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COVID-19: One year later

It was about one year ago today that managing partners and general counsel everywhere found themselves frantically brainstorming, mass e-mailing, and calling emergency meetings, hoping to get ahead of a virus that threatened to close firms’ doors for what everyone assumed would be a fairly brief period. Office spaces would need to be cleaned and sanitized, they reckoned. Out of an abundance of caution, lawyers and staff should probably work from home.

Back then no one could have imagined the ordeal that lay ahead or how these unprecedented conditions would test every lawyer’s resolve. But across South Carolina, firms and practitioners have proven more malleable than might have been expected.

The legal institution is famously a bastion of traditionalism. Pierce Campbell, the chief executive officer of Turner Padget in Florence, agrees that the legal field—its institutions and its members—are change-averse, but he expressed his pleasant surprise at his firm’s ability to move its entire practice online and into home offices when word of the pandemic got out.

“Even as we have gotten more and more back to the old normal, it is interesting to see how many of our lawyers are maintaining these changes, even when they no longer have to do so,” Campbell said.

Working remotely isn’t entirely a novel concept, of course, and proponents of working from home or coffee shops tout its convenience and productivity-inducing qualities.

Allen Robertson, managing partner at Robinson Bradshaw in Rock Hill, is the type of attorney one may peg as “old school.” And if asked, he will likely confirm the assessment. But “old school” does not necessarily mean “wooden and inflexible,” he said.

When news of COVID broke, Robertson knew that the right call was to move to a remote work model. Years earlier, anticipating an event that might cause water damage, fire damage, or power failure, the firm’s servers were moved off-site and backed up. The firm was prepared for this type of event.

“We didn’t know what in the hell was going on, but there was a clear expectation that we’d have to suck it up for a couple of months,” he said.

Those couple of months, it turns out, are 12 months and counting. With its lawyers and staff “scattered to the four winds,” clients are being taken care of and the firm, like many others, forges forward.

Betty Temple, chair and chief executive officer of Womble Bond Dickinson in Greenville, said that her firm is also excelling after its transition to a remote work environment. In fact, she touted the environment, despite its challenges, as beneficial to the firm, its employees, and its clients.

“Numerous studies have shown that engaged employees are more productive, and many of our employees have expressed a desire for continued workplace flexibility,” Temple said. “We see this as a tool to help us recruit and retain top talent.”

Nicole Sodoma, managing principal of Sodoma Law in Rock Hill, may have read some of those studies after her firm went remote, citing statistics suggesting that workplace flexibility such as casual attire can boost productivity. She acknowledges the challenging aspects of working remotely, but also took the opportunity to gauge her firm’s commitment to meeting those challenges and serving its clients. She was not disappointed. As such, evidence exists to support the theory that workplace flexibility equals more productivity, and, going forward, every day at Sodoma Law is jean day, provided there are no client meetings or court hearings.

Comfortable attire has its place, but it is moving outside of one’s comfort zone that causes growth, she said.

“I’m hopeful that if anything good should come of COVID in law practices, it should be that we are more efficient,” she said.

Most firms today operate on more of a hybrid, in-office/at-home model than strictly remote. This allows for the taking of safety precautions while also offering space and equipment, beyond printers and laptops, to accomplish the mission. For her family law practice, Sodoma designated one conference room in each of her four offices to serve as a web-based hearing conference room worthy of any courtroom. She did not spend a lot of money, she said, but a large screen and WiFi goes a long way toward creating an acceptable space for hearings such as the five-day custody trial she participated in just last month.

“It’s a really nice evolution for us,” she said. “Now there really is no excuse to be late for a hearing.”

As helpful as technology has been during the pandemic, she does not expect to go strictly virtual in the future, especially given the personal nature of attorney-client interactions in family law. 

While video conferencing is certainly less intimate than face-to-face interactions, there are times where it offers lawyers glimpses into clients’ lives that they would not have had but for the pandemic forcing us to invite one another into our living quarters.

Robertson, of Robinson Bradshaw, is a face-to-face kind of guy. He believes that we are all wired for human interaction. But where pandemic restrictions limit those interactions, Zoom and other platforms help fill the void.

“I’ve always said that we need to get out of our offices and go see our clients, but then came the pandemic and we can’t do that,” he said. “The interesting part of [videoconferencing] is that you kind of see clients more than before—you see their faces, their kids running around, their dogs barking. In a sense, they become more human because you have all these interactions with them inside their homes.”

No one expects that these innovative approaches will destroy and replace legal customs and traditions, but rather serve as a symbol of possibility and flexibility. Lawyers know now that they can adapt to rapidly changing legal landscapes, regardless of whether it is inherent.

Temple, of Womble, added that while the pandemic is forcing firms to take a close look at the ways in which they provide legal services, it is also placing a renewed focus on wellness, including mental wellness.

“I think that post-pandemic, we will continue to look at ways to keep our team members connected to each other and provide resources to meet their needs, not just as attorneys and staff, but as people.”

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