Social Distancing, Not Social Isolation
Firms discuss their new work-from-home policies and potential long-term culture changes on the business of law

by Tony Flesor

On March 25, Law Week Colorado held its first ever videoconference roundtable discussion with leaders from three Denver-based law firms. The conversation covered the ways in which the coronavirus, and the resulting social distancing orders, have changed the way these firms operate as well as how they work with their clients. Law firms, like all businesses, have had to quickly implement stay at home policies for the foreseeable future. The roundtable participants discussed how they responded, how they’re working now and what long-lasting effects the current situation might have.

The participants were Rich Benenson, managing partner of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Tom List, managing partner of Moye White, and Lucy Stark, managing partner of Holland & Hart. Law Week Colorado managing editor Tony Flesor moderated the discussion.

 

LAW WEEK: How have your firms responded to this situation? I know it’s probably a little different for everybody, and this is an unprecedented thing. Can you tell me how you’ve reacted and what the state of your firm is right now?

 

LIST: We have been totally remote. This is our second week. We were actively monitoring the situation before there were official orders in place. We have been getting advice from many sources and took affirmative steps with our IT department to provide everybody the opportunity to work remotely —not only lawyers but our staff as well.

I held a town hall meeting on March 13 and informed everybody what our intentions were: that we were ready, that we had been working with IT for several days in advance and we had multiple laptops for those who did not have the ability to work from home.

Everybody is fully working remotely right now and has full access to our systems. We have a skeleton crew in our office. We normally have about 104 employees in our office, we were down to five [Tuesday] in our office, mostly in accounting, office services and IT. IT is now fully remote, and our accounting department is now fully remote.

But we anticipated what Mayor [Michael] Hancock ordered, and we anticipated what Gov. [Jared] Polis put in place. Our employees have embraced it.

 

STARK: We started looking in February at our supply chain issues and what we might run into if there were problems. We ordered extra laptops in February on the off chance that this turned into something enormous. We have an incident management team that is made up of directors across the firm from every department and administrative partners in all of our offices.

We actually had a tabletop exercise for incident management response, which we do every year, scheduled for Friday March 6. That was a theoretical scenario that they had worked up, and we changed that early that week to say, let’s make the theoretical scenario a global pandemic. So on March 6, we instituted the incident management team, we’ve declared an emergency, and we’ve been meeting with that incident management team ever since.

Because we have 14 different offices, I’ve been watching these [social distancing] orders roll through for a number of weeks now. We had orders in Nevada before we had them in Colorado, so our IT group rolled out the ability for everyone to work from home over a couple of weeks, and we now have 900 people working remotely and monitoring every day where we are on bandwidth. Our IT group was just fantastic at being able to figure out how to best equip every single person so that as many people as possible work from home.

Yesterday, [when Denver implemented a shelter in place order] was different in Aspen and Boulder and Denver when we said, “all right, now I don’t care what your preference is, go home, please.” And we’re trying to get as many people at home as we can. We are down to a very limited staff in our offices.

 

BENENSON: This all starts, for all of us, with the safety and welfare of our teams and our people. We started looking at that issue in mid to late February. We had an all-shareholder retreat scheduled — which we do every year — in California on March 6. We’ve now been working on this for about five weeks, and it started with an assessment of whether it was a smart and safe thing to do to bring our folks from all over the country to California, which was a bit of a hot spot at the time. We elected to postpone our shareholder retreat and really have been in a constant run since then.

Our first concern was the safety and welfare of our people. The next priority was operational continuity. Like the other firms here, we’ve gone from having virtually almost all of our people — over 600 — physically present in our offices working on their desktops to being fully remote.

Of course, all of that is made more complex with various jurisdictional orders and overlays, and obviously, we’re doing our best to harmonize and synthesize all of that across our enterprise. So L.A. is a little different now than Denver. Denver is a little bit different than some of the other state jurisdictions. Washington, D.C. and New Mexico have their own unique protocols. We’re working through that.

