Nowadays there is no reason why people can’t work remotely – or flexibly – if they have all their information stored electronically and the systems and security in place to support them. Remote access requires documents to be scanned on arrival, wherever they arrive, so they can be made available (electronically) at locations where the paper file is not available. Once documents are stored electronically, the equivalent of the paper file can be recreated wherever it is needed.

Considerations

There are various reasons why many firms have made remote working not just another tool, but a strategic goal. Some key drivers are:

  • availability of information when out of the office
  • disaster recovery – if you can’t get to your office for any reason (eg avian flu outbreak, terrorism, flooding, foot and mouth, transportation issues) you can continue your business by making your systems available remotely
  • cost-effectiveness, efficiency, job satisfaction and the ability to attract staff with higher levels of skill
  • employment law legislation – in some circumstances employers actually need to have grounds to refuse to allow flexible working (eg where the request is made to accommodate child care).

Before you look at the technology, you need to think about what you want to achieve. Then, the technology can then be found to fit around that! You need to ask yourselves many questions and to come up with a remote working policy which covers the following:

  • who is going to pay for what? (PC, printer, other hardware, paper, toner, internet connection, mobile device bills, antivirus software, software licences)
  • health and safety risk assessments at home
  • security
  • who is going to resolve technology issues – the existing IT staff? Or will they need to outsource some of this function?
  • what do your remote workers need to be able to do: use email, make/receive telephone calls seamlessly, send/receive faxes, record time, dictate, scan/print/ photocopy, use Word/Excel/PowerPoint etc, have access to client files, video conference?

Options available

Here I list the more common remote access technologies available which I think would be of interest to law firms. These solutions are by no means exhaustive – there are many others out there.

Blackberry versus Windows Mobile device

These are the things you carry around in your pocket and leave in cabs, bars and other people’s offices. There are various models of hardware for both. Depending on the device you have, the functionality can include allowing you to send and receive emails, make and receive mobile calls, browse the internet and view and synchronise all Outlook contacts, calendar, notes and tasks.

The advantages of Blackberry over Windows Mobile? Until recently they “just worked”, they required virtually no training for even the most Luddite of lawyers, and of course they have captured the legal market place. And until recently emails were delivered to the Blackberry without the user requesting them – unlike the Windows Mobile devices which required the user to download their emails. Most attachment types – such as .DOC and .PDF – can be opened on the later models of Blackberry device.

Major advantage of Windows Mobile over Blackberry? There is a cut down version of Word and Excel so you can not only view your documents and spreadsheets – you can work on them ”¦ and good luck to you with a screen which fits in your pocket! Software vendors are increasingly developing applications to sit on Blackberry and Windows Mobile devices, for example, time recording, digital dictation, integrators with your document management and client relationship management systems and even satellite navigation. I’m looking forward to the add-on which will have a “click into chill” mode so I can immerse my device in my drink to save looking for the ice bucket!

Unified messaging

This integrates with your switchboard and Outlook so voicemails and faxes go direct to your Outlook, InBox. You can then dial up from a landline or mobile and listen to your voicemails and emails – though not to faxes. Sounds great – and this was one of the main selling points to us all those years ago when we didn’t have Blackberrys – but in reality listening to emails is rarely used. You can tap your telephone keypad to skip through the disclaimers, etc but it’s clunky. It does come into its own though when there are no other means available to access your emails.

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephony

This is an entire topic on its own, so I’m not going to go into it in any depth. But VOIP is widely acknowledged as the way to go as far as your internal telephone systems are concerned. Once established as the internal telephone system, in addition to lowering telephone costs, VOIP gives remote workers more functionality than is available with the traditional office-based PXB so the remote worker can seamlessly make and receive calls via the internet.

Outlook Web Access (OWA)

This makes Outlook into a “hosted” application, rather like web email. Microsoft’s OWA has been available in later versions. This is obviously for Outlook only and has limited functionality over the full desktop version – though with OWA 2007 the functionality gap is closing. It requires no installation so your Outlook account can be viewed from any PC with a browser and for this reason it should be secured. It is accessed by using your Windows login name and password.

Citrix/Virtual Private Network (VPN) and hosted access solutions

If you want to work in the same way as you would at your PC in the office, though, the above solutions will not meet all your requirements, so you will need to consider Citrix/VPN or a hosted access solution.

A VPN is a private network that is configured within a public network (usually the internet). The idea of the VPN is to give the organisation the same capabilities at much lower cost by using the shared public infrastructure rather than a private one.

Citrix produces software designed to facilitate secure access to applications and content. One of the major issues confronting IT people today is how to provide secure access to corporate electronic information to people who are physically located outside of the corporate network. In today’s world, people working after hours all need real-time access to resources on corporate networks. For security reasons, applications such as time recording systems, document management systems and email systems are protected by firewalls so that users outside the law firm cannot access them. With the latest version of Citrix, software does not have to be installed on the user’s home PC or laptop.

While Citrix is a corporate, secure, controlled remote access solution which uses less bandwidth than running applications over a VPN, there are other hosted remote access solutions available. Some have a monthly fee attached, some are free. GoToMyPC, GoToAssist, LogMeIn are some examples of these products. There may, though, be security issues with these products, and I am not sure how suitable they would be for use by law firms. One main sticking point may well be that a law firm’s IT Department cannot control or has no audit trail on what information is leaving the firm and that may leave the partners feeling uncomfortable with these solutions.

Satellite phones

The satellite phone is a type of mobile that communicates directly with communications satellites orbiting the Earth – which means coverage is potentially global. There is no communication service available for Blackberry etc in out of the way places, for example the Maldives or Nepal. Lawyers are therefore left with one solution – take a satellite phone. These can be connected to laptops to dial up an internet connection from out of the way locations, or simply used as a telephone to communicate. This is an extremely expensive solution – and the alternatives of holidaying in the Dordogne or delegating the matter to a colleague should be considered first!

Jan Durant is Director of IT at Lewis Silkin LLP.

Email Jan.Durant@lewissilkin.com.

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