In this roundtable discussion five lawyers will discuss how they are coping with working at home due to the COVID-19 and the impact this is having on
their practice and family life.
Nicholas Gaffney (NG) is founder of Zumado Public Relations in San Francisco. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nickgaffney.
Derek is a real estate attorney focusing on matters including acquisitions and dispositions of improved and unimproved commercial properties as well as farm and ranch properties, shopping center development, commercial leasing, and real estate finance.
Marc Dann is the founding partner of DannLaw a national firm representing consumers in their disputes mortgage loan servicers and other financial institutions.
Todd A. Spodek is the managing partner of Spodek Law Group P.C. a boutique criminal defense/family law firm in New York City.
Louis Russo, the founder of Russo Law, is an attorney, arbitrator, and professor with more than a decade of training forged with the best and the brightest legal minds at the nation’s preeminent AmLaw 100 law firms.
Kristin Tyler is a partner at the law firm of Garman Turner Gordon where she practices in trusts and estates. She is also a Co-Founder of LAWCLERK, where attorneys go to hire freelance lawyers.
Where are you located? Are you working remotely now, or do you anticipate the firm will have all employees working remotely soon?
Derek Pfaff (DP): Our firm is headquartered in Phoenix, AZ, and I’m located in Sedona, Arizona. And, of course, while most of my colleagues are now also working remotely, I’ve been working remotely for around four years. My telecommuting isn’t tied to the coronavirus. It’s a lifestyle-based arrangement.
Marc Dann (MD): We are in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio and Westwood, New Jersey. Several of our lawyers are working remotely. Two to three lawyers (out of 10) have actually worked in the office each day this week.
Todd Spodek (TS): I am based in Park Slope, Brooklyn and all attorneys and support staff members are working remotely. We have a rotating schedule for an employee to retrieve mail on a weekly basis and scan it into our case management system.
Louis Russo (LR): I am a solo practitioner admitted in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC servicing domestic and international business transactions and disputes in those jurisdictions. I am a currently working remotely from my home in New Jersey.
Kristin Tyler (KT): I’m located in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am working remotely now as the Nevada Governor closed all non-essential businesses for 30 days starting March 18, and our state bar has advised members to adopt this recommendation. Our firm, Garman Turner Gordon, is having all employees work from home with two limited employees going to the office each day to check the mail and scan it out to everyone.
What is your firm doing to keep employees connected while working from home?
DP: Team members can connect to the firm’s systems via Citrix or VPN using home computers, laptops and some handheld devices. A number of firm laptops are available for checkout. I personally connect via Citrix using my home computer. It appears to me that most, if not all, of the firm’s attorneys had the ability to work remotely prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
MD: All of our processes are cloud based. Because we are spread out geographically we use Clio, Google Drive, Google Doc, and ringcentral for phone and video conferencing which is portable.
TS: We are doing daily group video chats via Google Duo to keep morale high, and to address any immediate issues.
LR: As a solo practitioner, I have been reaching out to clients, referral sources and former colleagues to stay in touch and also to answer any of their COVID-19 questions pertaining to their commercial contracts and to help them determine if they are eligible for business interruption coverage under their insurance policies.
KT: A few weeks ago we realized that a number of team members did not have laptops. We hurried to purchase laptops for those employees and thankfully they arrived quickly. We also purchased mobile scanners for everyone who wanted that instead of a scan app. We also re-circulated the cell phone list in addition to implementing Slack.
What are the most important tools you’re using to stay connected with your colleagues and clients?
DP: The most important tools are a computer with reliable internet access and a system like Citrix or VPN that allows you to remotely access the firm’s email and document management systems. Another critical tool is the ability for your office line to redirect calls to a cell phone or land line that’s accessible while you’re out of the office.
MD: Good old-fashioned email has been a lifeline. We’ve sent out mass emails outlining developments for Mortgage Borrowers and suggested and pending legislation.
TS: We are utilizing MyCase, Docusign, Google Voice, Duo, and Todoist.
LR: Thank goodness for iPhones! Email, telephone and video conferencing has allowed me to continue my cloud-based service offerings without interruption.
KT: Last week we implemented Slack for the entire team. We knew everyone could get buried in emails and wanted email to be reserved for important messages from clients and the court. We set up a “Random” channel in Slack which has been the source for a lot of great memes and jokes. One team member commented yesterday that he feels like he communicates more with everyone now than when we were all physically in the same office together.
How has your workday changed since you’ve started working remotely, if at all?
MD: I haven’t noticed a change except with the gym closed and no bars or restaurant I’ve been working more because I have more time.
TS: I’ve built in gaps of time where I focus on work, and gaps of time where I focus on the children. I try to schedule all calls and video conferences either early in the morning or later in the day – times when I can make alternative arrangements for the children.
LR: Not much. I have been working tirelessly to grow my young firm since its inception last year, including early mornings and later nights, which are necessary for my international clients. This schedule has proven even more beneficial now.
KT: The pros: No commute, sweatpants all day, lots of snacks.
The cons: Children with a constant need for snacks and sources of entertainment.
[If you have children] Have you had to shift your work schedule in order to help care for your children?
DP: Under normal circumstances, I take my kids to and from school each day. They’re now home all day, which has required some adjustments.
