Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan’s weeklong closure of its New York office after a partner tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus is forcing the industry to reckon with a serious question: Can Big Law work remotely?
A number of law firm leaders said in interviews Monday that they’re equipped and ready to have their lawyers and staff work from home for the short term. But working remotely for a long period of time poses a major test for an industry that is built on relationships.
“The legal industry is still an apprenticeship, and we’re still trying to train our young lawyers to become partners and take over the firm and become the next generation of firm leaders,” said Peter Miller, the chair and managing partner of Seyfarth Shaw. “There’s no substitute for face-to-face teaching and the like.”
Fully remote work can weigh on a law firm’s culture and “cohesion,” said Dion Cominos, the managing partner of Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani. Approximately 10% to 20% of Gordon Rees’ lawyers work mainly remotely, but that has to be balanced out with in-person meetings and social functions, he added.
“You still have a need for people to feel connected to a larger whole. If you’re doing everything virtually, it can be isolating,” Cominos said.
Legal recruiting and developing new clients can also take a hit if in-person meetings are put on the back burner, said Zeughauser Group consultant Kent Zimmermann, adding that it’s “hard to close the deal remotely.”
In technical terms, plenty of aspects of a legal practice can be performed remotely, law firm leaders noted, including actually closing a deal for clients. Certain activities do require personal contact, including jury selection, oral arguments and going to trial.
Some of those activities are already starting to be curtailed in the face of a virus that has infected over 113,700 people and killed at least 3,999 people across 97 countries as of Monday afternoon, according to a New York Times tally. On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit announced it was canceling all en banc hearings and non-case related meetings scheduled for this week.
Separately, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Monday announced it was banning all persons who have been to China, Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea within the past 14 days.
Quinn Emanuel opted to close its New York office—where more than 200 of its lawyers are based—after one of its partners contracted the coronavirus. Earlier this month, lawyers at the small Midtown Manhattan law firm of Lewis and Garbuz were sent home after one of the firm’s lawyers tested positive for the coronavirus.
The closure of Quinn Emanuel and Lewis and Garbuz comes as a growing number of firms are creating working groups to advise clients on how the virus will impact them, while the firms themselves are canceling partner retreats and restricting travel.
Leaders at Perkins Coie, for example, said they’re implementing business resiliency plans they drafted months ago, before the coronavirus was known. Although the firm hasn’t closed any of its 21 offices, it has restricted travel for its lawyers and staff and canceled all large internal and external events meetings through April 1.
“We’re already a dispersed global set of teams. It’s a matter of moving them out a little further in terms of local workspaces,” said Rick Howell, the firm’s chief information officer.
Remote working may be a challenge for law firms, but Zimmermann believes the real disruption will come as firms begin to feel the impact of the broader economic crisis sweeping whole countries and industries due to the virus. On Monday alone, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 8%—more than 2,000 points.
The U.S. legal industry was, on average, already seeing weaker demand in a strong economy, according to data from Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group and Wells Fargo Legal Specialty Group, Zimmermann said. What happens if the economy does go into a downturn, he asked.
“The question of working remotely is one thing. But a much bigger issue for law firms is what the macro economy does to the demand environment,” Zimmermann said. “With the uncertainty a weakening macro-economy brings, that’s going to slow down many transactions, if not throw pause them or throw them off-track. It’s going to slow spending.”