REMOTE CONTROL: Firms take variety of steps to limit spread of COVID-19

 

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

In this brave new world of lawyering, area law firms continue to adjust and adapt to the ever-changing pandemic landscape.

Some have implemented temporary shutdowns of their offices, while others have gone different routes, encouraging a work-from-home approach to help curb the potentially lethal spread of the coronavirus.

In a message to clients this week, officials at Dickinson Wright came down four square on the side of caution.

“As our firm continues to closely monitor the evolvement of COVID-19 (Coronavirus), we have made the decision to have all employees work remotely, effective Tuesday, March 17th, to help in our global fight against the spread of the pandemic,” the Detroit based firm said in a message to clients. “We remain fully committed to serving our clients. In anticipation of the office closures, we have taken the time, effort, and resources to prepare for a seamless transition to service your legal needs without interruption. Our systems have been tested, our switchboard remains active, and our remote capabilities, including for all support staff functions are fully operational and ready to go.”

“We recognize the urgency of this situation and want to assure you that we are doing everything possible to protect the health and safety of our clients and staff.”

And yet, there is no “one size fits all” way to navigate the work challenges posed by the virus spread, according to Patricia Nemeth of Nemeth Law in Detroit.

“There are still some instances where credibility determination – reading a person’s face/body language – is extremely important,” said Nemeth, whose firm specializes in employment law. “For instance, in arbitrations for witness assessment.  That is still possible with Skype, Zoom, Google meeting, etc.  And I’ve used Skype in the past, for instance during an international arbitration where the witness was in Spain and the arbitration was in Arizona. But that was one witness. The question in the current environment is whether all the participants at a hearing will be in different locations. Each attorney in his/her office, their client or client representative at home, the arbitrator in his/her office and the court reporter (if one is needed) is somewhere else.  These logistics may need to be answered for an upcoming April hearing.    

Nemeth noted that “another area where reading a person’s face/body language is important” is during an investigation. 

“With tangential witnesses, you may be able to conduct a phone interview,” she said. “But if it is a he said/she said sexual harassment investigation, you want to be able to properly assess witness credibility.”   

Deborah Brouwer, president of Nemeth Law, said the health crisis could offer those in the legal community a long-term upside.

“This crisis may speed courts further into 21st century – not only with electronic case filings, which most courts have, but with ruling on motions without the need for oral argument, handling oral argument and conferences by phone or video, mediations – the technology is there, waiting to be used,” Brouwer said. “We also may need to adjust our thinking – as attorneys, many of us have long believed that face-to-face interaction was essential, in order to assess credibility, make a deep impression, etc. But the reality – the new normal – is that we cannot do that. And we might learn that our old belief about face-to-face was over-emphasized.”

At Clark Hill, a Detroit based firm with more than 650 attorneys, it is anything but business as usual in the wake of the pandemic, according to CEO John Hern.

“Clark Hill has instituted a number of procedures across all of our 25 offices,” said Hern. “We have urged all attorneys, paralegals, and operational employees to work remotely in order to continue to prioritize the health and safety of our people, clients, and contacts. 

“For those instances where in-office staffing is needed for critical functions, we have implemented a social distancing strategy,” Hern added. “Our offices are staffed with only those personnel needed to ensure the continuity of necessary and critical work functions.  We continue to be responsive to our clients using remote technologies, and to take all necessary and appropriate steps in this dynamic and challenging situation.”

A similar approach has been taken at Butzel Long offices, reported Justin Klimko, president and CEO.

“Butzel Long has directed employees to work from home at least through the end of March,” said Klimko. “We are able to do this thanks to our robust IT environment and excellent IT staff.  We have also stopped international travel on firm business and have discouraged domestic travel.

“To assist clients, we have established a Coronavirus Resource Center available through our website at www.butzel.com, which has content addressing a number of aspects of the coronavirus emergency,” he said. “In addition, we also are directly serving many industries by working with a number of membership organizations in those industries to provide webinars and other forms of remote education and training.”

Michael McGee, CEO of Miller Canfield, said the firm has been in a “proactive” mode when it comes to a pandemic.

“We adopted a Pandemic Readiness Plan in 2012 so as to be proactive,” McGee said. “We’ve been following it. First we limited travel, changed to virtual meetings by video and telephone, and did other things to increase social distancing. 

“This past Monday (March 16), we went to the next level, putting all of our attorneys and staff on a work-from-home basis. We’ve invested in the infrastructure and technology for several years to make that relatively straightforward. A few people remain at the offices to handle physical tasks like receiving and forwarding mail, and some legal work requires actual documents, so a few people will be in the offices to do that. It went quite smoothly this week.

“We’ve also established a Coronavirus Response Team web portal to provide easy access to clients for their questions – and there are many, many questions, about contracts, force majeure, HR issues, FMLA issues, you name it,” McGee noted.



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