22 November 2020

The covid-19 outbreak. How are law firms coping?

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to be a pandemic. This virus has rapidly spread to about 200 countries and territories and more than one-third of the world is now in lock-down. Lives and economies globally have been seriously disrupted, and law firms and their clients worldwide have inevitably been affected. Routine operations, travel, interactions and health and safety have become matters of high concern; and the use of technology has gained new importance, particularly where offices have been shut down.        

In view of this ongoing crisis, law firms are quickly switching to crisis management mode. They are taking prompt actions to immediately tackle both, internal and external, aspects of COVID-19 crisis management. Law firm COVID-19 crisis concerns may vary depending on various factors including jurisdiction, clientele, organisational set up and practice areas, but some common concerns that all law firms may have are:  

Employee Health and Safety: How to protect the mental and physical health of employees? How to communicate with employees, keep them regularly updated, handle their fear and boost their morale? Also, how do you keep the office sanitised and limit interactions? How do you provide for the additional or unique requirements of employees (like assistance where employees are living by themselves or away from their hometown)? Communication is key, and even where offices have been shut, law firm leaders are constantly communicating with their employees. Video conferencing apps like zoom have become very popular and convenient. The tone of communication is informative and reassuring. Where offices are open, care is taken to limit physical interactions. Many have alternate day working arrangements to reduce number of employees in the office on a given day and restrictions on travel and attending conferences / events have been strictly imposed. Also, firms have made mental and physical fitness education programmes available and many have on call doctors / psychiatrist who can assist employees even remotely. Additionally, law firms are trying to identify and solve any specific issues their employees may be facing (like commute, child care, etc.). Since there is a constant battle for good talent, proper care and concern for employees during this crisis will set employers apart.  

Technology and Agile Working: Is your law firm equipped with the technology needed for agile working and are your employees well trained to efficiently use the same? Have you thought about cybersecurity and client comfort? Also, how do you maintain a sense of community and check productivity while all are working from home? Law firms have been quick to put in place mandatory / voluntary work from home policies and, where offices are open, employees are encouraged to work from home even if slightly unwell. Many law firms have existing set ups which allow them to easily transition to agile working and others are choosing from the various available external resources to now set up remote working. In both situations, additional efforts need to be made to ensure that employees are well trained to use the technology (which can be done through online training) and the technology is reliable, secure and preserves client confidence. Also, constant communication and group activities (such as online open hours, presentations and updates) can promote a sense of community and zeal for working.      

Budget Allocation and Losses: There will be both immediate and future impact of this crisis on law firm finances. How should the firm cover the costs and losses incurring from this sudden crisis? Where employees are sick or working from home: how would the firm cover their salaries; do targets still have to be met; will the bonus component be affected? Will hiring practices and budget strategy change for the post-crisis period? Law firm leaders are differently reviewing their existing and future budget and employment strategies based on government directives and their firm’s requirements and resources (including insurance coverage). Overall, however, law firms should try and take a compassionate view keeping in mind their employee’s needs during this crisis.

Interacting with and Assisting Clients: In initial COVID-19 communications, most law firms have reassured their clients that, inspite of the COIVD-19 outbreak, they are available to provide legal services and, if required, they are well-equipped to work from home. As regards the methods being used for client communication and interaction, even where offices are open, preference is being given to remote interactions such as emails, calls and video conferencing. Where clients are allowed inside law firm offices, adequate precautions are taken - sanitisers are provided, social distancing is maintained, etc. and the overall tone of communication is ofcourse more understanding and comforting. 

Preparedness to advise on COVID19 related matters: As client interactions have changed so have client queries. As clients struggle to come to terms with this evolving crisis, their queries are now more focused on crisis related matters such as conducting AGMs, employment, force majeure and contract default. Clients need a combination of legal and practical advice, and even some predictions, to determine what actions and precautions they should be taking. How can law firms equip themselves to promptly cater to their client’s COVID-19 crisis needs? Many have formed COVID-19 teams; consisting mostly of practice heads from the firm’s relevant practice areas. These teams constantly keep themselves and clients updated on COVID-19 related developments and practices. The general trend is to provide COVID19 updates, and some COVID-19 related services and advice, free of charge. Many law firms have also set up online COVID-19 hubs / resources, which are freely accessible by clients, employees and the public at large.     

Business Development: With restrictions on attending conferences / events and having face to face interactions, law firms are going digital to maintain their presence. Amongst other things, newsletters / update emails and webinars are now more prominently being used as business development tools. However, care should be taken that clients are not inundated with these nor should such efforts be felt to be too promotional or unethical for a crisis situation.   

Business Continuity and Preparing for the aftermath: An important aspect is also thinking about business continuity and dealing with the aftermath of this crisis, while making sure your employees and clients are on board. 

Community Service: These times require consideration of not only your employees and your clients, but also of the society at large. Many law firms are thus using this time to also contribute to community and social services. 

Some law firms may be less prepared to handle such crisis than others, but prompt mitigation efforts, to a certain extent, may help minimise the overall impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Wishing all good health. Stay safe! 

Copyright © The Impact Lawyers. All rights reserved. This information or any part of it may not be copied or disseminated in any way or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of The Impact Lawyers. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of The Impact Lawyers.

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