Twenty-six leaders from some of the Bay Area’s largest firms gathered virtually on June 22 to discuss challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and share strategies for reopening their offices. The meeting was hosted by BASF President Stuart Plunkett, Alston & Bird, and facilitated by Yolanda Jackson, Executive Director and General Counsel of the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF).
The most common sentiment expressed by those in attendance was how successful their firms had been in transitioning to a work-from-home model. While some offices, primarily litigation practices, have continued to operate with small teams in the office as needed, the majority of managing partners believe that working from home has largely been successful for their teams. In some cases, perhaps too successful. According to one managing partner, people seem to be happy working from home and voice anxiety around the prospect of using public transportation to commute to the office.
Beyond public transportation, many attorneys with children are struggling with the idea of returning to the office without access to child care. At least one firm had to review its existing work-from-home policies in light of the current crisis, and relax child care requirements temporarily, given that schools and summer programs are not available.
Working from home is not without its challenges. Some expressed concern over the need to have confidential conversations with clients in living environments that make that difficult. And many small Bay Area apartments are not set up for effective working from home. Firms provided staff with stipends for supplies and office equipment.
Across the board, Bay Area firms are planning for a return to the office even though timelines varied widely. For some firms, staff is not expected back in the office until 2021. Others are slowly ramping up over the coming months. Some are waiting for more guidance. Several expressed a desire for more information and clearer guidance from city officials. Despite not having a precise date for reopening offices, each of the firms had health and safety precautions in place including mask requirements, reduced conference room capacities, daily health and symptom questionnaires, and enhanced cleaning practices.
While most of the focus was on internal planning, there was discussion about the impact of the crisis on clients and client service. The experiences varied by industry, but there was little panic about firm operations in the near term.
As one partner shared, operations were fairly normal, even as accounts receivables slowed in some cases, and pressure for discounts increased. Some firms have publicly announced reductions in associates’ salaries and partner distributions, or pauses in hiring summer associates. Even so, business development has continued even during the shelter-in-place order. Several firms have seen a spike in business during this time especially in their employment practices and also with technology clients.
One other common theme among firms is that many are seriously considering reducing the size of their office space in anticipation of more employees working from home.
The topic that garnered the most discussion was connectedness—how to keep existing staff connected when working remotely, how to onboard new staff, and how to administer fully virtual summer associate programs. Firms are finding that both firm-wide virtual town halls, as well as one-on-one Zoom meetings are necessary to inform and connect. Some are finding ways to connect staff in-person, encouraging staff that live in the same neighborhood to get together for coffee or a walk in a socially distant and safe way.
The managing partners also spent time sharing how firms can strengthen the legal and broader community, with the conversation quickly turning to how firms can get more involved in equal justice and racial equity issues. Firms are seeking ways to engage in pro bono work in this area and other ways to support improving fairness and equality in the justice system.
Yolanda Jackson wrapped up the meeting with a promise to reconvene the group on a regular basis to facilitate a conversation about best practices and ensure that BASF was doing all that it can to support the needs of its members.