Lessons in “Work from Home”

As I write this column, many lawyers have left their offices to work from home (WFH) and more may follow. If, like me, your experience with working from home was using your work laptop or home PC to check emails and do a little work, the transition was a bit bumpy. As is true for many things in life, with office technology we often don’t appreciate what we have until we no longer have it.   

In March 2020, Bar members began a major exodus from the law office. If you already used a laptop as your primary work computer, you were one step ahead of the game. I used a desktop PC at the office, so I ordered a 14” Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon from Lenovo (go to www.lenovo.com/statebar for the same price Lenovo employees get). It’s a thin, lightweight business laptop. My advice has always been to purchase business or professional grade laptops direct from the manufacturer. I was fortunate to order when I did. Lenovo has a shipping facility near Charlotte and I received the laptop the next day. Lenovo, Dell, and HP are reliable brands. (I am not anti-Mac – if that’s what you want, get one – but if you’ve always used PCs, maybe a pandemic isn’t the time to try something new.) With shortages on computers, one can’t be too choosy, but be aware of significant disadvantages when buying from a retailer versus a manufacturer, including changes in the warranty.  

Don’t obsess over RAM, disk space and other specs (most business machines are more than adequate for most lawyers) but make sure it has Windows 10 Pro 64-bit. I recommend purchasing an on-site warranty for the first 2-3 years – someone will come to you if you have a problem instead of having to ship the computer off. Whether you get accident insurance is your call. 

Many lawyers now use multiple wide-screen monitors in the office, so it won’t take long before you feel frustrated doing everything on a laptop. I lasted one day before going to Office Depot to purchase a docking station. It was a J5Create Boomerang and it would not have been my first choice. Lesson learned: when Lenovo suggested adding a docking station to my online basket, I should have bought it instead of fretting about the extra money. Once I added the Boomerang to my laptop with the included micro USB cable, I was able to add peripherals from the office and home: an external monitor, keyboard, mouse, speakers and headset with mic. When I need to, I can connect a Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner or small HP printer. 

Accessing your work computer or server remotely requires a VPN (virtual private network), remote control solutions, or Remote Desktop Protocol. You can find more information about these at www.scbar.org/pmap or look at reviews on PCmag.com. Remote control products include LogMeIn and Splashtop. I don’t recommend using Remote Desktop Protocol, which is disabled by default on Windows computers as it is vulnerable to breaches.   

If you only need to access your files, not software programs, there are alternatives if you plan ahead. Before we decamped our office, the PMAP Assistant and I moved files we thought we would need to Microsoft SharePoint. SharePoint comes with Microsoft 365 Business. (In case you missed it, Microsoft 365 is how you get Word, Outlook, Excel and the rest. There are 3 different plans, but as of April 21 most lawyers can choose Microsoft 365 Business Standard.) Working from home, we could go to Office.com, login and access files in SharePoint much as we would on our office’s server. In SharePoint, we work on the same files without worrying about different versions. If the files had all been in OneDrive, this step might not have been necessary, but SharePoint makes it easy to share files and collaborate. 

For phone calls, we signed up for free Google Voice numbers so we wouldn’t have to give out our personal numbers. Google Voice calls are forwarded to personal phones or you can make and receive calls from voice.google.com on your computer with a headset/mic or Bluetooth earbuds. It also works with texts – clients can text you and you’ll receive it in your Gmail. WhatsApp is another alternative for calls. These are temporary options during an emergency, not something I recommend lawyers using instead of regular phone service. Please conduct your own research before signing up with one. Lawyers with VOIP phone service at the office can take their physical IP phone home with them and receive their calls as they normally would.  

If inner office emails are crowding your inbox, ask coworkers to use Microsoft Teams (included in 365) to send chat messages, share files and links, schedule meetings, and even video chat. Video calls on Teams tends to be clunky compared to Zoom, but it’s as easy as clicking on the phone icon in Chat to call a coworker’s computer. There are options for guest access for people outside your organization, but it needs to be configured properly, so at this time I don’t recommend it. Client portals, included in many practice management software products, remain a more secure means of collaborating and communicating with clients. For non-confidential collaboration with non-clients, try Slack https://slack.com/.    

If there’s a “Tech Word of the Year” 2020’s might be “videoconferencing.” At this writing, Signal and WhatsApp are popular options to use for one on one calls, which are easier to secure. Videoconferencing with larger groups, such as mediations, require more sophisticated software, such as Zoom and GoToMeeting. Educate yourself on how to properly use all products (not just videoconferencing) for better security. There is no such thing as perfect security and privacy on the Internet.  

***Due to the rapid rate of change, please research all products mentioned in this column thoroughly before using  

By: Courtney Troutman, Director
Practice Management Assistance Program
South Carolina Bar