The Every Lawyer

Keeping small and solo firms going in uncertain times

Episode Summary

Robert Harvie and Donna Purcell, two experienced lawyers share their expertise in remote work. Get some tips on virtual firms and managing change.

Episode Notes

Robert Harvie and Donna Purcell, two experienced lawyers share their expertise in remote work. Get some tips on virtual firms and managing change.

Robert Harvie has been a Divorce and Family Lawyer in Lethbridge and Southern Alberta for over 30 years. His practice has a special emphasis on complex matrimonial property division, including corporate interests, family trusts, and farm divorce.

Donna Purcell's busy civil litigation practice at Warren Sinclair LLP (since 1995) includes Serious Personal Injury, Employment Law and Civil Litigation.

To learn more about how to improve your small or solo firm, consult the guide How to Innovate: Futures for Small and Solo Law firms and the worksheets:  A Practical Guide to Managing Change

To find a Canadian lawyer, use the CBA Find-A-Lawyer tool.

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Episode Transcription

Narrator: This is the Every Lawyer presented by the Canadian Bar Association.

Yves Faguy: COVID 19 has revealed many cracks in our institutions. In public health obviously, in education, and in industry in general. It has also revealed a justice system caught completely off-guard, forced to adapt on the fly.

Now if we take this opportunity to do things right it's possible we can start rebuilding a more responsive and accessible system of justice for Canadians, something that has been long overdue. But moving forward can the key players in the legal sector learn to work together to implement meaningful changes? I'm Yves Faguy. Listen to our upcoming series of conversations produced by CBA National Magazine in collaboration with the CBA Futures Initiative After the Pandemic: the Future of Justice. I'll be speaking with guests drawn from different areas of the legal profession on these topics. Don't miss these bonus episodes right here on the Every Lawyer coming to you in May 2020.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Welcome to the Every Lawyer a Canadian Bar Association podcast. I'm your host Marlisse Silver-Sweeney. The word change doesn't even begin to cut it. We're recorded this episode roughly 6 1/2 weeks after the World Health Organisation declared COVID 19 a global pandemic. Zoom drinks are the new happy hours. Slack messages are the new knock on the office door. Lawyers and firms across the country have quickly transitioned online and some better than others.

So today we're going to speak with two guests who have expertise in our new virtual reality. We're trying to glean as much as we can about how they navigate this online space. And on that note we're all recording form the comforts of our own home. We regularly record in a studio so please excuse any change in sound quality. Our guests today are Donna Purcell and she is a personal injury, employment, and civil litigation lawyer located in Red Deer, Alberta. She's a partner at Warren Sinclair and she's been actively building a remote practice prior to the COVID 19 crisis which we'll talk about with her in a minute.

Robert Harvie is a family litigation, and collaborative lawyer and he's also centred in Alberta, but in Lethbridge at his own firm Harvie denBok Pollock. He's a former bencher and he's worked with clients on access to justice issues and so we'll definitely talk to him about how to help people navigate this new online space.

So thank you both so much for being here today and by here I mean in your home offices as all three of us navigate working from home. So we're - just for our audience we're recording this episode in the last week of April which is about 6 1/2 weeks since the World Health Organisation declared COVID 19 a global pandemic. The first question I had for both of you was can you talk through how your work has transitioned since this time?

So I know that both of you - the reason we're chatting with both of you is because you're not new to virtual workspaces, but can you tell me a little bit about what the differences have been since you've had to work fully from home? So Robert, why don't we start with you?

Robert Harvie: All right, as you've said I've developed I guess a digital practice for a few years now. And so my files and whatnot have been online. So that's not a new development. I setup a new office just over a year ago contemplating part-time work from home. And we basically pushed everything at that time into the Cloud. So our file storage is all in the Cloud. We’re using One Drive. Our accounting is all on the Cloud. We use a program called Cosmolex. And then obviously our productivity type stuff with word processing, and calendaring and whatnot we're using Office 365 which is all Cloud based.

