After months of business closures, many states are slowly beginning to allow more businesses to reopen their doors. In most states, law firms will be among the first wave of businesses permitted to resume providing services to the public.
This is a welcome development for lawyers but one that comes hand in hand with uncertainty. After all, resuming business in the midst of a pandemic is uncharted territory, and opening your firm doesn’t mean you’ll be returning to business as usual. A host of issues must be considered when reopening, not the least of which is to ensure that the health of law firm employees and clients is protected.
Establish A Reopening Committee
Safety is an important goal, but you’re a lawyer, not a public health official. You may be unsure how to proceed. That’s where the guides from two different state bar associations — Indiana and New York — come in.
First, there’s the “New York State Working Group Guidance on Re-Opening Law Firms,” which provides a useful roadmap for law firms transitioning back to the office. According to the guide, firms should establish a reopening committee whose responsibility is to create a plan for the return to work by putting in place processes that will ensure the safety of employees and legal clients.
6 Readiness Essentials
Once the committee has been established, it must address a number of important areas. As explained in the Indiana State Bar Association Guide, “Reopening Your Practice,” there are six readiness essentials that firms need to think about prior to reopening:
- Prepare the building and workplace: Consider cleaning plans, pre-return inspections, HVAC and mechanical checks.
- Prepare the workforce: Develop plans to mitigate anxiety by creating policies for deciding when each employee returns and establishing an employee communications plan.
- Control access points: Consider protocols for safety and health checks, building reception areas, shipping and receiving, elevators and visitor policies.
- Create a social distancing plan: Consider options to keep workers at a safe distance, which may include new seating arrangements and establishing office traffic patterns.
- Reduce touch points and increase cleaning: Consider keeping doors open and develop protocols for cleaning work areas and common areas.
- Communicate for confidence: Recognize that employees may have concerns about returning to work, so communicate transparently, and listen and survey regularly.
Reopening Committee Objectives
The reopening committee should keep those readiness essentials in mind when creating a reopening plan for the firm. As explained in the NYSBA guide, the committee’s primary objectives should be to:
- Monitor oversight and implementation of the reopening plan.
- Develop and update, as needed, internal policies and procedures for the transition from remote work to the workplace.
- Communicate with legal and support staff with one voice regarding the transition process, set clear expectations and offer firm-wide training, as needed.
- Field questions or concerns.
- Become familiar with federal and state statutes and programs governing office safety and human resource issues.
- Develop a plan for testing employees for the virus.
- Develop client and visitor policies.
- Conduct business safely.
Ensure Necessary Technology Is Available
According to both guides, another important issue that the transition team will need to address is to establish processes that will facilitate continued social distancing efforts and allow staggered work schedules to be implemented. A necessary and important part of addressing this issue will be providing the necessary technology to allow firm employees to safely and efficiently conduct business from the office and from home.
As a result, providing offsite access to law firm information and the ability to collaborate with work colleagues, no matter where they are, will be paramount. A successful balance of those considerations requires, among other things, investing in technology like cloud-based legal software and videoconferencing tools to facilitate remote work.
Create Written Protocols
Finally, as explained in this Oregon Law Practice Management blog post, written protocols should be drafted, posted around the office, and shared with and explained to employees. The written protocols should address:
- Recommendations or requirements for face masks for employees and clients.
- Procedures regarding any daily health assessments for employees. These can include self-evaluation by each employee, and if deemed necessary, an evaluation conducted by someone in your office, to determine if it’s safe for an employee to return to work each day.
- Processes should be put in place to ensure that employees are maintaining good hygiene at all times, are regularly washing their hands and are prioritizing physical distancing.
- Plans that provide for the cleaning and sanitizing of the office throughout, and at the end of, the workday.
- Rules that limit the maximum capacity of various rooms in the office in order to comply with distancing guidelines.
Once the reopening committee has shared the necessary written protocols, the next steps include reorganizing your law firm’s workspace and addressing employee issues and concerns. Both bar association guides offer additional tips on those and many more issues, so make sure to read each one in its entirety.
Reopening your law firm during a pandemic may seem a bit overwhelming at first; that’s understandable since no one has ever done this before. But rest assured, as long as your firm follows the reopening schedule established by officials in your area and implements the recommendations set forth in the guides, you’ll be well on your way to successfully reopening your firm as safely as possible, with the health of your employees and clients top of mind.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney and Director of Business and Community Relations at MyCase, web-based law practice management software. She’s been blogging since 2005, has written a weekly column for the Daily Record since 2007, is the author of Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York. She’s easily distracted by the potential of bright and shiny tech gadgets, along with good food and wine. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.