The foremost challenge is the need to adjust to the work-from-home paradigm. “This was the first time many firms faced the need for remote staffing,” says ALA President Debra Elsbury, CLM, Firm Administrator at Threlkeld Stevenson. How well they have met that need, she adds, depends largely on their level of preparedness prior to the arrival of the pandemic. “Law firms utilizing the traditional business model with a very structured environment found themselves scrambling. Those that had already embraced technological change were able to hit the ground running and had fewer negative impacts on their business model.”
Larger law firms would seem to have a leg up on these matters, given their typically greater technological change. “Big firms were better situated in many ways to handle the change to remote work because most already had geographically dispersed workforces and tried and tested infrastructure, policies and practices for working remotely,” says Brie Leung, Director of Strategy and Marketing at Much Shelist, P.C. “But an organization such as ours — we have around 200 employees, with two offices in Chicago and Newport Beach, California — is very accustomed to doing things in person, just walking down the hall to get what we need. And so changing how we work meant much more than simply changing our technology and processes. A tremendous focus has been placed on internal communication, culture and community efforts, virtual wellness programs and creative client outreach programs.”
Hurdles remain even for those law firms able to pivot on a technological pin. A case in point is Galloway, Johnson, Tompkins, Burr & Smith. While the firm was able to leverage its earlier adoption of cloud computing following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the pandemic still created difficulties when it came to monitoring staff productivity.
“When our legal assistants, paralegals and administrative folks are not in the office, it’s more difficult to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing during the workday,” says firm Chief Financial Officer A. Ray Lightell, Jr., CLM, CPA.
While attorneys can be monitored in terms of billable hours, administrative staff members require regular engagements with supervisors via Zoom or conference call. That level of monitoring, though, is not without drawback: costly supervisory time. While software may be able to help track work hours, Lightell feels the effort to manage remotely remains a work in progress. “Honestly, I don’t think any of us are managing the administrative staff well enough,” he says.
“Law firms utilizing the traditional business model with a very structured environment found themselves scrambling. Those that had already embraced technological change were able to hit the ground running and had fewer negative impacts on their business model.”
Firms with scattered locations face another problem: dealing with a confusing patchwork of state, county and municipal remote working regulations. Galloway, for example, has 12 offices in seven states. In Louisiana, the firm’s offices in Lafayette and New Orleans are subject to different regulations affecting both the law firm and the courts. Adding to the confusion is the fact that federal courts tend to follow what the federal judiciary’s administrative agency in Washington, D.C., advises, while state courts follow their own state regulations.
Such patchwork regulations can upset clients. “We may be working with the same client in seven or eight locations,” says Lightell. “In some places we can go to court and trial while in others we may need to do everything by video. Clients want us to be moving cases along, and sometimes we just can’t.” Thankfully, most people are understanding. “Most clients are very receptive to the challenges we have to deal with because they’re dealing with the same things on their end.”
Because courts are conducting hearings — and even some trials — virtually, there’s a whole new dynamic to trial preparation and presentation, notes Scott Brennan, Chief Executive Officer of Lexicon, a practice management provider. “Now, attorneys have to prepare their clients and witnesses to act and present themselves in a respectful manner sitting behind a keyboard and monitor as if they were in an actual courtroom.”
As the legal community enters its second year of the pandemic, law firms will continue to grapple with a changed environment, taking actions such as reducing their real estate footprint, improving communications for remote locations, reducing staff inefficiencies, and dealing with changing regulations.
Technology will doubtlessly play a role in these efforts. And while a mix of bits and bytes and equipment cables may seem impersonal, technology can, paradoxically, bring people closer together. Take, for example, RatnerPrestia, PC, where Chief Operating Officer Barbara A. Foley, CLM, found herself spending a large amount of time every day interacting with people on Zoom calls, making sure she understood their issues and helping them adjust to the new norm.
Technology became the key to human bonding. “Prior to the pandemic I could not be in all of our offices at the same time, so I did not have the opportunity to walk around and see people the way that I could see them with Zoom,” says Foley. “When you see people on camera every day you get to know them in a much different way. You see their surroundings, their children, their pets and, of course, their challenges.”
“We may be working with the same client in seven or eight locations. In some places we can go to court and trial while in others we may need to do everything by video. Clients want us to be moving cases along, and sometimes we just can’t.”
Foley also used technology to launch a daily virtual coffee klatch to get all employees engaged in the early morning. “While some people are naturally motivated when working remotely, others have issues getting started,” says Foley. “The morning meeting forces everyone to get dressed and get in front of the camera. Our discussions are not necessarily work-related but proceed as if we were standing in our kitchens at our respective offices. This has been a big help in keeping the whole group together.” She says other activities included a virtual Halloween party, a Thanksgiving luncheon, happy hours and a virtual holiday lunch complete with entertainment. Foley expects the Zoom sessions and the morning coffee klatch to continue once the pandemic is over.
The unexpected result was a deeper understanding of employees. “I got to know all of our people — attorneys, staff, paralegals — much more intimately and personally than I did before,” says Foley. “That personalization has led to an increase in morale and motivation.”
As legal managers grapple with the challenges posed in the last year, many believe that practices required by the pandemic will still prevail remain in a post-pandemic world.
“I have people who have requested to work from home permanently, and I have approved those requests,” says Foley. “I have other folks who can't wait to get back to the office, and I have some that want to work in a hybrid model — that’s also fine.” Foley believes that trusting employees and giving them tools they need to succeed is the key.
The dark cloud of the pandemic, then, may have a silver lining. “The pandemic really forced law firms to figure some things out that have been a long time coming, and in a way that will actually be beneficial to our long-term success as organizations,” says Leung. “The pandemic is making us into stronger organizations for the future and really shining a light on how we can and should embrace new ways to help our people and our clients thrive.”
Don’t forget to check out our Online Community forum exclusively dedicated to COVID-19, as well — members from all over North America are sharing their insights about how to handle this unique situation.