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Commentary: Best practices for using online videoconferencing services

Due to the ongoing situation with COVID-19, attorneys have been forced to make rapid changes to the way they conduct business and communicate with clients, the courts and even internal staff. One of those changes is the use of videoconferencing services, many of which may pose risks to the security of your client’s confidential information. This article reviews the issues your office should consider and the policies your office should implement to make your videoconferences as secure and effective as possible.

The first consideration is what conferencing software your team will use. Your firm should conduct proper due diligence on the security procedures of any platform that will be used to transmit confidential client information, determine whether and how the service uses encryption and password protection, and do research to determine whether the service previously has been susceptible to data breaches.

Do not use social media chat software such as Google Hangouts or Facebook Video Calling as your meeting software. These services may be great for catching up with friends and family during social distancing, but they are not appropriate for conducting meetings for a number of reasons. The most important of these reasons is that when an online service is provided free of charge, that normally means the users of the service and the users’ data are the products being sold to pay for the service. Do not jeopardize the security and confidentiality of your firm and your clients’ information by using one of these free social media services to conduct your firm’s business.

Your firm also should review the software’s features to ensure it will meet your needs before making a purchase or subscribing to a service. Consider the following when determining whether the service will work for you:

  • Video: Does the video service provided work for your needs? Does it require extensive downloads or equipment that is unlikely to come standard on most computers or mobile devices such that clients may have difficulty using it? Is it compatible with the devices being used by your staff to access the service? Does the service use telephone connections as well as computer audio, allowing individuals without webcams and microphones to participate?
  • Chat: Does your firm also want the ability to chat electronically in the service? If so, remember that any written electronic communications, including chat conversations, are part of the client file and should be retrievable and appropriately archived as such.
  • Scheduling: The scheduling portion of the service should sync adequately with your firm’s central calendar and should provide proper notice to all necessary participants. You also may want to include periodic reminders for participants to make no-shows less likely.
  • Meeting size: Many video conferencing platforms limit the number of participants that can join a call, typically because large numbers of participants may affect the system’s performance. Consider the maximum number of meeting attendees you would need, and then rethink that number if it exceeds normal platform limitations.
  • File-sharing: Do you need the ability to share files, videos, audio files or other information with meeting participants? Double-check that the platform can accomplish your goals. It may be more advantageous to leverage a tailored collaboration or file-sharing service than an add-on to a conferencing application. Additionally, while holding meetings it may be appropriate to share only the single document and not your entire screen. Using smaller regions during your conference saves everyone bandwidth and refresh delays as well as hiding other items on your desktop. All meeting participants also should be made aware of the duty of confidentiality and keep that duty in mind when deciding whether and how to share certain materials during a meeting.
  • Mobile app vs. computer software downloads vs. browser-based systems: Does the videoconferencing platform have a mobile app in addition to or instead of computer software? Alternatively, is it simply browser-based, requiring no downloads at all? If so, consider whether that is desirable for your firm and other potential meeting participants. You also should familiarize yourself with all versions of the service, if there are multiple options, to ensure all meeting attendees can participate in the meetings as necessary and watch out for potential security issues depending on the platform.
  • Bandwidth: Many larger multi-way video calls consume significant amounts of bandwidth. You should make sure that your system can accommodate the bandwidth needs of the platform you choose in light of your firm’s usage requirements.
  • Recordings: Be aware of whether the system is creating a recording of your videoconferences, and if so, where those recordings are being stored — cloud, computer, servers or some combination thereof. If you do not need to have a recording of the videoconference, consider turning off any automatic recordings to preserve the confidentiality of the information discussed and to save storage space.

In addition to considering the security of certain services before making a purchase, your firm also should develop and train staff regarding appropriate videoconferencing policies to ensure protection of all client information. Consider whether you need to obtain participant permissions before starting or recording a videoconference, including whether you need a client’s informed consent to transmit confidential information via any platform. These conversations with the client should include the fact that recordings in videoconferencing platforms are not encrypted, which may impact the client’s willingness to consent to these meetings being recorded. If you do plan to record and save the contents of the meeting, make a clear announcement to that effect at the beginning of the meeting and again when any late-comers arrive.

All meeting participants should be encouraged to close all unnecessary applications, files and browser tabs prior to entering the meeting so that confidential client information is not inadvertently shared with others during a screen-sharing session. Similarly, all participants should suppress notifications and pop-up ticklers for the duration of the meeting, and no participants should join the meeting with their email open in the background.

The individual conducting the meeting should have a full list of all participants prior to the meeting beginning. This will ensure that the meeting host can find and quickly dismiss any “bombers” attempting to join the meeting who are not on the list. If you are the meeting host, turn on your in-system meeting alerts so you know when someone is entering or leaving the meeting. If possible, require attendees to be admitted by the host when they join the meeting instead of having an open meeting. Lock the meeting when all participants have joined.

Other tips for conducting an effective online meeting:

  • Avoid meeting distractions: Under the current shelter-at-home orders, all meeting participants still should strive to participate in the meetings in a quiet place free from interruptions. It is important to remind your staff that video conferences reveal the engagement level of participants in a way that conference calls do not. Let your family know you are joining a meeting and that you should not be bothered for the duration. Turn off Facebook, Twitter and anything else that might derail your attention to the meeting. Silence your cell phone to ensure you and other participants aren’t distracted by incessant notification chimes.
  • Stay Focused: You should be as respectful of participants’ time during videoconferences as you would be during an in-person meeting. Start and end meetings on time. Make an agenda, and stick to it. While some side conversations and pleasantries are natural, particularly at a time when we might be excited to see each other’s faces after weeks at home, try to stick to the topic at hand during meetings. It might be beneficial to allow a five or ten-minute “catch up” session at the beginning or end of a meeting to let off steam and ensure the remainder of the meeting is productive. Make sure that your meeting is a conversation, not a lecture. This will help to keep all parties engaged.
  • Be aware of technological limitations: While a 49-inch, high-resolution monitor may be great for your individual needs, sharing that screen could have an impact on the meeting. You should lower your resolution to 720 or 1080 to allow your screen to scale better on the receiving end. If you are the primary host of a large number of meetings, you might want to set up a second monitor with the optimal screen resolution. That will allow you to drag documents and presentations to that monitor and always share that clean, smaller screen to avoid meeting hiccups.

Brian Bostrom is director of information systems for The Bar Plan, where he is responsible for day-to-day operations of all computer systems, applications, reporting and custom programming as well as the strategic and tactical implementation of technology. The Bar Plan provides solo and small firms with lawyers’ professional liability insurance and other lawyer-related insurance products and services.

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