How Firms In Michigan Are Handling A Statewide Lockdown

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (March 27, 2020, 5:22 PM EDT) -- Michigan is one of a handful of states that have issued statewide executive orders requiring residents to stay at home amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, and large law firms with offices in the state say they had already begun making the transition to a remote workforce, which has made it go a little smoother.

According to Dickinson Wright PLLC CEO Michael Hammer, all 18 of his firm's offices — six of which are in Michigan — and 1,000 lawyers and staff went remote on March 17, two days before California issued an executive order to keep workers home, the first state to do so, and a week before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's March 24 order.

"We had enough time to mentally prepare ourselves and ensure our transition would be seamless," Hammer said. "We are confident that our remote systems are working and can handle the increased load. So far, so good."

Under Whitmer's executive order, everyone in the state is required to suspend activities that are not "necessary to sustain or protect life," with the exception of critical infrastructure workers, which did not include law firms under the order. Firms are permitted to allow a small number of staff to go into the office to "conduct minimum basic operations."

As of Friday afternoon, Michigan had reported 3,657 residents had tested positive for COVID-19. And of those, 1,075 cases were in Detroit, the state's largest city and home to many of its large law firms.

Michael McGee, CEO of Detroit-based Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone PLC, said that as of Wednesday, 99% of the firm's workforce was remote. The law firm has 18 offices worldwide, including six in Michigan.

McGee, too, said his law firm began to transition to remote work earlier than required, and relied on a long history of its attorneys working from home before the pandemic in order to be able to do that with minimal disruption.

"We have invested in the technology over the last decade, so our technology is very robust and hasn't had any difficulty in sustaining everybody online," McGee said.

That 1% that is not working from home? As of Wednesday, they were still going to the offices because physical mail was still being sent there and needed to be opened, sorted and scanned for attorneys, he said.

While its lawyers were accustomed to working remotely, transitioning staff was a bigger task, according to McGee, although the firm does have "ample" technology to make that adjustment and the firm has been able to continue to keep all of its staff working amid the crisis.

"We haven't laid anyone off and don't plan to lay anyone off. Really the work venue has changed, but we've replicated our business outside the offices," he said.

Hammer said his firm's attorneys were also accustomed to working from home, but transitioning its 500 staff was a bigger lift.

"Right after imposing the restrictions on March 6, we started preparing for the staff transition," he said. "Given the geographic dispersion of our offices and the differing approaches taken by the local and state governments and even our various landlords, it became apparent that office closures were inevitable and it wasn't viable to try to handle different regions in a fragmentary fashion."

He said the firm has been able to get all of its staff working remotely, and nobody has been laid off.

Leaders at Varnum LLP, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Barnes & Thornburg LLP, which has three Michigan offices, said their workforces were mostly or entirely transitioned to working from home by March 18, before the executive order was put into place.

"Perhaps ironically, being physically apart has brought us together. Our lawyers are learning new ways to work and stay connected. A crisis provides a great opportunity for growth and strengthening bonds. We are doing both," Varnum chair Ronald DeWaard said.

Barnes & Thornburg Michigan managing partner Robert Stead said his law firm has relied on its business continuity plan and technology infrastructure to allow its employees to work remotely.

"What we've seen to date is that all legal and business support functions remain in operation uninterrupted. We've certainly had to make adjustments along the way as new developments unfold, but our team has pulled together in a tough and ever-shifting climate to continue to serve clients with the key issues they are facing," Stead said.

McGee said Miller Canfield is prepared to work remotely "for the long haul," and may even consider a more extensive remote working program after the pandemic is contained.

"Once this crisis passes, there will be a number of people who have grown very accustomed and comfortable with this situation and may want to continue working remotely even when the governor's order is gone," he said. "We might see a more or less permanent change in how lawyers work."

--Editing by Brian Baresch and Alanna Weissman.

Clarification: This story has been updated with the full name of Varnum LLP.

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