Bringing Your Work Home with You:
Remote Workspaces and The Evolution of Technology in Advanced Personal Injury Firms
I’ve been monitoring feedback within articles, news reports, and social media posts written mostly by employees from companies who have responded to the Coronavirus epidemic by sending everyone home to work remotely. One thing I’ve noticed is that overall, it’s a ‘win’ for employers and employees alike. My conclusion of course comes after weighing the positives and negatives. I thought it might be helpful to take some of the most prevalent topics from my reading and comment on them from a personal injury attorney’s perspective. Helpful to whom? Not sure, but any firm who isn’t in the know yet might be wise to not only check out my comments below, but also to do their own research…and fast.
Why did it take so long for firms to make the shift, even without taking COVID-19 into account?
From an employer’s perspective, accountability is the number one issue. From the employee’s, not being micromanaged is important. Good, steady communication can quell both concerns. When I first started employing people remotely, I tried it with my associate attorneys. I assumed they would be perfect for my experiment because they were already used to constant communication needs from senior attorneys, opposing counsel, court staff, and clients. I found for the most part, I didn’t have to remotely “stand over their shoulders” to supervise them. But these employees were used to acting like independent contractors – they didn’t need me to supervise their every move and worked more independently than my hourly staff, like my intake team, my paralegal, my case manager, etc. Of course, I absolutely have to supervise my staff who are not licensed attorneys.
So this was my next step: I started allowing some non-attorney employees to work remotely from home when they had illnesses, an atypical schedule, or school, so they didn’t miss hours or have to take sick leave or put in time-off requests. It did take a lot of trust, I’ll admit, to work through this transition with them. Think about this: as a personal injury attorney, it is an absolute must that my staff answers incoming calls. All of them. I cannot survive in a highly competitive field of practice if I can’t keep up with people’s need for legal services. Of course, accidents and injuries happen every day, so the need is there, always. As soon as I miss a call, potential clients are on to calling the next attorney. So, we had to find a balance that promoted accountability while giving employees the space to work without interruptions from me. The end result was that I was able to track task-completion and monitor incoming call response times by implementing new technology that removed the need for in-person supervision by better-facilitating communication. I’ll get into this more, below.
I sincerely believe it has been the unwillingness of ‘old-school’ firms to consider remote employment that’s contributed to the delay in making the switch. While shaking up the usual and steady routine, switching to remote employment options pushes firms into the future of litigation because it forces firm owners to try new technology, and better communicate with employees, other attorneys, court staff, and most importantly, clients. Ultimately what I learned is what timid firm owners still fear: this is a service industry, you can’t offer great service if you don’t have happy employees, and in regard to the new conditions placed on employees by social distancing and quarantine protocols due the COVID-19 epidemic, you now have the responsibility of offering ways to keep your employees on payroll while at the same time not endangering their health. You need to do make the change or your firm will quickly become obsolete.
What does it mean for your firm if you don’t send your employees home to work remotely?
Other than making a name for yourself as a fuddy-duddy, stick-in-the-mud, and overall mean boss, you may face both substantial economic losses and potential lawsuits. If you don’t give them an opportunity to work remotely under social distancing or quarantine situations, you may be liable for employment-related lawsuits. For instance, the act of requiring employees to come to the office to work, then firing them if they refuse to do, so may be seen as retaliation. Some employees may have conditions covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which you can’t violate by refusing to accommodate them.
Personal injury attorneys should be well aware of the difficulties some of their clients face when seeking medical treatment. It’s going to be infinitely more difficult now for people to get treatment if hospitals fill up with people needing Coronavirus-related testing and medical care. You should be extra sensitive, then, to your employees’ need for safety in the workplace. You don’t need to place them in a position where they may lose their employment because they won’t risk catching the virus. Doing so while knowing how hard it’s going to be to get treatment makes this an almost willful decision to put your employees at risk.
According to a United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety and Health Administration article, person-to-person spread of the novel Coronavirus is thought to occur “mainly via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.” (See more at https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/ ). This means that when you pack your office full of people – employees, clients, couriers, etc. – you put every single one of them at risk. There’s too much information out there right now for an employer to deny that risk.
The main lesson here is: stay safe – if you haven’t already done your research, check out the following resources I’ve either considered or implemented in my own personal injury firm that you might find useful as you make the right decision and send your invaluable employees home to work remotely.
