NYSBA Releases Guidance on Re-Opening Law Firms
Right now, most New York law firms are closed as a result of the Governor’s mandate relating to COVID-19 shelter-in-place requirements. But that will soon change as some parts of New York State begin to transition under the Governor’s 4-phase regional re-opening plan. Because law firms are permitted to return to work during Phase 2, they will be some of the first businesses to re-open in qualifying parts of the state.
If your law firm is located in one of the first 3 regions that will re-open next week (which includes the Finger Lakes Region, where Rochester is located), you may not know how to go about safely beginning the process of opening your firm’s doors for business. After all, this pandemic is unprecedented in modern times, and it’s far from over. Life as we know it has changed, and as long as this virus continues to be transmissible in the absence of a vaccine, the only option is to proceed with caution and institute policies and procedures that will protect law firm employees and clients. The trick is figuring out how to do that.
Thankfully, the New York State Bar Association recognized that lawyers might be uncertain as to how too proceed and presciently prepared a guide to assist New York law firms in re-opening. The “New York State Working Group Guidance on Re-Opening Law Firms." was released last week and provides an informative roadmap for law firms to follow as they transition back to in-office work. The Guide addresses all of the issues you’ll need to think about when re-opening your law firm and provides helpful advice to keep in mind as you tackle each step.
First, the Guide advises that firms should establish a re-opening transition team. The team should be prepared to create a plan to address the following issues:
Monitor oversight of the re-opening plan and implementation;
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 forth 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 an employee testing plan for testing employees for the virus; and
Develop client and visitor policies.
Two important phases of re-opening a law firm that are covered in depth in the Guide are preparing the workplace and preparing employees. One notable recommendation relating to returning to work is to stagger work schedules in order to enforce social distancing and is an indication of how much this pandemic will affect our workplaces for the foreseeable future. Specifically, the advice provided was to stagger workday hours and monitor employees returning to the office, while also allowing some employees to continue to work remotely:
• Take into consideration lawyers and support staff in more critical areas of practices less attuned to remote employment and phase in other practice areas over designated periods;
Anyone who can effectively work remotely should continue to do so until further notice;
Discourage visits by lawyers from other branch offices; and
Maintain attendance sheets to provide responsible contact tracing information, if needed, and to limit and track hours in the office.
Speaking of working remotely, another very relevant area of focus in the Guide is the advice provided on how to conduct business in a way that is both safe and productive. As explained in the Guide, part of finding that balance hinges on making use of technology like cloud-based legal software and videoconferencing tools to facilitate effective and efficient remote work while also enforcing revised policies regarding employee movement and behavior while at work:
Encourage the use of technology for remote mediations/ hearings/arguments and depositions;
No in-person meetings in the office among attorneys and support staff for at least a specified time;
Limit the number of people coming in the office at the same time;
Limit unnecessary employee movement within the office;
Specify what work people need to do in the office to attempt to limit time in office;
Implement the virtual notarization requirements to limit in person contact; and
Restrict the use of office printers and copiers to avoid personal contact.
Those are just a few highlights from this informative and very timely guide. Make sure to read through the entire document thoroughly and implement the policies and advice set forth therein.
We’ve undergone a long and unexpected break from the workplace and are all eager to return. But in doing so, it’s important to tread cautiously and implement policies and procedures that will protect your workforce and clients. This guide is a great place to start.
Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York attorney, author, journalist, and the Legal Technology Evangelist at MyCase law practice management software for small law firms. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes legal technology columns for Above the Law and ABA Journal and speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. You can follow her on Twitter at @nikiblack or email her at [email protected].