This post will outline the technology that the LawLytics team uses to effectively work (from the office and recently from home). Some of the technology may be useful to lawyers trying to adapt to the new reality of remote work in the thick of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Why I am writing about the office technology we use
Last Wednesday, March 19, 2020, was the first live Mastermind session (a weekly strategy webinar for LawLytics customers) where the LawLytics team worked remotely.
As part of my introductory remarks, I mentioned that the LawLytics team was able to seamlessly transition from working in the office to at home, overnight, with no downtime, and that we are working at full capacity and available for all of our customers who want to use the current downtime to work on their website and get ahead on their marketing.
These remarks led to several questions about what technologies we use to make working virtually as easy and as effective as working together physically. With the isolation required by the current pandemic, the question of utilizing technology to work at home and maintain a functioning law practice is on a lot of lawyers’ minds.
I believe that there is much potential overlap between what works for us, as a legal tech company, and what will work for law firms ranging from solos to large firms. While this could (and likely will) become a nuanced and deep discussion in future posts about individual pieces of technology, in this post I’ll give an overview of what we use in our daily operations, and comment on whether I think each thing could be useful to law firms. I will not talk about all of the tools that our engineering team uses that are technical in nature, and that would definitely not apply to any law firm.
The technology LawLytics uses that enables us to work remotely as effectively as working together in a physical office
I’ll break this into two sections, first covering the hardware that we use and then the software that we use.
The hardware LawLytics employees use
Our hardware requirements are simple. Any LawLytics team member can do their job effectively from home with two pieces of equipment — a laptop computer and a noise-canceling headset.
Mandatory: A laptop
The vast majority of the LawLytics team uses Macs. Some use MacBook Airs and some MacBook pros. A very small minority use PC laptops (two use Lenovos and one a Surface Pro). Some of us use only the laptop screen, while others have one or two external monitors plugged in.
I personally use a MacBook Pro. I am highly efficient with a single laptop screen using various Mac desktops (more on whether this is the right option for most lawyers in a future post), which I can easily swipe between using the MacBook’s trackpad. I’ll plug a large monitor in occasionally for group collaboration when I want to see multiple team members on one screen and lead a discussion from notes on my laptop on another, but generally I prefer the focus that a single screen provides.
The support and sales teams tend to use multiple monitors because they have to look at multiple windows simultaneously, while our engineers tend to prefer a single screen.
We favor Macs for many reasons including reliability and ease of use. And, because we have five employees who are former Apple employees, we have a high level of in-house expertise for efficiency and troubleshooting.
Preferences aside, however, any laptop with at least 8 gigs of memory and a recent (within the past 4 years) processor and solid state hard drive would work fine. This is because most of our work is done in the cloud in a web browser.
I will not talk about monitor brands because, frankly, they’re pretty much all the same. We use a variety of HD and 4K monitors that we’ve acquired over the years. Employees are free to take them home with them, and we have spares at the office that any of our employees can grab.
Mandatory: A noise-cancelling headset
A high-quality headset is an absolute must for our team. We use them to talk with our customers on the phone, and to communicate with our coworkers one-on-one and in group meetings. While working from home will introduce the inevitable dog barks and child interruptions that are a fact of life and remote work, investing in noise-cancelling technology is invaluable, especially when we have five or more people in a Slack or Zoom meeting (see below).
Most of our team uses Jabra USB headsets. Specifically we use the kind pictured here, which has a a volume and mute pad that sits on the desktop. The mute pad is preferable to a mute button on the cord near the chest because it is much less likely to get accidentally engaged (some headsets have the mute button right at the level where the user’s torso meets the user’s desk).
The Jabra headsets are comfortable, reliable, and provide great two-way sound clarity.
Optional: A tablet for taking notes
I use an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil to take notes. Some team members also use iPads, while others take notes in binders. I personally believe in digital note taking (in fact, I was one of the first lawyers in the early 2000s to bring a Tablet PC to trial). In a future post I’ll talk about the iPad note taking software I’ve tried, and why I prefer One Note. I do believe that most attorneys would benefit from using an iPad and Apple Pencil (or an analogous PC or Android device).
Summing up the hardware we use
I want to conclude this brief discussion on hardware by saying that your choice of hardware is of minimal importance compared to software. Because of the software that we use, we could recreate our entire operation in a matter of hours if we suddenly needed to replace all of our hardware at the same time.
