Partners Ready To Go Back to Office. Will Associates Follow Suit?
Managing law firm partners foresee that the traditional firm environment will return later this year, albeit with some changes.
Health and safety remain the top priority but most partners would prefer to be under the same roof with their associates and staff to ensure better training, continuity and collaboration.
This was the assessment of partners on the Law Practice Management Annual Meeting program, “Managing Partner Roundtable: Maintaining Esprit De Corps & Other COVID-19 Challenges.”
Lisa Cleary (Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler) said that she has always valued being under one roof with connections and support. “There’s a craving from us on all sides that we want to be together as soon as it’s safe. COVID won’t impact our community emphasis on learning from each other. We love the connections that human contact permits. We are not going to change as I suspect some others might.”
Steven G. Kobre (Kobre & Kim) said, “While Zoom works, it works because everyone is on Zoom.” A shift to hybrid operations might make it more difficult.
Kobre agreed that “fundamentally the nature of the practice will go back to the way it is,” but he expects that there will be changes and more understanding for employees who want to work from home more regularly or who want to have dinner with their family every night.
However, moderator Craig Brown (Bridgeline Solutions) said that most associates he has spoken to feel that work from home is here to stay.
Noreen A. Kelly (McGuireWoods) confirmed that there is a generational conflict that will need to be resolved.
She also expects that there will be a reduction in travel costs because clients will be more cautious about lawyers showing up in their offices. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reopening a firm with multiple offices, she said.
“It is very different in New York City when people take the subway and you’re in a building with thousands of people. In some smaller offices, people do go in every day if they choose,” said Kelly. “It will depend region by region.”
Jonathan D. Schiller (Boies Schiller Flexner) predicted that there would be an increase in international arbitration to resolve disputes.
Miguel A. Zaldivar, Jr. (Hogan Lovells) also expects changes. “We’ve learned we can run a firm without everyone walking through the halls and with reduced costs.” He expects that firms might downsize to smaller offices to accommodate employees who want to work remotely, but that firms will have to invest more in technology to make it happen.
Increased communication and transparency
The COVID-19 pandemic gave partners an opportunity to improve their meetings and humanize their interactions with associates.
Partners also agreed that the key to their success during the pandemic was improved communication amongst the partners and associates and staff.
David Djaha (Ropes & Gray) said that “heightened communications between partners of the firm was critical.”
They held biweekly partner meetings to provide information in real time and monthly town hall meetings with all staff to discuss client development and client wins. They insisted on having Zoom meetings instead of phone calls or group conference calls so staff could look each other in the eye and feel connected.
Cleary said Patterson Belknap started a “week in review” email involving personnel, client development and pro bono updates. But she added a human touch by bringing some of her home life into the newsletter. She began by sharing pictures of her garden, which is a “great source of therapy” for me. Other staff quickly joined in and shared photos of their gardens and pets.
“Staff very much appreciate the communication,” said Cleary. “We have really been conscious to include our business services staff to keep them working hard and understand how valued and appreciated they are.”
The firm also hosted wine and chocolate tastings for staff and hosted a magic show for children instead of the children’s holiday party.
Kelly said her firm has worked to identify common anxieties for parents of young children, single lawyers, or those who may have the virus. “We are checking in more,” said Kelly.
Particularly for young parents who were worried about billing time, the firm came up with new schedules and ways to keep them working and be empathetic. “We were going through it too. We built a sense of collegiality and warmth,” said Kelly. “They could reach out to management when they needed help.”
Zaldivar’s firm was able to operate remotely seamlessly because it had made the right investments in technology. “We gave parents assurance that it was OK to be a full-time tutor and work odd hours to meet client needs.”
Kobre’s firm created a group purchasing mechanism to get good pricing on office chairs, computer cameras and other supplies. Each staff member received a stipend for their home office and favorable pricing if they went above it.
They also made a dedicated effort to get hand sanitizer and toilet paper for staff before supplies ran out.
Stephen E. Goldman (Robinson & Cole) makes a five-minute weekly video on client development and staff recognitions. “We’ve tried to humanize our communications. It gave our employees stability. We recognize that this is hard for everyone.”
Schiller said his firm made “an unwavering commitment to health and safety” and a policy for sick employees before the March shutdowns. “We have focused on connection, integration and community,” said Schiller. They have since hosted periodic webinars on diversity, working from home and professional development. Their valued informal lunches have been replaced with Zoom happy hours and coffee breaks.
To combat isolation and disconnectedness, his firm launched daily one-on-one communications via Zoom.
Goldman said that associates, used to being able to ask a partner down the hall about a matter, were initially reluctant to call with a question. “Not fear, but a sense of intrusion,” said Goldman. “We talked a lot with our partners and encouraged associates not to worry about it.
“The partners really opened up,” said Kobre. “We’re all in this together.”