BigLaw in the time of Coronavirus

Blog

June 19, 2020
Legal industry

For lawyers across America, the past few months invoke familiar challenges of the 2008 financial crisis. As the economy flounders in the face of COVID-19, many law firms are cutting pay, reducing hours, and furloughing employees. Coronavirus is shaking the legal world.

Leveraging its broad network, Legalist surveyed partners at AmLaw 100 firms. They shared how their firms are responding to COVID-19 and highlighted industry trends that are developing amid the crisis.

At present, big law firms are strengthening client communications and cybersecurity preparedness as responses to the current challenge. Looking forward, it is likely that extended periods of court closure and remote work will have a long-lasting impact on the legal industry. 

Will law firms warm up to virtual teams and reduce office space? Will courts accelerate efforts to go paperless? Will lawyers shift to collaborating more and earlier? Take it from the following law firm partners. 

BigLaw responds to the crisis

Law Firms Must Help Clients with Business Continuity

By Margaret Christensen, Office Managing Partner, Dentons

Dentons represents clients in 75 countries, including virtually every location where COVID-19 has already had a serious impact. We have focused the extraordinary depth and breadth of our global resources to ensure we remain available to serve our clients during this challenging time. It is our duty to help clients with their business continuity plans and implementation, and we are prepared to do so.

We quickly activated our efforts across the Firm to address our clients’ emerging concerns, and in many cases, unfamiliar needs. More than one month ago, we activated Dentons’ Global Pandemic Preparedness Task Force to ensure that all our people and our clients are able to take advantage of the most current and advanced thinking, resources, and talent pool available to manage and mitigate the impact of the virus as it spreads around the world. 

We developed a COVID-19 Hub on Dentons.com as a central repository for tools, resources and thought leadership to help businesses, governments and organizations navigate this difficult time. Through our COVID-19 Hub, we have also assembled subject matter experts and resources from around the world so that we can advise our clients across a wide range of issues they may be encountering in the markets where they operate.

We have best practice business continuity processes in place across Dentons, and we remain ready, able, and prepared to serve our clients during this time.

A Deeper Connection in Disaster and Distancing

By Bill Hines, Managing Partner, Jone Walkers 

For decades our law firm has thrived by pivoting and adapting our service model around significant disasters such as Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, other natural disasters and pandemics like Legionnaires Disease. By persevering, we have realized a deeper connection with one another and with our clients. I believe that the same will come from this global COVID-19 pandemic.

The businesses we represent are being affected, and they are seeking guidance on labor & employment, insurance, tax, legislation, and business continuity matters. We have a dedicated COVID-19 taskforce in place to manage the firm’s outreach to clients through these unprecedented issues, and our blog is focused on providing timely information and analysis of the fast-moving legal and regulatory issues around COVID-19. 

The majority of our firm personnel are working from home, and we are utilizing various technology platforms to communicate regularly with our employees and to provide client service through emails, text messages, client alerts, our Disaster Prep & Recovery blog posts, webinars, and teleconferences. In fact, I recently conducted our monthly partner meeting virtually.

Jones Walker is like many other businesses who are pivoting their service models because of the worldwide mandated social/physical distancing. I am very proud, but not at all surprised, of the resilience that our team at Jones Walker has shown. This unified and flexible approach coupled with an overall willingness of staff and attorneys at all levels to solve problems for one another and our clients has proven to be a very effective approach to managing the COVID-19 crisis. And through the disaster and the distancing, we are in many ways finding a deeper connection with one another.


Security concerns for remote work

Cyber and Operational Risk From a Remote Workforce

By Joshua A. Mooney, Partner and Chair of the Cyber Law Group, White and Williams

The COVID-19 outbreak already has impacted cybersecurity law. Regulators, like the New York Department of Financial Services (NYDFS), are requiring organizations to file preparedness plans addressing operational risks, including data privacy and security. HHS has issued some guidance under HIPAA, including a limited liability waiver, for disclosures relating to COVID-19. The newly-enacted CARES Act requires HHS to provide additional guidance. 

Yet, transitioning to a remote work environment because of shutdown orders brings new cybersecurity risks and operational hazards to both law firms and their clients. Cybersecurity laws and contractual requirements remain in effect and enforceable. Further, with resources already strained by the outbreak, a cybersecurity incident upon a weakened organization could spell the end. Cyberattacks are on the rise, so compliance is critical to mitigate risk. There are steps that law firms (large and small) and their clients may undertake.

