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June 01, 2024 Professional Development

Lockdown Lessons: What lawyers learned during the pandemic

By Danielle Braff, Victor Li, Anna Stolley Persky and Amanda Robert
The COVID-19 pandemic forced a legal industry long known for being staid and risk-averse into being open to change.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a legal industry long known for being staid and risk-averse into being open to change.

Stock photo.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the COVID-19 pandemic is, at the very least, a not-so-distant relative.

Shutdowns, shelter-in-place orders and quarantines forced almost all industries and businesses to change, adapt and evolve.

Whether it was adopting technology, changing workflows, transitioning to virtual/hybrid work or taking more time for mental health, the pandemic forced a legal industry long known for being staid and risk-averse into being open to change.

The only question was whether these new ways of approaching or doing business would be here to stay or would be discarded like a used face mask.

Some of the things these lawyers and legal professionals learned or adopted during the pandemic have become permanent parts of their professional lives. Here's a list of 30 (some have been edited for clarity and brevity):

Be like water

1. The pandemic was a technological wake-up call for many solo and small law firms. Prior to 2020, many firms relied on outdated technologies like local servers, physical files and non-[Voice over Internet Protocol] phones, making remote work virtually impossible. Despite the availability of cloud-based solutions, firms had an "If it's not broken, don't fix it" mentality. However, the pandemic forced firms to upgrade their technology game. Lawyers recognized the need to invest in remote work capabilities, enhance cybersecurity and streamline processes. This included adopting cloud solutions, upgrading IT infrastructure and training employees on new technologies. —Cynthia Thomas, owner of PLMC & Associates, Westlake Village, California

2. The pandemic underscored the necessity for adaptability in the legal field and brought new challenges, including restricted or no in-person contact and heavy workloads. Embracing technology for remote work has become commonplace, with Zoom depositions and hearings as the norm now as well as sending initial client paperwork via e-sign versions versus having in-person meetings. —Ted Spaulding, founder of Spaulding Injury Law, Atlanta

3. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced my long-held tenet that my law firm should be able to pivot quickly when circumstances change. Beginning with the March 2020 lockdown until now, we pivoted: from infrequently working from home before the pandemic to more frequently working from home to now only occasionally working from home; from no government mandates before March 2020 about face masks, social distancing and sanitizers to multiple government mandates impacting our business; and then to the present with no government mandates affecting our office. But we're still voluntarily using some of the best practices we followed during the peak of the pandemic: From primarily in-person court hearings for our five attorneys before the lockdown, then to remote hearings (phone and video), then to hybrid hearings (remote and in-person) and then to the present with different formats for hearings depending on each court; from almost exclusively using phones for conference calls before March 2020 to now almost exclusively using Zoom and Teams apps plus cameras on computers for conference calls. Undoubtedly, my firm will continue to quickly pivot as circumstances warrant, whether related to the COVID-19 pandemic or for other situations. —ABA Secretary Marvin Dang, Law Offices of Marvin S.C. Dang, Honolulu

4. Prior to COVID, Palace Law had about 9,000 feet of office space. I didn't know it then, but what I learned in 2021 and 2022 was that I was just wasting money on office space I was never going to use again. A new plan was made: Rent off unused office space, cut expenses, create a new income stream. And so it began. First, we moved all the furniture out. Then we rented the entire space. Expenses decreased, and income increased. That felt so good that we decided to do it some more. We moved out more abandoned office furniture, consolidated things like office copiers and made designated "hot desks" for employees to drop in and work as needed. Then we rented out more space and again cut costs and increased revenue. Fast-forward to today, and we still haven't needed the space we gave away. In fact, we are working on another consolidation to shrink Palace Law's real estate footprint one more time, especially now that other companies are looking to rent. —Patrick Palace, owner of Palace Law, University Place, Washington

5. We learned to level the peaks and valleys of our practice with more flexible fee structures. This helped provide both us and the client the ability to adapt to unpredictable delays which we'd never experienced before in the court system. Additionally, it's added predictability to our cash flow as well, which is an added benefit. —Jeremy Rosenthal, founding partner of Rosenthal Kalabus & Therrian, McKinney, Texas

