Christine Lamb of Fortis Law Partners counsels companies on personnel and human resources issues — two areas where just about every company has needed help recently. Through the past year, she has often seen concern about new COVID19-related laws and regulations, stress from financial uncertainty and an adjustment to the work-from-home world. In 2021, she hopes to see matters that are a little more mundane.
LAW WEEK: What have been some of the most significant issues for companies last year?
LAMB: The uncertainty that’s out there with my clients is just much higher than normal. And with all that uncertainty, I’m doing quite a bit of advice and compliance work — much more so than in a typical year — just because of the ongoing changes. The new types of compliance have definitely changed the landscape in employment law.
LAW WEEK: What are some of the specific issues bubbling up? What are some of those new areas of compliance that you’re working on?
LAMB: In the beginning of the year, when the pandemic first began, it was a lot of work on furloughs and layoffs and advice in those areas.
Then there was a time over the summer — when different states were coming up with their own orders on who are essential workers, and there were variations from state to state — where every single day, all I did was talk on the phone to clients about the different state and local regulations around COVID.
And then, the federal government came in with the CARES Act and the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act. Both of those impacted employers quite a bit, so I found myself doing lots of advice and compliance work around those federal laws. Clients were asking me, “what does this mean?” and a lot of the time, our lawyers were saying, “We’re not really sure. It’s brand new.” So, I would say there was just a huge increase in clients asking me, “what do I do?”
So, that’s been the biggest change for us in 2020, just the huge amount of compliance on state and federal orders that came out, how to navigate that situation and just the immediacy of it.
LAW WEEK: What other struggles might be coming up that wouldn’t be obvious or expected from the pandemic?
LAMB: They say this about marriage: when you’re in stressful situations, you can tend to sort of see the cracks in the relationship. And I think that same thing has happened in companies where I’m seeing a lot of major job positions — high level positions — either leave or be asked to leave because the pressure of everything that’s going on right now has just made the cracks show more.
There’s been a lot of stress, and some people have realized under all this pressure that certain members of the executive team aren’t in the right spot. And there’s been some big shifts that I’m not sure would have happened without all this external pressure. It was a sort of hidden discord that was there in a lot of companies getting revealed.
I don’t know if other people are seeing this, but I’ve seen it across several companies where there have been major transitions and shakeups in the executive team. And these are people who have been there the whole time, they’ve been there for years, but it just came to light during this crisis situation.
The other layer to 2020 — setting aside COVID — there were a lot of social justice issues that were front and center. The Black Lives Matter movement and the uprisings over the summer have caused a lot of companies to take a look at their own policies and their own diversity. This by itself would have been a big deal, but that also was something that I talked to a lot of companies about. There are a lot of new laws around that, like here in Colorado there are new laws taking effect on Jan. 1, looking at pay equity and things like that, so there is just a lot more a lot more discussion and talk and advice around equity and diversity issues.
LAW WEEK: How has the shift to telework affected your clients?
LAMB: Telework is now normal. There’s no teleworking if you’re in manufacturing, but for a lot of clients that are now doing telework, they are looking for advice around whether their current telework policy works in a situation and how to navigate wage and hour issues when someone is teleworking and isn’t actually in the office, there are time-off issues. This line between work and home has blurred so much where there’s now this huge struggle — this was a major shift in the employment world — and just how to manage a group of employees that are not there.
I’m hearing a lot of clients saying they’re going to actually shrink their physical footprint and allow more employees to work remotely. I do think a lot of employers — now that they’ve had that experience for months where employees are working remotely and employees are doing a good job — they’re going to be looking at this next year and saying, “well it’s a lot cheaper and easier, why don’t we keep doing this?” Or there will be some hybrid situations where there are workers sharing an office. I do think it’s going change the number of people who are teleworking, and that is here to stay for a lot of employers.
LAW WEEK: How has that type of work changed your own work and your firm?
LAMB: I think the biggest thing for us has been that we’ve found senior lawyers in the firm have had a much smoother transition, but some of our new lawyers, who are only a few years out of law school, they really benefit from having that in-person mentorship and collaboration with the other attorneys physically in the office. I take for granted that I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I can do this anywhere, if I needed to. But the people who don’t have that kind of experience and confidence in their abilities really need a team around them. I think the main thing we’ve realized is, we have to make sure that we continue to provide that mentoring and collaboration virtually.
It came naturally when we were all coming in to work and were around other people every day and running into each other in the hallway. There was just this constant dialogue with each other that doesn’t exist anymore. For a while, we would go months without really talking to each other, other than just on a specific task, and you missed out on all the other things that went with being in a law firm. So, we’ve just tried to set up a lot more Zoom calls and have some people in the office just on a short-term basis where everyone can collaborate with each other and stay socially distanced. I think it’s made us realize young lawyers need collaboration with other lawyers.
LAW WEEK: How has the court slowdown affected you and your clients?
LAMB: Definitely with the courts pushing off trials, everything is getting more delayed. I think clients were already surprised with how long it takes to get through the courts and had this existing sense that the legal system is slow. Well, it’s even slower now.
We just need to resolve cases and go into voluntary arbitration because those are easier to do on Zoom or online. I’ve done a couple arbitrations over Zoom, and it actually works O.K.
I think this has pushed people to settle if they don’t want to wait even longer than they already were waiting or to explore alternative dispute resolution forums.
I think a lot of clients are looking more at the bigger picture now because of the financial insecurity within their company or in the world in general. When you are looking at the big picture things, like making sure that this company survives the pandemic and making sure all the workers are safe, those are major, major issues, so you might resolve some things that aren’t are important. If there’s some claim out there that’s maybe worth $30,000, do you really want to spend your time and energy on that? If your job as CEO or CFO of this company is to keep the financial security of the company and keep all the workers safe — physically safe — those are bigger concerns. And then you add to that, well you may or may not get this resolved for months and months and months, it just motivates clients to see the bigger picture and say, “you know what, we don’t have to be right on this, we can just be sensible.” I think there are larger issues out there.
LAW WEEK: Is there anything you’re looking forward to on the horizon in 2021?
LAMB: I’m just looking forward to getting back to normal within the firm. I miss interacting with different practice groups and just seeing each other in the hallway and talking with each other. I’m really looking forward to being back in the office.
I think for myself personally, I’ll work more from home, maybe a day or two a week like more of a hybrid, but I definitely don’t want to be a full-time remote employer.
And with my clients, I work with a lot of small businesses, and I’m just looking forward to them reaching that point where they’ve made it, they got through, and maybe we can move on to something more mundane. That would be refreshing to say, O.K. we can all breathe a sigh of relief now, the crisis is over, why don’t we revise your handbook?