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Looking ahead to 2022: Keep on keeping on 

“Welcome back!” 

Those are the words that many managing partners across South Carolina and elsewhere have been dying to utter since COVID-19 forced lawyers and professional staff to abandon their offices nearly two years ago. Recently, it had appeared as though the number of cases was declining, but tales of its demise were greatly exaggerated. 

Thanks to the Delta and Omicron variants—and COVID’s general unpredictability—firms remain compelled to continue contemplating when and how they will get back to a more traditional practice of law, while coming to understand that things may never be the way they used to be. 

That might not be such a bad thing, however. Reid Phillips, managing partner of North Carolina-based Brooks Pierce, said that the coronavirus has taken a “horrible toll” on humanity but also bolstered firms’ ability to deal with adversity. 

“We’ve moved from ‘How can we do this?’ to ‘How can we do this better?” Phillips said. “There are lots of things you discover in a crisis about yourself and your organization. If you pay attention and focus on those things, you can make work better and more enjoyable across the organization. That is our goal.” 

That said, Phillips said that he believes that for all the benefits of working from home, many Brooks Pierce attorneys are eager to return to the office where they can enjoy the human element of lawyering. For months now, firm leaders across the country have taken an active wait-and-see approach to their anticipated grand re-openings, promoting safety and flexibility while fashioning blueprints for an eventual homecoming. 

Forged in fire 

But with COVID lingering like the civil case that just won’t settle, many firms—especially larger ones—are still waiting and seeing. Plans to safely repopulate their office spaces have been developed, proposed, and pushed back until many wonder whether it’s worth it to renew their lease. 

When the news of COVID broke in 2020 and attorneys bolted for the gangway, firm leaders were left to figure out how to keep the ship from sinking. Allen Robertson, managing partner of Robinson Bradshaw, a Charlotte-based firm with an office in Rock Hill, said that he never envisioned such a scenario. Yet the firm, like others, found itself scrambling to ensure that it would be able to keep its people safe while continuing to provide the high level of service its clients expect. 

Today, every attorney, paralegal, and just about every other staff position at the firm has been outfitted with all the essentials—from laptops to dual monitors to Cisco phones—to efficiently operate outside the four walls of their firm. 

Robertson also looks forward to the day when the firm’s offices are fully and safely populated again and employees can mingle and collaborate like the old days. But even then, some degree of refashioning is in order. While occasional remote work wasn’t out of the ordinary pre-pandemic, Robertson said that he expects that it will be more commonplace going forward. 

“We’re never going to go back to exactly the way things were, and we don’t need them to,” Robertson said. “We’re depending on lawyers to basically control their own schedules and act reasonably to support the culture and make a commitment to being together most of the time. Even our most senior lawyers have learned to operate remotely, and that’s going to be a real advantage in the future.” 

Employees are similarly situated at Sodoma Law in Rock Hill, where practice manager Matt Day said that the firm was motivated by COVID and a flu outbreak to fully equip its employees for remote work, necessitating an increased information technology budget to swap out desktops for laptops and upgrade conference rooms to accommodate virtual hearings and office meetings. 

These necessary processes have led to progress that the firm doesn’t plan to abandon. 

“Instead of reducing that budget for 2022, we are taking it a step further and adding new online case-management software,” Day said. “This was a long-term firm goal pre-pandemic that we accelerated … so we could continue to meet the needs of our team members and our clients in a rapidly changing environment.” 

The changes at firms extend beyond the technology. Phillips said that Brooks Pierce will carry into the new year an invaluable intangible: an opportunity to brainstorm, conceptualize, and fire up some energy and creativity. 

“Before the pandemic, we had three offices. Now, with practically everyone able to work remotely, we have more than 175 work locations every day,” Phillips said. “There are a lot of new leadership and management challenges that come with that … and we’re actually having fun thinking ahead to how we’ll do things better this year and in the years ahead.” 

Not out of the water 

A new report by the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and the Thomson Reuters Institute shows that while the legal industry has remained resilient, plenty of challenges lie ahead. 

According to the report, one potential issue is a noticeably dangerous spike in lawyer attrition, despite increased compensation that is intended to retain talent. The good news is that the perks that many lawyers seek—appreciation, mental well-being, and a better work/life balance—can’t be bought, but can be promoted through remote flexibility. Betty Temple, chair and chief executive officer of Womble Bond Dickinson, said she hopes these can be used as a tool to “recruit and retain top talent.” 

Not every firm is struggling with attrition, though. In 2021, Sodoma Law opened its fourth office, in Cornelius, North Carolina. This year, the firm is on the hunt for a fifth location. 

“We realized that COVID didn’t have to stop us from achieving our goals, even if the way we achieved them looked a little differently than we’d originally imagined,” Day said. 

Similarly, Robertson said that Robinson Bradshaw has had about 30 new lawyers join the firm during the pandemic, plus additional staff members. But some things, like maintaining the unique culture that many firms boast about, can’t be replicated from afar.  

Robertson said that his firm has been intentional in striving to keep its people connected, combining virtual firm retreats and affinity group meetings with safe in-person events such as a socially distanced Thanksgiving lunch involving about half of the firm’s Charlotte office dining in a hotel ballroom. He stressed that the formal change in policy will be that lawyers will not be expected to be at their desks five days a week, but that he hopes colleagues will spend more work time together than apart. 

“We need to be together most of the time, but physically showing up in the office only means something if our lawyers make the further commitment to interact, go see each other, talk things over in person, collaborate, give feedback, provide mentoring,” Robertson said. “All the things we think you get as human beings by seeing each other face to face and interacting.” 

Minus the standard safety precautions, Sodoma Law is essentially back to its pre-pandemic operations, its staff and lawyers working in its offices and focused on team building through mechanisms such as its version of Shark Tank, which allows employees to pitch culture-based ideas to the firm’s leadership team. One such pitch resulted in rotating, pet-friendly Doggie Days at the office. 

Managing principal Nicole Sodoma months ago declared every day at her firm jean day (provided attorneys don’t have to meet with judges or clients). She intends to extend the perk indefinitely, likely ensuring that her employees are among the most comfortable in the profession while practicing law amid a dawdling pandemic. 

And in the whole scheme of things, what better to take into the new year than comfort? After all, this COVID thing might take a while. 

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