When Paul Walker assumed his role as controller at Snow Christensen & Martineau (SCM), he knew that his primary focus would be to lead all accounting and financial activities for the practice. Now, he finds himself serving as a driving force in the transition of his attorneys and staff working within a traditional office setting to working as a distributed team. Paul, who has been with SCM for more than 8 years, also led the discovery and implementation of the SurePoint Legal Management System (LMS) as their practice management solution in 2015. As part of the SurePoint Virtual Office Webinar Series, we asked Paul to join us and to share his insights and best practices for successfully operating as a remote law firm.
Q: Prior to the last couple of weeks, did SCM have a formal business continuity plan in place in the event of an emergency?
PW: We did but we never thought about a virus. Being out west, our business continuity plan was mostly based on earthquakes – if our building goes down, how are we going to continue our work? Coincidentally, we did have a 5.7-magnitude earthquake hit the day after our firm began working remotely. This was the biggest earthquake we’ve seen in 35 years. We were extremely lucky because our building is over 100 years old and the damage was minimal, but it did have to be shut down for a few days while a structural engineer came in and checked everything out. Thankfully, we had all our LMS users set up before this happened. If you looked at our numbers and our levels of productivity, you would never know we experienced the panic of COVID-19 mixed with an earthquake.
Q: How has your team handled the transition to working at home rather than in the office?
PW: When we made the decision to start working remotely, I thought it was going to be our older staff and attorneys who would struggle with the transition the most but really, it’s been people of all different ages. The two groups I would say who have had the most trouble adapting are the ones who are inherently resistant to change and those who are extremely extroverted. Our leadership team has made it a point to call and check in more with those individuals, set up more video conference calls… anything we can do to help them through this. Not only has this transition resulted in a few productivity issues workwise but it’s also an isolation issue and we’re doing everything we can to help combat that.
Q: What have you found helpful in easing your firm’s transition to working as a distributed team?
PW: Two things that I have found to be critical during this time are providing structure and transparency. The transition to working remotely taught us very quickly that we need to be extremely transparent with our people. A lot of people are scared right now – they’re worried about the pandemic and some are sitting at home alone. We recently began using Zoom which is something completely new to our firm. We have found it to be extremely helpful in creating a sense of structured normalcy for our team as we are used to seeing each other in the office every day, but also helpful in providing the human interaction that we all seem to be struggling with at least to a certain degree. Since beginning to utilize a video conferencing tool, the level in transparency across the firm has been night and day.
Q: Most law firms perform at a 50 percent rate for daily time entry. Since transitioning to working remote, SCM has jumped from 50 percent to 95 percent. What has your firm been doing to see this increase in just a few weeks?
PW: Now that everyone is working from home, it’s been top-of-mind for our leadership team to continue to drive productivity. It used to be me or someone from my team who would call timekeepers and nag them to put in their time. Once we transitioned to working remotely, I met with one of our managing partners and discussed how daily time tracking is crucial to the success of the firm and for us as management to be able to make sound decisions. He has since taken on the role of calling and emailing people who haven’t entered their time. In addition, we send out a daily team report that notes the amount of time entered each day by our timekeepers. This helps to provide our people with reassurance that work is continuing to get done while also holding people accountable.
Q: How is your firm handling approvals internally?
PW: With the LMS Workflow module, all approvals take place directly within the system. Once an item has been submitted to the appropriate team member for approval, that team member will receive an email with a link that contains the item and the ability to approve it directly.
Our firm implemented Workflow about a month after we went live on LMS. If you’re thinking about starting to implement a Workflow or paperless process, I would recommend that you start small. Our team began transitioning to a paperless environment by starting with check request forms, followed by expense reimbursements and then moving onto new client and matter intake. We’re now up to eight different processes within the Workflow module.
Q: How is SCM handling Billing Invoice Memo (BIM) distribution now that the team is no longer in the office?
PW: When we started working remotely, we had about half of our BIMs for the month and the other half were incomplete. The assigned timekeepers took their printed BIMs home and either used an at-home scanner if they had one or downloaded the iScanner app to send us back the changes. Right now, we’re testing out emailing BIMs and training our legal staff on how to edit BIMs that are in the form of a PDF before sending them back to us.
Q: How do you think this experience will affect the future of law firm operations?
PW: The feedback we’ve been receiving from our timekeepers and staff is that they like to work from home. They feel more productive, but they don’t necessarily enjoy doing it five days per week. I would suspect that some of our team will start working from home one or two days per week. In addition, our team is now leveraging technology much differently than we have in the past, and people are becoming more and more comfortable with it. It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out once we’re back to a normal working routing.
Q: What advice would you give to other legal professionals during this time?
PW: Be as transparent as possible and make it a point to engage your team through human interaction. These two things are key in driving your firm to succeed while working from home.
Interested in learning more about Paul and SCM’s experience as they transitioned to working remotely? The full presentation can be found here.