To begin with when this thing started to come about the transition was fairly easy in a sense in terms of the technology. So I was already working from home a couple days a week and that just transitioned into pretty much five days a week. So that was the easiest part. The more difficult part was early in the development of the pandemic probably before my partners really saw it as necessary I suggested we lock the office down. So around the first week, or shortly after the first week of March we actually locked the front door. We put a sign on the front door. We changed our website to let our clients know that we're doing business, but that we're not doing in-person business and that with very few exceptions the clients will not meet with lawyers any longer other than to - when necessary to sign documents. And so we've created some protocols to allow clients to do that as safely as possible.

Two of us do family law. Tyler Pollock and myself and we've mostly been at home. My wife is also a personal injury lawyer in the same office. She's about half-time at home and then I have a partner who's a solicitor and he tends to need more documents signed, and sent for registration and so forth. So he is more or less in the office still full-time with a locked front door, and his assistant is there full-time with again the locked front door.

So there's mostly just the two of them with my wife half-time. We let go our receptionist probably about two weeks after we locked our doors and so those are the changes primarily we've made. In terms of my practice I do full-time family law. It has changed somewhat because we can't access the courts and that's been difficult. I've had one emergent application last week by telephone conference.

So there's been in some cases not a major change, in other cases some significant change. The one thing that struck me is there is an odd emotional aspect to this that I didn’t foresee. Even though my life hasn't changed dramatically dealing with the uncertainty of the future in terms of what's going to happen in the world and my community that's - I have good days and bad days and I didn’t see that really coming until really last week or two. So that's kind of my thumbnail.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: You know that's really interesting. We’ll have to talk a little bit more about the emotional aspects of living and working through a global pandemic as well and you know I have some questions coming up about the lighter aspects too. About how you continue to socialize with your teams, how you continue to motivate your teams. But just something that I wanted to reflect on, it sounds like the transition was relatively smooth for you because of some of the tools and software that you had in place already such as your One Drive, your Cloud setup, your workflow essentially was online is that fair to say?

Robert Harvie: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. It's one of my motivations in opening a new office to be honest.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Well that was some good foresight now wasn't it? Donna, let's go to you now. So can you describe what your transition has been like during this time?

Donna Purcell: Well basically I'm kind of an entrepreneurial type. So already before about 20 years ago I was in a serious car accident where I had quite a serious concussion and some other issues where I ended up in a wheelchair and I you know just transitioned then into you know while I was getting diagnosed and seeing all these experts all over the province I just you know, the next day started my remote office and went you know, went into work in a wheelchair and that was about it. I'm just saying that I already was setup yes. Currently what we've got is Microsoft Team and you know into the Cloud and we've got IT people. I've turned completely paperless. I made the decision in January just because of trees to become totally paperless not just digital. I was always digital because my daughters were travelling everywhere.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Donna, you mentioned paper, how you're paperless and that's a really big issue when it comes to virtual and remote offices particularly for people who weren't as adept in this space as both of you and don't have the infrastructure in their home already setup. I'm seeing on Instagram friends you know suddenly ordering printers and setting that up, but what does paperless look like?

So Rob we'll go back to you, have you gone paperless or how are you navigating this?

Robert Harvie: Yeah, probably three years ago or so I began basically scanning all documents on my files. It creates a little extra work at the front end, but over the long-haul it I think reduces significant time constraints. And it's great for clients because if they phone me you know the old days it was asking your assistant can you go dig out this file? And then they'd bring it into your office and sometimes you'd wade through 15 inches of file to find what the client wants to know.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right.

Robert Harvie: With a digital practice everything's available all the time and particularly when I was a bencher at the Law Society, I work still with the National Self-Represented Litigants Program. I was doing a lot of time in airports. With a digital practice and not having paper I could do most of my work with an iPad which is amazing. So I can be on a plane, and most planes - airplanes now have Wi-Fi and I could do work, and access my files, and access client documents and disclosure. So my experience for the last three years has been there's very little paper. Original agreements that are signed we'll keep on the files, obviously wills and that sort of thing, but for the most part clients bring disclosure in and either they get it back, or I shred it.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Wow, okay so you've been setup like that? And Donna you're paperless as well?

