How Will BigLaw Handle A US Outbreak? Ask Firms In China

Law360 (March 2, 2020, 8:18 PM EST) -- Two days before the Chinese New Year holiday, a case of coronavirus was reported in the vast office complex that houses Squire Patton Boggs LLP’s Shanghai practice. The firm’s office shut down. Then, by government order, its attorneys couldn’t return for weeks.

Now, most of Squire’s Shanghai lawyers are back at their desks, but they’re taking precautions. The firm adjusted its office hours by 30 minutes, so lawyers can avoid riding the elevator during peak traffic times. Squire is also paying for employees to take taxis and ride-shares rather than risk exposure on the subway. In the office they’re required to wear face masks, and to clean their phones, computers and workspaces with firm-supplied sanitary wipes.

After five weeks of slogging through the coronavirus outbreak, Daniel Roules, a partner in Shanghai, is now advising his U.S. counterparts about how to prepare should the virus continue to spread here.

“We’ve had discussions with different offices — not just in the U.S., but colleagues in Korea, as well — telling them some of the experiences we’ve had and sharing some of the best practices we’ve found,” he said. “We’re making sure people have the necessary resources.”

With a rash of new outbreaks in U.S. coastal cities, the first domestic cases of coronavirus without an apparent link to foreign travel, and the stock market having its worst week since the 2008 recession, law firms stateside are preparing for the worst.

To know what a pandemic could mean for the legal industry in the U.S. — where there were more than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Monday — look to BigLaw offices in China, where the number of infections has topped 80,000.

Travel Restrictions

As the death toll in China climbed from 26 to 56 to 106 over the course of three days in late January, more and more travel restrictions were imposed within mainland China, particularly for travelers coming from Hubei Province, where the virus is believed to have originated.

Even though the rate of recovery in China has now surpassed the number of new infections, at Chinese BigLaw offices, many client meetings have moved to the cloud, according to Xiao Liu, a Shanghai-based partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan LLP.

“The epidemic has made business trips around China more difficult,” Liu told Law360 in an email. “Many China-based clients are postponing our business trips and/or switching otherwise in-person meetings to virtual meetings.”

By the end of February, several BigLaw firms’ U.S. offices had put restrictions on business travel to countries the Centers for Disease Control have deemed high-risk: China, South Korea, Italy, Japan and Iran. Firms including Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP, Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP and Wolf Greenfield & Sacks PC have required attorneys returning from those countries self-quarantine for two weeks before returning to work.

Some firms are beginning to discourage other travel as well.

Arnold & Porter advised its attorneys last week to “to postpone or suspend other nonessential international business travel” beyond the five countries identified by the CDC. Nossaman LLP, which only has offices in the U.S., is encouraging attorneys to use video and telephone conferencing in lieu of interoffice travel, according to the firm’s managing partner, George Joseph.

Even Houston-based IP firm Patterson & Sheridan LLP, which uses a private jet to shuttle its attorneys between Texas and Silicon Valley, is looking into rescheduling trips slotted for this month, a firm representative told Law360.

Disruptions in business travel could affect not only client meetings, but also depositions and court appearances. Firms with a large national footprint might weather out-of-town litigation challenges more easily than their smaller counterparts, thanks to their ability to tap local talent rather than risk travel.

But litigators might be able to breathe easy, because judges are also developing a game plan.

A spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts indicated in a statement that the federal judiciary is taking measures to “ensure the continuation of essential functions and services during a pandemic.” Those ranged from “promoting three feet of separation between individuals” to “substituting teleconferencing for face-to-face meetings.”

“Each court unit may also establish a pandemic/infectious disease emergency response team to tailor activities to their particular circuit or district,” the judiciary spokesperson said.

Working Remotely

After Squire’s Shanghai landlord closed its building, Roules was eager to return to work.

“From a client perspective, I’m not sure it matters; as long as we’re getting the work done, we could do it from home,” he said. “For our people, I think it helps to have stability and structure in their lives.”

But it was also helpful to have the technology that allowed attorneys to work from home while the office was shut down. And the building’s temporary closure may provide a cautionary tale for U.S. BigLaw offices.

Such scenarios might put “virtual” law firms at an advantage, according to Grant Walsh, co-founder and managing partner of cloud-based firm Culhane Meadows PLLC.

“Whether it’s the coronavirus or ice storms that shut down major cities, all of our attorneys are accustomed to telecommuting each day with our secure online platform, our video conference and document sharing technologies,” Walsh said in an email. “This unique structure allows us to go about business as usual.”

