As Massachusetts moves through phases of reopening while Covid-19 spikes across the United States, lawyers continuing to work from home can take this opportunity to ensure they’re operating efficiently, ethically, and securely.
We thank Sharon D. Nelson, Esq., John W. Simek, and Michael C. Mashke at Sensei Enterprises, Inc. for this helpful guest post!
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The world is trying to deal with the COVID-19 in a variety of ways. Controlling the spread of the deadly virus is at the top of the list. Travel is being restricted, and some countries have even closed their borders. The United States was slow to react, but eventually states imposed restrictions for business operations to reduce the coronavirus spread and then began re-opening in phases. Social distancing and maintaining clean hygiene practices are the normal mode of operation now. More and more businesses are allowing their employees to stay at home where possible.
What does that mean for the practice of law? How will you meet with clients? Most firms have adopted a telework environment and allow their employees to work from home, even while some firms have begun re-opening. Working from home has different consequences depending on your current capabilities and whether a plan is already in place. While we can’t cover all the possibilities and capabilities of every law firm, we’ll attempt to attack some of the common considerations.
Let’s start with a very basic item…the computer. Hopefully, everyone is already using a laptop as their main office machine. As expected, some popular models of laptops are still in short supply. Worst case, you may have to find a Best Buy, Target, Walmart, etc. and see if you can purchase a consumer-grade machine. If you planned properly, laptop users are already configured for remote access. Perhaps now would be a good time to modify your infrastructure plans and budget for laptops and docking stations for those folks that need a mobility option. You may even consider docking stations for home use in addition to one at the office.
Many firms have already adapted and have their employees working from home. Believe it or not, in the early days of responding to the pandemic, some people picked up their work computers, monitors, keyboards and all other peripherals on their desk and took them home. We can’t imagine the headaches the IT support people had instructing a user to connect all the cords and devices up properly, not to mention configuring the desktop to connect to the home network. Our suggestion is to avoid taking desktops home and just deal with laptops and home machines. It will save a lot of headaches, wasted time and support costs. Speaking of home machines…they bring a whole new set of problems and liability which we’ll address later.
Many firms are trying to determine when they will resume full or partial operation and have employees return to the office. Some employees are now back at the office but the majority seem to be home (and they have been home for months!) If they haven’t upgraded their home work environment, we recommend having an external monitor, full-size keyboard (wireless preferred) and mouse available. You will be much more productive with a full-sized keyboard and a larger screen. Another consideration is printing. Understand that you may need to help your employees configure their home printer (if they have one) to work with the firm’s computer. If they don’t need to print, so much the better. That should pretty much do it for the hardware requirements.
If possible, designate a separate area as your work environment — and get creative if necessary. The space should be away from the kitchen, living room, family room, or other active family areas. If you don’t have a desk available, you can always use a table for your work surface. Remember the old days when you fabricated a table using cinder blocks and a board? As mentioned earlier, use an external monitor and full-sized keyboard to create a more comfortable, productive work environment. Consider positioning your work area, so you have a view out of a window if possible. The view will help when you have those periods of mental blocks. Working in a windowless area will make you feel like you’re in prison, which isn’t a good thing. Of course, maybe it was like that in the office!
Many of us have a home wireless network that can be used for our work-from-home (WFH) environment. We recommend avoiding using your home wireless, especially if other family members are also working from home. Besides the security issues, connecting to the home wireless means you are competing for bandwidth with all the other connected devices. Now would be a good time to make sure your home wireless is protected with WPA2 encryption.
