Challenges faced by law firms
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This article has been written by Mridul Tripathi who is currently pursuing BBA LLB from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies. This is an exhaustive article that deals with challenges faced by the law firms while making the employees work from home and some suggestions to resolve the same. 

Introduction

Who’d have thought that we would have such a start to the year 2020? Starting with the protests that turned violent at the universities to the communal riots and now the ongoing worldwide war against COVID-19 where it seems like the entire human race is advised to self-isolate and practice social distancing, everybody has latched their spirits to the four-letter word ‘hope’. 

India, like multiple other countries, is facing a complete lockdown due to the pandemic and people here, if at all working, are working from home. Where it is blissful and easy for some, others find it utterly difficult to work remotely from their homes. 

While the major Indian law firms have already implemented work from home policy and also assured fully equipped structure to support the same, but for the policy to work well for lawyers, indubitably they need to have stark technology backing that could enable smooth day to day tech related transactions like conference telephone or video calls.

This article is written to exhaustively cover the challenges that the law firms are facing in making their employees work from home which will end up either transforming the traditional law firms or prove to be a moratorium.

Challenges faced by law firms

Less physical interaction

The most basic of the hindrances that are caused due to work from home is – very little to no physical interaction. When it comes to a law firm there is generally a multi-faceted chain of command that is to be followed. The associates according to their ranks and experience have to coordinate with the senior associates who in turn coordinate with the partners. All of a sudden this has become too cumbersome due to this shift and it becomes more time taking as an employee might not always be available over the phone due to unavoidable reasons such as no access to the mobile network. Also, a lot of law firms still follow the in-house contact as it keeps the lawyers and the staff connected. 

Many firms still have paper-based file systems and hire clerks for their management. In India, where cases linger on for years, sometimes a client’s files are as old as time itself and their unavailability can prove to be a problem. A break in daily physical interaction between the employees can also weaken the interpersonal bonds between departments and chain of hierarchy as well.

Distraction due to personal works

Grant Walsh (managing partner) of the Culhane Meadows Haughian & Walsh, a global law firm, belongs to the school of thought that sees a silver lining in this shift and says that it has enabled him to be present more in the lives of his family.Where one might be glad at performing his duties more efficiently at home, this type of informal setting has added a risk of setting unprofessionalism into the working environment. An employee might be able to meet the deadline and submit his work but the unquiet environment at home will surely affect the efficiency of the work submitted.Even for an attorney to focus and work effectively on a day to the day conference call, there needs to be an atmosphere of silence that could help him focus on what is being said over the phone. An employee who is accustomed to the deskwork on a daily basis is bound to face logistical issues.

Many employees find it difficult to motivate themselves to start working as they are conditioned to see their homes as a place to rest after long hours of work at the office. Not only the distractions affect the productivity and harm the employer, but they also affect the physical health of the employees.Some might choose to start working on a legal draft right after they get up with a crouched back while being still in bed and some might munch all the way through the long hours of work and not take a proper lunch break. There might not be part-time working spaces at every household in the country. The majority of the homes don’t even have separate rooms for each family member. In such a situation, it is a tough task to focus on work in addition to maintaining and leading a disciplined life. 

  

Threat to confidentiality

Work from home poses risks to client confidentiality as telephonic conversations can be easily overheard by the family members or anyone passing by. The ministry of corporate affairs has formally told the corporates to implement work from home but the policy lacks provisions to ensure that the client’s confidentiality is not lost. With a profession as that of a lawyer, one of the greatest risks that work from home poses is regarding the confidentiality of the information provided by the client. It is very difficult to track the telework performed by the employee when they start working from home. Indemnification that the staff will provide for working from home due to any of the loss caused by him to the client in absence of supervision and his negligent work should be clearly mentioned, adhered to and decided in advance. Personal networks are prone to phishing attacks especially during the times of COVID-19 because some IT departments fail to provide secured networks which results in the business getting conducted through personal networks thereby resulting in an increase in the number of attacks. The firm needs to ensure that  important files are not sent through insecure networks.   

Difficulty in providing internet servers

As the entire country sits home, the internet service providers witnessed a huge surge in the traffic over the internet. The surge is so huge that the only possible solution could only be to divert the network services to priority areas and sectors by shutting down the internet at other places.Providing safe servers and prepping up the IT department to cope up with this shift seems like a Herculean task. One of the major problems with personal servers is to ascertain their reliability. With a surge, this great and no adequate time to come up with a robust safe structure, establishing it and smoothly kickstarting it has proven to be a big challenge.Even after it kickstarts, is the IT department competent enough to quickly resolve equipment-related issues? In a country like India, there are areas where there are still no wifi servers available. 