6. When the global pandemic hit, couples in confinement had no choice but to face the hard truths of their relationships head-on. Our online collaborative divorce platform, Wevorce, saw a massive spike in traffic with over a million visits during lockdown. Our commitment to listening with empathy led to stark findings that changed our platform and our practice for good. On a 7-to-1 basis, even in the face of abuse, addiction and mental health issues, people were looking for respect above all. That's why we joined forces with Kim Wright and Linda Alvarez to scale Conscious Contracts for clear and open family dispute resolution. We also introduced Private Judges, experienced facilitators and arbitrators who could mediate and issue legally binding verdicts online. —Michelle Crosby, founder of Wevorce, Boise, Idaho

7. The shift to a more remote-friendly meeting culture—particularly after AffiniPay, the parent company of LawPay, acquired our company during the pandemic—has enhanced interaction and engagement among our now-geographically dispersed workforce. As a result of the acquisition, I'm no longer an outlier in virtual meetings, which has significantly improved the quality of discussions. —Nicole Black, senior director of subject matter expertise and external education at MyCase and LawPay, Rochester, New York

8. The pandemic also highlighted the importance of robust business continuity and disaster recovery plans. Firms learned the value of preparing for disruptions and implementing contingency measures to ensure continuity of operations and client service. —Cynthia Thomas

9. Back in February 2020, I sent everyone who had been working at the Palace Law offices to work from home. I assumed it would be temporary and that everyone would return. A year later, nothing had changed, and productivity was decreasing. We also still had sick leave and a vacation policy, but it was nearly impossible to know who was working and wasn't. Nobody reported time off. It was obvious that we needed to find a way to maintain productivity and accountability, or the firm would fail. So we took an existing concept of collecting and watching [key performance indicators] and customized individual "scorecards" for everyone working from home. Everyone had weekly, quarterly and annual goals. Everyone received a private weekly scorecard so they could follow their progress to achieve their goals. Further, we implemented an unlimited paid time off policy. We allowed employees to work as they wished without sick leave or vacation. Leave no longer seemed relevant or necessary. Together, these policies allowed significant employee autonomy and gave employees clear, measurable and achievable goals that had to be met. For those that achieved their goals and learned to be very productive from home—bonuses. Those that could not meet their goals were let go. Fast-forward to 2024, and everyone is still working from home, the firm has grown enormously, and productivity is higher than it has ever been. Thanks, COVID! —Patrick Palace

Learn to love tech

10. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned during the pandemic was the importance of maintaining a virtual practice. My firm has been paperless since 2013, and I have been an active user of Zoom since then as well. In fact, in February 2014, Kiesel Law was Zoom's customer of the month! The pandemic brought to life, in real and scary terms, the critical need to be able to work virtually and seamlessly. I have often referred to this as the silver lining of the pandemic. —Paul Kiesel, partner at Kiesel Law, Beverly Hills, California

11. I learned that I need access to excellent internet to efficiently and effectively practice law. I work hybrid and have two internet providers in the event one goes down. This investment has proven to be crucial when the quality of internet connection has either been spotty or nonexistent. I learned that having access to a hot spot has been crucial as well to facilitate working from any location. This way, if the internet is spotty, there is always your cellphone! —Laura Farber, partner at Hahn & Hahn, Pasadena, California

12. Before the pandemic, I never would have dreamed of conducting divorce mediation remotely. However, 99% of clients love it. For some, it's about the comfort of not being forced to sit in the same room as their future ex-spouse. For all, and for me, eliminating the commute to an office frees up a tremendous amount of time, which everyone appreciates. Remote mediation has been so successful that I have stopped offering in-person mediation. This has reduced my overhead, which allows me to keep my fees reasonable—a win-win for everyone. —Jennifer Kouzi, Kouzi Mediation, Consulting & Coaching, Hastings-on-Hudson, New York

