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How Should My Law Firm Prepare For Coronavirus Covid – 19?

Introduction

With the risk of Coronavirus spreading further, firms should be considering how they will cope in the event of their staff not being able to attend the office. When a member of staff is unwell, they must be given the time to convalesce but what about when healthy staff cannot access the office when they would otherwise be fit to work?

With the Government already recommending self-isolation for those with illnesses or symptoms similar to the Coronavirus, the reality of staff not coming into work is already affecting some firms.

Gov.UK has also published further information for employers and businesses: COVID-19: guidance for employers and businesses

Should the government introduce more drastic measures, such has occurred in other countries with industries generally facing challenging times ahead.

However, with planning and forethought firms can protect themselves and their clients. The majority of legal services are provided remotely and whilst face to face interaction with clients is necessary in some matters, most of the work completed by law firms is not in the presence of their clients. Due to this firms are able to organise themselves to continue.

As part of a firm’s supervision and management strategy it should already have a business continuity plan which, if drafted properly, will have a section on pandemics. If this is not the case, the firm needs to consider where it is now and what action can be taken immediately and into the future to protect itself.

This may not be as complicated or expensive as it may first appear.

Our Services

For firms that are already working with The Strategic Partner and coming under our compliance management service we are about to issue a revised and updated business continuity plan that provides for clear action to be taken in the event of a pandemic.

With the information supplied and being supplied we have updated our firm’s continuity plans enabling them to respond quickly in the event of more serious issues arising.

For information on our compliance services and how your firm can benefit from our expertise click on the links below:

Law Firm Regulation and Compliance Service

Compliance and Administration Service 

Matters to Consider

The following highlights some of the areas firms should be considering to ensure your firm can continue to service your clients. 

Home working – As a result of self-isolation or not being able to access the office, home working is the only real consideration for firms to consider keeping their staff operational. Not all firms will have the IT infrastructure to enable home working but also it may not be as complex to implement. With most firms now being on Office 365 or equivalent it is possible to easily create shared folders which can be accessed remotely, providing staff with access to key information and documents. If this has not already been set up, then doing so is a straight forward task for your IT provider or inhouse IT team.  

Working from laptops is not as efficient as a base unit with monitors. Whether temporary or not it is better to create a workstation akin to what the number of staff are used to in the office. A laptop is a secondary solution and will work but it is not as effective.

Case Management Access – Does your case management system allow for home access and how protected is this. Many of the cloud based solutions allow for web based access into the CMS through user names and passwords. Server based systems will also allow access if you have an appropriate method of being able to access the server remotely. If you do not have remote access functionality investigating is sensible as solutions are not expensive as you may think. If it is simply not practical, consider how files and key case information can be saved to an area where your staff can have access – a solution is provided above in the previous paragraph (One Drive). There are temporary work arounds that can be put into place now whilst your firms consider a more robust and permanent solution.

Phones – Does your phone system allow for remote connection, most VOIP systems will do this. If not is it easy enough to divert lines to mobiles or another landline. If so, how is this achieved and how quickly. Establish what you need to do to get call traffic into a remote environment so you can act quickly.

Confidentiality – If the firm has not previously embraced remote or home working it is important to consider confidentiality. With information and potentially files being access remotely it increases the risk of a data breach. Make sure that your confidentiality policy and data protection/GDPR policies are up to date and that your staff are fully aware of their expectation.

Make sure you are comfortable with your staff home working conditions. Do they have a place to work where the firm’s information can be kept separate and protected? Are they in a house or flat shared with other people and how will they protect the firm’s data?

It is not as simple as just telling someone they can work from home, you have a duty to protect yours and your client’s data and to provide training to your staff to ensure they do likewise.

Simply establish the suitability of the working space they intend to use and find solutions if it is not as secure as you would like.

Key staff – Depending on the size of the firm you may have limitations on how many people can work remotely or what equipment (see below) you have to facilitate this. However, you will have key staff in your firm that must have access to your systems. Partner/Directors, compliance officers, key fee earners and key support staff. Depending on your infrastructure and the equipment you have available, these are the first people to get set up in an acceptable work environment.

