By TERI SAYLOR
BridgeTower Media Newswires
RALEIGH, NC — Greg Strickland chuckles when he recalls the extraordinary measures his law firm’s residential real estate attorneys took just to collect signatures on closing packages when the pandemic shut down businesses everywhere in 2020.
As firm administrator at Ragsdale Liggett in Raleigh, Strickland describes an odd scene of vehicles lined up outside the firm’s office as new homeowners and attorneys, clad in masks and gloves, completed closings through car windows.
“Normally, our real estate practice does about 200 home closings a month, which means there are 200 groups of buyers and sellers, family members and kids who come into our office, but for a year-and-a-half we didn’t see any of them,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Instead, attorneys got creative and found a way to change all their processes.
Clients would pull up in the parking lot, call the office to say they were downstairs, and their lawyers would take their closing packages to their car window and hand them over, along with their phone number to call if they have questions, Strickland said.
“It was the wildest thing to see,” he said. “It was just lawyers down there with clipboards helping people purchase $500,000 homes while sitting in their cars.”
Now, two years later, Ragsdale Liggett and other firms are finding their way to a new normal, no longer resorting to drive-by document signings and other extraordinary measures to keep their clients satisfied.
Yet, among all the pivoting, converting, shifting and social distancing, many firms have discovered a silver lining and have learned that some of the desperate measures they took during the pandemic led to new and better ways to operate.
Among the most popular new office protocols is the work-at-home or hybrid office arrangement, made possible through cloud computing and virtual meeting platforms like Zoom, Slack and WebEx, according to Camille Stell, president and CEO of Lawyers Mutual Consulting & Services of Raleigh.
“Thanks to online meeting platforms, attorneys found they are no longer tethered to their offices and can work from anywhere,” she said in a phone interview.
Technology enabling people to work remotely, coupled with a strong job market, has caused people to rethink where, how, and why they work, Stell wrote in an article for the Carolina Paralegal News.
“Employees expect flexibility from their employers,” she wrote. “Today, we have collaboration tools that allow us to stay in touch, and our business results will prove our employees are productive.”
The myriad of user-friendly digital tools has in some ways leveled the playing fields for law firms, large and small.
Ragsdale Liggett, a smaller firm, with 27 employees embraced technology as a lifeline during the pandemic and is relying on it today.
“Cloud-based systems and online document management are two of the most important technology changes that have promoted a work-from-anywhere situation for us,” Strickland said.
The five attorneys and staff at New Direction Family Law are back to their pre-pandemic lives. While they are fully functional in their Raleigh office, they are keeping the hybrid work option open because they learned that working at home was not a stretch, said Jennifer Bordeaux, director of public relations. They have had digital systems in place since before the pandemic.
“We’ve always had laptops, and our systems are all cloud-based, which makes it easy for our folks to work remotely when they have to,” Bordeaux said.
Virtual meeting platforms have been a big plus for her firm, which handles divorces, child custody disputes, domestic violence and other family law matters. Zoom is the platform of choice for mediations, and Bordeaux can’t imagine life without the efficiencies the use of WebEx created for scheduling calendar calls.
“Using WebEx for the calendar calls is much easier, better, and time-saving than having all the attorneys appear in court in person to find out when they are going to appear for their cases,” she said.
While any law firm would embrace systems that make work more efficient and less costly for attorneys, it’s really the clients that matter.
At NC Planning, a small Raleigh firm with four attorneys, clients dictate how they want to interact with their attorneys, said Cameron Heinsohn, director of business development.
During the pandemic, the firm, which focuses on financial and estate planning faced specific challenges for serving clients that typically value face-to-face contact with their legal team, she said. Still, a sector of their client base appreciates the ability to conduct their business virtually. And for some clients, that ability has led them to take care of important tasks they’ve put on the back burner for years.
“Because we are either advising clients on their own personal business or on their estate plan or walking them through the loss of a loved one, some prefer a more personal approach,” Heinsohn said. “We also have busy clients who have had estate planning on their to-do list for along time and the ability to meet with us online makes it more convenient for them to cross that item off their list.”
McGuireWoods, a global law firm with over 200 attorneys working in its Raleigh and Charlotte offices, had just moved into new office space in Raleigh two months before pandemic lockdowns started in 2020.
In addition to creating flexible systems, some law firms have designed their office spaces to accommodate social distancing, making their environments safe for attorneys, staff and clients to meet one-on-one or in small group settings.