We had done a tabletop. We were ISO 27000 certified last year, and as part of that process, we needed to have a disaster preparedness plan and an emergency response team. We table-topped in June five scenarios and actually did a pandemic scenario that I assure you was nothing like this. It was much easier.

We came into this feeling like we had an orientation and appropriate cue how to get started, and our team has been really awesome. Like everybody else, I will match the level of appreciation and gratefulness to our systems people, our IT teams and our incident response teams.

 

LAW WEEK: What changes have the work-from-home policies brought for your firms so far?

 

LIST: I’ve never use Zoom before the last two weeks, and I’ve been on so many Zoom calls it’s unbelievable. We had a full firm happy hour last Friday afternoon, at 5 o’clock, where everybody was on Zoom and everybody could see one another. Everybody was asked to show up with their beverage of choice. It was phenomenally received. It was really fun, and we’re going to have another coffee hour. We’re trying to keep folks involved and seeing each other.

As I like to say, we’re practicing social distancing but not social isolation. I think it’s critical that folks see each other and interact with one another. All of our sections are having similar Zoom meetings. It really does show the human spirit. It’s pretty cool.

 

STARK: Making sure that we don’t let the fabric of the firm fray as we’re all socially distancing is one of the most important things that we’re talking about. We’re having all of the same virtual happy hours. We’ve made a firm internal Facebook page, so that people can post kind of silly things about what the challenges are about working from home. We’re talking about doing firm yoga.

I get emails every day asking “Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this,” and to the greatest extent possible to make people feel like they’re a part of the bigger thing, we are saying, “Yeah, let’s figure that out.”

 

BENENSON: And one of the best things about this is that it has brought out the best in a lot of our teams. I’ve had younger folks volunteering to shop for more senior members of our team. I’ve seen incredible examples of collaboration across offices and across departments. It’s really been an energizing, unifying, focusing crisis, and I’m very proud of the way our team has acclimated.

And I’ll follow the cue from everybody else: We are worried about what social distancing means to our culture, and importantly, in our profession. We signed the ABA pledge to wellness, and we’ve been actively engaged in that program. We think this is a great opportunity to use that program to prioritize wellness, through our system. So, much like others, we’ve been doing virtual happy hours. To stay connected to our key people in the business teams, there has been a lot of FaceTime, as opposed to phone calls, trying to keep that connectivity. We are doing yoga classes online, a lot of folks are engaged in meditation. A bunch of my colleagues are currently taking the Yale class on the meaning of happiness, which you can audit for free, and we had a lot of energy around that.

So you’re hearing a lot of commonality from what all these firms are doing. I’m somewhat comforted with that. We’re all thinking about this the right way.

 

LAW WEEK: You’ve alluded to how your firms have gotten ahead of this by doing disaster preparedness programs. I know we’re still early in this situation, but can you tell me whether this has been a lesson learned in how to prepare or how it has acted as a test for what you’ve implemented.

 

BENENSON: Lesson learned: you can’t invest enough in technology. I think this is the direction that our practice is going to be going in.  I’m happy that we’ve made significant investments in technology, and we’re going to continue to make those.

Planning for something like this is a very difficult thing. We had a list of essential employees, enterprise wide, in every office. We had a plan for deploying laptops. Much like Lucy alluded to, we pulled all of our laptops back so we could deploy them strategically across the enterprise to make sure that we had the coverage remotely that we needed.

 

BEING TRUSTED ADVISORS

LAW WEEK: Can you tell me about how you’ve been working with your clients through this time? How have those interactions changed — either in terms of the technological aspects or having to shift to a more advisory role?

 

LIST: It’s absolutely more of an advisory role.

My practice is real estate, and the issues surrounding payment of rent, force majeure, business interruption are constant. There is no one way to address those issues for each particular client. It really has been ongoing, full steam ahead in addressing those issues.

The deal flow is still out there. There are not a whole lot of new deals happening, but those deals that were being negotiated are continuing to be negotiated.

I think everybody is confident that we will emerge, and we’ll probably emerge a lot stronger than a lot of other places in the world. I think the confidence in America and America’s economy is still there. My clients are exhibiting that.

