COVID-19 Shifts Law Firms’ Hiring, Onboarding Process Online—To a Limit

Law.com (March 31, 2020) — Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more law firms are heavily relying on technology and videoconferencing to hire and onboard attorneys and staff during the COVID-19 crisis. However, many wont be able to achieve 100% remote onboarding.

Recently, law firms said they’ve shifted any in-person interviews to video and phone chats. Likewise, once a lawyer or staffer is hired, their laptops and other equipment are shipped to them, and orientation and other new hire protocols are made on the phone or through video conference platforms.

Some in-person requirements have also been relaxed. On March 20, the Department of Homeland Security gave law firms and other employers some flexibility when it eased its in-person review requirement for I-9 documentation to verify an employee’s identity and employment authorization.

But there are still some barriers to going fully remote. Take, for example, getting a new partner’s book of business.

“Typically that lateral would get releases from their client [for] both physical and electronic files to the firm they’re leaving and joining,” said Fox Rothschild chief talent officer Jean Durling.

She noted that if the lawyer’s former firm doesn’t have remote access capabilities, accessing physical files could be a challenge. “It would be out of our hands; we can’t control what goes on in another firm.”

To be sure, moving to remote onboarding isn’t a huge change for some.

Boutique patent firm Harrity & Harrity, for instance, said it will replace its in-person final meeting before making a hiring decision with a video conference, said partner Paul Harrity. Still, that exception isn’t unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. Harrity noted that the firm previously onboarded a new staffer who was working remotely after the birth of a child.

Remote onboarding also doesn’t just extend to interviews and formal HR and IT communication needs. New hires need to build camaraderie with lawyers they’ve never personally met. To this end, law firms are looking to encourage more phone calls and video conferencing.

“Laterals that are in the [hiring] process with us we’ve already scheduled follow-up calls that would typically take place in an office to keep them engaged,” said Fox Rothschild’s Durling. She said the firm plans to schedule more frequent video and phone conference meetings held by department chairs for their practice members.

Eve Howard, regional managing partner of Hogan Lovells’ Washington, D.C., office, has seen a similar change. “Meeting people in person that’s always preferred, [but] now those meetings are happening through video technology. We call that internal profile raising, we are now doing that with Skype and other video conferencing.”

While fostering introductions and building networking opportunities between new lawyers must take place via phone conferences and video chats, they can be done in a “fun” way to maintain engagement, noted Crowell & Moring chief human resources officer Marguerite Eastwood.

She described a conference call two weeks ago where lawyers discussed their puppies and kids to foster lighthearted discussions and connections with colleagues who would usually work in an office together.

Written by Victoria Hudgins

 

Agile But Vulnerable, Smaller Firms Fight To Weather Virus

Law360 (March 27, 2020) — This summer, John Harrity, a name partner of patent boutique Harrity & Harrity LLP, planned to send an emergency drill text message to all his staffers requesting that they work remotely. It was supposed to be a simulation for what to do if a disaster struck. He planned not to give partners a heads-up that the text message was coming.

With many attorneys forced to work remotely because of the coronavirus outbreak, experts say small and midsize firms may be able to adapt to changes more readily than BigLaw. Above, a lone commuter crosses the street outside New York City’s Grand Central Terminal during the normally busy morning rush hour. (AP)

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing him to recommend that most of his attorneys and staff start working remotely in mid-March.

When Harrity first spoke with Law360 on March 10, he felt the Virginia-based firm, which had already been liberally using video conferencing for internal communication, was relatively well prepared for the potential scenario of going fully remote. Five years ago, the firm had started offering more flexibility to attorneys, largely to appeal to potential recruits. The firm went cloud-based and paperless.

“The bigger firms are going to struggle during this time period way more because we’re already ready for this,” Harrity said.

Many midsize and smaller firms like Harrity & Harrity have had an edge over BigLaw when it comes to transitioning to remote work, whether because they had already started doing it or because their smaller size allowed them to be more nimble in putting together new response plans, according to experts. For many, however, the longer-term potential impact on business development is weighing heavily on smaller firms.

