By Jed DeWick
The sudden onset of the COVID-19 pandemic presented significant and unique challenges for most small firms. Most of us went from five-days-a-week in-person offices to completely remote operations literally overnight, which required that we entirely re-imagine how we ran our firms. Everything from ensuring that each employee had the appropriate technology to work from home, to making sure that the mail was opened and distributed each day, to sending out and paying bills, had to be figured out on the fly, all without the benefit of in-house IT, accounting, and back-office operations, and with the ever-present concern of keeping our employees safe. Needless to say, for those of us managing small firms during that time, there were many sleepless nights spent thinking (and worrying) about how to address these challenges.
To my surprise, once the dust had settled, we realized that our firm could actually function in this new environment, and that many of the changes we were forced to implement were for the better and are likely here to stay.
The most significant realization for our firm was that we could not only function, but thrive, while working remotely. Before the pandemic, we were the typical Boston litigation boutique, with attorneys and staff working five days a week in the office. Although all of our attorneys had the ability to work remotely, it was rare for an attorney to work from home during normal business hours. That was simply not our culture. That all changed in March of 2020.
It was a significant challenge from a technology and learning perspective to get everyone—including administrative staff—fully functional at home on an expedited basis without the help of an internal IT staff, but it became clear pretty quickly that it could work. We were all able to access remotely our client files and work product, as well as our timekeeping and other administrative applications. Like everyone, instead of in-person meetings, we transitioned to Zoom or conference calls without missing much of a beat. While a few of us took turns making regular trips to the office to tend to matters that could not be handled remotely, like opening the mail, we were for the most part operating completely remotely yet being as productive as in the past. I have spoken to a number of peers at small firms who were similarly surprised at how well they were able to operate remotely, having never done so before.
Not only did we learn that we could operate remotely, but what also became clear from listening to our employees was that most of them preferred working from home. For those with long commutes (which, let’s face it, is everyone living in the Boston Metro area), the extra hours gained each day from not having to travel to and from the office was a revelation. For those with children at home or other family commitments that strain their time and sanity, the flexibility afforded by being at home each day made many of the complexities of balancing work and family easier to handle. Some attorneys even indicated that it was easier to complete certain projects at home without the impromptu interruptions and distractions of a busy office. Given that we were functioning well, we did not see any reason to force those who preferred working remotely to return to the office just because the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 were lessening.
In fact, we felt that providing this type of flexibility to our employees was an important factor in retaining and attracting talented people. It was (and continues to be) our sense that for many attorneys, being able to work remotely as they see fit is a top consideration when evaluating a new position. As a small firm, we often compete with the larger firms for attorney talent but cannot match the associate compensation packages that the big firms are able to offer. Giving attorneys the flexibility to work remotely as they see fit helps keep us competitive in the talent marketplace. In speaking with peers at other small firms, this is a common refrain. Many small firms have realized that they can function remotely and have determined that doing so is critical to retaining their teams.
Currently, we have no in-office requirement for our attorneys, and everyone determines for themselves where they work on any given day. We have found that some come to the office only occasionally, while a few prefer to be at the office most days. Our administrative staff spends three days a week in the office, coordinating their schedules so that there is always some administrative presence in the office to keep things running smoothly. Making this work requires communication, coordination, and trust going in both directions, which is where being a smaller firm is an advantage. Our hope is that being more flexible in this way leads to greater job satisfaction and helps to mitigate the burnout that attorneys juggling a demanding caseload and a busy life often experience.
Having many employees working remotely is not without its challenges, however. Not being together in the office every day has made it harder to stay connected, particularly on a personal level. There are many fewer of those casual conversations in the hall about each other’s families or what we have planned for the weekend. It is also particularly challenging for new attorneys to integrate into the firm culture without witnessing and being a part of those everyday interactions. Without a doubt, something has been lost in this regard, and that we have to be more conscious about creating and maintaining our connections as a firm.
To make sure we stay regularly connected, our firm has a standing informal attorney lunch via Zoom every Tuesday where we talk about everything from cases and legal issues, to who is watching what on Netflix. There is no agenda for this weekly meeting, and no one is assigned to make a presentation or anything of the sort. This gives us an opportunity to connect in a relaxed and informal way on a regular basis hopefully to maintain and continue to build those personal connections. This is another instance where our smaller size is an advantage since there is really no way to replicate this type of meeting in a larger firm environment and have everyone participate. We also make a point to have several in-person get togethers throughout the year, whether it be a summer outing, our holiday party, or a celebration in the office of a professional success or milestone. Without making an effort to maintain connections in this remote working environment, there is a risk that folks become isolated in their own silos and that a firm ceases to really be a firm. But, again, a smaller firm’s size makes it possible to maintain these all-important connections in a meaningful way.
At this point, small firms that continue to adhere to the rigid paradigm of a traditional law firm structure are swimming against the tide. The key to navigating this new reality is communication and flexibility, which smaller firms are well-positioned to employ. We have the luxury of being able to listen to all of our employees about what is working and not working for them, and to adjust accordingly where appropriate. We have learned that there is more than one way to run a law firm and still maintain the constant of delivering high-quality legal services for clients. While there are certainly challenges (and there will, no doubt, be more to come), this new environment presents a unique opportunity for smaller firms to re-imagine how they do business in a way that meets the needs and expectations of today’s attorneys and staff without compromising the quality of services they deliver to clients.
Jed DeWick is a co-founder and the managing partner of Arrowood LLP. His practice is focused on business disputes and other complex civil litigation.