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Managing

Offline: Coronavirus Outbreak Has Become a Referendum on Remote Work

How should your law firm respond to the crisis?

By Jared Correia

I’m not a doctor; but, I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

But seriously, I have no medical experience or public health perspective to offer on the novel coronavirus pandemic. Anything I could offer on that front would be another malformed opinion delivered by a non-expert. Risk management, when it comes down to it, becomes a very personal thing. As large public gatherings are shut down across the cultural landscape, individuals who decide to leave their homes or huddle inside of them are both right. You might as well do you, as society crumbles, right?

Only, society isn’t really crumbling — it’s just pausing, as “social distancing” becomes the norm. Hopefully, that only lasts for a couple of weeks or a month. At some point (hopefully, soon), the spread of the virus will become blunted, controlled.

Of course, that does nothing for you right now. As a business owner, you’re likely scrambling to come up with a plan of action until everyone regains their chill.

So, let’s talk about the two scenarios law firms must address as they cope with crafting a coronavirus response plan.

Home Run: Does Your Office Stay Open?

Several law firms have reached out to me about how to implement coronavirus-related policies. And, as you might imagine, law firms that struggle to put together a “bring your own device” policy also struggle to implement a “global pandemic response” policy on the fly. Shocker, I know.

One question I’ve consistently received is whether a law firm coronavirus response plan is a disaster recovery program. My answer: No. At least not yet. We’re not talking about a zombie apocalypse here. At this time, we’re really looking at asking another question: What happens if you have to ask your staff to work from home for an extended period?

So, let’s break out each potential scenario, in turn.

1. Business As Unusual: What It Means to Be At Work Now

If you’re not asking your staff to stay home, that also means that you’re likely continuing to offer your office space for meetings with clients and colleagues. If that’s the case, it makes sense to send out an email notification about your policies respecting the virus. What do you do to keep your office hygienic, and what do you expect incoming guests to do? (For example: wash hands before entering the workspace, keep in-person meetings to a maximum number of persons, wipe down shared devices after use … you know, wear a hazmat suit.) You’ve likely received a similar notice from other businesses you frequent. (In the past hour of drafting this article, I’ve received notifications like these from my day care provider, my daughter’s gymnastics academy, a law firm and a travel agency.) What that means is that you have ample sources from which to draw examples to draft your own notice.

That outward-facing notification, of course, should be accompanied by an internal effort to inform your staff of expectations for this period during which the outbreak continues to spread.

So, if you have a personal hygiene policy, now would be the time to reiterate its contents, or revise it. If you have special requests, make them:

  • Maybe you’re banning handshaking.
  • Maybe you want people to let you (or someone else) know if their children are sick so that you can make a call on whether they should self-quarantine.
  • Maybe you’re buying marked-up hand sanitizer that you want your staff to use more regularly than usual.

Whatever it is, make those asks clear, and implement those policies as soon as possible.

You may get pushback on certain requests, and you should address each of those issues with the persons bringing them to light.

All of the above assumes that you have healthy workers in your office and that your plan of action will help (as much as possible) to keep them that way. For employees who are sick, your standing order should be: If you are sick, do not come to work. That’s the advice of pretty much every public health care official there is, and it’s good advice. If that isn’t already built into your sick leave policy, it’s time to amend it. That’s the golden rule, after all, even during periods with less heightened awareness.

I’ve also heard of companies, including law firms, coming up with a group strategy, so that businesses in a particular area can deliver a coherent, coordinated response. So, reach out to your colleagues, and potentially your local bar association, to build out guidelines.

Related: Here’s advice on crisis communications do’s and don’ts from law firm PR expert Gina Rubel.

2. Stress Testing Virtual Practice: What Happens When Everybody Stays Home?

If you’re asking your staff to stay home, and also telling your clients and colleagues to stay away, notification is also important.

Let your staff and clients know that you’re shuttering your physical location, and for how long. If the situation is fluid, and you are truly not sure how long the quarantine will last, say so. This is not the time for spin. Deliver your messaging and address the situation in the present tense; if circumstances cause that messaging to change, alert your staff, colleagues and clients of the changes you make.

Everyone knows this situation is in flux; no one will think less of you for communicating more. The message, of course, is simpler for colleagues and clients. It’s basically: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.

For your staff, there is much more to it. It’s pretty easy to work from home for a day, or two. Even in a traditional law office, lawyers and staff do that all the time — they simply pick up a stack of papers and bring them home. It happens during power outages or snowstorms. Big whoop. However, this time you may be asking staff to work from home for an extended period, maybe weeks at a time, potentially with no clear end in sight. That’s not only an entirely different thing; it may be a completely new business model for your law firm.

What the coronavirus outbreak is forcing lawyers across the world to ask is whether their practices are truly virtual, or even fully mobile. In most cases, those lawyers are answering: “Not really.”

So it is that for law firms, the coronavirus outbreak is creating a referendum on the value of the virtual law office and remote work policies. Before this, the virtual law office was an abstract idea; now, it’s a necessity. And, if your firm was not ready to go completely virtual before coronavirus, you’re going to spend the next long while muddling through, and praying hard that this is not a modern version of the 1918 “Spanish” flu epidemic, 100 years in the making.

For the past 15 years, I’ve been talking myself hoarse about law firms adopting the cloud. It’s long past time to do so. If you’re reading this, and your law firm has not yet embraced the notion and concept of virtual practice, you need no more stark example of why you should do so than the quarantines taking place around the world … right now.

If the ability to work remotely from anywhere was previously “only” useful for cost savings and flexibility, it’s now clearly the mechanism for business continuity when health crises strike. If you need another reason to get all your law firm data online, this has to be the third straight X on your tic-tac-toe board.

It’s time for law firms to adopt modern technology platforms, as well as the concurrent policies required to manage that infrastructure.

And let’s hope, next month, these are the only coronas we’ll be talking about.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

You might like these related articles:

Keep Updated With Local Webinars

Many state or local bar association are preparing online programs to help you navigate the coronavirus crisis. The American Bar Association is offering these webinars, free to members:

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Jared Correia Jared Correia

Jared D. Correia is CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers subscription-based law firm business management consulting services, and works with legal vendors to develop programming and content. Jared is also COO of Gideon Software, Inc., which offers intelligent messaging and predictive analytics software built exclusively for law firms. A former practicing attorney, Jared is the host of the Legal Toolkit podcast and speaks frequently at industry events. In addition to his Attorney at Work column, Managing, he writes an advice column for Lawyerist and on tech startups for Above the Law. Follow him @JaredCorreia.

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