How COVID-19 Is Upending Law Firms' Everyday Rainmaking

By Natalie Rodriguez
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Law360 (March 6, 2020, 6:38 PM EST) -- In the past few weeks, BigLaw has jumped to respond to the spread of the coronavirus.

Firms have created new task forces to deal with clients' coronavirus-specific issues. Partner retreats have been canceled. Lawyers have had to cope with travel restrictions, investigation slowdowns and courtroom interruptions.

Another area being hit by COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, is business development, although its impact on the pipeline of work may not immediately be apparent, experts said.

"The real impact is on travel for business development, and that will not be felt for several months," said legal industry consultant Edwin Reeser.

With firms clamping down on travel and facing the prospect of having to put whole offices on remote work status, the often face-to-face work of business development is getting temporarily sidelined or requiring creative shifts in strategies, according to experts.

"Travel restrictions and cancellations of events are among the biggest impacts of the coronavirus from the tactical side of the business development perspective," said Meg Sullivan, Paul Hastings LLP's chief business development officer and corporate social responsibility officer.

Most firms are figuring that rainmakers can reschedule such meetings for later, when the risk of infection is lower. The larger priority is serving current client matters, according to experts.

"Based on the conversations we've had, that is viewed at the far end of discretionary," said Bruce MacEwan of legal consulting firm Adam Smith Esq. LLC. "Nothing bad is going to happen if I don't meet a prospect in the next six weeks."

MacEwan noted that he has heard of a global firm that canceled all nonessential travel for April and May.

"Business development would be squarely viewed as nonessential," said MacEwan.

Arnold & Porter in late February advised attorneys to postpone or suspend nonessential travel, and Haynes and Boone LLP, which banned travel to high-risk countries flagged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is also leaving other travel up to attorneys' discretion.

"We are also allowing our employees who travel regularly to suspend travel domestically or internationally, if they so desire," Tim Powers, Haynes and Boone's managing partner, said in a statement to Law360.

At litigation boutique Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss PLLC, lawyers are not traveling to the countries that have been flagged by the CDC as particularly high risk: China, Italy, South Korea and Iran. "Other than that, we are just waiting and paying attention," said Eric Lewis, a name partner at the firm.

Lewis, who spoke with Law360 on Thursday, said he personally is preparing to fly to Pakistan in a few days for business. While there have been some COVID-19 cases there, he is not ready to cancel yet, noting there have been only a handful of cases in a country with a population of nearly 200 million.

Lewis, however, said his firm is prepared to work remotely and that business development wouldn't stop altogether if that happened. Among the ways to continue business development is sending information notes and newsletters to clients, he said.

"But there is no substitute for sitting in a room and talking to people," Lewis said.

Along with private meetings with rainmakers, larger conferences aimed at prospective clients are also being affected by the spread of the virus.

"On the marketing side, events are in the spotlight. Whether hosting programs ourselves, attending seminars or giving presentations, the decision to proceed, postpone or cancel is impacting business development," said Chris Flaherty, chief business development officer at Nossaman LLP.

Flaherty noted that some in-person events have been turned into webinars, while others are forging ahead. "How the next few weeks play out will have a significant impact on a full slate of Q2 events," he said.

When it comes to large events, law firm leaders are primarily concerned about having a significant contingent of their lawyers exposed to the virus and getting sick, but there is also concern about those attorneys getting quarantined if there is suddenly an outbreak of the virus where an event is planned, MacEwan said.

"That's a scenario I heard posited as the primary rationale for canceling a London conference for a New York firm," he said.

While some of the more traditional business development strategies are being adjusted to work amid the coronavirus outbreak, attorneys also have an opening to pitch themselves to clients on virus-specific issues.

"On the client side, COVID-19 presents attorneys with an opportunity to apply what they know about their clients' business operations to help them plan," said Flaherty. "Everything from supply chain contracts and fulfillment obligations to workplace safety and employee leave policies may be impacted."

Paul Hastings' Sullivan said attorneys at her firm are continuing to connect with clients through in-person meetings in low-risk areas and via technology to work on virus-related issues.

Like the potential economic impact on law firms' recruiting and staffing level, the impact of COVID-19 will depend largely on how long the virus rattles the market and likely won't make a long-term mark unless the outbreak lasts six months or more, according to experts.

"The other big consideration here is you're not necessarily at a competitive disadvantage, because this is happening to the industry," said MacEwan. "All the runners are running in sand."

--Additional reporting by Cara Bayles. Editing by Jill Coffey.

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