Harrity is steeling for the hit to the firm’s work if the larger economic dip results in fewer patent applications. Other firms focused on such hard-hit practice areas, including litigation and deals, are already feeling significant pressures, and some small firms have begun to slash staff in response, according to John Remsen of The Remsen Group, a law firm management consultancy that often works with smaller and midsize firms.

“It’s a very uncertain period,” said Remsen, who has been holding regular calls with midsize and small firm managing partners.

In these early stages of the pandemic, the focus for many midsize and small law firm leaders has been simply working to stay connected to clients and either testing or adding technology to prepare for their offices to go remote.

“From a business continuity standpoint, you can never take a wait-and-see approach,” Alan Tarter of midsize New York firm Tarter Krinsky & Drogin LLP said in early March.

Before New York City’s lockdown measures went into effect, Tarter’s firm had done a “full business continuity program” that included testing how phones, operations and administrative processes might work in the event the entire office had to work remotely.

“This way, if there are any gaps in our business continuity program, we can seal them now before we find ourselves in a crisis,”  Tarter said. “As a midsized firm, our clients rely on us to be their solution, not add to their problems. Likewise, our employees look to us to provide reassurances and support.”

Mike Arias of California litigation boutique Arias Sanguinetti Wang & Torrijos LLP, which also has offices in Las Vegas and Montreal, started limiting client face-to-face meetings several weeks ago and moving toward more virtual or phone connections to protect attorneys and staff from the coronavirus.

“There is an understanding that you’re dealing with a finite group of people, but not just the people in your office. You’re dealing with them and their families,” Arias said.

For many midsize and smaller firms, their size has meant fewer decision-makers in the mix and the ability to make policy changes and decisions quickly, according to Remsen. Smaller firms have often had the advantage of not needing to keep track of a patchwork of lockdown measures for offices across the country.

“If you’re a large firm with offices scattered in different cities, states, you have different scenarios in each one of those offices,” said James Cotterman, a principal at professional services consulting firm Altman Weil Inc.

A number of midsize and smaller firms — especially those that had already invested in connecting their workforce through technology — have been able to communicate well with lawyers and staff in these uncertain times. At many firms, managing partners and executive committee members are dividing up staff lists to check in one-on-one with people who are working remotely, according to Remsen.

The economic pressures and uncertainty that have come with the COVID-19 outbreak, however, are also putting many midsize and small-law leaders in a tough spot when it comes to staffing and financial decisions.

Many law firm leaders expect the pandemic to have a four-to-six-month immediate effect on their operations, which edges to where many could see significant bottom line issues, according to experts.

“There will be a lot of firms who don’t get through this,” Remsen said.

Part of the problem for many midsize and smaller firms is that they don’t have the cash stash that BigLaw does. Some firm partners are already passing on their draws as cash flow tightens, while others are using their credit lines to cover partner draws, Remsen said. Still others are starting to — or thinking about — making staffing cuts.

“Most firms seem to be taking a blended approach,” Remsen said.

So far, many firms are trying to hold onto staffers who have been loyal, according to Remsen. But he has also heard from one firm that cut its support staff by 75% in response to the pressures.

Remsen said he expects that more midsize and small firms will be forced to make cuts as well and that firms should use the situation as an opportunity to deal with chronic underperformers.

For many leaders of such firms, how they handle this crisis could mold their legacies, according to Remsen.

“It’s time for you as a managing partner to step up,” he said. “Your tenure will be largely dependent on how you handle this.”

Written by Natalie Rodriguez

Editing by Jill Coffey and Michael Watanabe

 

5 Tips for Attorneys Working from Home During the COVID-19 Crisis

Attorney at Law Magazine (March 18, 2020)– In a matter of days, COVID-19 has completely changed how we operate our day to day lives. For lawyers who have worked full-time in the office, the change to being fully remote may be challenging. I especially empathize with lawyers with small children, who are trying to adapt to a work from home arrangement, as well as care for their young children. I can imagine that it is not easy. I can say for the first time that I am thankful that my kids are teenagers. (Did I just say I was happy to have teenagers?!?) These are desperate times. With that being said, here are a few pointers that I hope will help you transition to a fully remote position, albeit, temporarily!

