Last week our law firm, Fisher Hudson Shallat, began to seriously consider how COVID-19 would impact our business, clients, and our employees. As more and more news broke about the way the virus spreads, and the extreme measures taken by governments around the world, our partners knew we had a very serious decision to make. On Monday, our law firm chose to physical close our office. Although we considered simply allowing employees the option to work remotely, we chose to take our response a step further and require them to work remotely. We also chose to halt all in-person meetings. These decisions have been disruptive, but we felt confident that they were the most responsible approach given the many unknowns our community is facing regarding COVID-19.
With that in mind, here are five important reasons why physically closing your law firm is the appropriate response when addressing COVID-19.
1. Employee Health comes first.
A law firm’s treatment of their employees speaks volumes to their core values. Legal industry employees all over the country are paying extra close attention to how the management treats them. With the COVID-19 news unescapable, employees are hypersensitive to their response. Its critical law firms show their employees that their health and safety come before anything else. I suggest having an open discussion about their concerns rather than simply telling them how it’s going to be. Employee anxiety and fear are real and ignoring it will foster bad will.
2. Client health comes a close second.
When you welcome your clients into your office, they presume they are in a safe environment. However, when you interact with your clients face-to-face, you cannot guarantee you are not putting them at risk for exposure to COVID-19. Many of us have elderly clients who are at risk of death if they contract COVD-19. Given the nature of this virus, you may already be infected but not know it. Thus, you could transmit COVID-19 to your clients without knowing it. Moreover, having your clients come into your office requires them to leave their homes, further exposing them.
3. Community health comes third.
Having an open office means you are inviting the community into your space. This includes deliveries, cleaners, etc. It’s impossible to responsibly practice social distancing with an open office. The people who interact with you, your staff, and your clients, could either be carrying the virus or could contract if from your office.
4. It’s impossible to know the extent of a COVID-19 outbreak in your community.
Given the transmutability of COVID-19 and the lack of testing available, its unfortunately impossible to know how prevalent it is at this stage. Medical professionals now agree that asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus has fueled outbreaks. For example, it appears that a Massachusetts coronavirus cluster with at least 82 cases was started by people who were not yet showing symptoms, and more than half a dozen studies have shown that people without symptoms are causing substantial amounts of infection. Due to these factors, closing your office is the only 100% safe decision.
5. An outbreak at your office is a business killer.
Lastly, businesses should close their physical office given the risk law firms run by remaining open. Imagine the reaction your law firm would receive if a client contracted COVID-19, and suspects it came from you or your staff. At the very least, this rumor would hurt your law firm’s reputation.
Physically closing your office, however, could be very disruptive if not done properly. To help make this transition smoother, here are some additional pointers:
Now is our moment to be leaders in the white-collar workforce. Instead of being the last industry to implement remote options for employees and clients, let’s lead the charge and set a responsible example.
- Get everyone set up remotely. Many attorneys already have the capacity to work remotely, and often work from home. Law firms, though, tend to believe the staff must be present in the office. This perception is based upon the antiquated idea that someone must be physically there to greet clients and answer phones. That reality is obsolete, and its time for us to evolve. Staff can answer general calls from their cell phones. Most office phone technology can forward calls from the general lines to other numbers. Ask your staff’s consent to have calls coming into the firm forwarded to their cell phones. If they are not comfortable with that, buy them a burner the time being. As for drafting and filing documents, allow staff to take office equipment home with them. Many firms operate off of the cloud or VPNs which will allow staff to access documents from home. If not, go old school and send staff documents to edit via email. Now is the time to get creative and find workarounds to ensure we can all work remotely.
- Notify clients and the community. After you are set up to work remotely, it’s time to let everyone know your office is now closed. There are a few ways to do this. We chose to create a separate landing page on our website and include that link in our email signature. We also notified the community via social media. Other firms have chosen to send out an email to clients. Whatever method you chose, it’s important to let clients and the community know why you made this decision. Without telling them why they may think a COVD-19 exposure has occurred at your workplace. Instead, explain that you care about the health of your employees, your clients, and the community. The vast majority of people will understand why you made this decision because it’s happening all across the world right now.
- Leverage technology and stay in touch with employees. Firms should begin using video conferencing as a tool to communicate with clients and co-workers. There are many different options available including Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts. Our firm uses Microsoft Teams. Let clients know this is an option when they request to talk with you. Additionally, schedule a time every day or every other day for your team to check-in via video chat.
Fisher Hudson Shallat