McGuireWoods’ new offices occupy 41,375 square feet on two floors in the new FNB Building in downtown Raleigh, says managing partner Mary Nash Rusher.
“We have been trying to have an open house, and every time we start planning, there’s a new COVID spike,” Rusher said. “It’s been over two years and we still haven’t had our open house.”
While the firm could not have predicted the pandemic, the new offices showcase a modern, open floorplan, which has helped with social distancing.
“We have a strong estate planning practice and many of our clients are elderly,” Rusher said. “And when we have people in the office signing wills, we can use the largest room available and spread everyone out.”
Robin Owens, chief operating officer at Morton & Gettys in Rock Hill remembers meeting with her colleagues on a Sunday afternoon in March 2020 figuring out how they were going to respond to the pandemic as schools and businesses began shutting down. A small firm with 14 attorneys, the office wasn’t set up for employees to work remotely.
“We had a couple of people who had laptops, but by and large, everyone was still using a desktop computer, and our software was on local servers,” she said.
The firm was already in the process of seeking out a system for practice management and accounting, so sparked by stay-home orders, they moved quickly to cloud-based software, and today, two years later, the firm offers a more flexible workplace.
Everyone at the firm has embraced the changes.
“We are no longer buying new desktop computers, and as they get to the end of their lifespan, we are replacing them with laptops,” she said. “I really do think the pandemic forced us to take some necessary steps that we ultimately would have taken anyway, because it has created a better employee environment because it gives them flexibility to work when they are not in the office.”
Today, most of the attorneys and staff like the new hybrid work arrangement, including Owens, who appreciates the convenience flexibility brings.
“We have found if someone has a cold, if they fall and break an ankle or if they have a sick child at home, they don’t have to worry about trying to navigate into the office, and they can just work at home,” she said. “That has been a great thing for our working parents.”
And over time, Owens has noticed a subtle evolution in the firm’s culture. “I think there’s more acceptance now of people working remotely while staying productive and engaged,” she said. “Still, many of our staff and attorneys enjoy coming to the office to work on most days because we missed each other during the pandemic.”
Stell has found that firm culture is important, but so is flexibility and adaptability.
“Rather than lament the old ways, define what is important about your firm culture,” she said. “Is the collegiality? Is the open-door policy? None of these things have to change.”
At large firms, like McGuireWoods with multiple offices, firm culture is relationship driven, both internally and externally, regardless of the platform, Rusher said. She also notes a striking difference in how generational differences factor into the post-pandemic office culture.
“Those of us who have been working in the profession for a long time often wonder how you can create a culture without being together in person for some significant amount of time,” she said.
But when she views the way younger attorneys communicate, she notices a shift that bodes well for the future.
“Our younger lawyers are much more used to communicating by text and email and on videos, and now that our firm has had to learn to communicate that way too, we believe are going to be more competitive in attracting smart young talent,” Nasher said.
Betty Temple, chair and CEO of Womble Bond Dickenson-US also credits her firm’s increasingly flexible workplace with the ability to attract the best and the brightest.
“Our philosophy has been to find solutions that work best for team members, rather than ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches,” she said. “We are in a highly competitive market for top talent, and the firms that are willing to work with team members on their work-life needs are far better positioned to recruit and retain the best people.”
Womble Bond Dickinson, with offices across the United States and the U.K., employs over 300 attorneys in its North Carolina and South Carolina offices. Temple believes that a positive work environment is both more productive and successful and credits the pandemic for reinforcing that belief.
“If you hire good people, trust them and empower them to make decisions, they will go above and beyond for your firm and its clients,” Temple said.
And the same is true for smaller firm. Despite the challenges the pandemic and its related shutdowns have caused, companies with a strong culture which are intentional about nurturing connections will persevere, Heinsohn said.
“Companies with a good culture and good team willing to proactively work for their customers and clients and care about each other are going to prevail, regardless of whether your interactions with teammates and clients are in person or visa zoom,” she said. “Genuine caring always shows through.”
At Morton and Gettys where the climb to a more flexible approach to work was a little steeper than others, Owens credits the pandemic with pushing change.
“We needed to change, we found ways to change, and we learned we could be much more flexible than we ever thought possible,” she said. “I also think we learned if we could get through the pandemic, we could get through just about anything.”