13. You don't have to be everywhere in person every time. While we all have Zoom fatigue now, before the pandemic, many of us were plane, train and automobile fatigued. Save the in-person meetings for when it truly matters. Virtual meetings often save time, reduce stress and get the job done just as well. —Mike Sims, president and chief growth officer of BARBRI Global, Dallas

14. One thing I've learned from the pandemic is how to better leverage technology in depositions. While we used to travel from coast to coast both defending and taking depositions, the vast majority now take place on Zoom, saving me and my client tremendous amounts of money. This shift has made it easier to execute depositions and keep cases moving forward. —Lloyd Bell, founding partner of Bell Law Firm, Atlanta

15. Even before the pandemic, we operated from several branches. However, the more widespread use of Zoom reaffirmed our dispersed model. It helped our team get comfortable using videoconferencing as a means of connecting and collaborating. In that way, the pandemic was a real boon to how we operate. —Matthew Neill Davis, CEO of Davis Business Law, Enid, Oklahoma

Focus on yourself

16. I took a lot of walks during the pandemic—mostly to escape my home, where my husband and I were trying to work while also parenting a toddler and helping a kindergartner through virtual school. I wouldn't take a phone or anything to listen to, just my thoughts and the neighborhood chatter. I found myself coming back into the house renewed and ready to tackle whatever lay ahead for the remainder of the day. I have kept up these walks now that everyone is in school, and I am back in the office. I only disappear for about 20 minutes, but moving my body and getting fresh air—sometimes sunshine (Cleveland isn't very sunny)—always leaves me refreshed and provides mental clarity to move big projects forward. We are bombarded with so much information constantly that it's nice to slow down and just let your body and your brain wander. —Kari Burns, chief strategy officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association

17. The pandemic, hopefully, taught many attorneys to understand the benefits of and need for a clear quality-of-life balance between work responsibilities and personal relationships, something many of us struggle with during our careers. No doubt for many attorneys this was the first time where there was significant overlap of the two worlds literally at all times, and it provided an opportunity to devise what worked and what did not once the pandemic eased and normalcy returned. —Mark S. Zaid, managing partner of Mark S. Zaid, P.C., Washington, D.C.

18. Maintaining boundaries is so important. When you're working from home, it's so easy to blur the lines between work life and home life. You find yourself jumping from a Zoom meeting to doing laundry. At some point, there is no longer a distinction, and you end up shouldering both burdens at all times. Figuring out ways to truly set work aside is so important for mental, emotional and physical health, and to truly show up in your personal life. —Roya Samarghandi, associate director of advocacy, innovation and training at the Chicago Bar Foundation

19. The pandemic forced me to really double down on figuring out what I want my practice to look like and how to communicate that to people, particularly when an in-person lunch was simply no longer an option. Also, while I've always been very efficient in getting work done, it forced me to think of ways to maximize my time because suddenly, with my kid at home, my workdays were a lot shorter. Although it sounds counterintuitive, what helped here was to slow down and make sure I was organized and had thought an issue through before acting. —Emily Poler, founding partner of Poler Legal, New York City

20. Take opportunities to connect, however they come. During the lockdown, I became closer with my friends across the country because we planned video call workouts and check-ins that kept us closer post-pandemic. We made it normal to ask about physical and mental well-being and to just get comfortable sharing struggles and strengths. Those habits have continued since, and I am grateful for that learning process. —Armin Salek, executive director of Youth Justice Alliance, Austin, Texas

21. The pandemic taught us how to work with restrictions and build healthier boundaries. In my personal life, I came up with new ways to bring my work home without sacrificing the privacy and space of other relationships. I now have a system to work more efficiently and still have dedicated time to rest. My favorite way to pace my work is to use a Pomodoro timer on tasks for 25 minutes and then take a 5-to-15-minute break. I repeat this at least 10 times a day to meet my billables. It's also a great way to inform people in my life how much longer I need to work before I can tend to them. —Yung Truong, Grant Park Legal Advisors, Chicago

