As COVID-19 brought the country to a halt and law offices sat empty, legal firms shared the same mantra: “We are not closed.”
Attorneys handled their cases and clients from inside their homes and through their computer screens. Now, as North Carolina and other states ease stay-at-home restrictions, many firms are in the midst of transitioning back to full office mode, albeit with strict safety and social distancing protocols in place.
Nexsen Pruet began reopening its Charlotte, Greensboro, and Raleigh offices on May 18, when its attorneys could voluntarily return, said Jacquelynn Spivey, the firm’s business development manager. A week later, most attorneys began returning to the office at least two days a week, and on June 1, most will have returned to the office full time. But things aren’t business as usual: attorneys and staff must maintain social distancing, the offices have strict cleaning procedures, signs warn that those who are ill or have a temperature can’t come, and bottles of hand sanitizer are spread throughout the building.
“I’m loving the human interaction of coming to the office again,” Spivey said. “but I’m definitely missing working in yoga pants and the five-minute commute from my bed to my home office.”
Some firms, however, are taking another approach. Womble Bond Dickinson, which has offices in Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem, is keeping its office doors closed for the time being.
“Our work-from-home program is going extremely well, and with team member safety in mind, we have not announced a date to reopen our offices,” said Bruce Buchanan, a spokesperson for the firm. “Obviously, our team members have been hard at work in preparing to reopen the offices safely. But we feel no pressure to do so, and all decisions are being driven by safety considerations.”
Others, like Fox Rothschild, which has offices around the country, including one in Charlotte and another in Raleigh, have developed a firm-wide plan with different offices opening at different times based on local conditions, said Matt Leerberg, a managing partner with the firm.
“Some teams are performing beautifully in the remote-work environment, and we are in no rush to require those folks to return to the workplace,” Leerberg said. “Other teams require more frequent access to the courtroom or use paper-driven workflows, and will be spending more time in the office going forward.”
Leerberg said the firm has adopted a “SAFETY” policy acronym: Social distancing, Adaptable scheduling, Face masks, Employee self-screening, Tracing contacts, and Your cooperation
“Any employee coming to the office will perform a self-assessment first, and will stay home if he or she has any COVID-19 symptoms, such as a fever or coughing,” Leerberg said. “We will be maintaining social distance and wearing masks, except in closed offices.
The firm is also temporarily moving some employees with open floor plan workspaces into closed-door offices, closing common spaces such as kitchens and conference rooms, and reducing restroom capacity. It is developing staggered scheduling and limiting visitors. Attorneys are issued a “touchless utility tool” that can be used to operate door handles and press elevator buttons.
Keith Burns, a managing partner at Nexsen Pruet’s office in Raleigh, said that the office is getting back to normal, with attorneys at the firm who have to stay home to take care of children, or are in a high-risk group, working from home.
Burns said he finds it odd to see his colleagues walking around the office with masks on. There are also directional signs that have made hallways one-way.
“We had a pretty solid contingent of people who never stopped coming to the office,” Burns said. “Their practices were paper-dependent, and they felt they couldn’t operate efficiently from home. And they concluded with so many people gone, it was as safe to be at the office as anywhere else.”
Ward and Smith, whose offices span from Asheville to Wilmington, allowed attorneys to return to its offices on May 11, said Brad Evans, a managing partner with the firm. It instituted daily check-ins and health screenings for everyone in the office and has PPE, travel, and social distancing procedures in place.
The firm is now in the second phase of its return-to-work plan, but is still not allowing large meetings, and is practicing social distancing in the office.
“Courts coming back into session will be a huge relief, not because we can’t practice law remotely, as that’s actually been going smoothly when parties agree to it,” Evans said.
“It will be welcomed because our clients who are in situations where the opposing counsel does not want to handle matters remotely will have to come to court or engage in other proceedings, and we can focus on making significant progress toward resolutions for those clients. I’m also really looking forward to establishing a safe new normal where we see each other in real life, and help our clients face-to-face. I think we are all ready for that day to come.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw