Joseph Chancey, Drew Eckl & Farnham LLP, Atlanta. (Photo: John Disney / ALM)

One of Atlanta’s largest litigation defense firms, Drew Eckl & Farnham, on Monday made remote work mandatory for all lawyers and staff to limit potential exposure to the fast-spreading coronavirus.

That was an upgrade from the voluntary remote-work policy that Drew Eckl, like other large firms, had just recently instituted. Only about a dozen essential operations staff are still working from the firm’s downtown headquarters in the SunTrust building, said managing partner Joe Chancey. Usually, there are 200 lawyers and staff in the office.

Other firms are starting to follow suit. Trans-Atlantic firm Eversheds Sutherland, which has U.S. operations based in Atlanta, tightened its policy on Tuesday, directing all personnel to work from home except for the very few who still need to be on -site. Only the previous day, Eversheds Sutherland had instituted a voluntary remote-work policy for lawyers and staff firmwide.

“We took a stronger stance today to say that, barring a real need to be in the office, we expect all employees to be working from home with a handful of operational staff,” said Eversheds Sutherland’s U.S. co-chair, Mark Wasserman.

At Drew Eckl, Chancey said, “Monday, our emergency response team met again and recommended to our board that we escalate working from home to mandatory.”

“This is unprecedented for our firm, but we are all going through an unprecedented time right now,” he said.

The emergency response team is made up of 10 people, including Chancey and three other lawyers—the firm’s general counsel, compliance partner and insurance coverage specialist–plus operations department heads.

Chancey added that they were “very confident we could do it without a great loss of productivity or efficiency,” because the firm’s IT director had already been preparing for all-remote work as a general emergency scenario.

Those still working from Drew Eckl’s headquarters include Chancey and operations leaders for the firm’s IT, accounting, HR, records and marketing functions. They need to work from the office, Chancey said, because “we are still a little bit subject to paper—like incoming mail.”

Since mail to attorneys could contain sensitive data about a case, Drew Eckl has designated records department staff who are certified in handling that information to sort and scan mail as it comes in, so they can deliver it remotely via emaIl to the firm’s attorneys and staff, said the firm’s business development director, Christy Walsh.

Drew Eckl’s IT director, Jason Landers, said his team increased bandwidth for secure remote work capabilities over the weekend by 800%. He said the firm has made its IT systems scalable over the last two years, so it can expand or decrease capacity on very short notice.

“We stress-tested and pushed it out,” Landers said. “Some people who hadn’t worked remotely needed help to get online, but there were surprisingly few significant issues with that.”

Users can log into Drew Eckl’s secure remote desktop system from their personal devices, Landers said, and the firm has distributed its pool of loaner laptops to people who did not have ones.

Drew Eckl ordered additional laptops on Monday, Chancey added. Most have already arrived with the final ones expected by Friday. “It turns out it’s a little easier to get laptops than it is to get toilet paper this week,” he said.

Drew Eckl has 260 lawyers and staff in total, Chancey said, with a few people located in offices outside its SunTrust building headquarters–at Peachtree Center and small outposts in Albany and Brunswick. For now, the eight people in Albany and seven in Brunswick are still on voluntary status for remote work, due to the lower population density, but the emergency response team is assessing that daily, he said.