  • First, understand and inventory the scope of the “new” workforce and network. Increase network capability. 
  • Conduct employee training, instruct on best practices, and establish a “help desk.” Internal meetings should address data privacy/security concerns as an agenda item. 
  • Review your incident response plan – and if you don’t have one, implement one. 
  • Examine your insurance program to confirm what risks are covered, including wire-fraud scams and ransomware attacks. 
  • Revisit data security contractual requirements with clients and vendors, if needed, and ensure that critical suppliers have assessed their own risks. 
  • Speak with cyber counsel. Review the small stuff, but don’t let it overwhelm you.


Industry trends moving forward

The New Normal for Law Firms 

By Jeffrey L.  Kessler, Co-Executive Chairman of Winston & Strawn

COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis and what superior law firms do best is crisis management. We must use both our legal skills and our humanity, to help our clients, staff, families, and friends find the safest path forward – while adapting quickly to a new, challenging work environment. 

Given this rapid shift, continued meaningful engagement―albeit virtual—with all audiences is critical – especially with our clients who need us now, more than ever. Law firms are grappling with the issue of maintaining data security remotely. And we now live in a world of remote video meetings where new standards of interaction and dress have created a feeling of home and family within our community.   

Our shared struggle has brought us―our lawyers and our amazing staff―closer as a firm. And our clients have been warmly welcomed into our virtual home. This crisis has humbled and humanized us all. The new normal isn’t just remote work – it’s that our work will be delivered in a more personal, collaborative manner.   

Our charitable efforts are now focused on supporting schoolchildren, healthcare workers, and the homeless. Our pro bono services are helping vulnerable populations to regain access to COVID-19-interrupted justice and nonprofits and small businesses to secure COVID-19-related relief. 

The crisis has enabled us to self-reflect on career satisfaction, work/life balance, friends, and family. And our clients are part of this dialogue. Crisis management requires calm reflection, judgment, and empathy. This is the challenge we all face in the new normal every day.  


Coronavirus: Lessons the Legal Industry Can Learn

By Nicole Schiavo, Counsel, Moore & Van Allen

Seemingly overnight the legal industry, along with the rest of the world, was rocked by COVID-19.  Once crowded courtrooms sit empty and lawyers and support staff are working from home. It is easy to dwell on the disruption COVID-19 has created in our industry, particularly for litigators, but there is a silver lining; the potential for positive change to practices that exist largely tied to habit or because it is how things have always been done.  

The pandemic has forced the legal industry to quickly innovate and adjust. Judges are rethinking what conferences and appearances really require people in the courtroom and have moved most appearances to telephonic or by video; lawyers are drafting briefs and crafting pleadings on conference calls, utilizing software to collaborate on a single document; and, at least from most outward appearances, the industry is chugging along. 

This could open the door for more judges to utilize technology, giving back lost hours waiting in a courtroom, and push state courts to more quickly catch up with federal courts in allowing for electronic filings and online dockets. Teams working remotely requires more planning and collaboration which has led to earlier – and potentially more – collaboration. This could create better team work practices in the future and a more flexible approach to staffing, with partners more open to staffing team members they won’t work with in person on a regular basis, whether because they are in a different office or because they work remotely. 

How Coronavirus May Permanently Change the World of Law

By Nicholas F. Kajon, Shareholder, Stevens & Lee

The abrupt and pervasive ill-effects of the coronavirus, including massive closures of businesses and corresponding layoffs of employees, are likely to induce permanent change among clients, lawyers and law firms.  As a result of COVID-19 and the ensuing lockdowns, many clients will suffer business and financial constraints which will probably cause at least some clients to shelve deals, cut back on outside legal services, delay or default in paying law firm bills, be acquired by a non-client in order to survive, or in a worst case scenario cease operations.

Any of these factors would cause financial stress for law firms, which could suddenly lose a significant number of clients and/or have millions in uncollectible receivables.  As a result, law firms may be compelled to reduce costs, initiate layoffs, merge with a stronger firm, or even shut down.

On the bright side, resourceful firms will find ways to endure, if not emerge even more resilient. While many businesses and law firms may struggle, the resourceful ones will rise from the crisis like a phoenix.

Moreover, crises accelerate developments that were already underway. I suspect that many law firms, even in this day and age, still view working from home as “slacking off.”  Once they realize that most lawyers can be quite productive while working for extended periods outside the office, they may reevaluate their assumptions.  There is no doubt that many law firms would benefit by reducing office space in today’s interconnected world, thus sparing considerable expense.

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