Community. If there’s one word that we consistently heard during our latest Managing Partner Roundtable discussion, it’s community. Heather Broxterman from Broxterman Alicks McFarlane PC, Sue Oakes from Holland & Hart, Damon Barry from Ballard Spahr LLP and Doug Tumminello from Lewis Roca participated in an hour-long discussion on how they plan to deal with challenges in a post-COVID world, and what lessons they learned in the past year.
Each partner talked about how important it is to foster a working community for their entire workforce. Before 2020, so many of us were used to working in an office five days a week. But after working from home for a year with little reductions in productivity, is that still feasible? Especially with so many parents thinking about school, childcare or even some families becoming the sole caregivers to older loved ones. Things are different for a lot of employees, and for many of them, there is no desire to go back to the way things used to be. With that in mind, how do law firms around the world, not just in Colorado, plan to either put their community back together or redefine the word in 2021 and beyond?
“Are we going to go back full-time? That’s the biggest question,” said Barry, addressing the biggest elephant in this or any other room in the world. “We’re going back on October 4 and it’s going to be a hybrid approach. We expect everyone to be there three days a week and if you can’t do that, under special circumstances, we’ll approve that.”
The October date, along with the hybrid work schedule, came about after seeing his staff can still get great work done remotely. Barry also wanted to give enough time to staff and lawyers with children to get acclimated to a new school year. But the desire to get back in the office had a lot to do with maintaining and building relationships. Not just with clients, but with their work family.
“Although you can still practice law at a high level [working from home], you lose the organic relationship building and training opportunities. I have six people who, up until last week, I never met in person. Now, I thought I knew them because we did 18,000 Zoom meetings, but I didn’t physically shake someone’s hand until last week. And they’ve been with [our firm] for over 12 months.”
Broxterman echoed that sentiment.
“I was lonelier from my house and not being able to interact with other attorneys, or pop my head in people’s offices,” said Broxterman. BAM is a family law practice with 10 employees, which includes six attorneys. BAM reopened its offices in March and for their particular needs, working in the digital realm isn’t always feasible for their clients.
“I had a lot of clients going through divorces. The idea of being on a WebEx hearing, not in the same room as your attorney, was really scary for people,” said Broxterman.
“This is really a [relationship] business among our partners, our clients and our staff,” said Tumminello. Lewis Roca doesn’t have a formal in-office or remote work policy, which Tumminello says will continue going forward. However, they too are adapting while doing all they can to nurture those relationships.
“We’re moving in September, so when we come back into our new building, the way we’re doing this is based on the number of offices we have there. If you’re committed to being in the office four days a week or more, then you can have an assigned office. If you are not making a commitment but you need to come in fairly regularly, then maybe you’ll want to share an office with someone. This also means we’re reducing our footprint,” said Tumminello.
Sharing offices, a practice commonly known as “hotelling,” isn’t new to the corporate world, but it’s a fresh idea for law offices. Oakes said Holland & Hart is going down a similar path after outgrowing its current Denver office. And yeah, it turns out there’s an app that allows employees to reserve “hotel” spaces in their office before they pour their first cup of coffee.
“One of the tech company booms that you never think of, is the software you need to manage the hotel,” said Oakes. “It’s awesome to use on your phone or desktop. You can reserve a [space] by going into the app and saying ‘OK, I’m coming into the office today. I need to be near Andrea because we’re working on this project together.” For Oakes, this innovation not only makes it easier for the attorneys and their staff, but for the operational staff as well.
“Our receptionist and our office services support staff are free now to just provide really excellent service to the people who are in the conference rooms every two hours. So it’s going to be interesting.”
That desire for higher efficiency and a smaller footprint, all while maintaining firm community is a challenge in itself for law firms. The key, according to the partners, is finding the balance between serving the attorneys, staff and the clients.
“I think the vast majority of our clients could not care less where we are,” said Oakes. “We can work from home as effectively as we work in the office for the most part. But we value teamwork and supporting each other. And if we’re not in the office getting to really know each other and be friends with each other, and learn how to rely on each other in person, you lose some of that. We are really trying to encourage people to come in [to the office] as much as possible.”
“There’s always a give and take throughout history of providing services to clients,” said Tumminello. “With us, and I’m sure it’s the same for everybody, it’s the training of your associates to the way that we do business. And part of that is teaching them to work with clients in-person and be there.”
