It’s been more than five weeks since the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus shut down businesses across Pennsylvania, and even longer across the globe, as COVID-19 remains resistant to flattening out. For most law firms, navigating the changing landscape of remote working and lawyering has been a challenge in an industry that has always been resistant to change. But what COVID-19 has shown us is that remote working is not unattainable and, in fact, has proven just how well law firms can operate with a remote staff. Sure, there are many functions that require hands on, in-the-office employees, but for the most part, law firms can operate smoothly with an almost entirely remote workforce. Adapting to this change couldn’t be summed up better than by the fact that for the first time in history, the U.S. Supreme Court has switched to oral argument by telephone. Regardless of whether law firms can resume in-office work in a few weeks or months, here are four areas that law firm management should be paying attention to now and long after we return to our “new normal.”
Optics of the Pay Cut
Let’s start this off by saying it brings no one pleasure to cut or reduce salaries of hard working and dedicated employees. We trust that our valued employees are working as hard at home as they do in the office. As a result, there is no joy in having to take cost-cutting measures such as pay cuts. But, there is an optics angle here that firms of all sizes should be paying attention to. In the past few weeks, many firms have implemented across the board pay cuts that have limited impact on top-earning partners but enormous implications for staff. On the flipside, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that at least one local firm took a different approach. Last week, Ballard Spahr stated that it will not cut the salaries of anyone making less than $75,000, whereas all other employees will be seeing reductions of anywhere from 10% to 25%. Our bottom lines may be impacted by the current circumstances, but the cost-cutting measures of how we treat our employees now say more about us as firms than anything else. The world is watching—and that means our corporate and other institutional clients are watching too. With businesses under heightened scrutiny, it is essential that we act in good faith when responding to the crisis as our clients are paying closer attention than ever before and may be considering your firm’s crisis response when issuing legal work.
Reopening of Office Space
In the coming weeks (if not months) law firms will begin to untangle the logistics of employees returning to the office. Chief Executive’s article, “Managing the Big Risk of Bringing Your Employees Back to Work,” offers perspective on the many new policies and procedures businesses will need to implement as we enter a new way of working in the legal industry and beyond. A few of the new considerations include: whether or not to require employees—and visitors—to sign a waiver stating they are symptom free before they can enter the office; staggering entrance locations, meal times, breaks and even converting hallways to one-way only; creating reporting policies for symptoms noticed by employees; and limiting the number of people who can congregate or meet in one location. In addition to all of those new policies and restrictions, firms must understand what is legally required if it is discovered that an infected person has visited our work premises.
Continued Marketing and Business Development
We can all agree that the pandemic’s impact is and will continue to be vast and widespread and as a result, so will the uptick in lawsuits that arise from it. While some litigators will likely see a barrage of new cases, many attorneys must focus on marketing themselves and developing business during this shift. Digital marketing tools—from social media to email campaigns to websites—have never been more critical to law firms than right now. If your attention to these assets has fallen to the wayside, it’s time to reprioritize. Ensure that you and your firm are connecting with past, current and potential clients through the avenues where you can most easily and effectively reach them during the crisis. Furthermore, while face to face interactions have come to a halt, you can still utilize online resources to connect with your network through phone or video calls or via large scale webinars and virtual networking events. Using digital channels to raise awareness of your expertise and foster new and existing relationships should be key elements of your business continuity strategy.
Remembering We Are All Human
First and foremost, we should all be concerned about the health and well-being of our employees and their families. For those of us in law firm management, our days have not grown shorter, but instead, many of us are now working 10- to 12-hour days almost seven days a week. Our plates are filled with managing teams who are acclimating to working from home, and struggling to keep up with the self-discipline that’s required to be productive and have an efficient work day. More broadly, COVID-19 has heightened the many challenges we face in our daily lives and the struggle to stay afloat. Whether we are caring for and trying to educate our own children or worried about our aging parents, as employers, we need to remember the toll that mental health is taking on our employees. To be clear, it’s not a matter of if our employees’ mental health will be impacted but a matter of just how much. Social distancing should raise concern about feelings of isolation and its impact on employees’ mental health and their ability to effectively work remotely. If your firm has under 30 people, consider a weekly or bi-weekly firmwide Zoom call or Google Hangout to keep people engaged and boost morale. For larger firms, consider having departmentwide video calls. Either way, balance these meetings with nonwork-related topics in addition to firm updates as most employees are eager to remain connected while staying informed about the status of firm business.
For instance, the other day I had a conference call scheduled for the exact time my daughter was starting her second online class of her school day. With rising Zoom security concerns, her school district switched from Zoom to Google for all of its online teaching. Needless to say, the conversion didn’t happen smoothly, and I was late to my call as I was trying repeatedly to get her link to connect so she could participate. My daughter was flustered and embarrassed for having gotten to class “late,” and I was also worked up by the time my call started. Despite what occurred, it was still a good day. It took me a few minutes to regain my composure and stop my mind from spinning before taking my call. Fast forward to writing this, shortly after my daughter went to sleep—late I may add—while I spend some time catching up on law school work that has long been left behind.
If anything, COVID-19 has shown us that the legal industry can change, and can do so swiftly and effectively. We are all navigating unchartered waters and will be setting examples for generations to come on how we responded and handle this crisis—as our businesses depend on it. As we continue to untangle the knot that this pandemic has weaved, we should be reminded of the preamble of the ABA’s Model Rules for Professional Conduct which states: “a lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”
Reprinted with permission from the April 23, 2020 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.