A recent study found that 70% of people globally work remotely at least once a week. While the idea of remote work is appealing, the right technology and systems need to be in place for things to work effectively. For lawyers, there are some additional considerations – your ethical and professional obligations. These need to be considered carefully when contemplating remote work options, or even when answering a work call on your mobile while commuting.

Do you work remotely?

First, it’s important to understand what we mean by remote work, since it can mean different things to different people.

Chances are, you are working remotely in some way.

Remote work isn’t just about a formal contractual arrangement that allows you to work from home or a café (or anywhere else you please) on specified days each week – though these things are certainly considered remote working.

Remote working also includes the ad hoc use of a mobile phone to check and send emails and everything in between.

Working at the College of Law, I’ve found that most lawyers work outside of the office in some capacity, whether it’s working at home into the evening or on the weekend, working from home with a sick child, logging in from the airport or hotel while travelling or sitting at a café between appointments.

Some lawyers don’t even have an “office” and instead work from home or clients’ offices or shared workspaces.

All of these scenarios fall into the category of remote working.

Consider your professional obligations

If any of the above scenarios apply in your situation, you should take some time to consider what this means in terms of your ethical and professional obligations.

While each state and territory have different rules, everyone will need to consider these obligations:

  • Duty of confidentiality
  • Duty to supervise
  • Duty to deliver legal services in a competent and diligent manner (including to keep good records and have quality technology solutions)
  • Duty to comply with legislation (including requirements for the health and safety of staff).

Let’s look at some of the questions you need to ask, and things you need to do, as a result of these obligations.

Confidentiality: a primary obligation

  • Are hard copy files or documents being removed from the office? If so, what steps are being taken to keep them safe?
  • If you are working outside of the office, who can access your computer? Who can see your screen or hear your conversations?
  • If you are printing outside of the office, does that printer keep a record of what’s printed? If so, is that a breach of confidentiality?
  • Are you maintaining good record-keeping practices? (This is an area that can be neglected when people work “on the run” and start emailing between meetings and court appointments, or when in the car)

Supervision: are the right procedures in place?

  • Are you meeting the general professional obligation to supervise your staff (and any specific requirements in relation to graduates and those with a restricted practising certificate)?
  • Have you set up satisfactory supervision arrangements using practice management software (for example, Request Review in FilePro)? Email and other online communication tools, phone calls or Skype meetings, and scheduled office days can also assist in maintaining adequate supervision while incorporating remote working options.

Take a closer look at technology

The more you adopt flexible working conditions and working remotely, the greater your need to have quality technological solutions, up-to-date equipment and well-trained staff. This is a huge topic, but here are some of the key matters that come up in my training sessions:

  • What devices are people using? It’s best to use only work-issued devices as these will be up-to-date with appropriate virus protection software.
  • What data is being stored on devices? What networks are being used?
  • Logging-in: a 2-step login is preferred. Encryption and VPN are also recommended.
  • Are all staff aware that public wifi is not secure?
  • All issues and risks to do with CyberSecurity apply – and are heightened – when lawyers work outside of the office. Is everyone at the firm cyber-savvy?
  • How secure are your systems, especially when using things like Dropbox and some cloud systems?
  • Is your remote work setting free of distractions? Are you more likely to not read and understand information or send things to the wrong recipient?

Safety: a fundamental consideration

  • When an employee is working from home by a formal agreement, it is likely that the same requirements as to office health and safety apply as if they were in the office. Has there been any check that the home office complies?
  • It’s arguable that the same requirements apply even for an ad-hoc arrangement. Consider how compliance should be monitored.
  • As a minimum, check remote working spaces have a desk, ergonomic chair, and a dedicated space with good light and ventilation.

Lawyers are no different from other professionals in the adoption of technology to implement flexible and remote working arrangements. With touted benefits like increased productivity and improved staff retention, remote working is something that can benefit everyone. While there may be some added considerations for lawyers, with some planning and risk mitigation lawyers and law firms can enjoy these benefits of remote working.

About the author

Cathry Urquhart facilitates the Legal Practice Management Course at the College of Law-WA, presents training for FilePro and delivers CPD training to law firms. She was a lawyer in a former life, working as a senior associate in two large firms and at Law Mutual (WA), and also spending time with a PI insurer in WA, managing claims and presenting Risk Management.