For Broxterman, that reality hits close to home because she sees clients all the time.
“We [normally] have clients in the office on a daily basis, which is a different model. There’s a lot of work that can be done remotely, and there’s been a lot of progress in terms of some court appearances that should’ve been remote the whole time, which are now remote, which is great,” said Broxterman. “But I think now it’s really difficult for something so personal as family law to not see the person. So I’m glad that we’re back [in the office]. But it’s nice to have flexibility for administrative things.”
On the other hand, working from home and digital innovations helped expand services for some offices as well. Some things that used to take hours to do can now take minutes. And clients on the other side of the country can get facetime with their legal team without leaving their couch.
“This actually helped us be able to give [clients] better services because you were able to have different platforms that we were not utilizing before COVID,” said Barry. Now, you can see people if you choose to. I’m a bit of an old-school negotiator so I like to see people. I like to meet as many clients as possible in-person when possible. But when I have a client in New York, I can’t go to New York any time. So you have to learn to do business the way that we do. But I think the pandemic helped us be more efficient with our time and our resources.”
“I was dealing with this today,” said Oakes. “We’re trying to set up a negotiation session and the two principals for the other side are in Australia. They cannot leave. So we have to do a Zoom negotiation session; we don’t have another option. I think people are going to be far more likely to wonder if they really need to fly when they’d rather do it digitally. And we’ve been doing it for 18 months now and it’s worked phenomenally well.”
“Pre-pandemic, all depositions were done in person. You fly to San Francisco, you fly to New York for a two- or three-hour deposition,” said Tumminello. “So, now, post-pandemic, we reach out to our clients and say they can pay me to fly to New York, take a three-hour deposition, pay for my meals, my nice hotel, and pay for me to fly back. Or, I can do it from my office via Zoom. Now, there are certainly depositions where that’s not possible, but now you have to give clients that choice.”
Necessity breeds innovation and BAM, recognizing the needs of its practice, created a video conference courtroom. This provided a small sense of familiarity for the attorneys, and a great sense of comfort for their clients. But as of now, its future isn’t set in stone.
“I honestly don’t know if we’re going to keep it at this point. In my business, probably more than [everyone else’s], people are much more anxious to get back. I think depositions may change, I think status conferences will change, but by and large, I think people around the family law world are ready to do things in-person,” said Broxterman.
With all of their plans laid and properly thought through for a number of months, the partners are aware best laid plans can go awry. While they want to have people in their offices and do as much in person as possible, they know health precautions are necessary. Especially with COVID cases surging as we head into the fall. For Oakes, that means implementing simple guidelines.
“Our rule at the office is you have to submit a vaccine card. And if you haven’t, you have to be masked,” said Oakes. “Thankfully, we haven’t had any issues. I suspect the layers coming in, especially those who have young kids, who might feel less comfortable, might work from home more.”
“Safety is the number one priority for all of us,” said Barry. “October 4 is our magical date, but starting October 4, we are going to require vaccinations. And you have to show proof you got it done. If you can’t, and there’s obvious exceptions for religious beliefs and other things, HR is now working through how to deal with those circumstances.”
“If you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask in the office. If you’re not, you do,” said Tumminello.
Hoteling, working from home, hybrid work schedules, Zoom meetings and digital courtrooms are just a few of the ways law firms adapted to the “new normal.” But post-COVID, will the industry irrevocably change?
“I think what this has taught us is you can still have your assistant, your associates, but do they have to be right outside your office? No,” said Barry. “We figured out that we’re providing high quality services — very efficiently — without looking at everybody everyday.”
“The biggest change in my world is the willingness of the court to do things remotely,” said Broxterman. “I used to have to give everybody somebody’s first-born child to appear remotely. Now, all the courtrooms across Colorado are set up to do remote court. The biggest change is in the court system itself.”
“Clients really want that instant, real world, helpful advice,” said Tumminello. “We’ve had to accelerate our responsiveness and how we deliver that advice. I expect it’ll probably continue because they realize we can give them helpful, business savvy advice on an ongoing basis.”
Things are evolving on a daily basis. But if these partners are any indication, law firms in Colorado are ready to meet those challenges and adapt. Just like any good community member.