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N.C. law firms remaining open for justice

As attorneys grapple with COVID-19, they’re coming up with creative solutions to keep their firms’ lights on, even as many of them are working from home while they deal with an unprecedented situation one day at a time.

Navigating a work and home life that are now one and the same (with the addition of school life for those with children), reassuring clients that their cases are being handled despite the fact that most courts are closed, and keeping morale up among attorneys and staff are now core practices.

“I trust we are not alone: the health, safety and comfort of our employees is paramount,” said Dan Cahill, managing partner of Poyner Spruill in Raleigh. “Now is the time to build out cases and do the work that can be done remotely and without a group setting.” 

Poyner Spruill made the decision on March 16 to require most of its employees to work from home. It now has a skeleton support staff in each office and relaxed its paid time off policy. Beyond that, Cahill said, the firm’s attorneys have long had the tools to work from home. The firm has stopped in-person meetings and is conducting business via phone, Zoom meetings, Skype, and other means to reach clients. 

Fox Rothschild, which has offices in Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh, has long had work-from-home capabilities, said Matt Leerberg, managing partner of its Raleigh office. One reason is that the firm has offices in New York. It was devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but the disaster provided the firm with best work-at-home practices in emergency situations.

All of the firm’s attorneys have been working from home for the past three weeks, with a small staff keeping the offices open and taking care of administrative tasks, such making sure that mail is getting out in a timely manner. The firm has also added IT staff to assist attorneys working from home. 

Other firms made the decision to send their employees home early on, such as Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Charlotte. Chris Lam, an attorney at the firm, said that technologically speaking, his office was well-prepared for its employees to work from home, and any challenges associated with the new arrangement have little to do with technology.

“Many of us are just adjusting to working at home with children who are also out of school,” Lam said. “The upshot is that if anyone previously failed to appreciate the yeoman’s work that our teachers do, they won’t make that mistake again. Since we are all in this together, it is important that everyone be patient, understanding, and supportive of our families, colleagues, and clients.”

Leerberg agreed, saying that law firms can’t underestimate the challenges that parents of small children or children in middle school now face.

“What the state is asking these folks to do is do their full-time jobs and essentially homeschool their children at the same time,” Leerberg said. “That is asking a lot. I have seen a lot of attorneys who are struggling to balance those two competing obligations.”

As for clients, Cahill’s employment practice group has been advising them on ways to handle their specific industries in dealing with COVID-19, while Dan Boyce of Nexsen Pruet in Raleigh said his firm’s business clients are focused on what changes need to be made on business operations and their employees. 

Clients want legal advice on communicating coronavirus policies internally and externally and how they can assist their own clients, Boyce said. They understand the judicial process takes time and are used to seeing delays in the administration of justice and are more concerned about business delays that could result in bankruptcy, or even worse, shuttering their business altogether.

At Lam’s firm, client matters relate primarily to business disputes rather than life or liberty, so there is less anxiety that exists than for people with pending domestic or criminal matters, Lam said. 

Beyond that, Lam said having civil motions, hearings, or trials continued or postponed within a particular case or cases is not unusual. The difference now, though, is that his firm’s attorneys litigate across the country and every state and federal court is postponing proceedings.

Leerberg said that beyond keeping up with caseloads, it’s important for firms to make sure that their attorneys and staff don’t feel isolated from each other. Employees of the Raleigh office have compiled a list of their “Five Most Meaningful Songs” with an explanation of why and a partner in the firm is completing it and circuiting it. They are collecting pictures of “Crafty Foxes” that the attorney’s children are drawing and sharing with each other. His firm is hosting tele-lunches with no agenda other than connecting with each other.

“We share our stories, so people can scratch that social itch,” Leerberg said.

Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw

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