With limited courthouse access around the area on Feb. 6, a handful of law firms elected to close their doors, but not their practice.
Various forms of electronic communication allowed attorneys at two Milwaukee-area firms with national branches to connect with clients, staff and fellow attorneys without having to weather the storm.
“We may be working with clients who are sitting in sunshine in Los Angeles who want our help and they don’t care there is a snowstorm here,” said Godfrey & Kahn, SC, managing partner Richard J. Bliss. “You do have to keep that very much in mind.”
The ability to balance the needs of clients with the safety of roughly 250 attorneys made the decision to close somewhat easier, according to Bliss, who said it was the first time Godfrey closed since he joined the firm 31 years ago.
“It’s a balancing of several interests,” said Bliss. “On one hand, we’re very reluctant to close because we want to be available for clients, but we’re also very concerned about safety of our people.”
Prior to making the decision to close, Bliss said practice group leaders were polled on the progress of critical cases. Several attorneys did work out of the office briefly on Wednesday, but only because of project deadlines.
“We looked at what needed to get out the door and how we could arrange staffing,” said Bliss, who communicated via email throughout the day with the firm’s CEO who lives in Delafield.
All three Wisconsin branches of Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, sc, in Milwaukee, Madison and Brookfield were also closed, but the Rockford, Ill. branch remained open. Waukesha office manager Nancy Blattner said more than 200 attorneys were notified of the closures through the firm’s hotline, or through a global network voice message or email.
“I took a couple of calls from clients and directed them to the appropriate attorneys, but I think all business that needed to be handled was handled,” said Blattner.
The same was true at Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan, LLP. Though the office was officially closed, a handful of the 40 attorneys on staff made the journey, but most were well-equipped to work from home.
Director of Marketing Pam Bertieri said staff was notified of the closure early Wednesday morning through an email blast and Blackberry messages.
“We did have someone answering phones and we would relay information to attorneys from clients,” said Bertieri. “As a whole, clients were very understanding, but attorneys were also able to respond quickly to immediate needs.”
Bertieri said that because attorneys can access almost every case detail off-site, including billing information, case summaries and contact information, their absence in the office for a day had very little impact on business.
“There really weren’t any concerns because attorneys are so well-equipped,” said Bertieri. “The only thing they couldn’t do was file with the (Milwaukee) county court because they were closed.”
Bliss agreed that the while the closure was an inconvenience, it was not devastating. He did suggest that had the shutdown occurred 20 years ago, the aftermath may have been much more significant.
“Business would have been ground to a halt,” said Bliss. “We’re so used to the mobile workforce that we don’t even think about it.”
Though several firms in the area closed for the day, Milwaukee’s largest, Foley & Lardner, remained open until mid-afternoon.
Managing partner Nancy J. Sennett said the decision was not made as a statement in light of other larger firms closing, but rather because initial forecasts and morning traffic flow were manageable.
“I was on the phone with our office administrator Tuesday night and Wednesday morning and based on our observations decided to keep things pretty much business as usual,” said Sennett. “The decision had nothing to do with an advantage of being open or closed.”
As conditions worsened, Sennett decided to close the firm around 2 p.m., though she said attorneys were allowed to determine when and if they came into the office at all.
“Certainly, we always consider the safety of our employees, but we didn’t see that as a problem in the morning, and it was a workday,” said Sennett.
While she did not know how many of the firm’s 300-plus attorneys made it in on Feb. 6, she indicated that on any given day, a large number may be out of the office.
“A majority of attorneys from this office could regularly be in Washington DC or in London, or wherever,” said Sennett. “I think technology allows us to do amazing things from remote locations.”