The software LawLytics employees use
Software is where the rubber meets the road. At LawLytics, we build software ourselves and are obsessed with making it useful and user friendly for our end-users who are attorneys and administrators in law firms. We are fanatical about making our software great for attorneys to use, and we have been very picky in our requirements for the software that we use from other vendors. We have tried a lot of different brands and products over the years, and we believe that the software that we currently use works very well for us. I also believe that some, but not all of it, could be useful to many lawyers, especially lawyers who suddenly have the need to run a remote team.
Our phone system: AirCall
Last year we decided that we’d had it with physical phone systems, and we discontinued CenturyLink in favor of a VoIP phone system called AirCall. Before CenturyLink we had been with Cox, and before that we had purchased a physical PBX system which now collects dust in a closet at the office. In addition to having much better customer service than the traditional phone/cable companies, AirCall allows us to work from any laptop or cell phone as if connected to a robust office phone system.
With AirCall, we can make and receive calls, easily program an auto-attendant with alternative paths for off-hours, create teams or groups of employees for making and receiving calls, and do conference calling and call transferring between employees as if we were all at the same location while we are each sitting in our own homes.
For the most part the call quality is excellent, and when we have had call quality issues it has been due to internet connection issues, not the quality of AirCall itself.
AirCall also has built-in analytics, so management can see who called who when, and can understand productivity levels of team members who are on the phone. It also allows us to understand incoming call volume, wait time until calls are answered, and hold times so that we can make efficiency changes to employee availability that benefit our customers by adjusting hours and activities to cover surges and surge times.
AirCall also integrates seamlessly with our CRM and our customer support software. It allows us to recognize when customers are calling from known numbers, and even automatically creates support tickets from their calls. During or after a call, customer notes can be entered directly into the AirCall application (which works the same for both PC and Mac), and those notes appear in the relevant places in our other systems already associated with the customer.
AirCall also provides apps for iPhones and Android devices, so even if we’re not at our computers, we can each have a fully functional office phone interface in our pockets, and make and receive calls using our office numbers.
AirCall also allows us to record calls (including automatically announcing that calls will be recorded), and can automatically match recordings with CRM and HelpDesk records. This is very useful for training and quality assurance. Recording can be paused when sensitive information like credit card numbers are being conveyed.
While there are many VoIP providers out there, and AirCall is just one of them, I’d say it’s a safe bet for any attorney who wants to become instantly mobile. And, since AirCall provides a month-to-month option, there is no risk.
Our CRM system: HubSpot
We use HubSpot’s CRM to track customers and potential customers. While it’s a good system for us to use as a software company, I don’t believe it’s the best choice for most lawyers because of the price and because there are several great legal-specific CRMs to choose from, including legal-specific CRMs that integrate with LawLytics.
That said, HubSpot CRM lets us track activity closely and create workflows for team tasks and for customer follow-up. Although it has available iPhone and Android apps, most of our team members work in HubSpot using the Google Chrome web browser on their laptops because the desktop experience is much better than the apps.
Using the AirCall Google Chrome extension, our employees can click on a customer’s number in HubSpot, which auto-populates into AirCall and is ready to dial and make an entry note about the call.
When working on any customer or prospective customer’s information, any LawLytics team member can add notes that mention other team members, bring that note to their attention. This allows us to have conversations about customers in a place where all of their information is accessible, which saves us time and ensures that the customer gets a rapid and accurate response.
Our help desk system: HelpScout
We use HelpScout for support tickets. It’s an email based support ticket system that allow tickets to be submitted and tended through email. We like it because it doesn’t require any special login for our customers, yet it allows us to track all outstanding tickets to make sure that everybody gets the advice and help they request in a timely manner. It allows us to track ticket volume so that we can adjust to the ebb and flow of requests. If response times increase due to volume we are able to adjust by having team members flex into support. It also tells us when we will need to hire additional support team members as we continue to grow.
We access HelpScout through our browsers. HelpScout integrates with AirCall, which makes our lives and that of our customers easier. Like HubSpot, HelpScout allows us to mention coworkers within notes in tickets, which alerts them that their attention is needed on that ticket.
I do not think that HelpScout is appropriate for most law firms.
