Law school does not prepare you for the day your government says: “Everyone is ordered to stay home indefinitely.” The stay-at-home orders issued during the coronavirus pandemic shone a light on just how unprepared a large thriving personal injury law firm was for an event of this nature. However, it also gave us a chance to learn more about our need for sensitivity to the community and our ability to adapt and change. In the end, we learned about the importance of timing in advertising, the importance of having the right information technology team, the importance of having “A”-quality employees, and the future of providing legal services.
Lesson Learned on Sensitivity to the Community
Shortly after the stay-at-home orders kicked in we started getting phone calls from people complaining about our medical malpractice television ad. We had one ad that talked about the shocking number of medical malpractice cases that happen every year. The ad had been in the normal rotation and running for at least six months with no complaints. It was nothing new. The truth is, none of us had even thought about it being there because we were at work when our ads ran so we did not see them. All of a sudden, the feedback was along the lines of: “Doctors are fighting on the front lines for us, how can you run ads that go against doctors?”
Lesson learned: In short, what we learned from this experience is that you have to be sensitive to your community and aware of how your ads might be perceived as a result or an otherwise normal ad in your rotation can turn into a negative branding campaign for your company.
Lessons Learned About Having the Right IT Support Team
We had always talked about adapting to a firm that had everything online with a work-from-home policy and ability. Like many other companies, we had a slew of excuses why it wasn’t practical or possible at the time. Two days before the Houston stay-at-home order was issued, other cities in Texas had begun issuing their own stay-at-home orders. That was our wake-up call that like it or not, now was the time. We called our outside IT department and asked for guidance.
The IT department was amazing. The team immediately installed and implemented an Avaya one-X phone system and performed a full system check of everyone’s at-home work abilities to make sure we had what we needed to get all employees work-from-home ready. The Avaya system routed all phone calls to a laptop operated by our receptionist from home. From there she was able to distribute calls to the computers of all 35 employees as needed just as if she were sitting at her desk in the office. Employees could then take the calls through their computer without revealing their personal phone numbers. Additionally, the Avaya system came with chat capabilities for employees to communicate with each other outside of calls as well as a log in and out so that supervisors could see who was online and who was not at any given time. In a matter of two days, we went from unprepared to fully remote-working ready. Luckily, several years ago we realized we needed a full-service IT contract so that we were not dealing with server issues and downtime on our own. It really paid off when the stay-at-home order for Harris County was issued.
Lesson learned: Having the right IT company for your law firm and the right IT service plan is absolutely critical when the unexpected happens.
Lessons Learned About “A” Grade Employees
We once heard from an adviser that companies need to work to identify their grade “A,” “B,” and “C” employees at the end of each year. The grade “A” employees should be recognized. The grade “B” employees need to be encouraged, trained, and instructed so that they can become grade “A” employees. Lastly, the grade “C” employees need to be let go.
For several years now we have worked toward building a team primarily of grade “A” employees who excel at what they do regardless of their role with the company. When the stay-at-home orders kicked in, we found out just where we stood. When it became clear Harris County would fall in line with staying at home, our grade “A” employees kicked into action. Our management team came up with a plan on its own of how to conduct regular team meetings by phone, by Zoom, and by our messaging software so they could ensure work was uninterrupted from home. We inventoried systems and purchased needed webcams and hardware necessary to get everyone’s home computers work-from-home ready.
Because of our staff’s efforts, we were able to conduct client interviews, depositions, and meetings entirely from home—as a group or individually. Firm-wide meetings and even our office Bible study took place via Zoom. Our case managers and attorneys rotated days and times to come in to pick up any information needed. Mail was scanned and sent to the recipient. In the end, we were able to move cases more efficiently than we did before the stay-at-home orders came out. We had no issues with people not getting their job done due to lack of supervision.
Lesson learned: Finding and nurturing a culture of top-quality employees at all levels ensures that no matter what the world throws at you, you can still provide quality service to your clients.
Lessons Learned About the Future of Providing Legal Services
To prevent a total loss of new clients, we did exactly what other big firms did—slapped a COVID-19 banner on the website that said, “We can observe social distancing by using Zoom, yes we’re open.” We already had the ability to text or email contracts to clients so they could sign up via smartphone, and we had about 60% of the people preferring to do that and then meet in person later—so work could start immediately. The stay-at-home orders resulted in us getting everyone who communicates with clients Zoom ready so that we could keep moving forward.
But lawyers weren’t the only ones who did this. Doctors sent our notices to patients to conduct videoconferencing. Tax advisers, investment brokers, and other professionals began offering Zoom consultations. Everyone who wanted to keep business afloat figured out how to videoconference.
Regardless of what comes of the virus and social distancing, society has made a full leap into the remote conferencing world. It had already been the norm and a matter of convenience to the ever-growing tech-savvy younger generation, but we had not yet reached the point where companies controlled by older generations saw it as a necessary part of doing business. Now that those of us who resisted the change have been forced to get onboard with videoconferencing and we see how convenient it really is, it will be expected of us. People who have, in the past, accepted that business was not yet ready to make the leap are not going to buy that excuse anymore.
Lesson learned: The future of providing excellent legal service is in convenience. Going forward, people are going to expect the ability to do video consultations or they are going to take their business elsewhere.
The stay-at-home orders issued during the coronavirus pandemic resulted in several unanticipated challenges for lawyers. The experience gave us new insight into our advertising and our community perception. It tested the support from the IT department and validated our efforts to stop accepting just “adequate” employees and to cultivate the “A” grade people. Lastly, it opened our eyes to see the future of providing legal services. As painful as this test has been, it has helped us understand what the law firm business model of the future will look like.
Paul H. Cannon is a 25-year trial attorney at Simmons and Fletcher. He has been practicing personal injury law since 1995. Cannon has been certified in personal injury trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization since 2005.