How can your virtual law office stay organized?
Whether your firm is fully virtual or you use a hybrid work strategy, keeping all of your cases and employees organized can be a challenge. The habits and processes you used to use in your in-person offices don’t work as well in a digital environment.
Fortunately, there are some well-established methods for keeping virtual firms running smoothly and efficiently.
The following are some organization hacks that may help your remote firm maximize its success.
Cloud storage vs local storage
One of the first hurdles for a virtual firm is deciding between cloud storage and local storage for files and data.
Local storage is the traditional option, where all the firm’s data is stored on a local server maintained at some physical location. Think of this like your personal filing cabinet — all the documents you work on are saved on a computer that only you (and maybe the other people in your network) can access.
For a cloud-based firm, all of the firm’s files and data are stored by a third-party cloud storage provider and can be accessed by authorized users via the internet. This is more like a filing cabinet kept in a common area where everyone at your firm can access it as needed.
Local and cloud-based storage are very similar in terms of security, though local storage is more prone to vulnerabilities caused by human error. If you’re not well-versed with cybersecurity best practices, you can accidentally expose your locally stored data as you try to share it with your employees who need access.
Using local storage can also be much more expensive as your firm grows because it’s your job to maintain servers, provide security and access, and ensure that all equipment is up-to-date and functional.
A cloud storage provider will relieve your firm of many burdens.
In addition to hosting your firm’s data, they will also manage and maintain their own servers and infrastructure.
Cloud solutions are easily scalable since your firm can increase or decrease storage capacity as needs change. As employees are hired or part ways, it’s easy to manage access and security.
Moving to the cloud will also provide benefits beyond data storage. For example, a cloud-based practice management platform could be a blessing for your virtual firm, and these solutions rely on your case data being stored in the cloud.
File organizing and naming conventions
Following some tried-and-true organization steps and naming conventions for your virtual firm’s files will help keep them easily searchable and accessible.
The key is to first have these conventions firmly in place so that different remote workers will not follow different practices. As long as you all follow the same rules, you should be able to find what you’re looking for without extra emails and messages.
Client folders should be easily searchable and identifiable. Use a naming format that you understand and that everyone can use consistently.
A file folder name should ideally include the client name, the file name, and the file number. For example, the file name might be in the format “YYMM###” to include the date the file was open and the new file number for that calendar year.
That looks like this: a new file opened in June 2022 could be entitled “John Doe_Living Trust_2206040” where this file is the 40th file opened in 2022.
For file names, starting the name with the date of creation in “YYMMDD” format helps with efficient searches. Be sure to include a designation of “_Draft” or “_FINAL” in the title as needed, and store your draft and final documents separately.
Documents should be named similarly. Include the name on the case file, the date created, and what the document is so that you don’t have to open files to see if they’re the one you want.
Managing schedules and responsibilities
When your entire team is remote, checking up on people is no longer as easy as walking down the hall and popping your head into the cubicle or office.
You might not need to check on your employees the way you used to. As long as everyone is getting their work done on time and communicating often, it’s probably okay if they take a little extra time to make lunch or go for a healthy walk in the afternoon.
However, you should have some way of tracking working hours and the status of active work.
Burnout is a serious problem for remote workers. When working from home, it can be difficult to unplug and maintain a healthy separation between personal and professional time. Notice if someone seems to be “always on” so that you can intervene before they have a breakdown.
At the same time, you need a way to check in on active projects without needing to interrupt someone’s day to ask for a status update.
The first step is to organize tasks and delegate effectively.
Communicate all assignments in a precise and clear manner, creating less need for task-specific communication in the future. Every firm member — attorneys, paralegals, legal assistants, support staff — needs to have well-defined roles and assignments.
Consider using a project management tool like Trello to keep track of those assignments. That way, anyone can look at the project board and see exactly what is in progress, what needs to be done next, and what might be at risk of being late.
Also try to maintain order around working hours while still giving your remote workers some flexibility.
Even if you do not set rigid work hours, you can still take steps to increase transparency around everyone’s availability. For example, calendars could be visible across the team so everyone knows when an attorney is in a court hearing or deposition or your paralegal is out of the office for a personal appointment.
Managing common distractions
For many remote workers, common distractions can be even harder to avoid in an at-home work environment. This is why managing distractions is essential for all members of a remote team.
The best place to start is with yourself.
Practice digital mindfulness by limiting screen time and managing your notifications. For example, you do not need your device giving you a pop-up or “ping” whenever a personal email comes in.
Also try time blocking, where discrete blocks of time are dedicated to certain tasks or groups of tasks.
If you have a dedicated home office, spend some time optimizing your space for productivity.
Setting the right example is the best way to help your team manage their own distractions. You can also help improve focus by minimizing the most common work-related distractions.
Instead of emailing or sending a text whenever you have a thought to share, schedule those messages for a specific time of day.
Create a standard “no-meeting” time where everyone on the team is expected to focus on tasks that need a little more mental energy. Creating space for deep work can boost productivity.
Perhaps most importantly, make your expectations clear. If everyone needs to be available by phone or text chat during certain hours, that should be public knowledge. Outside of those hours, keep on-demand communication to a minimum to respect everyone’s focus time.
Establish communication channels
A critical component of any remote workplace is establishing communication channels.
Are instant messages, emails, or videoconferences the preferred mode of communication for certain topics? When are meetings appropriate, and when should someone try to answer their questions without interrupting a coworker?
Put those things in your remote work policy.
Speaking of meetings, it’s important to make sure your meetings are effective and not just a waste of time. If your meeting doesn’t have a clear objective, an agenda, and both a start and stop time, it’s very likely to be unproductive.
Next, look into the best communication tools for both colleagues and clients.
Tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack are already common in non-legal companies — there is no reason your virtual firm cannot make use of them.
You may want to consider a customer relationship management (CRM) tool for client intake or a client portal to handle client communication and document exchange. These help with both organization and data security.
Finally, remember that phone calls might be the fastest way to connect with your team, but unless you’re recording every call, they leave no record of what was discussed or decided.
Lean towards communication channels that include your whole firm and that can be reviewed later. Using your project management tool, Slack, or other remote collaboration software means that everyone has access to the same information and you can look back on that conversation later.
Keeping your remote firm organized
If you’re having a hard time adjusting to remote work, choose one habit to tackle at a time. Document management is a great place to start. When you feel comfortable with cloud storage, move on to the next organizational shift.
Check in with your team, too. Some of them probably have relevant experience working remotely and can share strategies that worked for them before.
Once you build good habits, organizing your virtual firm is even easier than managing a physical office. The hardest part is shifting your mindset.