How law firms can be—and stay—effective during the COVID-19 crisis
Kerry N. Jardine.
As it has done to other professions within the business community, the coronavirus pandemic has severely disrupted normal functioning in the field of law. From closed courtrooms to quarantined clients, we are dealing with a new and challenging set of issues. But with the right planning and a strategic approach, we can overcome these obstacles and continue to effectively serve our clients.
Ask most people where to picture a lawyer, and they will almost immediately put him or her in one of two places: in a courtroom or at a conference table. And for good reason. The practice of law is a quintessentially human endeavor that requires ongoing contact with other lawyers, clients and a team of paralegals and legal assistants. In many ways, these kinds of interactions constitute the very essence of the legal profession.
In this sense, one the most significant challenges facing law firms during the pandemic has been communications. Historically, lawyers have relied on in-person meetings to conduct our business. From strategy sessions to client intake and depositions, more often than not we are in the room with another party. Consequently, prior to the pandemic, most firms had low rates of tech adoption for two simple (but compelling) reasons: They were difficult to integrate, and they were largely unnecessary.
The key to tackling this challenge is to approach it not primarily through technical means but by understanding it as a leadership issue. Far from leaving it to an IT or HR department to select digital tools to serve as a communications Band-Aid, law firm leadership teams have to create and implement global strategies to confront communications-related issues related to the pandemic. A successful approach must consider everything from workflow to efficiency to new business development and client management.
In the case of our firm, once social distancing measures were put into place, our management team convened to determine the best ways for everyone to communicate effectively and securely while working from remote locations.
Shareholders and practice group leaders from departments across seven states met virtually during the beginning stages of the pandemic and worked together to share collective perspectives about the most effective methods of communication. We developed a communication strategy and talking points for attorneys and professional staff that were informative, responsible and secure.
At the heart of this effort was the creation and implementation of a mobile workforce strategy to ensure efficient online collaboration while protecting client confidentiality. This meant earmarking funds to invest in the kinds of technology and digital communication tools that could facilitate secure communication from any location.
All employees were equipped with new laptop computers and the remote access necessary to enable secure and confidential communications with clients and colleagues from workstations outside the firm. In addition, the firm introduced Zoom and Cisco’s Jabber software to help foster effective and efficient collaborative interactions.
However, much of the critical training we did wasn’t in how our staff could use platforms such as Zoom or Jabber. After all, in most cases these are bright, self-directed people who can find their way around a new consumer technology. Instead, it was the training in how to collaborate through these platforms that made an impact. This collaboration training is now starting to pay dividends that we expect to see not just through the pandemic but for years to come.
But at the core of this approach is a major shift in how we think about and implement virtual platform security, which cannot be stressed enough. The shift consists of the firm’s ability to ensure all virtual machine interactions, a system that is new to the firm and deployed in response to the pandemic, are secure. We also conducted a security audit of the firm from scratch.
The audit was designed to assess our overall security posture. We chose a company to perform these systematic evaluations and security diagnostics based on their ability to assess our current performance and formulate best practice solutions for desired results. This strategy is all about equipping teams with the right hardware and the understanding of processes and protocols that make our new normal a safe one.
The next area of focus is the client. For the vast majority of these individuals, their legal issues are pressing and often essential. For this reason, it is imperative for clients to have easy and reliable access to their attorneys, paralegals and professional staff during the course of their legal matters.
To achieve this, the strategic shift we have put into place is much less about a single platform and more about a holistic approach to the “virtual office.” By creating a structure that depends on an array of communications tools, including instant messaging, voice and video calls, voice messaging, desktop sharing, conferencing and presence, we are able to create the kind of seamless interaction among our staff that allows information and decisions to flow unbroken to the client.
But we also recognized early on in this process that if this new approach were to succeed, it would depend on our ability to communicate with clients. To do this, we began active and frequent outreach to clients to let them know our lines of communication are open. Of course, this is not a one-off effort but an ongoing process of furthering the client relationship.
As part of this effort, we continually strive to demonstrate to our clients that our teams are intimately acquainted with the client’s legal matters and that the security of their cases is an absolute priority. We also put special emphasis on reassuring clients that their legal team’s accessibility and availability to discuss client legal matters—whether by email, telephone, or video conferencing—remains undisrupted.
Clients are made aware that despite the lack of in-person communication, we are just as dedicated to all of their high and low priority legal needs. Additionally, when appropriate, we let clients know that we can offer alternative methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation and arbitration, as the capacity of the judicial system to resolve these disputes has contracted.
Communicating all this, we developed direct outreach campaigns that now include monthly e-newsletters to current clients. Our aim has been to answer common questions about the firm’s operations during COVID-19, while clearly outlining and reaffirming our attorney’s ongoing commitment to being accessible and providing the best in legal representation.
Underlining our dedication and the stability of our firm amid these challenging times, we expressed concern for our clients and hoped that they and their loved ones were safe and doing well. And we assured them the firm remained fully operational, and everyone was committed to working on clients’ cases and assisting others who were seeking legal representation.
COVID-19 continues to create fear and uncertainty across the globe. Even as the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines continues, there is still no telling when this difficult chapter will come to a close. While there may be some light at the end of the tunnel, our firm intends to maintain the entirety of our virtual office moving forward to give all of our employees the option and capability to work from home safely.
Throughout the last few months, what we have found is that it does not matter where we work. Rather, how we work is crucial to be able to continue to do what we do best: serve the needs of our clients as they seek justice, redress and guidance when it matters most.
Kerry N. Jardine is the managing shareholder at Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh & Jardine and serves on its executive committee. He has been instrumental in the firm’s management, practice group formation, global strategy and direction for over 15 years.
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