Donna Purcell: Well I've gone from saying paperless office because I pretty well still have all the paper, but it's digital. So anything that - so I started this probably about 10 years ago but as of January I said we're not going to print anymore paper, like rarely. Since everybody's sending in things digital now we're just going straight to digital. If it comes in through the mail I started this about seven years ago is we just scan it. So we scan it, we process and put it into things we call affidavit of records for evidence and that. And so we - I actually keep the paper because I say to the Law Society when am I safe to destroy it? Because I don't understand all this Cloud and IT business. And so I still have the paper, but if it comes electronic I'm no longer printing the paper.

So the scanner is not expensive. You can do your home office for under $1,000. I think that's what we have on the CBA on demand here in Alberta. There's a lot of things that you can do at very, very little expense. So I recommend - I keep taking notes every time I hear him and so we're doing it so we can do remote office - sorry remote lawyer, remote staff, remote client. We're setup now, what's new is all the Zoom, and the WebEx, and the Skype, and the Office teams. Like whatever different lawyers want different things. So we're hoping to get consensus on what to use so people don't have to buy everything, but mostly you click on links and you get things done. So I don't have to see anybody.

And you know here in Red Deer we have I think the last I heard was one case and so I don't see anybody, but you know I still do come into my office, office but every night I take home if there's something I do like in paper format, I take it home in my travelling briefcase in case I wake up with the sniffles the next day so I don't skip a beat.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right, so speaking of not seeing anybody I just wanted a quick question to both of you about how physical social distancing measures have made your practices more difficult. What does that look like as you navigate this new time?

Donna Purcell: It's made my very much more social. So when I have clients that come you know they have to wait out in the waiting room or whatever pre what's happening here, but now that I've actually had to kind of you know, I used to be sort of way ahead with paperless office and that but everybody else was catching up. So I now have all the technology to rather than travel hours to - because I'm in Red deer it's an hour and a half to Calgary where my second home is, and an hour and a half to Edmonton I now save three or four hours a day on travel so I meet people a lot more for board meetings, for clients, for court cases. I'm right now in the middle of my very first virtual mediation as I talk with you because we just took a lunch break now and they've ordered me to come back at a certain time.

And so yeah, so I am actually in my little Red Deer world where I travel, and I do a lot of work in the community on provincial boards and stuff I have gained efficiencies like you cannot imagine which is shockingly surprising maybe, but it's so simple this technology. Like I can't believe it.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right, okay so you're gaining efficiencies. And Robert, how about you? What obstacles have social distancing measures presented for you in your practice?

Robert Harvie: I think there's a challenge - I mean I would agree with Donna that the use of new technology, I wasn't really using video conferencing at all before this happened. That's been really beneficial on a certain level, but I think particularly in family law there is - there is a balance between clients not having to come down to your office, and being able to meet with you virtually either online, or by phone. But because of the dynamics of a family breakdown I think there is something that is missing in terms of your ability to show empathy with your client and feel their angst when you're not there in the same room. And likewise I was in a court application last week again by telephone. Without being able to look a judge in the eye and read them I'm not sure about the cost benefit.

There definitely is a benefit not having to sit in court for two hours to wait for a matter to get called versus phone the judge at 10:00, but I think there's going to be some interesting debrief once this thing resolves as to the cost benefit of some changed processes. And those are the two things that jump out at me.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right for sure that emotional piece you're missing, the reading body language and those types of signs and the importance of that in the practice of law. So something that you both mentioned was the ability to interact with people, socialize with people. How has that changed for you, and what are you doing to assist the other lawyers that you work with, paralegals, students, assistants? How do you help motivate them and help them stay connected as a team during these turbulent times right now? So Robert why don't we go to you with that question first?

