remotely.

[xii] Supra note 9.

[xiii] Stacey A. L. Best, Lawyers in Crisis: Ethical Guidance for Remote Work and Dealing with COVID-19, Board of Bar Overseers, Office of Bar Counsel & Registration, BBO-OBC (last visited on Sep. 09, 2020, 11:11 PM), https://bbopublic.blob.core.windows.net/web/f/Lawyers_in_Crisis_COVID-19.pdf.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *