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6 Risk and Ethical Issues to keep in mind when working outside of the office

Even before the pandemic, it was not uncommon for lawyers and support staff to be working outside of the “office” whether because of agreed flexible work practices or on an ad-hoc basis.

Now, working from home is the norm during lockdowns and will continue for most people in some format after, so law firms need to make sure they are ticking all the compliance boxes and implementing risk management strategies:

  1. Employers need to provide a safe place to work and this may extend to checking on where and how employees are working when at home or other locations. Checklists, staff training and auditing for compliance might form part of the responsibilities. Luckily, most states’ professional bodies produced excellent documents to help with this. And most law firms stepped up to ensure their employees were well set up at home with the right desk/chair/equipment.
  2. The Duty of Confidentiality to a client exists at all times and just because lawyers are working in their home, a co-working space or a coffee shop, this doesn’t diminish the duty. Who can see your computer or paperwork, who can hear your conversations and see who you are meeting? What wifi are you using? Are you printing or shredding documents? The printer is keeping a copy of that document and have you thought about the disposal of draft documents/shredding.
  3. Record keeping is an important part of the duty to be competent and diligent eg a written record of every phone call and meeting. Ensuring that all emails and SMS messages make it to the file. Luckily, using FilePro can ensure that accurate records are kept and all written records are filed away. Try using the “file note” function when recording time and have a file note template added to every file to ensure that lawyers can open and create a file note easily. And remember that the longer the time between the phone call/conversation and making the file note, the less you may remember.
  4. Smart Phones mean people can read and send email “on the go” but is this safe practice? If you are not at your desk, then are you distracted eg if you are driving or walking or in a busy environment? Will you remember to follow up the task? Can you read off that small screen? And is it risky to send an email from your phone eg use or add the wrong email address? Plus, you can’t file email from your phone so there is double handling which is not great time management. Personally, there have been many a time when I have read an email quickly on my phone and then realised I misunderstood the meaning when I read it again later on my laptop. And it’s easy to miss attachments.
  5. Supervision of Graduates/Restricted Practitioners is part of a Principal’s duties but you may also need to supervise other lawyers at times and legal support all of which is a little harder when people work from home. Regular communication, a supervision plan which sets out what correspondence/documents need to be reviewed and training all help. Plus using FilePro features like Request Review minimise risk and allow for best-practice supervision.
  6. CyberRisk is ever-present and having staff working remotely can add to the issues. Great IT support to ensure your systems and protections are up-to-date, staff training and auditing again set the standard. Work-issued devices that are not for private use or used by others (family) is preferable. A quality practice management system is part of this overall approach.

Author bio

Cathryn facilitates the Legal Practice Management Course at the College of Law (WA) and delivers CPD training to lawyers/law firms. She was a practising lawyer in a former life at a couple of large commercial law firms and then an in-house lawyer at Law Mutual (WA) the PI insurer in WA.

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