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COVID-19: One year later

Heath Hamacher//March 10, 2021

COVID-19: One year later

Heath Hamacher//March 10, 2021

It was about one year ago today that managing partners and general counsel everywhere found themselves frantically brainstorming, mass e-mailing, and calling emergency meetings, hoping to get ahead of a virus that threatened to close firms’ doors for what everyone assumed would be a fairly brief period. Office spaces would need to be cleaned and sanitized, they reckoned. Out of an abundance of caution, lawyers and staff should probably work from home.

Back then no one could have imagined the ordeal that lay ahead, or how the unprecedented conditions would test lawyers’ resolves. But across North Carolina, firms and practitioners have proven more malleable than might have been expected.

The legal institution is famously a bastion of traditionalism, but the events of 2020 may have served as a catalyst for not just temporary adaptation, but long-lasting changes in firms’ business models, technologies, and staffing and operations. One lesson that has learned nearly universally is that the fear of working remotely was largely unfounded.

Allen Robertson, managing partner of Robinson Bradshaw, is by his own admission an “old school” attorney, but “old school” doesn’t mean “wooden and inflexible,” he said. When news of COVID broke, Robertson knew that the right call was to immediately move to a remote work model. Years earlier, anticipating an event that might cause water damage, fire damage, or power failure, the firm’s servers were moved off-site and backed up, so it was prepared for this type of event.

“We didn’t know what in the hell was going on, but there was a clear expectation that we’d have to suck it up for a couple of months,” he said.

Those couple of months, it turns out, are 12 months and counting. But even with its lawyers and staff “scattered to the four winds,” as Robertson put it, clients are being taken care of and the firm, like many others, forges forward.

The ends justify the jeans

Even before the pandemic, some attorneys were used to working from home at least part-time, and proponents have long touted the convenience and productivity-inducing qualities of working from home. Some firm leaders say their firms are now thriving after transitioning to remote work environments. Betty Temple, chair and chief executive officer of Womble Bond Dickinson, said that despite its challenges, remote working has been beneficial to the firm, its employees, and its clients.

“Numerous studies have shown that engaged employees are more productive, and many of our employees have expressed a desire for continued workplace flexibility,” Temple said. “We see this as a tool to help us recruit and retain top talent.”

One benefit of working from home that has proved surprisingly popular has been the shift to more casual attire, which statistics suggest may also help increase productivity. Nicole Sodoma, managing principal of Sodoma Law, said that every day from here on has been declared jean day at her firm, provided there are no client meetings or court hearings. And while being thrust without warning into a new work model presented challenges, it’s also presented an opportunity to gauge her firm’s commitment to meeting those challenges and serving its clients.

“One of the things I was most proud of is when we went all-remote a year ago, man, everyone just showed up and were present in a way that … really showed an elevated commitment to our clients,” she said.

Most firms today operate on more of a hybrid, in-office/at-home model than strictly remote. This allows for the taking of safety precautions while also offering space and equipment beyond just printers and laptops. For her family law practice, Sodoma designated one conference room in each of her four offices to serve as a web-based hearing conference room. She didn’t spend a lot of money, she said, but a large screen and WiFi goes a long way toward creating an acceptable space for hearings such as the five-day custody trial she participated in just last month.

“It’s a really nice evolution for us,” Sodoma said. “Now there really is no excuse to be late for a hearing.”

Dog is my co-counsel

As helpful as technology has been during the pandemic, it’s unlikely that many large- or medium-sized firms will go strictly virtual anytime in the near future, especially those in practice areas that are highly reliant on personal interactions. Many attorneys say they believe that personal connections are made in person, not through emails or video—although video conferences have offered lawyers glimpses into their clients’ lives that they wouldn’t have had if not for the pandemic.

Robertson, of Robinson Bradshaw, is a person-to-person kind of guy who believes that we are all wired for human interaction and that real solutions happen when people get together and kick around ideas. But where the pandemic limits those interactions, Zoom and similar platforms are serviceable substitutes.

“I’ve always said that we need to get out of our offices and go see our clients, but then came the pandemic and we can’t do that,” he said. “The interesting part of [videoconferencing] is that you kind of see clients more than before—you see their faces, their kids running around, their dogs barking. In a sense, they become more human because you have all these interactions with them inside their homes.”

But one of the other big lessons to come out of the pandemic is that firms now know that they can adapt effectively to rapidly changing legal landscapes. Comfortable attire may be the new norm at her firm, but speaking metaphorically, Sodoma said being uncomfortable causes the most growth.

“I’m hopeful that if anything good should come of COVID in law practices,” she said, “it should be that we are more efficient.”

In addition to the boosts to efficiency, recent studies show that many firms are now more mindful of the work-life balance and mental and physical health of their employees, a focus that Temple, of Womble, believes is important.

“I think that post-pandemic, we will continue to look at ways to keep our team members connected to each other and provide resources to meet their needs, not just as attorneys and staff, but as people,” she said.

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