As measures intended to control the spread of the novel coronavirus continue to develop, law firms in New Jersey, like their counterparts in other markets, are implementing their own forms of social distancing.
For most firms, remote work is nothing new. Still, there are adjustments, particularly for staff, and the fluid situation has firms making those adjustments on the fly—and working to field client questions on the subject at the same time.
Hackensack-based Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, with about 60 lawyers, has had full remote work capability for attorneys for some time, but not all staff were equipped until March 13, according to founder and managing partner Michael Stein.
The firm spent about two weeks preparing and had to buy a number of laptops for staff. The firm implemented a staggered office schedule but expected to be fully remote as of midweek, Stein said by phone Monday, adding that the firm was considering taking mail and check processing off-site if needed.
It was mostly business as usual up through the end of that week, Stein said. “I was in federal court Friday afternoon,” he said.
Stein said he’s been in touch with a number of other firms, and “some are more prepared than others—some are moving faster than others.”
Stein said the message, particularly to staff, has been that work must get done, but “we’re trying to inject a sense of comfort—that we’ve got their back” if they have child or elder care considerations.
The firm is “leaning in as much as we can to the community effort” to limit spread of the virus, he said.
“As firm leaders, we have a responsibility to do everything we can to ensure there’s no interruption in pay” for staffers, he said. “As I’ve spoken to others, I wish there was more uniformity in this sense of making employees feel like they’re going to be accommodated.”
With court closures and other cancellations, “we’re going to take a hit” in earnings, he added. The concern is “the unknowable of what this is going to do to the business,” Stein said. “That’s uncomfortable.”
At Lowenstein, with its largest offices in Roseland and New York, there has been something of an adjustment for some staff, though systems are holding up well, according to an email conversation with managing partner Gary Wingens. The firm’s response to the virus threat has included expedited implementation of a new videoconference system.
“All of our lawyers have had the ability to work from home for at least the past 15 years,” Wingens said, while staff, divided into “business services groups,” have “varying experience” with remote work.
“Every group has a business continuity plan that includes having a good number of people who regularly work from home, but we certainly have some [business services group] team members who are now [working from home] for the first time. They are adjusting,” Wingens said.
He added that the firm’s ”systems and network have been performing extremely well so far”—on Tuesday “we had over 600 simultaneous remote sessions (we have a total of 650 employees—which tells you that people are connected and working. We also have over 200 people with office phones at home and we had over 250 people logged into our phone system on their mobile devices. From my basement office, my systems were all working identically as they do in the office.”
At Porzio Bromberg & Newman, managing partner Vito Gagliardi Jr. said a discussion with the firm’s senior administrative team about going remote began about a month ago. The firm has six offices, including headquarters in Morristown, and three subsidiaries. By Monday, most at the firm had gone to remote work.
“I met with our senior administrative team and started planning for this eventuality,” Gagliardi said in a phone call on Tuesday.
“On March 11 we first told employees to consider working from home, especially if they live with someone who is compromised. As of Monday this week, we strongly encouraged for them to work that way,” Gagliardi said by phone.
As of Monday, he said, approximately 80% of Porzio employees throughout the firm were working remotely, including almost all 90 of its attorneys.
Gagliardi, who has gone into the Morristown office to field phone calls from clients, was an exception in what he described as “a very sparsely populated office.”
“We implemented other restrictions,” he said. “There are no meetings or conferences at all starting this Monday. All of our gatherings have been canceled through the end of the month with the expectation that they will continue after the end of the month.”
“We have two sacred obligations during this crisis: an obligation to our clients and an obligation to each other and to our families,” Gagliardi added. “By working remotely, we are able to satisfy both obligations.”
Early Monday, Gagliardi said, he gave a 15-minute webcast speech to the firm reiterating as much.
Gibbons was essentially remote by 10 a.m. Monday, and shifting its employees away from physical office spaces was seamless for a reason, according to managing partner Patrick Dunican Jr. Gibbons implemented remote capabilities after a May 2007 fire at its headquarters in Newark, which affected, among other functions, its information technology infrastructure. And when Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of the Jersey Shore in 2012, the firm immediately set up shop in a local Starbucks in that part of the state to help impacted businesses and other clients.
“This is something Gibbons has been preparing for for a long time,” Dunican said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We’ve built an infrastructure for our attorneys to work remotely. But no one ever anticipated something of this magnitude.”
June Inderwies, Gibbons’ executive director and chief operating officer, said approximately 200 employees, including 185 lawyers, are working remotely—or about 85% of employees. More than half of Gibbons employees are equipped with office laptops, she added.
Brach Eichler—with approximately 80 attorneys, 74 of them practicing full time—went fully remote on Tuesday. The Roseland-based firm, with a small office in New York and one in West Palm Beach, Florida, has a support staff of about 60.
Managing partner John Fanburg, who also chairs the firm’s health care law practice and co-chairs the cannabis practice, said, “Essentially, the message on Monday was working remotely begins tomorrow.”
