After months of business closures, many states are beginning to slowly allow more essential businesses to open their doors. In most states, law firms will be among the first wave of businesses that are permitted to resume providing services to the public.
This is a welcome development for lawyers, but one that comes hand in hand with uncertainty. After all, resuming business in the midst of a pandemic is uncharted territory, and opening your firm doesn’t mean you’ll be returning to business as usual. There are a host of issues that must be considered when re-opening, not the least of which is to ensure that the health of both law firm employees and clients is protected.
A re-opening roadmap
Safety is an important goal, but you’re a lawyer, not a public health official. You may be unsure how to proceed. That’s where the newly released New York State Bar Association’s law firm re-opening guide comes in. The “New York State Working Group Guidance on Re-Opening Law Firms” was released last week and provides a useful roadmap for law firms in the process of transitioning back to the office. Although released by the New York State Bar Association, the guidance provided is not specific to New York lawyers and can be used by all lawyers, no matter where their law firms happen to be located.
In this post, I’ll focus on advice relating to the first steps law firms need to take as they begin the re-opening process. And then in other posts over the next few weeks, I’ll share advice from this guide and other sources on best practices regarding preparing your workplace and employees for the gradual transition back to work.
Establish a re-opening team
First and foremost, you’ll need to create a re-opening team. Choose a few members from your law firm’s management team who will oversee the re-opening process. This team will be responsible for establishing the schedule for the return to work and the processes that will be put in place to ensure the safety of your employees and legal clients.
According to the Guide, the transition team should work on creating a plan to address the following issues:
- Monitor oversight of the re-opening plan and implementation;
- Develop and update, as needed, internal policies and procedures for the transition from remote work to the workplace;
- Communicate with legal and support staff with one voice regarding the transition process, set forth clear expectations and offer firm-wide training, as needed;
- Field questions or concerns;
- Become familiar with federal and state statutes and programs governing office safety and human resource issues;
- Develop an employee testing plan for testing employees for the virus; and
- Develop client and visitor policies.
Conduct business safely
Another issue that the transition team will need to address is ensuring that your firm has the necessary technology and processes in place that will allow firm employees to safely and efficiently conduct business in the office. As explained in the Guide, successfully balancing those considerations requires making use of technology like cloud-based legal software and videoconferencing tools to facilitate remote work. Another important step is to begin the process of establishing revised workplace policies that address employee movement and behavior while working both remotely and from the office:
- Encourage the use of technology for remote mediations/ hearings/arguments and depositions;
- No in-person meetings in the office among attorneys and support staff for at least a specified time;
- Limit the number of people coming in the office at the same time;
- Limit unnecessary employee movement within the office;
- Specify what work people need to do in the office to attempt to limit time in office;
- Implement the virtual notarization requirements to limit in person contact; and
- Restrict the use of office printers and copiers to avoid personal contact.
Once you’ve created a re-opening team and that team has begun to identify conduct of business issues that need to be addressed, you’ll be well on your way to re-opening your law firm. The next step will be to create clear workplace rules and processes that will ensure that your law firm runs both safely and efficiently. Once that has been accomplished you’ll need to share that information in an easily digestible format with firm employees and train them to incorporate the new ways of working into their daily workflows.
We’ll address those topics, and many more, in upcoming posts so make sure to stop back for lots of great information that will help you safely re-open your law firm for business. In the meantime, make sure to check out our COVID-19 Resource Page for lots of great information on running a remote law firm, economic resilience during times of crisis, business continuity planning, and a host of other topics.