What are some great resources for personal injury firms shifting to remote work?
There’s a lot of cool technology out there, but the bottom line technology-wise in most personal injury firms is, as mentioned above, keeping the clients coming in. Whether you’ve made the shift from office to remote work stations, or you’re still thinking it over, you need to assess, and reassess, and triple-assess (I may have just made up that term) what’s out there to help you. And, this isn’t a blog trying to promote or sell any particular software or device, it’s honestly not about that. You may find you’re not happy with the newest stuff out there, but rather the best combination of processes. You want to find a way to streamline any part of your process that’s currently piecemeal.
For instance, there’s the following types of processes in a personal injury firm:
- Intake – is it in line with your potential client’s expectations? Do you have a system to capture Every. Single. One?
- Document storage and organization – can you quickly and efficiently find that crash report or medical record you need?
- Templates and automation – do you have to reinvent the wheel every time you draft an update letter or create a pleading?
- Entering time – can you link your emails, documents, and tasks with your time and expense functions so you don’t have to go back and forth between your email account and your case management system each time you respond to a status update request?
- Invoicing – you’re not creating bills one-by-one still, are you?
- Correspondence – can you share documents from within the case management system? Send emails? Do you have a digital postal service to timestamp and verify letter correspondence?
There may not always be an all-in-one service that handles each of these processes, but there are some out there that cover a lot-in-one. The changes you need to make when going remote have much to do with taking those functions you typically perform from the office and making them remote-friendly. For instance, mail that absolutely has to go out in letter form can be sent through a digital postal service, with the benefit of a timestamp and verification of sending. Notarization of documents can be done online in many states with a special notary certification. VOIP phone systems with cell phone apps allow employees to place calls from their work phone numbers on their cell phone and, send faxes from their phones or computers. Using the same system, I can meet with my employees and clients from our separate remote locations. Not to mention, for those still concerned with accountability issues related to remote work, I can see when someone is at their desk by an activity light that appears next to their name in our messaging system.
There are tracking tools for computer activity, communication programs that use face recognition to determine when someone is at their desk so that a call can be transferred, adobe and related PDF manipulating programs, simultaneous editing capabilities in word processing programs, screensharing, and so much more.
Look for services like these that combine and streamline functions, check out their free tutorials or demos (done remotely), ask about trials or contract-free subscriptions. You can do this!
How has the Law Office of Alex R. Hernandez, Jr. PLLC prepared itself to represent personal injury clients remotely?
A somewhat consoling prospect in the face of the Coronavirus epidemic is the fact that I’ve been equipping my office personnel with the tools and technology to work remotely, albeit at a somewhat faster pace the last few weeks. I started with making sure everyone had a laptop equipped with the programs we use. I had employees work a day or two a week from home, to come up with a list of snags we needed to work out before going fully remote. This also allowed them time to adjust. I made sure all hard documents were scanned in. I ensured I had updated contact information for all of my clients. And I kept my clients informed about our progress. I was happy to find the majority were supportive. I keep my mind open and continue looking for new technology. Staying alert to the newest trends I remote work technology ensures we can continue providing the best client service possible.
Some tips I’ve gathered from my staff to help avoid snags during the transition from office to remote workspaces:
The biggest reported struggles with working remotely include unplugging after work, loneliness, collaborating, communication, distractions, and motivation. You can see that most of these have to do with a person’s work style, learning style, and personality type. I noticed some of my employees had a hard time adjusting to simply not having a paper document to hold…and this was after my office had been relatively paperless for some time. Something about holding the file in your hand and thumbing through it connected these employees to the task and aided in completion. We were able to resolve this for most with the use of a second screens. They can reference a document on a separate screen while working on their task on their laptop.
The shift to remote work is clearly increasing due to the Coronavirus outbreak. I feel like our firm is ready. Personal injury clients require a lot of communication – they’re going through a tough time, the loss of a loved one, surgeries, other medical treatments, and they need you to be able to keep up with their expectations and needs to a higher degree that clients in other areas of law. I show my clients respect by preparing my team and constantly looking for ways to better serve my clients.
The attorneys and staff at the Law Offices of Alex R. Hernandez, Jr. PLLC hope you stay healthy during this nationwide crisis. If you find yourself needing the assistance of an attorney, please feel free to contact my firm. We’re remote-ready, focusing on our team’s health so we can help take care of YOU.
Alex R. Hernandez, Jr.