This article originally appeared in The Pennsylvania Bar Association, Pennsylvania Bar News, Volume 31, Number 3 on February 1, 2021.
Last March, the lightning quick shift to remote work forced law firms to scramble and figure out how to maintain service to clients, keep employees safe and increase engagement. Looking forward to the day when health concerns no longer restrict where people work, firms are preparing for a new workplace paradigm.
Gail Ruopp, a law firm management consultant, said that it is expected that more than 50% of the workforce will be working in a remote environment. This is a new environment for many firms. The firms that embrace this change will be the ones who will thrive.
Robyn Henry, director of administration for Conrad O’Brien PC, said the office has been closed since last March. Certain attorneys would go to the office once a week. “We’re now at the point we’re allowing attorneys or paralegals to go in when they want, but they have to comply with CDC and COVID-specific firm guidelines, and I always ensure there are never too many employees scheduled to be in the office at any given time.” Conrad O’Brien has 55 employees.
The firm made a video that explained the return-to-work policy. Henry said the policy covers details like conference room capacity, the use of Plexiglas shields, availability of personal protective equipment and even the way the silverware in the cafeteria is distributed.
“We think working from home has gone surprisingly well for us. Work is getting done, and we plan to remain closed until things start to be safer. We had a work from home policy pre-pandemic that allowed attorneys to work remotely two days a week. Other exempt staff could work remotely two days a month. We’re thinking because it’s been a success that we will expand it, and we’ll have a mix of options for employees,” Henry said.
The return to the office will be gradual. She is anticipating some challenges such as what would happen if the attorney is in the office but the secretary is working from home. “Our goal is to make it more flexible. We want our employees to be happy. Our strategy is a work in progress. We have also been talking to real estate brokers because we don’t know what our square footage needs will be,” she said.
But they definitely will have a hybrid approach. “Our firm culture is such that we need to see each other sometimes. We just aren’t sure what that will look like yet,” she said.
Matthew A. Lipman, managing partner of the Philadelphia office and practice manager, fidelity, construction and surety group at McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney and Carpenter LLP, said they have followed the City of Philadelphia’s guidance and closed fully in March. “Thankfully, we had the technology in place to transition to remote work,” he said. They remained fully closed until the summer and reopened on a limited basis. Many staff returned to offices but attorneys were encouraged to continue to work remotely.
McElroy Deutsch Mulvaney and Carpenter has 250 attorneys in 13 offices; the Philadelphia office has 20 attorneys. “During the pandemic, we permit them to decide what’s best for them. Some have chosen to work from the office on a limited basis. For some if not most of the attorneys, the transition wasn’t as drastic. It remains a revolving process,” Lipman said. The City of Philadelphia recommends that if employees can work remotely, they should continue to do so. “We’re looking to continue to use some flexibility. The way we’re currently doing it is attorneys have budget and billable hour requirements. They can work remotely as long as those are met,” he said.
They have also been working to assist and support those working remotely. “There is a lot of communication between attorneys within a practice group, and these span different offices. There are regular meetings, and we keep the lines of communication open. There are certain things that are easier to do in person, and we are looking at how those challenges can be overcome. For example, on large litigations, often there are two or three attorneys and a paralegal. It’s often easier to be in the same room because they share documents,” Lipman said.
The firm hosted a virtual retreat focused on how to be successful while working remotely. “We discussed everything from how to do depositions to where to position the cameras when doing a deposition. All of these things are still in progress. We’re looking at all of the options and are being proactive,” he said.
Nicole Alexander, director of professional and business development for McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney and Carpenter, said that the firm’s human resources committee and the pandemic committee “really created strategies and policies that went into place immediately.”
James Patterson, chair of the human resources committee and co-chair of the labor and employment group, said, “We were very sensitive to make sure the client relationships were maintained. We focused on getting all the attorneys up to speed immediately,” he said. Since all the technology was in place, as were confidentiality protocols, the process was smooth.
Lipman said the firm’s IT department had been anticipating that more and more attorneys would be working remotely. “We already had a strong structure within the firm. When you have a group of people all working within the same practice group but they are spread out, we had to come up with ways to collaborate.”
Alexander said many of the firm’s corporate clients required them to have a business interruption plan, and that plan ultimately made the transition easier.
Lisa M. Shapson, a partner at Berner Klaw and Watson, Philadelphia, said the firm has always encouraged remote work. “We were founded by working mothers. We had the technology, except for a voice over internet provider phone system. We were able to move quickly to fully remote,” she said. The firm focuses on family law and has four partners, two associates, two paralegals, an office manager, receptionist and bookkeeper.
On June 22 last year, one lawyer and one staff person started going into the office each day. “We do all our consultations by Zoom now. We haven’t had any in-person consultations yet. Philadelphia County doesn’t have indoor dining at this point, so we figured in-person consultations should not be happening yet,” Shapson said.
Since they are a small firm, becoming fully remote was easier. They already had a cloud-based server and confidentiality and security policies.
“In the beginning, no one was working as hard. In family law, we call it settlement paralysis. Things were kind of quiet with the courts being closed. People were writing articles and blog posts, the sort of things you usually put off doing. But things have picked up again. The way we send assignments means I am able to see who is being assigned what work and how quickly it was done. We always did it this way. I did this to handle the work flow, not to keep tabs on everyone. But because of this system, I’ve been able to keep my finger on the pulse,” Shapson said.
The VPN software they use has an instant message feature that makes up for not hearing people discussing what they are working on and when. Shapson said she has weekly case management meetings with each attorney as well.
“We have no plans to bring everyone back to the office. I go in two times a week. My partners go in, too. We have weekly lunch check-ins (virtual), and that has been nice. What’s probably going to happen is that our staff will have the choice of whether to come into the office or work remotely. It will be a more formalized version of what we have now,” she said.
A few things will be much easier and effective in person, such as custody trials. But other meetings are often better when they are done by Zoom or another platform. “It is cheaper for the clients who don’t have to travel, and it may be less stressful,” Shapson said. She said they are also thinking about their current office space and what they actually need. “We’re thinking of maybe refitting two offices into a virtual courtroom.”