TS: I have a 7-year-old boy, and a 5-year-old girl at home, and both are prone to using me a human bouncy castle. If at all possible, I work when they are sleeping, eating or in the vortex of online learning.
LR: Somewhat. I have two elementary school aged children, so my wife and I have been taking shifts to be available to help them with their studies when necessary. This system process is working smoothly as we all adjust to this new normal.
KT: Since I’m no longer in a rush to get the kids up and out the door to school in the morning, I am letting them sleep in and taking advantage of quiet, early morning hours to get as much done as I can before the household comes alive.
You’re no doubt familiar with the BBC News segment in which an American expert on Korea being interviewed in his home office is interrupted by his adorable children and panicked wife (video here, start at 2:21). What are you doing to ensure you’re able to carry on as professionally at home as you would at the office?
DP: I set boundaries. When I’m in my office, I’m working and not to be disturbed unless there’s an emergency. Naturally, my kids’ idea of what constitutes an emergency differs greatly from mine. Still, it’s working out well. Ask me again after two weeks of quarantine and I may have a different answer.
MD: We represent consumers and ordinary people, so our clients are as likely to have their dog on their lap or their dog barking as we are.
TS: Yes, and I have watched it with my kids – although I think that has hurt me more then helped! I just own it upfront and try and make it comical. Before I start any phone call or video conference I say I am working remotely from home with Little Trouble (my daughter) and Big Trouble (my older son), and at any minute they may come down here to my office in my basement and hold me hostage, so please bear with me.
LR: My office door is locked during phone calls and, believe it or not, my kids are pretty good about knocking before entering. That said, I warn anyone I am speaking with that they might hear a child or a dog in the background despite my best efforts. Plus, it helps that everyone else is in the same boat right now.
KT: First off, I think it’s impossible to expect people to be as professional at home as they would be at the office. Our home lives and our professional lives are simply too intertwined right now. We are all dealing with too many stressors and I think it would be a huge relief if we all gave ourselves a little bit of extra grace right now to realize this is hard and we are all doing the best we can.
Now, that being said, my kids are a huge part of my life and anyone who works with me knows that. My 5-year-old seems to think the Zoom calls are similar to YouTube and she is very curious about them. Generally, I have been letting her come on screen to say hello and that seems to satisfy her curiosity so then she leaves me alone. My husband is also an attorney so we are trying to tag team our day. If one of us has a particularly important call or video meeting, the other tries to get the kids out of the house for a walk or bike ride. It’s a team effort!
Honestly it’s not been the kids that have been the disruption – it’s our dog! Thus far the dog has had impeccable timing to start barking for no reason whatsoever when one of us starts an important call.
What are your biggest concerns about working remotely for the foreseeable future?
DP: My main concern starting out was that the firm’s remote access system could be overwhelmed by the large increase in the number of people working exclusively from home. So far, the system has continued to function without any problems, so that concern seems to have been unfounded. I’m confident that the firm’s IT team is working hard to keep things running smoothly.
MD: There is synergy, energy, creativity, and brainstorming in the workplace. We are trying to use videoconferencing to mitigate that but it is a poor substitute.
TS: We meet with a lot of prospective clients and existing clients in person – this is the preferred way to do business. Technology has come a long way but it’s not the same and our ability to explain concepts to our client is reduced in this way. On the business side, since courts are essentially closed, it will certainly affect the momentum of the cases. Also, the economic climate will give people pause before invest heavily in legal fees.
LR: Working remotely is not a problem per se. In fact, with proper boundaries and infrastructure I find I am more productive than in any traditional office setting.
KT: My practice area is estate planning and probate. I am concerned about the health and wellbeing of my clients. Obviously working from home makes it difficult to handle client signing appointments, but frankly all my clients have postponed those and don’t seem to be in rush. The few clients who were in a rush to sign did so the last week before things really changed. I am offering virtual estate plan consultations and hope that may be a way for people to check something off their “Things I Should Do Someday” checklist while they are stuck at home. While I know business will slow down for the foreseeable future, in the long term I know that families always have a need for estate planning and probate.
What suggestions do you have for other attorneys working remotely?
DP: Find someplace with the fewest number of distractions to do your work. Make sure your office phone rolls over to your cell or home phone so that clients and colleagues can still reach you. Consider setting up an “out of office” email reply stating that you’re working remotely and there may be some delays in your ability to respond. Most importantly, reach out to your clients and let them know you’re still on top of things and available to assist them. Don’t go radio silent.
TS: I think our clients look to us for staying calm and collective through tumultuous times. This is essentially what a good trial lawyer does for a living. I urge everyone to provide guidance and help your clients navigate these rough waters. Once they pass, that relationship with be solidified.
LR: If possible, I would suggest working in a separate space that is not in a communal and high-traffic area. Also, investing in products like high speed internet, scanners, laser printers, multiple monitors, and a conference calling speaker can make day-to-day tasks run smoother. Pay attention to the space behind you so you know what will be seen during a video conference. Finally, make sure you take breaks at regular intervals to keep your mind fresh.
KT: Focus on progress over perfection. Be realistic with your to-do list and how much you can accomplish each day. Also, ask for help. Now is a great time to teach your kids some of the household chores that need to be done! On the professional side, there are a ton of resources for attorneys working remotely. It’s been great to stay connected with other attorneys through various groups on social media.