“On Monday we had multiple in-person meetings to explain how and why, and a lot of great questions came up so that operationally we won’t miss a beat,” Fanburg said in an email to the Law Journal. “There may be lawyers stopping by over the next few days to get files or things they may need to work remotely. We may need to have a skeleton crew in a little bit, but we will see.”
McCarter & English encouraged staff to begin working remotely during the week of March 9, with many taking advantage of the firm’s remote access capabilities, according to its managing partner, Joseph Boccassini.
“As of today [Tuesday] the entire McCarter & English team is working remotely with the exception of a few people on-site for limited periods to handle incoming mail and packages and get those items to their intended recipients,” Boccassini said. “We’re working with our on-site personnel to limit their time in the offices and ensure that they are taking all proper precautions.
“It was a seamless transition for our lawyers,” Boccassini added. “The nature of our work and the span of our client base requires us to be able to work from anywhere in the world, and we are fortunate to have a strong infrastructure and talented IT team that was fully prepared for this contingency.”
McCarter has 375 attorneys in 10 offices: Newark, East Brunswick and Trenton; two in Connecticut, in Stamford and Hartford; and one each in Boston, New York, Wilmington, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
Boccassini added that staff ”have … been extraordinary—responsive, proactive and working closely with their colleagues to ensure that we are continuing to serve our clients without disruption.”
“The adjustments will play out over the next few weeks, as our people are used to regularly collaborating with their colleagues and will miss the camaraderie of their teams, but we have the ability to bring people together remotely, which will go a long way toward keeping our colleagues engaged and alleviating some of the stress of this situation as matters develop,” he said.
At Lyndhurst-based Scarinci Hollenbeck, a March 9 email advised all attorneys and staff to “be prepared to work from home at all times, if/as necessary.” The message, shared with the Law Journal, said that for support staff, an extra day of paid time off would be provided for necessary testing, and “If, after screening, you are confirmed or ‘presumed positive’ to have COVID-19, the Firm will provide you with up to 10 additional PTO days to allow you time to recover fully from the virus … contingent upon a health care providers’ documentation.”
At Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi, according to an email Monday from managing partner Daniel Schwartz: “Today, we announced to employees that they are all allowed to work from home starting tomorrow [Tuesday]. We will continue to provide client service from remote locations, with key personnel monitoring our necessary onsite activities.
“In addition, CSG has established a multidisciplinary COVID-19 Crisis Management Task Force to help clients and the business community address the numerous legal, regulatory and commercial implications they are facing now and may experience in the weeks and months ahead,” Schwartz added.
Counseling Clients on COVID-19
Like Chiesa Shahinian, several other firms have put together such client-focused units, including Bridgewater-based Norris McLaughlin, according to an announcement from that firm shared with the Law Journal.
Porzio Bromberg, according to Gagliardi, began receiving a flurry of client calls over the weekend, and they only ramped up heading into the week.
“Some clients will be experiencing significant layoffs” as a result of the isolation measures, Gagliardi said.
“People are hearing snippets about state and federal laws being modified,” Gagliardi said. “There is confusion about which laws are being changed or proposed or considered. It’s a very difficult time for schools and businesses. It’s hard enough that the facts are changing, but when the law is changing on a daily basis, it is a very difficult time for clients as well.”
For example, Gagliardi said: “Under certain circumstances an employer must pay a worker on leave. … But when you have zero cash flow, what do you do? Uncertainty is the greatest stressor.”
At Gibbons, “there is a huge need for employment counseling,” Dunican said. “Can you tell other employees that you have an affected employee? [If an employee is infected and] you don’t tell their co-worker, are you violating some OSHA regulation? Do they have to pay their employees if they close a particular plant or site? What about workers with union contracts?”
“We are dealing with those issues all day long,” Dunican said. “And it’s going to be worse with businesses defaulting on contracts—restaurants are not able to serve customers, so there is no longer the need for those hamburger buns that used to be delivered every Monday morning. What do they do with such contracts?”
As for business interruption insurance, Dunican said, “with these businesses losing revenue, do they have insurance coverage? Can they be part of bailout coverage if their business is adversely impacted by the shutdown?”
“Our bankruptcy lawyers are talking to businesses to deal with potential bankruptcies,” Dunican added.
“We are communicating among ourselves by text and email in real time. … Clients are not as prepared as we are. Some are frantic,” he said.
David Pacrell, co-chairman of the government and regulatory department and a partner at Gibbons, said the need for COVID-19-related client counseling is ”exploding.”
Pascrell began fielding client calls from his Montclair home Monday morning, while simultaneously keeping a close eye on his 3-year-old son. He and his wife also are expecting the arrival of a daughter around April 7.
“We are dealing with issues, from hospitals and how the state is dealing with a number of patients with COVID-19, to cable workers being able to do their job with curfews being put into place to make sure people have broadband at night,” Pascrell said.
“We are at the front lines of lowering the anxiety of our clients,” he said.