Robert Harvie: All right, it's been a bit of a challenge I think. And again it's not something we've probably thought about a lot. Particularly because we're a smaller office. You don't think about management so much, but what we've done is we have virtual drinks at least once a week. So we all get on Zoom and chat about our day and our week, and discuss issues that we might be having with my partners. So we've done that. It hasn't included our paralegal, and that's something we might have to change because I think she feels probably somewhat isolated.

So it's been a bit of a challenge and I think probably at least for me, and probably I suspect for all the lawyers you under-value the community that you create even in a small office. So getting on Zoom and talking to people is nice, but it’s not quite the same as being able to wander down the hall when you've got an interesting point that you want someone's idea on. Or even just to chat about something amusing that happened earlier that day. And that is hard to replace.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Right yeah those informal you know, bump into each other in the hall, share a nice moment with one another. It is, it's hard to emulate over technology isn’t is?

Robert Harvie: Yeah, exactly.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Yeah, Donna what about you? What have you done to help people on your team stay motivated and connected?

Donna Purcell: Well there's two things. As you know of course there's the recession, health aspect to this and I have indicated to them that I don't plan to draw a salary without first making sure that they're fully paid. If I have to take out a line of credit which I've never had to in order to pay them because the court's doors are closed or whatever I will do that. So I've let them know I'm there for them and I'm fully open, and honest, and communicate you know?

And so that I think is very important to know that they're important and secondly the main thing I've said because I already have a distant assistant and the reason why I did is because I trained her from the college. She had two children, she moved and since I was doing remote I said why don't you try it? And she works way less hours and gets as much done without interruptions so I said to the other four if you do this really well maybe you can have your own remote office where they wouldn't have to come into work so often. So I'm trying to increase productivity with the efficiencies and I've also said my phone is open 24/7 and I will - if I've had to ignore them during the week because I'm out doing a training session for lawyers or whatever, while I'm learning it then I say you know can have all my Sunday afternoon.

So let's be flexible because we all want to have a paycheque, and we all want to turn this around as quickly as we can and as safely as we can. So I hope they think I've got their back and by the level of what they're doing to assist me learn all of this technology I think that they fully have mine.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Okay, so creating incentives and then just having some really clear lines of communication about future plans. So both of you have a lot of experience you know dealing with people who might have some big impediments when it comes to dealing with new technologies as well as just you know the emotional burdens that come during these really rough and turbulent times. How are you helping clients navigate this new online world of seeking your advice and advocacy?

Donna Purcell: Well I'm a civil litigator so I tell them all that I'm doing to try and assist the courts. We have amazing courts system here in Alberta. There's some severe impediments right now so we're trying to deal with them, but the Court of Appeal we went and said how can we help? And they said well, we're already you know, digital. And then basically been there, done that.

So very leading edge there. Queen's Bench Chief Justice Morrow is so leading edge, the judges - 67 judges and masters last week were all training up on WebEx to get into the digital age on trials. And provincial court it's harder but I want to go out and advocate for them as well. So telling clients that makes them feel hopefully and that's my way of approaching a pandemic. And also I can meet with clients that I used to talk to on the phone and couldn't understand what they're saying. Now that I know how to do this Zoom thing and I'm not you know whatever security levels and that, that they've increased and I'm comfortable with it I can now talk to those clients that don't speak English as a first language. And for those clients that have to travel all the way to Red Deer because my service area is big in Alberta they now just - they don't have to travel.

So I just make I say I just make lemonade out of it and I'm very hopeful. I just want everyone to be safe out there.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Okay, so it actually has increased your ability to serve clients. Robert, how about you? I know you have a lot of experience working with people who have difficulties with access to justice. What do you do for people who don't have the right bandwidth to hold a Zoom call? Or don't have you know laptops at their disposal?

Robert Harvie: I think the trick is being able to find your client where they are. Because they're already dealing with some difficult transition issues. So rather than say well this is what you need to do, you need to get Zoom, download it right? My approach is what's easiest for you and what do you want? If they want to Zoom, so I've had some clients that want to do that, awesome. But if they're not familiar with it I don't try to teach them.