Our project-management system: Trello
We use Trello for a lot of things. Trello is a visual project management platform that you can access through a browser or through an app on your Mac, PC, iPhone or Android device. Each Trello “board” can be customized for the needs of a specific project, workflow or way of organizing information. Each board contains “cards” which can contain information, checklists, and communication between team members. We use Trello to manage all of our product design and feature discussions, our engineering sprints, as well as the projects that we do for our customers including setting up new sites and importing existing websites from other platforms.
Our team is highly technical, and they have been able to program various “power-ups” to automate many routine tasks like user assignments and notifications. This saves a lot of time and makes sure that things don’t fall through the cracks. This is especially helpful in a remote work environment.
Like HubSpot and HelpScout, Trello allows us to have live discussions within each card, so as we discuss topics, we all have the information available at our fingertips.
Unlike HubSpot and HelpScout, I believe that Trello can be an excellent addition to any law firm, especially when working remotely. I plan to do a separate post on the ways that attorneys can use Trello to make their firm more productive and organized.
Our calendar, email, documents and spreadsheets: GSuite
We use Google’s GSuite for our calendar, email, documents and spreadsheets, among other things. The majority of our law firm customers also use it, or Microsoft’s Office 365, so no surprises there. And if you’re not using one or the other (especially if you’re using a physical server based product located in your office or home), I believe you should switch in short order to ensure that your firm can operate at capacity through quarantines and local infrastructure failures like power outages that may affect your office, but may not affect all of your employees’ homes.
Both products work well, but we prefer GSuite because we believe it provides easier team collaboration than Microsoft’s counterpart, and because it’s easier to install and maintain.
In addition to table-stakes like email and the ability to share calendars across the organization, for working remotely, these are the GSuite features that we use most:
- Team Drives: Google drive allows us to create an unlimited number of online drives to hold documents, presentations, spreadsheets, images, videos, etc. We find this useful because we can create company wide drives, as well as drives to share within various LawLytics teams. All of our common files are accessible, through a web browser, from anywhere in the world in real time.
- Document Collaboration: We use Google Docs as idea boards because of the ease with which multiple people can edit a single document in real time. We can also add margin notes and assign tasks to teammates in the document. This is especially useful when doing things like planning workflows and designing user stories for new features and feature enhancements. We can always see who else is looking at a document, and see any changes (or proposed changes) that they are making in real time
- Presentations: Presentations is a powerful alternative to PowerPoint. And while we use it for our customer Mastermind sessions and webinars, as well as for internal group and board of directors and investor presentations, it is also a useful tool for idea boarding and brainstorming. We put the main points in a slide, and then we can have a conversation in the presentation notes area. We also use it to visually map processes and workflows that lend themselves to visuals, and its flowchart graphics are highly capable.
- Groups: We have a number of internal email distribution groups that are powered by GSuite. These groups essentially create an internal email address that the team can use to email everybody. So we have groups for company-wide communications, as well as smaller groups for departments and projects.
Every law firm should be using either GSuite or Office 365. In my opinion there are no other standardized options, and either option ensures that you are following the latest best practices in terms of vendor selection without the need to have a “tech guy” manage a clunky old-school server in your office.
Our real-time group chat and video collaboration system: Slack
Whether we’re in the office a room apart, or at home and separated by miles, Slack keeps our whole team connected. Slack is a team collaboration tool that makes one-to-one as well as multi-party text threads, audio calls and video meetings easy. Slack serves as our central collaboration hub, and shows, in real time, who is available, and who is in meetings or on the phone. In a very real sense, Slack is as much our office as is our physical office, perhaps even more so.
Each employee can set their Slack status to things like “in a meeting,” or “sick” to let other team members know their status and availability. If a team member is going to be away from their computer, they can post instructions on how to contact them, or they can stay in communication with the Slack App on their cell phone. In this way, Slack facilitates a sense of “togetherness” even though we are working from home. It prevents us from wasting time trying to hunt down a colleague via clunkier methods such as email, text messages or phone calls, which all provide less transparency, and take a lot more time.
Slack allows us to create “channels” for conversations on various topics. For example, we have a “town-hall” channel where we share information about our bi-weekly all-hands meetings, and where employees can submit questions and suggestions about the business. We also have personal channels that serve as a virtual water cooler. For example, we have a “Friday fun” channel where we play various games to get to know each other better, and exchange jokes on — you guessed it — Fridays. And our most recent addition is a a “community-pandemic-support” channel which is a safe place for LawLytics employees to talk about how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting them and their families, and for us to give each other support since we’re not in the office to be able to do so face-to-face.
