COVID-19 - managing a law firm remotely

Hausfeld London is in Week 10 of remote working. What started as trial day to test business continuity on Monday 16th March, turned into the first day of dispersed working. The entire firm moved to remote working without any notice overnight – with staff stuck in France and as far as New York and Dubai. The lockdown announcement of the following week made the ‘remote law firm’ official. Anthony Maton is Managing Partner of Hausfeld in London and Vice-Chair of the firm globally.

Your first thoughts?

After a brief personal panic on lockdown Monday, we brought it back to basics: what should our priorities be and how do we achieve these? This was immediately obvious to me: the welfare of the people in the firm and the successful continuation of the business so we can offer a continued service to our clients. We immediately established a daily core team meeting, our COBRA equivalent. Every morning at 9 am we deal with matters as they arise and undertake some longer-term thinking. Key is to keep the number of decisionmakers compact and involve senior operational staff. They bring a different expertise to the table and assist with executing the plan that they helped devise.

How do you deal with unchartered territory like that?

As I have become fond of saying, no-one wrote the manual for running a whole law firm remotely. Key is to have a team of great people and to trust each other; to make decisions swiftly and stand by them while recognising that if something doesn’t work, you need to adapt.

As a relatively new law firm, we have always done things differently and embraced the unknown. We have always invested in technology, perhaps more than the average law firm. For some time now, we have offered flexible working. This inevitably means working remotely which, up to now, was not the industry’s modus operandi. We literally upped our laptop, put it down at home and continued. Some say we were lucky. i disagree. I call it the Hausfeld DNA.

How do you manage staff as dispersed in every corner of the country and abroad?

Direct communication, repeatedly and at all levels has been key. We did that in Week 1 – and we are still doing so in Week 9. Teams, Zoom, Google Hangout facilitate this, and I wonder why we never used them before – it wasn’t because our IT team didn’t urge us to!

It has been incredible how everyone has adapted so well and how this situation has brought out the best in all of us. New ideas are being raised at all levels in the business, and even better, implemented at great speed. Which means that the process of running the business has been easier than I might have imagined. Our Social Committee has done a fantastic job of organising virtual events from Day 1 creating a real sense of community. They just did it, I didn’t even have to ask.

Some say we were lucky. I disagree, we have always done things differently and embraced the unknown. I call it the Hausfeld DNA.

How will you manage coming out of Lockdown?

When we recently surveyed our London staff, it became clear there is a level of concern caused by the return to the workplace. When asked what they would want to do once government guidelines allow a return:

  • About 30% want to return 5 days a week – often those who live in shared accommodation or without family support.
  • About 30% would prefer to come to the office part time or when required.
  • About 30% expressed the wish to continue remote working - they are nervous about taking public transport or concerned about childcare.  

We have decided therefore, alongside re-opening the Office as soon as we safely can, to offer remote working for everyone for up to 5 days a week and to continue flexible working for all - at least until 31st December 2020 - so that our staff can choose whether they want to come to the office and pick the hours they work or travel.

We are currently undertaking a full risk assessment as required by the Government and will be guided by their current and future guidelines as to the timing of opening. We will also continue to review client and work demand.

We believe Hausfeld is the first law firm to take a clear stance and let its staff make its own choice for the next 7 months - at least. As the last 10 weeks confirm, we have continued to work efficiently at pre-COVID-19 levels. We didn’t have to furlough staff and have continued to welcome new joiners to the team during that time and in the next few weeks. It was clear to us there was a worry, so it was important to remove that cause for anxiety and show our trust in the Hausfeld staff to continue to deliver as brilliantly as they have during the last 2.5 months.

You also announced a £1 million COVID-19 commitment a few weeks ago.

The coronavirus places severe strain on commercial relationships: performance is not forthcoming or delayed and contracts are breached. With an interrupted supply chain, businesses are impacted – some irreparably so, leading to insolvency. We indeed announced that Hausfeld London will commit up to £1 million of its lawyers’ time to enable businesses impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak to investigate significant commercial claims they may have arising out of COVID-19 (the Commitment). We will commit up to £50,000 in time per case on a non-recourse basis.

We were looking for a practical and thoughtful way of helping affected businesses. Something of real benefit to them in these challenging times. Confirmation of whether a possible claim is strong and how it could be fought - without having to pay legal fees for that initial stage - could make a big difference for cash-strapped companies.

Any predictions when it comes to the economy?

This is probably the toughest question, as we really are in unchartered territory. The Government’s decisions in the next few weeks will in my view be the most crucial, not only from a public health angle but also because they will set the scene for the recovery of our economy. I think there will be fundamental and lasting changes to our behaviour which will impact certain sectors like the airline industry and hotels. Will we still consume so much? People have seen how their different spending habits impact their bills. Human connections have become important again. We will look up from our phones again.

We will continuously review the situation and the impact the developments will have on our cash flow – as I imagine all my fellow Managing Partners will.

What will life look like on the other side?

I think people will question the need for extensive travel and large offices. I know we will. Now that our clients have seen us in our home with sleeves rolled up, will wearing suits and meeting in a swish conference room still matter? The ability and willingness to work remote will impact the need for office space. This crisis has pulled us together as one family from the most junior to the most senior. That is without a doubt one of my silver linings and I would like to think we can preserve that spirit of community.

We learned that the hard lines that we are so used to drawing as lawyers matter much less than we thought. We can still work effectively with less formality, less hierarchy and a great deal more transparency. Remote working doesn’t lessen work drive. That perhaps we can practice law as humans in a different way.

This crisis has pulled us together as one family from the most junior to the most senior. That is without a doubt one of my silver linings and I would like to think we can preserve that spirit of community.

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