Lawyers across the country have had to adapt to several new realities very quickly this year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts began holding many or most proceedings remotely, and many lawyers had to abandon their offices to work from home. This may have been a difficult transition for some lawyers. Others might have found that a home-based office suits them. In either situation, some notes of caution are in order.
Lawyers have an ethical duty to represent their clients to the best of the ability. Working from home may change that ability in unforeseen ways. Lawyers must also protect client confidentiality. Fulfilling this duty might be different outside of an office environment.
Self-care is also crucially important, and not only because a novel virus is on the loose. Working from home can mean far less contact with the outside world, and that can take a toll on the extroverted and introverted alike.
The following are our cautionary tips for newly-home-based lawyers in the coronavirus era.
Law firm security has both physical and digital elements in the 21st century. In years past, securing client files meant locking them in file cabinets or file rooms. It now also means protecting them from hackers and other cybersecurity threats.
While many law firms have gone “paperless,” it is probably not possible to have a law practice that is completely free of paper files. However you might manage your practice, you need to be certain that confidential information is kept secure. Whether you work at your kitchen table or are able to designate an entire room of your house as your office, you should protect your physical files like you would your most precious valuables.
How you do this depends on how many physical materials you need to secure. A sturdy, lockable file cabinet might be enough, or you might consider putting a separate lock on the door to your home office.
Securing the client information that you store digitally is a different matter than the security of paper files. Here, you need to protect against data breaches, such as intrusion into your data files or interception of email communications.
State bars and other organizations have taken notice of digital security issues. In 2017, the American Bar Association issued Formal Opinion 477, which held that lawyers should “undertake reasonable efforts to prevent inadvertent or unauthorized access” to email correspondence with clients. Multiple state bar associations have specifically addressed lawyers’ ethical duties while working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, including Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Tactics an individual attorney can use to protect against common cybersecurity risks include:
The above list assumes that an attorney is working from home as a solo practitioner with no partners or support staff. The list can work for larger practices with certain modifications, such as a secure email server that allows multiple users.
A virtual private network (VPN) can allow multiple users to access a law firm’s resources remotely, but they can also carry significant cybersecurity risks. An improperly-secured VPN could expose both the firm’s digital assets and the user’s personal computer.
The use of personal computers by law firm employees can also present cybersecurity risks. If you have an assistant or paralegal who is also working remotely, your ethical obligations extend to the security of their home/work environment. As an employer, however, you do not necessarily have the authority to tell an employee how to structure their home computer network. This is, of course, part of a larger concern about remote management of employees, but it has a particular urgency for lawyers. One way to manage this risk is to provide an encrypted, password-protected device for an employee to use exclusively for work.
In the absence of in-person hearings and client meetings, the use of videoconferencing technology has seen massive growth in just a few months. Services like Zoom can offer a relatively easy way to keep in contact with clients, or even to conduct new client interviews, but they bring their own cybersecurity concerns. Some reports suggest that hackers have been able to obtain video files of unencrypted recorded calls. A videoconferencing service that provides end-to-end encryption is the best option for attorneys.
Computers with built-in webcams may also face the risk of a hacker accessing the webcam remotely. A piece of electrical tape can prevent anyone from seeing through your webcam, but removing and replacing it can be tedious. A variety of products are available to address these concerns, including sliding doors that cover a built-in webcam when it is not in use.
Communicating with clients and others from your home could present other problems besides cybersecurity risks. This will vary greatly among lawyers, depending on factors like the type of law one practices and the amount of information a lawyer wants their clients to have about them.
Keeping one’s work and home lives separate is not just about work/life balance. Some lawyers have a good reason not to want their clients or others to know where they live.
This could be as simple as using a Post Office box or other mailing service for work-related mail. During a pandemic, however, these services are not as “simple” as they once were.
Lawyers can control how much of their homes people can see during videoconferences. Sitting in front of a plain wall conveys very little information. It might be too little information for some lawyers’ liking. To add a bit of flair to one’s video conferences, while also maintaining a sense of security, green-screen backgrounds that attach to an office chair are available from online retailers. With the right video conferencing software, it could look like you are back at the office.
The final note of caution we can offer you is about taking care of yourself while you adjust to a work-from-home environment. On top of all the personal reasons you should be devoting some of your focus to self-care, you cannot take care of your clients if you are not taking care of yourself. This includes issues that are unique to the pandemic — well, hopefully unique — and general issues of well-being.
People who work in an office, or anywhere outside of the home, really, have a clear dividing line between work and home. When they leave the office and go home, they are no longer at work. As obvious as this sounds, working from home throws the entire concept into disarray, sometimes in unexpected ways.
As we have mentioned before, try to set up a dedicated workspace within your home as best as you can. Use that space for work, and nothing else. Perhaps more importantly, do not use other parts of your home for work whenever possible. Be “at work” when you are working, and “at home” when you are off the clock. (Note that we will contradict ourselves on this in the section on “isolation,” below.)
If keeping strict working hours works for you, try to stick to that system. Maybe your usual morning commute means you have to leave home by 8:00 a.m. to be at the office by 9:00 a.m. At home, your commute is probably measured in seconds. You could start your workday at 8:00 a.m., or you could find a different use for that extra hour.
Some people do not work best when held to a “9 to 5” schedule. Working from home can provide flexibility to your schedule, except perhaps where meetings and court hearings are concerned. Just remember when you are “at work” and when you are not.
Working from home means less direct personal interaction. Extroverted lawyers, of course, will have the hardest time with this. Even the most introverted lawyers still meet with people as part of their jobs. A sudden decrease in personal interaction can have all sorts of negative impacts.
This is a difficult issue to address in a time of social distancing. In less-hazardous times, we might suggest finding a coworking space or similar location, if only to work for a bit in the presence of others. If you are quarantined or sheltering in place, this is probably not an option. You can at least change the scenery somewhat by moving to a different room. If you live with other people (family, roommates, etc.), you could create your own coworking space where you can go when you are not having confidential client conversations.
These are troubled times. Go easy on yourself. We mentioned that you might have an extra hour or two every day since you no longer have a commute. Use that time for something relaxing, healthy, or even fun. Do not feel pressure to accomplish anything new or heroic just because you have a little extra time.
Little things can go a long way towards improving morale in the home office. The idea of working in pajamas might seem exciting at first, but do not underestimate the mental benefits of taking a shower and getting dressed.
Working from home is definitely not for everybody. It has its advantages and disadvantages. If this is the situation where you find yourself and your law practice, we hope that this will help you make the most of it until you can get back to an office. If, on the other hand, you are enjoying your home office, hopefully, we can help you thrive in your new work environment.