Everybody just wants to pull back for two weeks, three weeks, a month and just resume and get back to what we all consider to be normal. I’m not sure we’ll ever get back to what was normal before this event, but it’s incumbent upon all of us to continue. Our clients are still interacting. Our litigation folks, things are kind of on hold, but they’re still filing their motions and doing their research and doing briefs and all that stuff. That hasn’t stopped. Access to courts certainly is limited, but access to the justice system is not.

 

STARK: In very practical terms, all of a sudden, where a conference call would have been fine three weeks ago, now everybody wants to have a WebEx or Zoom or a Teams meeting, which is an interesting change.

They also are just really trying to figure out on a real-time basis how do they react to these constant changes. So there’s a lot of hand holding, a lot of counseling with regard to, here are things that you should think about: How do people react to needs to cut their budget? And what are those attacks going to look like? A lot of force majeure work.

 

BENENSON: Ours is similar. I’m spending a lot of time on phone calls with our clients.

This is an interesting moment for law firms because, in a variety of ways, we are in this challenge together with our clients. There’s a certain level of commonality and empathy that I think is really driving a lot of the client interactions these days.

Often, Lucy and I are called upon to solve our clients’ most difficult problems. It’s rare that we are able to draw from our own problem solving with our own enterprises and share what we’re doing from a best practice perspective at our firm. So it’s been an opportunity, I think, to engage in some real thought leadership around these issues that has been informed by our variety of practices and jurisdictions, but also some real life experience.

We are figuring this stuff out, too, on a daily basis, and relying on the same resources that our clients need. We just happen to have them as colleagues, which makes our job slightly easier than a lot of our clients.

Never before have I seen such a blend of business and legal strategy discussions happening. So that wraparound conversation is something that everyone, in my view, is interested in having. I’m having them daily with our clients. There’s a lot of receptivity and a lot of appreciation for reaching out and doing that.

Much like Lucy, what I’ve been saying is this is a great time to be close to our clients virtually. We want to make sure that we are proactive in this time of crisis. And we’ve done, I think, a decent job of prioritizing around everything else that we’re trying to prioritize.

 

THE LONG VIEW

LAW WEEK: Obviously, we’re still in the early stages. What are your thoughts on how law firms can respond in the long term? And do you think there’s anything that might be more permanent when we’re on the other side of this pandemic?

 

LIST: I anticipate that there will be permanent changes that result from the situation that we’re all in. Technology is the biggest one. Like Rich said, the investment in technology is bearing fruit right now.

Those companies, clients, businesses that have fallen behind in that regard are going to have a tough time catching up in this environment. It goes to prove that our efforts in the past five years just to try to stay ahead, it’s possible to be ahead in the technology race, but to be as current as possible, is absolutely critical for survival going forward. And those companies and businesses that survive and thrive are going to be the ones that take advantage of that technology, without a doubt.

I anticipate that this crisis, this pandemic, will change folks’ outlook, not only in the legal profession, but in every aspect of our lives, our economy, our business. I’m assuming everybody’s seen Bill Gates’ TED talk from several years ago, where he projected that this was going to occur. In America, we think we have the best scientists in the world, it’ll never happen here. And here we are. I think it has to change everybody’s outlook going forward.

I think there’s positives to be taken from it, but it’s going to be some tough lessons for a lot of people to have learned. I wish everybody the best.

 

BENENSON: One thing that I think is worth specifically mentioning, in terms of where the profession is going to go, is there seems to be broad consensus that the continued heavy investment in technology, mobility, flexibility, in terms of workforce arrangements and timing that’s a given. I think a lot of firms see that.

What I think a lot of firms really need to be thinking about, too, is all the challenge that comes with that around security, data governance, client protocols and the like. The more mobile we are, the more challenge there is for breach or data privacy issues.

What I’m hearing from a lot of our clients right now, in particular in financial services, is how secure are any of these conversations that are going on right now? Probably not very. So there’s a huge gap from where the profession is today to where the profession needs to go.