No. 1: Designate your space for working only.

Whether you have kids, are married, are single, whatever it may be, I recommend finding a place in your house/apartment/condo, if you have the space, that is designated as your office. When I first started working from home, I isolated myself in the basement. In fact, on my first day working remotely in my home, my husband saw me packing a bag of food, and he asked me incredulously “Where are you going?” “To my office, thank you.” It is important that you have a separate space as your office, so that you are not distracted by the domestic duties of the home. If a designated space is not possible, designate set work hours and stick to a schedule. If you have a family, designate a set work schedule and childcare schedule between you and your significant other. If you have kids and no significant other, you will have to be more creative. Remember, this arrangement is only temporary, and we will soon get back to normal.

No. 2: Set boundaries.

When I started working from home, my kids were 10, 12, and 14. It was in the summer, and my 12-year-old kept peeking in and wanting to tell me the latest, greatest thing. After the fifth interruption, I reminded him that I was at work and really to treat it like I was not at home when my door was shut. It was a beautiful summer day, and I had my window open for fresh air. My son went outside and dragged a chair by the window to talk to me. Failure! But a few days later, my son was used to the fact that I was home, and it was no longer novel. Eventually, with consistent reinforcement, my boundaries were respected and I was able to work uninterrupted.

No. 3: Get dressed.

By sticking to your normal morning routine, it will feel more like a regular workday. Shower, get dressed, have your coffee, and sit at a desk or table rather than the couch. This will help you maintain the mindset that you are at work, even though you are at home, and will aid your ability to focus on work-related tasks.

No. 4: Connect with your colleagues via video conference.

I can’t reiterate how important connecting with your colleagues via video is, especially during this time. At our firm, more than half of our employees work from home. When we need to speak to someone, we video call rather than calling on the phone. What a difference video makes. You will still feel connected with your colleagues despite the distance. If you are accustomed to an office setting, scheduling a daily or weekly call with your team or having a video lunch meeting will help things run smoothly, keep everyone on the same page, and make you feel less remote. I would encourage every company and law firm to have a video conferencing capability either through Teams, Zoom, Skype, whatever platform works for you.

No. 5: Read and implement “Fair Play,” by Eve Rodsky.

I can’t say enough about this book. Essentially, this book lays out some 100 household and childrearing tasks we do. The author, who is a lawyer and mediator, lays out a foundation on how to divide up tasks between partners. Typically, women will bear the brunt of the domestic tasks, and often, will ask their partners to execute a task without proper context.

Rodsky lays out a simple strategy. First, eliminate the tasks that don’t apply to you and your family. Second, divide up tasks, so the person who is responsible for the task is in charge of conception, planning, and execution of the task, or as Rodsky coins “CPEing” a task. Every week, you and your partner can meet to redistribute the cards if one person feels overwhelmed or is not suited for that particular task. My husband and I implemented this book a few weeks ago. He is still responsible for the morning routine (including breakfast), and he also took the laundry and dishes. He is very grateful to be absolved of cooking dinner, handling the finances, and grocery shopping. Please do read the entire book. There are a few important steps that need to be considered before you divide up the tasks; once you do, balancing family and home life with working remotely will become much less daunting.

These tips have been vital in acclimating to my work from home lifestyle. I hope they help you adjust to remote work and I wish everyone the best as they set up their new offices. I pray that you and your families stay safe and healthy during this uncertain time. This too shall pass.


 

Elaine Spector
AUTHOR

Elaine Spector

Elaine Spector is a Partner at Harrity & Harrity, LLP, a boutique firm specializing in intellectual property law. Her practice focuses primarily on the prosecution of patent applications, specifically within electromechanical technologies. Elaine is a driving force in the firm’s diversity and charity initiatives and serves on several committees and boards in relation, including AIPLA’s Women in IP Law’s Global Networking Event & Outreach Subcommittee, IPO’S Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and the non-profit No More Stolen Childhoods.