Will BigLaw Pass COVID-19's Test On Working From Home?

By Xiumei Dong
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Law360 (March 16, 2020, 5:36 PM EDT) -- As the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, law firms have rolled out policies to let their attorneys and staff work remotely. But in an industry that has traditionally relied on face-to-face communication, firms will face a major test in having much of their workforces at home for a long period of time.

How it goes could potentially make working from home more common. Still, those at firms that long ago adopted such practices said BigLaw has some catching up to do when it comes to adopting the necessary infrastructure.

Several law firms have already temporarily shuttered their offices due to COVID-19 virus, or had the vast majority of their lawyers and staff begin working remotely.

"What I predict will happen is that people will go through this stage with some difficulty because their models and their culture were not designed for this," said Michael Moradzadeh, co-founding partner and CEO of alternative law firm Rimon PC.

Moradzadeh, who has been running a virtual law firm remotely for the past 12 years, agreed that the changes implemented by law firms to combat the virus will have some effect on the legal industry, but pointed out that it's more challenging for firms to operate business as usual if they lack the technology infrastructure or flexible working policies.

"When people are working from home and they don't have the home office set up, they aren't trained on how to collaborate in the cloud. They don't have the technology infrastructure, the staff doesn't know how to do that either," Moradzadeh said. "So they're going to find it to be actually very difficult."

Several law firms have already temporarily shuttered their offices due to COVID-19 virus, or had the vast majority of their lawyers and staff begin working remotely.

Last week, Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP closed all 22 of its U.S. offices for a day after a visitor to its Washington, D.C., office tested positive for the disease. As of Wednesday, most of its offices had reopened.

"On Tuesday, March 10, we supported over 1,700 colleagues simultaneously working remotely during our precautionary office closures," Faegre Drinker's Chief Operating Officer Jane Koehl told Law360 in a statement. "While we have always afforded our attorneys and professional consultants the flexibility to work remotely as needed, we are enhancing our remote working policies across our talent population given the impact COVID-19 is having across our communities."

Koehl noted that the firm had the same arrangement for colleagues in Beijing and Shanghai during China's government-mandated closure of offices in both cities in February.

"Our goal is to ensure our colleagues across all markets have the technology tools they need to stay healthy and safe while continuing to collaborate and provide important support to firm clients," she added.

Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP is having its New York lawyers work from home after a partner tested positive for the coronavirus earlier in the month. Davis Wright Tremaine LLP has closed its Seattle and Bellevue, Washington, offices after one of its executive legal assistants died after reporting flu-like symptoms.

Even without any kind of specific link to an infected person, a slew of other firms, including Reed Smith LLP, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, have also instructed personnel to work from home, and that list only appears to be growing.

Several other firms, including Hogan Lovells and Linklaters LLP, also announced that they are undergoing stress tests for their information technology networks in order to prepare their attorneys to work remotely.

"Stress testing or load testing is one part of the much larger mosaic. Whether law firms across the country can catch up, probably depends on size, availability and a number of other features," said Mark Schreiber, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery LLP whose practice focuses on cybersecurity and data breaches.

Even if firms' servers are up to the challenge, there are other issues such as ensuring adequate cybersecurity when leveraging a remote access service, Schreiber said, noting that coronavirus-themed phishing emails have targeted legal professionals.

While some firms are scrambling to put together a plan to accommodate their attorneys, for those that already leverage cloud-based services and remote work, business has mostly continued as usual.

"Most of it is not actually all that complicated to set up, meaning that it's about having all your software easily accessible in one working place, securely, through the cloud," Moradzadeh said. "Most firms can do that pretty easily. They just haven't really made it a priority."

Patent boutique McBee Moore & Vanik LLC has been giving its entire 25-person the flexibility to work remotely for the past four years. According to co-founder Susan McBee, the firm invested early on in infrastructure to digitize all documents, which allows it to stay ahead of firms that are now grappling with the prospect of an entirely remote workforce.

"That's a barrier to entry for a lot of companies because they always have to digitize stuff, and then they can [go] paperless," McBee said. "But when we started our firm we were already completely paperless."

Acknowledging the importance of the "face-to-face ability" to collaborate on work, McBee added that the firm does have two offices attorneys can use. But she said it is important to stay in constant communication using products such as Slack and Microsoft Teams during the coronavirus outbreak.

"With the coronavirus, maybe they will keep [remote work policies] in place," McBee said of other firms. "I would hope so. It will be great, because ... a lot of the clients do not embrace that old style anymore. The clients are working remotely."

The legal industry traditionally has gotten a bad rap for being stiff and inflexible when it comes to letting their attorneys working from home. That has slowly improved with the advancement of technology, but it still wasn't a norm before the coronavirus pandemic.

Just last month, former Levi & Korsinsky LLP partner Amy Miller filed a sex discrimination lawsuit accusing her former employer of docking her vacation time because she occasionally worked from home to care for her children. In her complaint, Miller alleges she was underpaid and ultimately got fired because of the name partners' bias against working mothers.

Moradzadeh, who is the father of three kids ages 4, 7 and 9, also said that working from home allows him to take care of his children amid school closures.

"Once things do settle down over the course of the next year or more, I think it's going to become more obvious to firms that this is something they need to prepare for in the future," Moradzadeh said. "And then that will cause them to make the changes to the infrastructure that are necessary in order to allow for successfully working remotely."

As someone with more than a decade of experience working in a home environment, Moradzadeh shared some of his tips for newly remote attorneys.

"You need to feel like you're going to work," Moradzadeh said. "So dress up like you regularly would. If possible, if your home allows for it, try and have a designated place for work that's separate from the rest of your home, so that when you're working you're focused on work and it feels like your work."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misgendered a Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP executive. The error has been corrected.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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