The COVID-19 crisis continues to affect communities across the country, but at this point all 50 states have started to relax the stay-at-home guidelines enacted earlier this year. Businesses are finding ways to comply with new safety guidelines and resume operations that may have been slowed or completely shut down earlier this year. Many law firms, however, were able to continue business as usual while working remotely, but that doesn’t mean reopening will be quick or easy.
So, what does the approach for reopening look like?
In a recent episode of the podcast LegalSpeak, Law.com business of law senior editor David Bario offered his thoughts on law firms reopening, saying, “Like a lot of the professional services industry, law firms are really moving more slowly to reopen physically partly because they never had to stop operations fully during the lockdown. They were able to keep most of the business at the firm going with people operating remotely.”
Many law firms have found working remotely (working from home, in many cases) to be a more tenable option than they may have expected. Legal software apps such as Smokeball enables firms to work together no matter where employees are located, and ensures easy and secure communication via the Communicate app. Some courts have begun holding hearings via phone or video conference; combined with the growing availability of eFiling and eSigning, cases can be resolved without a physical courtroom. In fact, Smokeball client Christina Martell recently conducted one of Cook County’s first adoptions via Zoom.
But what if a law firm doesn’t want to go the way of Twitter and announce that all employees can work remotely indefinitely? And why would they take the return to brick-and-mortar offices slowly?
It turns out that returning to physical offices may take quite a bit more than just resuming the usual commute.
First, it’s important to note that the guidelines for reopening will vary between states, and law firms should consult their state regulations before making any changes. But for most businesses, reopening will include significantly increased safety measures. These may include:
- Masks – The CDC recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” Solo attorneys may not have to worry about wearing a mask while working alone, but larger law firms will have to make decisions about when and where masks are required for employees (for example, at desks versus in common areas) and clients.
- Social distancing – The CDC also recommends that people participate in social distancing, maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet away from others. The most obvious effect of this in an office is that desks may need to be moved and conference rooms rearranged. Some other, less obvious, places to consider the need for distancing are hallways, restrooms, and break rooms. You may want to consider instigating one-way aisles or blocking off every other sink in a public restroom.
- Capacity limits – As space per person increases due to social distancing, the amount of people you can have in your office at any one time may be limited. Depending on the size of your office, you may need to instigate staggered schedules for employees or reduce the number of clients allowed in a waiting room at any one time.
- Temperature checks – Some businesses have instituted mandatory temperature checks for employees and clients. Opinions on this practice vary, as those who are positive for COVID-19 may not display a fever. Should you require temperature checks, you’ll want to create a policy for what to do if someone does have a fever, and to ensure the confidentiality of their health information.
- Increased cleaning – Your regular office cleaning schedule may need to be ramped up in order to ensure everyone’s safety. Determine the locations that could be virus transmission hotspots (for example door handles, phones, and countertops) and make plans to wipe those down, either with disinfectant or at least soap and water, several times a day.
- Sick leave – The number of new COVID-19 cases is still far from zero, so make sure that your reopening plan includes a policy for what to do if an employee becomes sick. Consider the need for extended sick leave, extra cleaning of surfaces they may have touched, and how you will inform and protect the rest of your employees.
Clearly, reopening an office amidst a pandemic will require considerably more planning than simply returning from a long weekend.
It makes sense that those who have been able to successfully transition to remote work by utilizing case management, project management, and billing software; lawyer apps; and cloud technology may be taking their time returning to their offices; no law firm wants to put the health of their colleagues or clients at risk. As states continue to move through their reopening plans, one thing is for sure- the offices we return to will look quite a bit different from the ones we left.