We suggest that you connect your computer directly to an Ethernet connection. You can purchase a long Ethernet patch cord if you are not too far away from your internet router. Ideally, you would have a hard-wired Ethernet connection in your house (we do) for your home office. As an alternative, purchase a powerline Ethernet adapter. The adapter provides Ethernet connectivity utilizing the electrical wiring in your house. You plug one adapter in an electrical outlet near your router and a second adapter where you set up your computer. The TP-Link AV1000 Powerline Ethernet Adapter is an excellent choice and is around $55 on Amazon. If you purchase a different model Powerline Ethernet Adapter, make sure the speed is 1000/100/10 and not just 100/10, which may be slower than your Wi-Fi connection. Also, the Powerline Ethernet Adapter isn’t always faster than Wi-Fi and is dependent on the electrical wiring in your residence. Having said that, our experience is that the adapters are faster than Wi-Fi in the majority of installations.
If you still want to connection using Wi-Fi, you may consider upgrading to a mesh network. A mesh wireless network has multiple devices to extend the range and speed of the Wi-Fi network without having multiple network names. Amazon eero, TP-Link Deco and Google WiFi are all good mesh network systems.
Depending on your situation, you may need to get re-educated in how to use the hot spot capability of your smartphone. While the connection speed may be a little slower, it’s a more secure network than connecting to free Wi-Fi at a Starbucks, McDonald’s, etc. Our long‑standing recommendation has been to avoid any free Wi-Fi and use your hot spot, even if using a VPN.
Remote Access Software
There are a lot of choices for provisioning remote access. Many firms will already have a VPN (Virtual Private Network) available. Make sure you check the licensing and capacity for your VPN implementation. If your entire firm is working remotely using a VPN, there may not be enough capacity at your office to handle the load. Check with your IT personnel to see if there are any limitations with using a VPN. It’s probably a good idea to refresh the procedure for using the VPN with those that will be connecting remotely, especially if they don’t regularly access the firm’s network with the VPN.
While we’re talking about VPNs, not all VPNs are created equal. As organizations increase the use of VPNs for working at home, more vulnerabilities are being discovered. The bad guys are shifting focus to target VPNs since they know so many more users will be remote during the pandemic. In addition, make sure the latest Windows security updates and patches are installed. It goes without saying that you should be using MFA (multi-factor authentication) for your VPN and any other remote access solutions. Have your IT support personnel review AA20‑073A: Enterprise VPN Security (https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/aa20-073a) from CISA for technical details about using and securing VPNs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without getting too much in the weeds, there is a concept with VPNs called split tunneling. Basically, you configure the VPN to route desired traffic through a specific encrypted tunnel. As an example, one tunnel would be configured to send work traffic to your office, and a second tunnel would be for all other internet traffic. This helps reduce the bandwidth requirements at your office as only traffic destined for the firm’s network would be coming in. Normally, you would not be implementing split tunneling for a variety of reasons, but now may be the time to change the configuration to allow more capacity since there will be a lot more work-at-home employees.
Some firms will want to enable the Remote Desktop Protocol to connect to their office computers. Words of caution – there is a reason the Remote Desktop Protocol is disabled by default on Windows computers. Generally, it’s not recommended to expose your firm’s computer(s) to the internet using Remote Desktop Protocol. Larger firms with Terminal Services have controls in place to safely use the Remote Desktop Protocol.
Another alternative is to use a remote-control solution such as LogMeIn. Many of our clients already have LogMeIn licenses available as part of the desktop monitoring solution that we deploy. If you use a remote-control solution, you will have to leave your office computer turned on at all times. We would recommend investigating Control by ConnectWise as a remote-control alternative. You can get the software on a monthly basis and it’s a lot cheaper than LogMeIn Pro, which is $350/year.
Larger firms may already have a remote access solution such as Citrix or Microsoft Terminal Services. As previously stated, make sure you have sufficient licenses and bandwidth for all the intended connections, and you have configured MFA for both Citrix and Microsoft terminal server.
Using Home Computers
We understand that not everyone is using laptops as their primary work computer and law firms don’t want to spend the money to purchase laptops for remote employees. Many firms want their employees to use their home computers to work remotely. Understand that there are a LOT of issues and concerns when you decide to allow a home computer to connect to the firm network even if you are using a VPN.
