How 3 Firms Are Confronting The Obstacles Of Reopening

By Aebra Coe
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Law360 (June 10, 2020, 8:01 PM EDT) -- As law firms begin the process of reopening their offices to attorneys and staff after closures precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic, members of firm management are grappling with thorny issues surrounding how they can do so as safely as possible.

Some major concerns of law firm management include how to accommodate attorneys and staff in buildings not designed for social distancing, how employees can get to and from work while remaining safe and healthy, and what policies to put in place to ensure employees are following recommended health guidelines and practices while in the office.

Some firms are further along than others, with a few solely in the planning stages and others dipping their toes into reopening in certain cities.

Here's a look at how three firms — Levenfeld Pearlstein, Ulmer & Berne and Reed Smith — are tackling the obstacles facing them.

Levenfeld Pearlstein

Levenfeld Pearlstein LLC's chief operating officer, Kevin Corrigan, said the Chicago-based law firm plans to begin moving back to its offices when Illinois' governor initiates "phase four" of the state's plan to reopen, which will allow larger gatherings. He said he expects that to happen near the end of June or beginning of July.

The firm has put together a checklist for reopening based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state guidelines, city guidelines and landlord guidance, he said.

Levenfeld Pearlstein has an office in Chicago on the top of a two-story building, and the landlord plans to limit the number of people allowed on the elevator to three at a time. Corrigan said he has heard from law firm managers who have offices in high-rises that are "pulling their hair out" over how such restrictions will complicate elevator use in buildings with many floors and many people.

"It's going to be a real nightmare for some of those larger buildings," he said.

According to Corrigan, Levenfeld Pearlstein's attorneys and staff will go back to the office in stages, starting with its 9,000-square-foot satellite office in the Chicago suburb Northbrook and later looking at a return to the 53,000-square-foot Chicago office.

The firm plans to create staggered offices and work areas to better allow for social distancing and will create one-way directional hallways to ease foot traffic congestion. Everyone will be required to wear a mask unless they're alone in their individual office.

The firm will also shut down all shared areas of the office, such as its coffee area and lunch room, and appliances like microwaves. Bathrooms will have signs reminding people of social distancing. Every other stall will be closed, and disinfectant wipes will be available to open and close bathroom doors.

"We'll have the janitors do a deep clean that meets CDC guidelines [before opening] and then will populate those offices and have them deep cleaned on a nightly basis," Corrigan said.

The firm will distribute a training video that outlines the new health and safety protocols and lets employees know what to expect when they arrive. It will also provide a welcome kit with a mask, hand sanitizer and a few other odds and ends, Corrigan said.

Ulmer & Berne

Ulmer & Berne LLP, which has seven offices in four states and Washington, D.C., is further along in its reopening process. The law firm is headquartered in Ohio and, according to managing partner Scott Kadish, began reopening its three Ohio offices June 1. Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., will take longer.

The firm's Cincinnati office typically had around 100 people arriving for work each day before the coronavirus hit. As of last week, around 25% of those people had returned under a voluntary policy, about two-thirds of which were lawyers, Kadish said.

Similar policies are in place in the firm's Cleveland and Columbus offices, with a similarly small percentage of people showing up as of yet. The firm has closed communal areas such as kitchens and is requiring the use of masks when people are out of their personal offices.

In Chicago and New York, the firm has no date set for reopening. In addition to a higher number of virus cases and higher population densities in those cities, work commutes are typically via public transportation — where social distancing is difficult if not impossible. In Ohio, especially in Cincinnati and Columbus, the vast majority of employees travel to work by car, Kadish said.

"In our policies about reopening, we tried to make clear that, if possible, we'd like you to not use public transportation and if you do, please make sure you're using a mask at all times and washing your hands," he said.

The use of elevators and sharing them with other people in the buildings "has been our biggest worry," Kadish said.

Three people are allowed on the elevator at the Cincinnati office, where Kadish works, and he said he hasn't yet experienced any issues like long lines. But the building is still at a very low capacity, he said.

As things begin to ramp up, Kadish said he expects the firm may need to implement staggered scheduling to ease congestion in the building.

"Some of the things we've done may be overboard, but we did them to make sure everyone felt safe," he said.

Reed Smith

Reed Smith LLP is one of the world's largest law firms, making reopening during a pandemic a logistical challenge that involves moving at a different pace in different locations and paying close attention to local health authorities and laws.

The firm's chief of office services, Philip Page, said it has begun opening in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Reed Smith employees have returned to offices, at partial capacity, in Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Dubai, Frankfurt, Munich and Paris.

In the U.S., the firm's Miami office was the first to begin reopening, on June 4, and its Chicago office began the first stage of reopening on Monday, Page said.

Other locations will likely follow over the course of June, but New York and London are still a major question mark, he said.

"Those two big metro areas are the ones where I would say we're still a ways away," Page said. "The real challenge is navigating public transportation in those big metro areas."

Throughout the pandemic, the firm has had a minimal number of staff coming and going from the office, and it provided parking passes and did everything possible to help those employees avoid using public transportation, he said. But as more people head back to work, that will be "a little more challenging," he said.

Traversing elevators is also a concern at the firm's offices in larger buildings.

"We know from engagement with the landlords ... that there will be hall monitors controlling elevator use. In some of the smaller locations, that will be a challenge and we'll be self-policing with signage," he said.

Reed Smith will keep track of the number of people in its offices at a given time to make sure not to exceed a capacity that allows for proper social distancing. It will also implement staggered work times as the number of people returning to offices increases.

And the firm has developed a form for employees to fill out before they arrive, declaring that they are free of symptoms of COVID-19 and do not have a fever.

"We're not collecting health data; we're just asking them to confirm that they are fit and healthy enough to come into the office," Page said. "We have similar systems built internally for managing visitors and third parties coming in."

--Editing by Aaron Pelc and Orlando Lorenzo.

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