75% to Work from Home: Are Law Firms Ready?

By Christian Nolan

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With Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordering businesses to decrease their in-office workforce by 75%, many law firms say they were already implementing similar work-from-home plans this week.

Past NYSBA President Stephen P. Younger, a partner at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, said his firm began transitioning to work-from-home on March 13. He said the firm has committed to this for the next two weeks “but everybody expects it to last longer.”

“I would venture to say most other major law firms have already done this,” said Younger.

Timothy Lynch, managing partner of Offit Kurman, strongly encouraged all of the lawyers and salaried employees throughout the firm’s 14 locations to work from home beginning March 17.

“We more or less instructed them to work from home unless they can’t work from home for some reason,” said Lynch.

Lynch explained that the hourly employees were given two weeks of additional paid time off (PTO) unless they were deemed essential staff. Hourly staff members who were deemed essential and work some or part of the next two weeks can use the additional PTO at a later time.

“I was pleased that so many of the nonexempt staff wanted to be deemed essential and wanted to work,” said Lynch.

Lynch said on March 18, Pennsylvania closed all nonessential businesses so that at that location, they are either working remotely, using PTO or commuting from Philadelphia to their nearby Delaware office.

The offices that are open have skeleton crews and a no-visitor policy. For practice areas that require face to face meetings, such as wills and estate signings, attorneys visit the clients’ home or another meeting location.

Richard K. Zuckerman, a partner at Lamb & Barnosky in Melville, said the firm did not yet have 75% of its staff working from home but is prepared to comply with the governor’s order. He said some lawyers, including himself, often worked remotely long before the coronavirus crisis, so there would be no adjustment for them.

“Assuming for the time being that the governor has the legal authority to do what he’s doing, it is my assumption that most private employers, my firm included, will continue to do their part in attempting to implement the best medical advice we have all received that includes social distancing, and washing of hands on a regular basis, and the like,” said Zuckerman. “I have heard of nobody who intends to willfully defy the governor’s requests.”

Exemptions will be made for essential service industries, including shipping, media, warehousing, grocery and food production, pharmacies, healthcare providers, utilities, banks and related financial institutions, and other industries critical to the supply chain.

“We would say lawyers are essential service. I don’t know whether everybody would agree with us,” Zuckerman quipped.

Elizabeth E. Schlissel, of Tannenbaum Helpern Syracuse & Hirschtritt said the Empire State Development Corporation would issue additional guidance as to which businesses are essential. Other businesses can request that it is in the best interests of the state to have their operations continue at full capacity.

“This may force New York businesses to make hard decisions now about whether to continue business operations because reducing on-premises staff by 75% may result in such significant depletion of revenue that they simply cannot meet expenses, including payroll,” said Schlissel.

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