In this roundtable discussion about the impact of the coronavirus on law firms, two managing partners discuss how their firms are responding to the coronavirus pandemic and what measures they are taking to prepare for the challenges going forward.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco and a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nickgaffney.
|Jana Gouchev (JG) is managing attorney of Gouchev Law. She advises both growing and large businesses. She is also known as a top negotiator for structuring deals for her clients.|
|John Harrity (JH) is the co-founder and managing partner of Harrity & Harrity, LLP, a boutique IP law firm focused on patent preparation and prosecution.|
NG: What kind of relevant preparedness plans did the firm already have in place prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus?
JG: Our firm’s technology is completely set up so that our team can work remotely if ever need be.
JH: We have previously thought about disaster recovery preparedness and what that would entail. In recent years, we have implemented an optional remote policy for all attorneys and allow in-office employees to work from home once a week. This allows us to ensure that everyone in the firm is equipped and fully able and accustomed to remote work. If the building closes, if there is an emergency incident, if there is a health concern, we are fully prepared to have both attorneys and staff telework.
NG: Has the firm implemented any policies yet regarding traveling or working from home?
JG: We are encouraging all employees to work from home and avoid traveling on mass transit. We are strongly considering canceling plans to attend conferences that have not already been canceled by event organizers.
JH: In addition to the optional remote policy we already have in place, we have implemented further policies and recommendations in response to the outbreak. The first occurred within a few days of the virus reaching the US. We were monitoring the situation and released a memo to the firm that recommended not traveling via plane or attending a conference, if avoidable. If someone were to do either, they were instructed to not come into the office for the subsequent 14 days to ensure no signs of symptoms—which typically arise within a two-week frame of contact with the virus. If someone were to show signs of symptoms, whether they traveled or not, they were also instructed to stay home. As the virus continued to spread, we distributed a second memo, in which we highly recommended that everyone work from home. The next step, if the virus continues to worsen in our area, would be a mandatory work from home policy.
NG: What steps have you taken (technological or otherwise) to make it easier for attorneys and other employees to work remotely, assuming that may eventually be necessary?
JG: We have asked that all internal and client-facing meetings be done remotely using digital meeting software for video conferencing. We have all of our internal and client-facing documents on a secure cloud-based platform so that everyone can access files remotely.
JH: All of our employees are fully equipped to work from home with the same set-up we have in the office, including dual monitors and webcams. We are already paperless and cloud-based, allowing everyone to access necessary documents and systems whether or not they are in the office. With 60% of our firm already remote, we rely on video conferencing on a daily basis to conduct face-to-face meetings and utilize an instant messaging system for easy contact. Operationally, there is zero difference between how we were running two months ago to how we run today.
NG: What action will be taken if an employee is diagnosed with the coronavirus?
JG: We will, of course, let them know that their health is our first priority, and offer any support possible for them and their families. We have started cross-training employees to be able to do the jobs of others and asked our team to prepare working extra hours if needed to cover for a sick team member. We also have lined up contractors in place to cover part-time while a team member is out sick in case we don’t have the capacity from our regular team members to cover.
JH: Currently, everyone is encouraged to work remotely to decrease the likelihood of the virus spreading if any employee were to be diagnosed. Additionally, we have unlimited time off for attorneys and ample time off for staff, which can be utilized should they become sick. If sickness extends to a lengthy period of time, all employees have access to short-term and long-term disability through the firm, and fully paid medical benefits to receive proper treatment.
NG: What do you anticipate will be the biggest challenges for the firm in the days ahead as more people nationwide (and potentially at your firm) contract the virus?
JG: We have stayed ahead of this by immediately making sure systems are in place to seamlessly work from home, and get employees trained to perform the roles of others. But we are learning what impact the virus can have on legal projects moving forward. For example, our mergers & acquisitions deals are taking strange turns. People want to pull out in the middle of transactions and clients are panicking about whether their business will be impacted if key C-Level employees or salespeople contract the virus. We are finding that we need to keep our clients as calm as possible and advise them daily on the shifts in the economy caused by the virus’s impact.
JH: Logistically, the spread of the coronavirus will have zero impact on our firm as a whole. However, there’s a possibility that, as companies require employees to work from home, schools close, and people become sick, there will be less innovation, which equals less patent application filings. While we are prepared to continue operations as normal, our biggest anticipated challenge and what we have to prepare for is the impact from a workload standpoint. This may require attorneys to take some time off or become more involved in other aspects of the firm’s operations, such as business development, diversity initiatives, and charity until patent services pick back up.
NG: Have you announced any changes to HR/benefits policies to address potential scenarios that could arise, such as an employee becoming ill for an extended period of time or having to care for a family member?
JH: Our benefits package, including medical care, ample paid time off, and disability, is already accommodating to a scenario like this. In addition to our remote policies, we allow employees to work flexible schedules, working whichever hours fit best within their personal schedule.
NG: What is your plan if numerous employees are unable to work due to having the coronavirus or caring for afflicted family members, or school closures?
JG: We have cross-trained staff and attorneys so they can pick up other people’s work, and started hiring part-time employees and contractors that are on standby in case we need them so that our firm can function at full capacity with no loss in momentum for our clients.
JH: With employees working from home and allowing them the flexibility to work whatever hours they need, their production should not be affected. However, if they become sick, or need to prioritize the wellbeing of their family, they are welcome to utilize paid time off. From an attorney’s perspective, they have unlimited leave and can focus on the health of themselves and their families without repercussions. Staff starts at 23 paid days off, plus holidays, or they can use disability if it comes to it.
NG: What are attorneys and staff expressing the most concern about?
JG: Their priority is to limit exposure to large events like conferences and travel to client sites. Being at airports and on trains is a big concern.
JH: With everyone already prepared and accustomed to working remotely, being aware of their benefits, and able to decide their own hours, we have not had anyone express concern about the virus.
NG: Is there anything else you’d like to share on this topic?
JH: I just want to reiterate how beneficial our remote policy and flexibility have been during this scare. We have not had to worry about what our firm will do to keep things running, change our technology, train our employees on teleworking, or modify our operations because we have already implemented all of these changes and were fully prepared.