Building a priority list and ensuring such people have the appropriate remote access will enable a much quicker deployment in the event of an emergency.

Equipment – You may not have the spare PC equipment in your office to create a home working space and purchasing new workstations etc may not be financially viable. However, do not fall into the trap of allowing people to use Home PC’s to access the works system unless your IT provider can assure you of absolute protection. It is easier and more common for home PC’s to have viruses and they will enter your system if you connect them. The acquiring of IT equipment does not have to be expensive. Consider acquiring reconditioned equipment which will be more than sufficient for providing the necessary equipment for your staff. Confirm the requirement for your system to operate with your IT provider and scan the internet for suitable equipment. There are a host of cost effective websites providing reconditioned PC equipment that will work for you.

Also look around your office, see what is and what is not being used properly. You may be surprised with how much IT kit you have that can be redeployed.

Scanning – Many firms have moved to scanning for all incoming post and also the amount of post received by most firms has reduced dramatically over the years, with most clients using email and online portals to interact with their Solicitor. If you have a centralised scanning solution how will this operate in the event of no access to the office. Would it be possible to organise for the equipment to be moved to another location and for a post redirect to be organised. How feasible would this be?

What equipment do the staff have at home to scan document into the systems, there are apps on phones and tablets that will work for single documents but what about multiple documents? Scanners are not expensive and perhaps deploying some may be necessary as part of a home working solution.

Getting those you interact with to make greater use of email is a clear solution to such a problem.

Salaries/Sickness – What will your firm do if people have to self-isolate and cannot work? What does your sickness policy say and if you do not have a sickness policy what can your firm afford or justify. Establish what you can and cannot do and the limitations you may have financially. It is not always financially possible to pay people for extended periods of time away from the office but importantly your staff need to be aware of your policy so they can make their own adjustments. People will be understanding and communicating with them is essential to ensure they know what will occur in the event of an emergency.

Client Notification – When you have a policy in place and you know what your plans are it is sensible to confirm to your clients what will occur. Perhaps consider adding a footer to your emails or letters advising clients. Allowing clients to know that you will be operating in the event staff cannot access the office due to your infrastructure,  allowing this will show your clients that you are organised and will also give them comfort of knowing you will still be taking care of their interests

Suppliers and Expenses – Consider elements of your business that may cost you money in the event that the UK infrastructure is temporarily shut down. For example, if you have instructed a Barrister to attend a hearing and that hearing cannot happen for whatever reason, what is the position on abated brief fees. Discuss this with your chambers. Also identify other expenditure you will incur due to contractual reasons but you may not need. Another example may be cleaners, what happens if they cannot access the office and provide their service. Are you expected to continue to pay or will they provide for this? There will be countless examples and making contact with key suppliers is important so you can assess the impact on you, financially and otherwise.

This journey will also enable you to assess what services are critical for the continuation of your business and making contact with those suppliers to establish what they will do in the event of a disaster is essential for you to understand and respond to their limitations.

Insurance – What insurance do you have in place and does it offer any cover for a drop in income due to key staff being unable to work (Key Man Insurance) or the firm entering a period where it will struggle to operate. Insurers are keen to provide advice and may assist you with preventative measures. Speaking to them may prove sensible. Undoubtedly, even for firms who can operate remotely, the impact of a pandemic will affect income, but insurers will at least provide some security against a financial downturn.

Conclusion

Whether the UK enters a pandemic or not the current threat of this occurring is a wake-up call to firms to review their business continuity plans and address how they will respond. In the hope that Coronavirus is contained and the UK does not enter a more serious situation, a firm reviewing its infrastructure and protecting itself for the future is a positive step.

The cost of building a future proof structure may not be as expensive as believed and with some foresight, planning and advice from experts, firms can find themselves with a more robust solution moving forward.

At The Strategic Partner we work with firms to strengthen what they do from both a compliance and strategic direction. To hear more about how we can work with your firm you can contact us on 02039119710, email us info@thestrategicpartner.co.uk or visit our website and complete an online enquiry on our contact page 

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