With public health officials urging everyone to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic, offices around the state are adapting to working remotely.
Firm leaders are crediting technology with enabling a relatively “seamless” transition for lawyers and other firm staff.
Even before Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order went into effect Saturday, many firms started encouraging attorneys to work remotely where practical and exploring how other office staff could do the same.
The statewide executive order considers legal services as essential businesses, so attorneys and firm employees can still travel for work if necessary.
In interviews with the Daily Law Bulletin, several firm leaders said they started giving colleagues the option to work from home two weeks ago, and several firms transitioned fully to telecommuting last week.
For many lawyers, work from home at least part of the time is a normal routine. Some firms’ existing infrastructure allowed them to transition almost immediately, while others acted quickly to buy and install necessary equipment for employees.
Patricia Brown Holmes is the managing partner at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP, which opened in early 2016. She said her firm’s initial tech setup gives them flexibility.
“When we built our firm, we envisioned being able to serve our clients from anywhere in the world. We started with Surface Pros and no telephones so that our communications could be mobile, and we are one of the first law firms to open as a cloud-based business,” Holmes said. “We are capable of handling everything without issues — as long as the internet holds up to the pressures of so many users.”
Mary Clare Bonaccorsi, Chicago managing partner at Polsinelli, said her firm assembled a “rapid response team” to assist clients with questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the technology we have in our office we were, thankfully, set up to do this,” Bonaccorsi said. “It’s been remarkable how efficient the tech has been and how flexible people are being. With video, phones and email we’ve been able to be effective, and the change hasn’t been as extreme as it first seemed.”
Some local firms scrambled to purchase equipment in recent weeks for their non-attorney staff members.
“When we started to suspect that this was going to be necessary we talked to our employees and found out who didn’t have a computer at home that could be used to work remotely and we purchased laptops for those individuals,” said Michael A. Carrillo, managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg’s Chicago office. “We spent two days working with the employees who needed the laptops to get them set up and ready to work remotely, and we acquired mobile hotspots for the few people who didn’t have a high-speed internet connection.”
One issue that nearly every firm interviewed encountered during its planning: How to handle hard-copy documents and physical mail.
Several firms said they’re using “skeleton crews” in the office.
Marc Andrew Benjamin, partner in charge of Eversheds Sutherland LLP’s Chicago office, said his office has limited its in-office staff to just one person.
“We have one employee who is going in each day for a short time to get the mail and scan it,” Benjamin said. “Under normal circumstances he takes public transportation to work, but the firm is picking up the cost of his parking while we’re working from home so he can drive in and reduce his exposure.”
K&L Gates’ director of administration Celeste Herrera said she purchased combination printer/scanner/copiers and had them delivered to “a few key administrative staff members’ homes.”
K&L Gates is having mail and packages sent to two people, who are then distributing it to other staff members.
For firms where staffers are still working in the office, firms said they’ve implemented enhanced cleaning protocols and proper social-distancing measures.
It’s not just the remote working presenting challenges to attorneys during the pandemic. Depending on their areas of expertise, many attorneys find themselves in one of two extremes: stalled due to diminished courts operations or flooded with requests for assistance from clients.
“We had a contingency plan in place in case of emergencies, but this has brought some new aspects to it,” said Gavin J. O’Keefe, managing partner at McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP. “We have a fairly diverse practice with our work being pretty much half and half with litigation work and [prosecution work before] the patent office. We’ve had trials delayed, but the patent office is pretty much running as usual with a lot of work being done remotely.”
While some litigators are still working on research and “exploring options for remote depositions,” O’Keefe noted that attorneys who have had their litigation stalled have been shifted to working on other projects.
Michael Thomas Del Galdo, founding attorney at Del Galdo Law Group, said his law firm is experiencing a surge in business, as most of its clients are public-sector agencies such as school boards, park districts and municipalities, which must respond to the pandemic.
The firm’s attorneys are handling the workload from home with the assistance of a rotating team of in-office staffers.
“For the lawyers, it was practically no transition at all,” Del Galdo said. “We have a pretty robust online practice to connect our Chicago and Berwyn offices, but the support staff was more of a challenge. There’s not a lot they can do without access to copiers and scanners.”
On days when the employees are not coming in and have limited responsibilities, Del Galdo said, they are still getting paid.
“It felt like too much of a hardship to not pay them,” he said. “It’s our moral obligation to do what we can for our employees, and to show them the loyalty we like them to show us.”
None of the firms interviewed reported layoffs or furloughs.
A common goal was clear: Chicago’s law firms aren’t slowing service to their clients, even with employees stuck at home.
“We have been and are continuing to monitor this rapidly evolving situation with a goal of protecting the health and safety of our employees while continuing to provide excellent client service with as little disruption as possible,” said John L. Abramic, managing partner of Steptoe & Johnson’s Chicago office, in a written statement.
“After our first full week of totally remote work, I can say I’m impressed and encouraged with how well it has gone,” said David Pope, administrative partner of Benesch, Friedlander, Copner & Arnoff LLP’s Chicago office. “I think we will come out of this experience as an even more flexible and nimble office and firm.”