The obvious concern is security. The firm doesn’t own or control the home machine. You really don’t know what security software may be installed or if the computer is fully patched with the latest updates. The reality is that many solo and small firm lawyers will be using home computers to connect to the office.
One of the first considerations is to determine what you will do about the security software on the home machines. Will you allow employees to use their personal security software and enforce it through policy? We would suggest a better approach is to extend your law firm’s licensing to the home machines. In other words, make the home machines part of the centrally managed endpoint security system that already exists for the office. Such an approach may not be economically feasible, depending on your size and licensing terms. If you are using an MSP (managed service provider) for your IT needs, you should be able to add licenses on a monthly basis instead of paying an annual fee for each seat, which could get pretty expensive.
Do the employees have the necessary software on their home computers? At this point, you are probably rethinking the options for using cloud services. If you subscribe to Microsoft 365, users could use Office in the cloud or possibly install Office on their home computer. If you use a VPN to connect, does the employee already have the appropriate software installed and configured? Bottom line…you will need to assess what capabilities will be required for your work-from-home employees and address any gaps that may exist.
Another challenge with home machines is the mixing of business and pleasure. Make sure you understand any applicable data protection laws (e.g. GDPR). Using a home computer puts you at risk for exposing client confidential data. It would be a nightmare if you inadvertently shared confidential data using your personal social media account. If you do use your home computer for work, try to limit (or ban) family members, especially children, from using the machine. Family members may be duped into downloading malware that compromises your computer and may transfer to your firm’s network.
Telephone and Mail
Don’t forget to address how you will handle telephone calls, especially those inbound from current or potential clients. If you have traditional phone lines, don’t forget to forward the firm’s number(s) to a number that you will be using to answer calls prior to closing the office. If you are not going to forward the number, have a message for callers to advise what number to call and how best to reach you.
The situation is so much better if you have VoIP phones. You should be able to just take your VoIP phone home, connect it to your home network, and it will ring just like it was sitting on your desk. As an alternative, you may have a soft phone available, where you install software on your computer to emulate your desk phone. You would then use your computer sound and microphone (or headset) to answer and make calls.
Don’t forget about mail deliveries. Many firms have at least one person at the office to deal with mail and deliveries. The mail may need to be scanned (converted to electronic form) and sent to the appropriate person. Obviously, you’ll need a scanner. You may be able to use your copier as a scanner if you don’t have a separate scanner. An alternative is to use a scanning app for your smartphone.
Instead of face-to-face meetings, many law firms are currently utilizing some sort of video conferencing capability. There are a lot of choices out there to connect with people visually. As a result of the pandemic, many companies are allowing temporary free usage. As an example, Microsoft is offering free usage of Teams for up to six months. Microsoft 365 subscribers already have Teams included, but we’re sure not all your clients are using Microsoft 365.
Zoom is a very popular video conferencing solution. Find Zoom Training for Lawyers here. There is a free version that can host up to 100 participants. The Pro version is an affordable $15/month. Of course, many larger firms already have enterprise accounts for services such as GoToMeeting or Webex, to name a couple. Zoom has improved its encryption scheme and now utilizes AES 256-bit GCM encryption just like its competitors. End-to-end encryption will be available for all users (including free users) after the initial beta period, which starts in July of 2020.
To state the obvious, you will need some sort of camera to participate in a video conference call. Most modern-day laptops are equipped with a webcam for video calls. You could even use your iPad or smartphone with some of the video conferencing apps. If your computer is not equipped with a webcam, consider investigating the various models from Logitech. The biggest challenge will be finding someone with webcams in stock since they are in extremely short supply because of COVID-19.
Another consideration is sound. The built-in microphones for laptops or phones may not sound particularly good if you are on the receiving end. Consider using a headset (with microphone) or earbuds. You’ll be able to hear better, and so will all the other participants.