I'll say you know do you use Zoom, or FaceTime I can use if you've got an iPad, but I'm happy to do a meeting with a phone call as well. The only thing I'm not doing - and I do feel a little bit bad, but you know is it possible that we could just meet for an hour? I'm not doing that right now.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Yeah, for sure.

Robert Harvie: Because it’s very difficult particularly in a smaller office to say okay, well you come in, but if someone else is already in the waiting room you have to sit outside and this sort of a thing. So we've been fairly harsh on the in-person meetings are not something that we can entertain right now but beyond that tons of email and lots of phone calls. And I think most of the clients; they don't want to be exposed to other people either. SO my experience is you know if you're open to like I say take your clients where they're at in terms of the technology everybody's got a telephone and most of the clients have email. And so those two communication mechanisms go a long way. Doesn't replace in-person but for now it's working okay.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Okay, so meeting clients where they're at. That's a really important takeaway. For me personally I know over these past 6 weeks I've downloaded more types of technology than my computer can even handle so I think that's probably some really sage advice for people to you know, allow their clients to be the ones to also dictate what that meeting will look like.

So I know you're both very busy in your virtual worlds and I don't want to take up any more of your time, but I did want to have one final question for you. You know you're both so adept in this area, and you've been working toward virtual firms for a long time now, but what's one piece of advice that you have for lawyers who just aren't - who are so used to practicing in their office, with all their assistants, and paralegals, and students you know, next to them on paper. What's your kind of one tip as they navigate this minefield for the first time?

Donna Purcell: My one tip is have an open mind. Be prepared to innovate and you will love it, and you will get as addicted to your technology while staying safe as you became to your iPhone if you're like me. And so I really think you have to keep an open mind. My contact cards now have every single media device my clients have. I'll FaceTime them. I'm seeing them more. I'm seeing them more than I was through phone calls as well. I mean that's obvious.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Great, okay thanks for that tip and Robert, how about you?

Robert Harvie: Well it’s a struggle. My old office they were not as enthusiastic. Probably different today, but I guess what I would say is start small. So even in my old office you know I'd talk to my partners and say why write a letter when you can send an email? Explain this to me. And then I would articulate to them why you know, so you dictate. You've got an assistant that listens to that, she types it out, she brings it to you, you review it, you read it, you give it back to her, she puts it in an envelope. She puts a stamp on the envelope; somebody takes that to the post office. You can send an email. And the time you're going to save if you multiply that by 100 in a week is significant. And so while you start with that, start avoiding letters and postage because there's no point in it 99% of the time. And then if you adapt one small change then the next change is less daunting as opposed to saying okay well we're going to go digital. And everything's going to be in the Cloud starting tomorrow morning. And lawyers, we're in a stressful occupation anyway and their eyes glaze over and they go nope, nope I want to do things the way I've always done it.

So that would be my advice is if you're not already adapting to technology start with a small bite. Probably expand how much you're using email and then go from there. And you know, or the kind of files. real estate for example why have all these paper documents when you can scan it in and then throw the file away at the end of the day? And you have a digital copy that you can access for the next 50 years.

Donna Purcell: That's so perfect. Exactly it's just one day, one step at a time thanks Rob.

Marlisse Silver-Sweeney: Thanks to both Donna and Robert for all the tips. If you'd like more information on virtual firms and navigating change we have two resources on the CBA website. One is called Solo and Small Firm Evolution: A Practical Guide to Managing Change. And the other is the Legal Futures Initiative Guide on How to Innovate. I'd love to hear from you on whether you're thriving or just barely surviving during these unprecedented times.

Here at the CBA we are thinking of every member and wishing health and safety to all. Tweet to us @CBA_news or you can reach me at my handle @marlissess. We are on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and Stitcher wherever you listen to podcasts. Subscribe to receive notifications for new episodes and leave us a review. We also have a podcast in French called Juriste Branché. Thanks for listening, stay tuned for the next episode.

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