How Firms Can Rise Above COVID-19's Unwelcome Changes

By Michele Gorman
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Law360 (March 26, 2020, 6:29 PM EDT) -- Multiple office closures, pressing family responsibilities, challenges in how to best communicate with clients — the COVID-19 outbreak has brought on a difficult new reality for law firms, but there are ways to ease that pain, speakers said Thursday during a webinar.

The three firm panelists who participated in cloud-based discovery platform Logikcull's hourlong webinar shared their strategies and best practices, and offered words of encouragement to assist lawyers operating outside of their normal routines.

"We left the normal world a little bit ago, and we're in this new paradigm," said panelist Will Delgado, a founding partner at DTO Law.

Here, the panelists explain three unexpected situations their firms hadn't extensively contemplated ahead of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Closing Every Office at Once

Across the globe, the pandemic has resulted in the vast majority of the population working from home — from lawyers and their partners to their children.

At a larger firm like Houston-based Vinson & Elkins LLP, lawyers previously hadn't spent much time thinking about all offices closing simultaneously.

"We contemplated, 'What do we do if a hurricane hits Houston?'" said speaker Jennifer Williams, director of practice support and office services at Vinson & Elkins. "We didn't contemplate, 'What if all of our offices are out all at the same time?'"

She added, "This is completely new territory for everyone."

Local measures are emerging quickly as governments respond to the pandemic. Each day, firms with employees and clients across jurisdictions are trying to get up to speed on new mandates.

At Harrang Long Gary Rudnick PC, leaders had formed an information technology plan in case the Oregon-based firm was forced to shut down its physical outposts. But they didn't have a sense of what to do when everyone experiences a disaster — and experiences it differently, said panelist Aaron Crockett, ediscovery counsel.

"Our clients are all over the country," he said. "We're dealing with different courts being closed to different extents, and that's been an issue, as well as even local counsel having differing levels of, one, knowledge of the situation and, two, ability to deal with it."

Troubleshooting with Staff, Clients

The first big hurdle for Crockett to overcome was educating staff on Microsoft Teams. The platform had been installed for at least a year, but most users hadn't touched it until last week. Once he helped familiarize others with the tool, he was able to share his computer screen to walk them through the software they suddenly needed to learn.

"A lot of particularly the older generation are not quite as comfortable in exploring the interface and just seeing what all the options do," he said. "It was really just a matter of introducing them to the interface and guiding them through it."

Regarding communicating with clients, many firms have been walking a fine line between proactively reaching out through emails or direct mail and overloading them with information, according to the panelists.

Vinson & Elkins attorneys across practice areas immediately went into problem-solving mode for their clients, both proactively contacting them to share information, as well as responding to inquiries about dealing with certain issues, from labor to safety, Williams said.

Crockett added that his firm composed a brief message to inform clients that everyone is still working, answering their phones and handling clients' issues, and then left it to the discretion of the attorneys in charge of the relationships whether to send the email. Some clients are overwhelmed with these kinds of emails, while others might benefit from them, he said.

Moderator Robert Hilson, a senior director of marketing at Logikcull, agreed, summing it up by suggesting firms be mindful in their communications.

"If you are going to say something, it really needs to offer some value," he said. "It can't just be another piece of spam that everybody is getting from everyone right now."

Shifting to a Remote Mindset

Meanwhile, firm leaders are also grappling with counseling their teams through the ongoing situation, keeping the mood as light as possible and helping lawyers separate work and home life.

Anecdotally, Delgado said some lawyers are worried about efficiently and effectively completing their jobs because they need to, say, feed lunch to their child.

"Let's call it what it is: That's a hard situation," he said. "I think leadership needs to really make sure that those people who might feel that way understand that we get it."

It's crucial for managers to be understanding with the "asynchronous workday" that will likely pop up and convey to their teams that there won't be negative repercussions if someone needs to step away to help a child with remote learning or prepare a snack for a group of kids, Delgado said.

Williams agreed, saying she has been sharing practical tips and reminders that "it's all going to be OK," while encouraging her colleagues to remain calm and appropriately balance their personal and professional lives.

"I think the primary thing that we're trying to message to our teams is to just take care of yourself so that you can take care of everybody else," she said. "It's super easy to get up and start working in your PJ pants, and then you realize, 'Oh my gosh, it's 10 o'clock at night and I never ate lunch.'"

To set boundaries, she has suggested her team members use an out-of-office email function to help them unplug outside of their normal working hours or while completing a project.

"Helping people feel empowered to set their boundaries when they're working at home a little bit differently than they would in the office is very important," she said. "It's OK for you to not be checking your email just because you can from midnight to 3 a.m. I think that it gets really intrusive really quickly if people let it."

As she donned a crown on her head during the webinar, Williams said she also tries to interject humor whenever possible.

"I think it's my job as the manager and as the director of both of those groups to help them lighten the mood," she said. "It's a very heavy time right now in our country, and this is scary stuff for a lot of people."

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

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