My view is we were getting close to where we needed to be on a traditional perspective. This event has now created a gulf that is going to put us, I think, a little bit behind in this profession. So my expectation is that you’ll see a two-prong push where lawyers and law firms are going to come to the same epiphany that we’re talking about today and say we’re going to have to do this. And we’re going to see a client-driven aspect of this that’s going to accelerate that as well.

The other thing I’ll tack on — and I say this lightly and gently and softly, understanding that this is an incredibly difficult health event and a public safety crisis — it’s not without its opportunities. I think as law firm leaders, we have to strike a very delicate balance of empathy and drive here.

All of us have been preaching the same thing, which are a variety of priorities right now: taking care of your families, taking care of your own personal well-being. My team has to also include among those priorities our clients and our firm economics. I’m proud of our team for doing that.

All of our firms are situated a little differently. What I’ve seen in that regard is probably a little different, but our government relations practices are on fire. Our group in Washington, D.C. is in the middle of this, we’re working around the clock — literally in shifts — to monitor everything that is happening on a real time basis. Let’s make sure that our clients’ interests are best protected and preserved and to disseminate information as quickly as we can to make sure that our clients are up to speed and smart on this.

Our labor and employment groups across the board are just seeing a humongous herculean uptick in work. Our litigation groups are really busy. I’m confident like other firms that are doing sort of outside GC work, where our clients are just calling us looking for hand holding and advice, and all of that has picked up.

So, like Tom, we’re cautiously optimistic that there’s a good place on the backside of this. It’s going to be a challenge to get there, but we’re trying to maintain some priority and focus around positioning for that outcome.

 

STARK: I keep saying to people, it’s a hard thing to see the other side of this event. Every day, I wake up and I think, oh, I know what today’s going to look like, and I never do.

The last month has seemed simultaneously outrageously slow and outrageously fast at the same time, and trying to think about what is going to be obviously a very real health impact on people we all know and the very real impact this is going to have on our economy and how that works and what that’s going to look like is hard.

We saw an order yesterday from the Utah governor who expected that we’re eight to 12 weeks of asking people to work from home, which is much longer than the two weeks at a time that a lot of the governments have talked about so as not to scare people. That’s very real, and that is going to have a real impact on our economy and our clients and their businesses.

We’re focused right now on how do we help them get through what is a very real challenging economic time for many of them. For example, for oil and gas companies, for healthcare companies, it’s just outrageously busy trying to figure out how to respond to all of these changing things. We’re trying to respond to the constantly changing orders on a daily basis.

So I don’t know that I can predict with much particularity or accuracy what this is going to look like on the other side.

 

LAW WEEK: What long-term effects do you think there might be on the legal profession itself?

 

BENENSON: The thing that’s really been interesting to me about the impact for law firms in particular is what does it mean for our space needs going forward?  I think there is going to be a really interesting lesson learned here about how much space do we really need, and there are a lot of law firms that were moving in more efficient space ways, whether it’s more efficient offices, one size, the use of hoteling.

I think that this episode is going to really add fuel to the hotel office idea. And you’re going to see firms probably shrink their footprint as they rely more intentionally and thoughtfully on remote work.

 

STARK: I agree with that.

I think we’re doing the same thing in a number of our offices: looking at the space plan, smaller offices, looking at hoteling, thinking about all those things, but, really, more focusing on the central spaces.

Because even though this has proven that we can all work remotely, it is not an easy way to keep a unit together, right?

The culture, the things that bring us together as a firm, that thing that makes us want to practice together, those are all things that we can do from a remote location, but that are so critically important.

Obviously, we’re all trying to find ways to do all those things right now. For me, this is really putting a spotlight on our central locations. Our shared spaces are how do we focus on that ability and spend time physically together more than how big is somebody’s corner office?

 

LIST: You brought up a very, very good point that we’re addressing right now and that is our space needs.

The space we’re in, while we love it, is not very conducive to a functioning economical unit. We think we can downsize significantly and get more economical. This just shows us that physical space is not critical.  Our folks can, and are, operating at full capacity without anybody stepping foot in the office. It really will have it potential to change the landscape.

To read other complete articles featured in the March 30, 2020 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.