COVID-19 Crisis A 'Sea Change' For Boston Lawyers

By Chris Villani
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Law360 (May 26, 2020, 9:13 PM EDT) -- This is part one of a three-part series on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the Boston-area legal industry. Part one focuses on lawyers and law firms, part two on law schools and students, and part three on the judiciary.

Joseph Laferrera started planning for an extended work-from-home period back in early February, though he admits he never really expected it to be needed. A virus was spreading in China, causing lockdowns there and warnings that it could soon hit American shores.

Now, the managing partner of Gesmer Updegrove LLP in Boston is an example of being ahead of the curve. Law360 spoke with managing partners in Massachusetts-based firms of various sizes, along with legal industry analysts, and the consensus is clear: From smaller firm headcounts to more virtual hearings, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will linger long after the virus has stopped spreading.

"It's a bleak landscape right now," said Martin Healy, chief legal officer and chief operating officer at the Massachusetts Bar Association. "People are hoping for the best, but I think this is going to dramatically alter the way we practice law in the future."

Lawyers will work remotely more often, law firms will likely have smaller footprints in Boston and some attorneys will be looking to leave the big city for smaller firms in suburban areas, experts said.

Those are just a few of the coronavirus-induced changes that may become permanent fixtures of the state's legal landscape.

"I don't think firms are going to go back to the traditional ways of doing things," Healy said. "This is a moment where there is a complete sea change in the way things are going to be conducted from now on."

Defining the 'new normal'

In a sign that the changes have already begun, some of Boston's biggest firms have recently shifted plans or announced cutbacks.

At Mintz Levin, partner draws have been reduced and the firm said it would cut base pay by 5% for professional staff earning more than $75,000 and paraprofessionals, and 10% for associates. Ropes & Gray is offering buyouts to all of its support team employees in the U.S., while Goodwin Procter said it had to lay off some employees and shorten its summer program.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker did not mention the courts when he unveiled his four-phase plan to reopen the state. Trials have been put on hold at both the state and federal level, and all hearings are being conducted remotely unless it's an emergency matter that cannot be handled over the phone or through video conference.

Practicing law without being in an office or courthouse is likely to be part of the "new normal."

"The industry is going to be built around an assumption that people don't have to physically be in the office to do their jobs," said Martin Fantozzi, the director in Goulston & Storrs' Boston office.

At Gesmer Updegrove's offices in Boston's financial district, the firm has begun thinking about a complete overhaul of its technological infrastructure to allow for more work to be done remotely.

"Clients are going to expect it. It's going to be far more commonplace — a lot less flying around and fewer in-person meetings," Laferrera said. "Everyday communications are now going to be done on Zoom."

Creativity and cutbacks

When the crisis began and the courts closed, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote a letter to the state bar, urging unity and creativity to help weather the pandemic. Many firms have heeded that call.

McLane Middleton LLP, which has more than 100 lawyers practicing in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, has been hosting a weekly social Zoom call at 5 p.m. on Fridays, as well as weekly virtual trivia contests where self-made teams duke it out for some fun and camaraderie.

The firm, which has a trusts and estates practice, has also done dozens of outdoor signings of wills and trusts, many for anxious health care workers who want to make sure their affairs are in order. Managing partner Barry Needleman said the client prepares the paperwork, the attorneys pull up in a car wearing masks and gloves, and they try to use proper social distancing while getting the papers signed.

Attorneys say firms may be rethinking their staffing, operating more leanly when able. While Boston's legal industry has not seen a large number of layoffs, furloughs or salary reductions — at least not publicly — Healy said there is talk of it happening quietly.

"Law firms are pretty resilient and they will learn to adapt to the new landscape, but there still won't be the demand for the number of attorneys there were prior to the pandemic," Healy said. "There certainly won't be the need for the number of attorneys that are practicing now."

Nearly every firm Law360 spoke with said billable hours are down and hiring has slowed, if not paused altogether. At Goulston & Storrs, Fantozzi said the partner draw has been reduced.

All these changes could spur deal-making in the industry, said Deborah Manus, former managing partner at Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP.

"It's not impossible to imagine that some firms could fail or others would struggle, and if that happens, we are going to see an increase in lateral movement and increase in law firm mergers and acquisitions," she said. "You might see some more combinations."

In addition to firms, individual lawyers might rethink where they want to work. McLane Middleton's Needleman said he is seeing an uptick in interest from lawyers, including those at BigLaw firms, who are working in large metropolitan areas — some of them COVID-19 hot spots — and are looking to get out of the city and live and work in the suburbs.

"We are seeing some interesting resumes," he said.

Litigation silver linings

Some practices are busier than ever, such as employment lawyers whose clients are looking for help navigating the various government aid packages and just trying to survive amid the crisis.

"Larger law firms will see the layoffs, the furloughs, the salary cutbacks — all of that is a reaction to the immediate decline in the revenue stream, but it really does vary depending on what practice you're in," said Lawrence Friedman, a professor at New England Law Boston.

"If you're in employment law, you've never had more work to do," Friedman added. "Everything going on as a result of the pandemic is literally creating new kinds of employment issues without any precedent."

There's also an influx of criminal defense work. Prison depopulation suits and motions for compassionate release, especially for nonviolent, white collar criminals, have become far more common as lawyers work to get clients out of facilities where social distancing is difficult or impossible.

One silver lining could be an anticipated spike in litigation when the new normal begins to sink in, according to Todd & Weld LLP managing partner Chris Weld.

"I can think of all sorts of ways the impact of COVID is going to be spawning litigation," said Weld, whose firm is exclusively litigation-based. "You're going to have people who have stopped paying their rent, either residential or commercial. You're going to have a lot of contract issues where you're running into arguments that say, 'I breached but it's excluded because I couldn't perform for one reason or another because of the pandemic.'"

Long term, attorneys and analysts agree that more versatile firms, with lawyers able to spread their talents to different practice areas when they might have less work in their primary area, will succeed. Boston's place as a regional hub for technology, health care, life sciences and other industries will also help buoy the legal world.

But, as is the case for nearly every industry, the road ahead will be challenging.

"The pandemic has really turned the legal community on its head," Healy said. "People are, like anything, learning to adapt to it."

--Additional reporting by Brian Dowling. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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