There are complaints of the server drop on a daily basis. Virtual meetings and conferences on poor strengths of the servers can be a nightmare as the parties struggle and waste their time in getting their voices across each other. If at all any data related phishing incident occurs, the firm needs to be equipped with a department to tackle such issues which is difficult to build at such a short span of time.

Cybercrimes

Cybercriminals are always on the lookout to hack into servers and unlawfully gain an advantage by gaining information. Working from home makes it very difficult to maintain the attorney-client privilege as the work becomes susceptible to high-risk phishing cyber attacks.There have been reports of a new cyber virus recently that has phished data from many US law firms which goes by the name of the ‘maze ransomware’. The hacker group, Maze, sends an email containing the virus to a lawyer and a single click on the link enables it to phish info on important clients. The Hackers then upload a piece of the document on a public site and demand ransom in return for not uploading the rest of the document and putting down the name of the company from the site.With most of the work now being conducted online, the attorney-client privilege seems at great risk if the computers aren’t installed with highly upgraded security software.  

Other Necessary Materials not accessible

Good research becomes a tough task when a person doesn’t get access to relevant material. In order to make a research work comprehensive and exhaustive, employees depend upon legal periodicals and other materials that are available at the workplace in hard copy, that are too expensive to be bought for personal use. 

Working at home affects the quality of the work when the necessary matter becomes inaccessible. There is already a lot of hue and cry in the market to understand the legal ramifications of the myriad problems that have taken birth due to the lockdown, like what will happen to the ongoing contractual undertakings or where will the concept of ‘force majeure’ apply, or if it will be applied at all or not.The more number of problems make it all the more necessary for good research and the tools not being accessible thus turns out to be a bigger problem.

Unaccounted periods of work

One of the guidelines requires the employer to maintain an accurate and updated record of hours worked at home daily within the span of working hours to keep a watch and motivate the employees, this again turns out to be a tough task as verification of hours actually worked is difficult to be ascertained when one is working from home.

Even if the associate has been given a deadline-based work, there is a risk of him exhausting himself as the burden of the work might prove to be too much to handle along with what is going on at his place. This might result in less or no resting hours and the employee somehow coping up to complete the work in time.

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Difficulty in maintaining competency 

With no physical supervision, employees working on the client matters can mess up the situation when it comes to direct dealing with the clients. To ensure that this does not happen and the client is satisfied, the firms should rely on e-learning as a mode of training the employees and holding virtual meetings as well as conferences to ask for continuous periodical updates on the client matter at hand. 

The International Bar Associations has recently held webinars where they have dealt with various issues at hand and have come up with ways through which they can bring about a change starting with adding a window in the site that is only devoted to COVID-19. 

Possible steps that could be taken to counter these challenges

  • Make sure that the IT structure of the law firm is robust enough to support enough remote working. 
  • Ensure clear and periodical communication through webinars virtual meetings, make sure that the message gets delivered through any possible mode. 
  • Framing work from home agreements where it is expressly mentioned as an imperative for the employee to make him available during the working hours, failing which the employees would be liable to be subjected to appropriate action.
  • Provide secured laptops, secured servers, authorizations and make sure that the employees are updating their systems to the latest security patch.
  • Make sure that the provisions included in the agreements are exhaustive to ensure the safety of clients’ confidential documents by penalising the negligent conduct on behalf of the employee.
  • Ensure that the work from home employees feel connected to the company by regular and consistent communication and advice as to how they can improve their work, workspace so that they see possible growth.
  • Ensure that the employees are using enough measures to log in their daily hours of work and not overburdening them with tasks just because they are working from home.
  • A firm should beef up the staff or create a department that is supposed to deal with the crisis and help the employees contact the person that would help them with even the minuscule of problems related to that of the internet or other logistical needs. 
  • If the firm is into litigation, then make sure to get dates from the courts of the matters that will not be heard during the lockdown period and proactively take up the matters to the court that are deemed to urgently taken like that of interim reliefs.
  • A law firm should keep a positive outlook towards this shift in the workspace. They need to ensure that their attorneys don’t start feeling insecure about their jobs and that this doesn’t affect their efficiency as well.

Conclusion

It can be said indubitably that in a short span of time, things have taken a sharp curve. It is also due to the unpredictability of the situation in which we have found ourselves today has left most of the sectors of the economy unprepared.

Many of which were solely dependent on human interaction and physical work are rendered cold. This long term COVID-19 crisis will definitely prove to be a phase of transformation for the traditional law firms and the key to debugging the ongoing problems is to positively transform rather than shooting for adapting to the changes.


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