COVID fallout includes more remote work, less travel for law professionals

Dan Glessner can laugh now about his “impeccable timing,” but weathering COVID-19 as Brouse McDowell’s newly appointed managing partner was no joke as recently as six months ago.

Glessner took the helm of the Akron-based firm on Jan. 23, squeezing in a single executive committee meeting in February, one month ahead of the statewide lockdown in March.

“As a committee, we had put a list together of things we were going to concentrate on in 2020,” he recalled. “When the NBA canceled games and the NCAA (basketball tournament) threw in the towel, I realized this was going to be something big. We promptly took our list and put it on the way, way backburner and began building a new list of things to focus on.”

Brouse — as did countless organizations both in and outside of the legal sphere — suddenly turned its attention to getting employees up and running remotely and planning when and how offices could reopen safely. More broadly, Glessner and his team — also like other organizational leaders — began the process of trying to understand what it will take to operate effectively in a post-COVID world.

“It’s pretty clear it won’t be business as usual for quite some time, if ever,” he said.

Indeed, area attorneys and industry watchers say the pandemic is creating long-lasting changes in the practice of law.

A substantially heightened acceptance of remote working — particularly among attorneys, paralegals and other “timekeepers” — will be one of the biggest changes in an industry that has historically operated as “all hands on deck all the time,” said Tom Clay, a principal at legal advisory firm Altman Weil in Newtown Square, Pa.

While a few firms may have dipped their toes into distributed business models and working from home was becoming a bit more commonplace at law practices prior to the shutdown, there had never been wide-scale adoption of telecommuting policies and practices, according to Clay.

Yet despite being thrown headfirst into remote work, he said, firms are getting work done with very little or no push back from clients.

“I don’t think there is any doubt we are going to see more people with the ability and the desire to work from home part time,” Clay said. “We have recently done several surveys for (law firms) at their request, and up to 85% of the respondents in some of these firms say, ‘We would like to work from home at least one or two days a week.'”

Legal leaders in Northeast Ohio agree that the telecommuting genie isn’t likely to go back into the bottle, although they don’t anticipate morphing into virtual practices.

Deborah Read, managing partner at Thompson Hine, noted brainstorming/innovation and the development of young attorneys as two specific tasks best accomplished through in-person interaction.

“You can work on an M&A document, you can do tax research, you can write a patent — you can do all that remotely. Frankly, there is a lot of heads-down work you can do better remotely,” said Read, who oversees eight firmwide offices from her Key Tower base. “The best way for an associate to learn how to think analytically is to sit down and go through a heavy analysis with a partner … and that just does not happen in a remote environment.

“I am resigned to the fact that there will be more working from home, but I also know we have to get people back in the office meeting with each other, talking with each other, even if it’s not every day.”

With the prospect of more telecommuting, at least part time, law firms are taking another look at their real estate needs. Clay said office space is the second most expensive line item for most firms, and many already are “trying to renegotiate with landlords” in terms of reducing or redesigning the space they occupy.

Shared offices or workspaces and hoteling will become more routine.

Read said Thompson Hine was just about to sign off on the design of an expansion at its Chicago location that included a more traditional approach of permanently assigned offices when COVID struck.

Given the new reality of remote work and flexible scheduling, it pivoted instead to a hoteling model, in which employees who don’t come to the office every day are assigned a cart for their personal items and can call ahead to reserve one of many temporary offices available.

“It’s basically plug in and go to work,” she said.

Rob Glickman, managing partner at Cleveland-based McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, said a shift to remote also work might result in some firms leaving high-rent metro districts.

“If lawyers don’t need to be in the office, they don’t need to be downtown,” he said.

Glickman stressed, however, that any urban exodus on the part of law firms will be more pronounced in larger and more expensive locales like New York City than in economical cities like Cleveland.

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