That’s also true at FisherBroyles LLP, which global managing partner Michael Pierson called “a distributed law firm partnership.”

“We interact with each other the same way that any traditional law firm partnership would interact. The only difference is we don’t physically sit together in an office every day,” he said.

Unlike brick-and-mortar firms, FisherBroyles can leave decisions about travel and health precautions to individual attorneys. And the firm’s document management system and virtual private network lend them flexibility, whatever they decide.

Even traditional BigLaw offices with robust telecommuting options may be at an advantage. Jackson Lewis PC implemented a work-from-home policy in 2017 for anyone who had been at the firm for more than two years. And while its technology team is preparing to potentially expand its capabilities if need be, the firm may be better prepared for a pandemic than it was four years ago.

“Over the last several years, we have invested heavily in technology and it allows us to access resources remotely — including handling litigation files — rather easily,” the firm’s co-chairs, William Anthony and Kevin Lauri, said in a statement. The benefit in this case is that we are significantly more prepared for a possible [coronavirus pandemic] than we were before.”

Many firms have such technology in place for attorneys. But at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, preparations for a pandemic include ensuring there are enough VPN licenses so that nonattorney staff members can also connect remotely, according to the firm’s chief human resources officer, Kathleen Pearson.

Representatives for WilmerHale, Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst LLP and Wolf Greenfield said they, too, are ensuring they have the technology in place to allow for broad work-from-home access by employees.

Disaster Plans

When asked about their plans should coronavirus hit pandemic proportions, many firm leaders said they were “monitoring the situation closely.”

But Megan Paquin, who leads crisis management and litigation public relations for Poston Communications, said now is the time to come up with and announce a plan, particularly in internal memos explaining how staff will be notified in the event of an office closure, what an employee should do if a child’s school is closed, and what to tell clients about the firm’s contingency plans.

“It seems counterintuitive to be proactive, as you don’t want to cause alarm or panic, but firms also want to avoid speculation from both employees and clients,” she said.

Some firms, like Haynes and Boone LLP, not only have communications plans in place, but a whole infrastructure for dealing with catastrophe.

In 2016, the firm’s senior management along with its tech, HR and marketing leaders formed a “crisis task force” for dealing with disasters. It’s already been battle-tested by Hurricane Harvey, which hit its Houston location, and the 2017 earthquake in Mexico City, where the firm has had an office for 30 years.

“While it may be a mixed blessing, Haynes and Boone has significant experience managing our business during a variety of crises,” managing partner Tim Powers told Law360 in an email.

The firm developed a crisis communications plan, a secure network that can support its entire workforce remotely, and ways to seamlessly transfer work if one office goes offline. It’s also developed its own protocols for deciding whether to close down offices.

“Given the robust networks the firm maintains, we will be proactive in deciding to close offices and not wait for an order from the CDC or local government,” Powers said.

Emergency Supplies

Squire’s offices in the U.S. have been a lifeline for their Chinese counterparts. Roules says he’s received sanitary supplies from offices in Phoenix, Cleveland and Los Angeles, as well as from Tokyo and Seoul.

“We have medical masks and hand sanitizer that have been shipped from other offices,” he said. “Those things have not been available in Shanghai and Beijing for quite some time.”

Pearson said that Pillsbury also distributed masks to its employees in China. Now, she said, she’s stocking U.S. conference rooms with hand sanitizer.

“It’s becoming difficult to source and find,” she said. “We had a little bit of a problem with that last week, but I think we’re good now.”

Joseph said Nossaman has taken additional sanitary measures, including “deep cleaning offices, regularly disinfecting all common areas, and increasing the availability of anti-bacterial cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer.”

Blank Rome LLP, too, has put into place “enhanced cleaning protocols,” according to Rob Weaver, the firm’s chief risk and security officer.

Several firms have sent out reminders to attorneys about perhaps the most vital and simple preventative measure: hand-washing.

“We’ve tried to have heightened communications with everyone just around what we normally would do this time of year, ‘flu and upper-respiratory disease season,’ as it’s being called,” Pearson said.

“We’re also trying to communicate with everyone in the offices, but not create an overall sense of panic,” she added. “I think there’s a good balance that can be struck with letting people know we are working on all this and that the health and safety of our employees and partners is of paramount importance to the firm.”

--Editing by Bruce Goldman.

Clarification: This story has been changed to clarify the nature of the stock market's recent drop.


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

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