For small group and impromptu one-on-one meetings, Slack has a reliable video chat feature. We can turn any one-on-one text chats into a video meeting with a single click, and have the instant ability to share our screens with each other and point to things on other peoples’ screens. This works very well for the, “hey, can you take a quick look at this” type of moments, which is especially helpful as we solve technical problems and iterate on software design issues. For example, we are hard at work on the next generation of site style and page editors that will roll out in the coming months (all LawLytics customers will benefit from them). I meet with our lead user-interface/user-experience designer twice a week (now over Slack) to review and give feedback on new efficiencies that we’re designing into our system. Slack let’s us share our screens and makes us extremely focused and productive even though we’re now on opposites of the city.
In terms of staff morale, the video chat feature helps keep us connected. It’s a great way to feel like we’re still working in the same office. And for the extraverts on our team, it provides a much needed social outlet. In the office, meetings are something to be tolerated, but for many of us who are new to working 100% from home, they are now something that we look forward to and (maybe) even enjoy more.
For group meetings, we can invite people individually (Slack allows us to invite up to 10 outside of a channel), or start group video conferences via common Slack channels. A channel video call will automatically grant access to anybody who is a member of that channel. This creates a button so that people can join a conference at the start, or if they are running late because they are on a call or in another meeting, at any time as the meeting progresses (just like walking into the conference room late). People can come and go without the meeting itself being interrupted.
Where Slack seems to break down a bit is in meetings where we have more than 10 people, in which case we start to notice some call/video quality issues. This was our experience when most of us were working in the office and using the same internet connection, but in different rooms (with random remote attendees in the mix). For that reason, we use Zoom for larger meetings, which I’ll discuss below. Slack video may hold up better for groups of 10 or more now that we are all in separate homes with our own internet connections. If that’s the case, I’ll update this when I get confirmation.
We use the paid version of Slack, but for several years we used their free version. The main difference was that the free version limited the chat history and the amount of storage for uploaded files, and also limited the number of attendees in video calls. We current use the version that costs about $7 per user per month, which allows us to have up to 15 attendees in video meetings. And again, this is all we need because we use Zoom for larger meetings.
We also have integrated other systems with Slack. For example, when a new customer signs up, the team is notified. This also happens when an existing customer adds an additional website. This not only alerts our team that there is a cause to celebrate (because we get to help a law firm have a their first website, or a better website, or rescue them from a marketing agency), but also tells us to double check to make sure that the customer is taken care of. Our payment dunning system is also tied into Slack so that when a customer’s payment fails because a credit card has expired, or when a card is about to expire, we know in real time and can reach out to them.
For most small law firm, and for solos with small staff, Slack is a fantastic tool. I would highly encourage any law firm with two or more employees (attorneys included) to sign up for the free version of Slack while you are at home (or planning to start working from home). I think there’s a good possibility that you’ll discover that it removes much of the fear and uncertainty that comes with being in your home office (or kitchen table) while your paralegal is at his, and your partner or associate is at hers.
Our system for all-hands meetings, board meetings, and meetings with third-party partners: Zoom
While Slack is great for most of our team communications, when it comes to the following we use Zoom:
1. Team meetings with more than 10 people including our bi-weekly “Town Hall” meetings where the whole team is invited and our quarterly “All Hands” which the whole team is required to attend.
2. Meetings between team members and people outside of LawLytics where video conferencing is required. This includes meetings with investors and our Board of Directors, Advisory Boards and vendors.
3. Some sales and customer meetings where there will be multiple people on both end. This works especially well with firms that have multiple locations and we are bringing in attorneys who are not at the same office and therefore unable to be around a conference table. If the work-from-home situation persists, I see that as a growing use case.
I know that Zoom has been getting a lot of press since the country has gone to a work from home when possible mentality. And it deserves all of the praise it’s getting. Zoom is robust, clear and reliable. And, unlike some video conferencing tools that we’ve used (including GoToMeeting), Zoom is both easy to use and has great customer support.
