Legal Services Brief

Law Firms Ponder Strategies for Returning to the Office

by Ken Neal
June 17, 2020

As law firms begin to open up following months of working from home, many legal professionals are asking themselves the same question: How can we safely resume operations and bring attorneys and staff back to the office? Many law firms have been hit hard during the pandemic; matters relating to mergers and acquisitions as well as large trials have either been delayed or fallen through entirely.

Legal work has historically required lawyers personally interacting in an office environment. When the pandemic reared its head, law firms acted quickly to meet service expectations while taking measures to comply with federal and local orders to contain the spread of the virus as well as instituting practices to prevent infection in the office.

In May, the New York State Bar Association released a model reopening plan that law firms can use as guidance. The model includes creating a team of people to manage the law firm reopening; best practices to stop the spread of the infection; visitor and client policies; guidelines for implementing rules and communications regarding sick or at-risk individuals, and new procedures for conducting business in an office environment.

The office space and work-related processes that attorneys and staff return to will be very different. This includes navigating a phased return to the office in which safety procedures and new work habits will need to be carried out.

Planning a strategy for ensuring employee safety is a particular concern. This ranges from creating an approach for reopening floors within those firms that have multiple floors in a location; deciding if there should be a volunteer and critical employee return to work policy; and keeping options open for employees who could continue to work from home.

Providing employees with education and information on COVID-19 and having a team of people taking charge of these initiatives is an important step that law firms need to consider. “Community Managers” can play an integral part in a smooth transition to a return to office rollout because they can reinforce social distancing and one-way movement in hallways.

In the past few months, law firms have had to reevaluate their processes and thinking towards working from home. It is well established in the legal industry that people should be in the office to work. However, COVID-19 sparked a need to change that thinking while confronting new challenges. The latter include the fact that many of the resources employees had in the office were no longer available as they moved to a work-from-home environment.

As a result, law firm staff and attorneys needed to leverage additional digital technology and services. This posed a challenge for some law firms that had an aversion toward digital enablement. “There are things that force change and then there are things that need a little more discussion,” said Shannon Desmarais, National Sales Manager, Legal Solutions at Canon Business Process Services, during a Fringe Legal podcast on the practicalities of returning to work. Needing to print information and distribute paper records has changed as a result of the pandemic, which made it necessary to digitally access information at home.

While there will be different scenarios for law firms returning to the office, many of these challenges are similar to those other industries are facing. The key is to prepare ahead of time and take a cautious and agile approach, which is more likely to better serve a firm’s attorneys, staff and clients.

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