Don’t forget where you physically sit during the video conference. If your back is to an open window, the brightness may make you difficult to see. Objects behind you may be distracting too. Think about what the person on the other end is seeing. Be cognizant of those around you too. Family members may be able to hear you discussing confidential information even if you are wearing a headset.
Finally, remember the recommendation to connect your computer to a wired Ethernet port? Utilizing Ethernet will significantly improve the stability of your connection during your video conferencing call. The last thing you want is choppy video or garbled audio when you are working with a client or other counsel.
Cloud to the Rescue
Is it too late to move to the cloud? Not in our opinion. Putting your client’s confidential information in the cloud brings different considerations for security. How does the cloud provider protect your data from unauthorized access? Will you need to encrypt the data before you use the cloud service? There are so many great tools available to enhance your law practice.
Cloud-based practice management is a good place to start. We’ve already mentioned Microsoft 365 for your productivity software. There are options for document management and document assembly in the cloud too. Backups are critical for surviving a ransomware attack. We’ve always recommended having a local backup and additional encrypted versions stored in the cloud too.
If you are not currently in the cloud; it’s probably not a good time to take your critical business functions and move them to the cloud during the current pandemic. However, if you don’t intend to return to the office for several months or the balance of the year (or until there is a vaccine), conversion to some cloud services may make sense at this time. Like us, we’re sure you can see the value of using cloud services for any future disaster that may come along.
Opportunity for Hackers
The cybercriminals never miss an opportunity to profit from a disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is no different. The goal is to target people searching for information about the virus and infect them with malware. Thousands of domain names have already been registered to host malicious websites. The bad guys know that a lot of people are now working from home and have initiated campaigns targeting those remote users. Be particularly vigilant concerning requests to reset your password even if the email looks like it is valid.
If you are not currently participating in a work-from-home environment, you should be planning for it in the future. If you have a laptop as your primary work machine, bring it home every day if you are still going to the office. That way, you’ll be ready to respond quickly should the situation change overnight. It would also be prudent to have any needed data readily accessible. Perhaps now would be a good time to have secure cloud storage so you could access the data from anywhere.
Hopefully, your firm has some sort of policy for the changing of passwords. It is no longer necessary to change passwords as frequently as we have done in the past, but they should be changed periodically for the time being. There is no reason these days to change your password at intervals of less than 90 days. No matter what your password expiration policy is, if you have closed your firm, you should have changed your password prior to leaving the office and starting your work-from-home experience. Changing the password will reset the timer so that it hopefully won’t expire while you are not physically connected to the firm’s network. Contact your IT provider for instructions on how to change your law firm’s network password while working remotely.
As we mentioned at the beginning, it would be impossible to address every situation a law firm may encounter during the pandemic. Hopefully, some of our suggestions and recommendations will assist in your practice and allow you to serve your clients well and securely in these difficult times. Be safe out there.
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Sharon D. Nelson is a practicing attorney and the president of Sensei Enterprises, Inc. She is a past president of the Virginia State Bar, the Fairfax Bar Association and the Fairfax Law Foundation. She is a co-author of 18 books published by the ABA. firstname.lastname@example.org
John W. Simek is vice president of Sensei Enterprises, Inc. He is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional, Certified Ethical Hacker and a nationally known expert in the area of digital forensics. He and Sharon provide legal technology, cybersecurity and digital forensics services from their Fairfax, Virginia firm. email@example.com.
Michael C. Maschke is the CEO of Sensei Enterprises, Inc. He is an EnCase Certified Examiner, a Certified Computer Examiner (CCE #744) a Certified Ethical Hacker and an AccessData Certified Examiner. He is also a Certified Information Systems Security Professional. firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2020 Sensei Enterprises, Inc. Working From Efficiently, Ethically, and Securely. Sensei Enterprises, Inc., is a legal technology, cybersecurity and digital forensics firm based in Fairfax, VA. 703-359-0700 (phone) www.senseient.com