In large video conferences it gives us the ability to see who is there. We can choose between a screen that focuses on whoever is speaking, and a “Brady Bunch” or “Hollywood Squares” style grid which stacks meeting attendees in equal sized boxes so you can see everybody’s face. I personally prefer the grid view, especially when I’m the one talking, because I can see how people are reacting to what I’m saying and look for non-verbal cues that a teammate might have a question or something they want to say.
Zoom allows each team member to share their screens, which is useful when we have presentations that involve multiple presenters who are working off of more than a single slide deck. I usually prefer handing the controls from one team member to the next rather than relying on a single team member to advance slides, because it gives whoever is presenting more control, which leads to more seamless and concise presentations. The exception is during quarterly all-hands events, where each team leader is given five minutes to update the whole company, and therefore switching would be disruptive so we use a single slide deck with each leader’s presentation baked in.
In a future blog post I’ll talk about some of the “etiquette” that we’ve developed for our larger video meetings. The most important one is that if you’re not talking, mute your microphone to avoid interruptions — more on this soon.
The other thing that I love about Zoom is that it integrates perfectly with our GSuite calendar system. So when we schedule a meeting that will be a Zoom conference, it’s a simple click of a button at the time the calendar event is created in the host’s Google Calendar, and the Zoom meeting is automatically created and login credentials (and alternative dial-in number) distributed to all invitees.
For attorneys who are newly working from home, there are many practical applications for Zoom including:
- Staff or partner meetings for medium and larger firms (for very small firms, Slack will likely suffice).
- Client meetings (Zoom is better than Slack in this regard, regardless of the size of your law firm).
- Conferences with opposing counsel.
- Witness interviews.
While Zoom does not solve the problem of being able to collaborate spontaneously with team members who are all working remotely as easily as Slack, the high-quality meeting experience, in my opinion, makes it a worthwhile investment for lawyers who are working remotely and want to be able to meet with and make a great impression on clients and potential clients.
In a future post I’ll share some insights from some attorneys that I know that have been working in a “virtual” environment long before COVID-19 necessitated it, and who have been able to thrive using a combination of LawLytics and other technology tools.
For now, I’ll leave my discussion of Zoom for lawyers at this — try it out.
Our system for electronic document signing: AdobeSign
We started using EchoSign about eight years ago for signing documents. EchoSign was acquired by Adobe and is now called AdobeSign. While there are many great options out there for signing documents, we have stuck with Adobe because, well, there’s a significant opportunity cost in switching. And, while we are not thrilled with the innovation, user experience or platform reliability of the system, it works well enough for us for the limited number of agreements that we sign (we don’t use it for new customer signups, which is fully automated and built into the LawLytics platform). We use AdobeSign for the following:
- For sending background check authorizations and offer letters out for signature to new employees.
- For sending agreements to independent contractors for signature.
- For sending requests for taxpayer ID numbers.
- For sending agreements to various partners.
- For sending agreements to LawLytics customers for content creation.
While AdobeSign is just one option, I think it is crucially important that all law firms have an ability to initiated the execution of documents remotely. While most business law firms already do, and have for some time, there are many consumer facing law firms that still rely on ink signatures, and, when remote, rely on their clients to scan or fax back documents (which is a terrible client experience). This is not only harder on the firm, it’s a significantly worse experience for clients and potential clients.
If your law firm isn’t yet using an online signature platform, it’s time to wake up and realize that it’s no longer a nice to have, it’s a must-have. If your firm is experiencing some (or even a lot of) business slowness, or if you’re stuck at home, this is a great time to test out some options including AdobeSign, Docusign and many others.
Our bookkeeping system: Quickbooks
I used QuickBooks in my law practice, and we’ve been using Quickbooks Online at LawLytics since day one. And I wouldn’t change a thing. Quickbooks Online has become the standard. It’s easy for our team to work with, and it’s easy to share with our accountants and board members.
We know that most small law firms already use a version of Quickbooks, and that most are likely using the online version (as opposed to a legacy desktop version). Assuming that you are, then you already have access to all of your financial information from wherever you happen to be.
I hope that this post gave you some ideas, and perhaps some software to try that may make your law firm better and make working remotely easier (or feasible). I believe that the slowdown caused by the Coronavirus pandemic should be embraced as an opportunity for lawyers in firms of all sizes to embrace technology, and I look forward to getting more specific in future posts.