22. The pandemic taught me how precious time truly is. Time waits for no one. Time cannot be borrowed or loaned. Time is our greatest currency and also a nonrenewable resource. I have learned to work smarter while making time for the people/animals/volunteering that make my soul sing and thrive. We are all given a bank of 86,400 seconds each morning that cannot be carried over or shared—use your moments wisely. Live in the now and have no regrets. I also learned the answer is always no if we do not ask. —Laurie Besden, executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania

23. Honestly, the COVID pandemic at times was downright stressful, depressing and isolating. One of the things I learned was the importance of checking in with people, regardless of whether that person was a colleague or opposing counsel. Before jumping in to discuss the project or issues that needed to be resolved, I started each call with a check-in by asking how the person was doing. Sometimes the response to this question was brief, but sometimes it led to a longer and deeper conversation. The length of the check-in depended on each individual's comfort level in responding to the questions of "How are you doing?"and "How is everything going?" But it was critical to listen to responses and respond genuinely. These opportunities to check in helped us to create a good foundation for an open dialogue when we transitioned to discussing the project or issues. —Jonathan Nwagbaraocha, environment, health, safety and sustainability counsel and compliance leader at Xerox Corp., Rochester, New York

24. The pandemic prompted me to rethink my approach to exercise. Investing in a treadmill desk allowed me to seamlessly integrate physical activity into my workday. This adjustment has not only made it easier to stay active without leaving home but also enriched my overall work-fromhome experience.—Nicole Black

Maintaining personal connections

25. The pandemic was highly revealing in the sense that so many things we took for granted were suddenly missing—most notably for me, consistent human interaction and connection. As abundant research has shown, human connection is essential for our well-being. I no longer take it for granted, and I am far more proactive in cultivating opportunities to spend time with others I care about. My tip, therefore, is to cherish and nourish your connections. It will pay huge dividends for your well-being. —Patrick Krill, principal and founder of Krill Strategies, Minneapolis

26. During the pandemic, one thing I learned was the importance of picking up the phone to call someone. Instead of exchanging emails with someone to discuss a project or resolve an issue, I learned that it was more effective to give someone a call, with a phone call or video conference, and there was value in connecting with someone beyond text in an e-mail. Even if it was to leave a voicemail to discuss the issue later, we could often resolve issues more efficiently over phone or video by connecting with each other, listening to points of view and brainstorming together. —Jonathan Nwagbaraocha

27. I learned that communicating openly about family obligations and conflicts (because my kid was literally in my lap on Zoom during meetings in the pandemic) could actually strengthen community, open up opportunities to build more inclusive workspaces and sometimes even facilitate work-life balance. —Keramet Reiter, professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine

28. I travel extensively to Asia and Mexico for my international tax law practice, which builds personal relationships that lead to business. During the pandemic, people became more accustomed to Zoom and virtual meetings. Therefore, many people told me I no longer needed to travel as the pandemic ended. I disagree. Now, I lean even more into traveling for in-person meetings. While face-to-face collaboration before the pandemic was a good practice, now it provides an even greater client relationship-building advantage with less people traveling to meet. —Josh Maxwell, managing partner of Hone Maxwell, San Diego

29. The pandemic provided the opportunity to rethink how we build relationships—both business and personal—when forced to become more intentional and creative in our connections. Our fast-paced world instantly slowed down and allowed us the chance to connect and check in with those we work with, as well as our neighbors, friends and family. It reminded us to appreciate the importance of pausing to sit face-to-face with others and build a stronger relationship by getting to know those around us. While social media has helped us build more connections, nothing can replace the value of authentic conversation. —Deb Feder, CEO of Feder Development, Leawood, Kansas

30. During the pandemic, I learned how to effectively use technology and how it can be a game changer in our field. We were already set up with digital files, cloud-based computing and internal messaging with a high level of security. We had also instituted Zoom for all our team members, which made it an easy transition for us to work remotely when the pandemic hit. Despite this, we all realized that we didn't want to go remote because we missed the personal connection that we had when working together in person. To address this, we made sure to meet every month and have a team dinner at a great restaurant—and nothing beats meeting up and breaking bread together. This helped us bond and maintain our personal connections, which we value greatly. —Alphonse Provinziano, CEO of Provinziano & Associates, Beverly Hills, California