Running a Law Firm Remotely During COVID-19: Challenges and Solutions
Enjoy this re-post of my published article in FamilyLawyerMagazine.com
Running a law firm remotely during COVID-19 has its fair share of challenges. My best advice for riding out the pandemic is to embrace this new reality and work on adjusting both your personal mindset and business practices to evolve with it.
By Lauren F. Riesenfeld, Family Lawyer
Although my firm was not specifically prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, we were certainly prepared to have full functioning capabilities while working remotely. My firm was initially set up with remote capabilities so that I would be able to access my client files, work on documents and administrative data like billing, even when not in the office. This is an integral part of my practice. In family law, issues come up that are not on a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule – in fact, family law, custody, and visitation issues come up most often on holidays and weekends, so full access to my files was imperative even before the pandemic. This insight made for a seamless transition from working in the office to working from home.
Having a great IT support team is essential as things go wrong and tech support must be available to keep the practice running.
Running a Law Firm Remotely During COVID-19 Requires a New Set of Rules
As a sole practitioner, there is a certain efficiency and ease in not having to worry about communicating with others to get critical work done. While delegating responsibility and having a team is always helpful when running a business, at times like this, I find being able to complete my work tasks on my time in my way is more efficient.
In terms of sending and/or receiving essential paperwork during this pandemic, technology has allowed me to convert most, if not all, of my documents from Word to a PDF document. Once the document has been converted to a PDF, I am then able to email the PDF directly to clients or to other attorneys without the concern of the document being altered or modified from the original format. There are always documents that need original signatures and that cannot be avoided, but accommodations are made to get this done as well.
Working remotely has come with a new set of rules to adapt to, but communicating with my clients via email has always been the main avenue of communication for my office. Since many of my clients work full-time and do not wish to have personal conversations regarding their family, finances, and home-life in front of their colleagues, email has been a way around this obstacle. During lockdown – especially for those spending it with a soon-to-be-ex-spouse – my clients are able to contact and/or respond to me via password-protected email without having to speak out loud in front of their spouse or children.
Social media has also become key to accessing information not typically transmitted in this informal matter. For example, I have joined several Facebook groups that have been created for the purpose of keeping matrimonial/family lawyers informed of any Court updates in New York. These groups also have many sub-groups, creating access to information that pertains to only specific counties in New York State. Judges who have joined these Facebook groups have been wonderful at sharing information regarding both their specific Part’s guidelines as well as the Court system as a whole, which helps to keep us up with new rules and regulations going into effect.
As a sole practitioner, I have been extremely fortunate to have developed many close relationships amongst my colleagues. Some of whom are also sole practitioners like myself, and some who work for larger firms. I have found that the family law community as a whole has been remarkable during this confusing time. Everyone is always reaching out to others whether it be by webinar, Zoom, Facebook, texts, or emails to make sure everyone is informed of all updates in effect.
Running a Law Firm Remotely During COVID-19: Challenges and Work-Arounds
Running my law firm remotely, while seemingly easy, also has its fair share of challenges. While I do make an effort to scan and electronically save almost all of the documents in my client files, there are certain voluminous items which remain in hard-copy form in the client’s physical file. While working from home, there are often situations when information is needed from these documents, and not having the physical file presents an issue with obtaining it. Thankfully, I have found that adversaries and clients are all being understanding and are willing to work with me to provide the information I may not have saved on a client’s virtual file.
As I maintain a business Facebook account, I have also found it helpful to post articles that affect my clients during this time. It is no surprise that being quarantined with your spouse/partner and/or children can be challenging. In many two-earner households, this is a new world spending all this “mandatory” with their families. There have been so many wonderful articles posted online specifically dealing with co-parenting during quarantine and cohabitating with your spouse or soon to be ex-spouse. I find it very helpful to post a link to these articles on my business Facebook page so that clients may take advantage of helpful advice and seeing that their problem is not unique in these unprecedented times.
My best advice for riding out the pandemic is to embrace this new reality and work on adjusting both your personal mindset and business practices to evolve with it. It is very nerve-wracking for someone to go from working long hour days to having all of this free time they never had before. Part of you wants to embrace the calm and enjoy the little things such as time with your family, hobbies you may not have had time for and of course, the outdoors. On the other hand, there is a natural level of anxiety in navigating this new “normal”. The best way to handle getting through this pandemic is balance. Balance is key. You must keep yourself in check and tell yourself that it is ok to enjoy downtime while also maintaining contact with your clients and colleagues to handle necessary business matters at this time.
As of late April, I personally had not witnessed an increase or decrease in the number of custody matters because of COVID-19. What I have seen, however, is many parents dealing with issues of co-parenting while being quarantined. Unfortunately, while the hope is that parents will work together for the benefit of the children during this scary time, many parents are using the pandemic as an excuse to further their personal agenda. It is disheartening to see parents refusing to cooperate with parenting schedules previously agreed upon and using the pandemic as their reasoning for same. While there are of course certain cases where one parent’s home may be more suitable for the child during quarantine, many people are using this only as an excuse to both gain more time with the children, and to prevent the other parents from having their fair access.
I have seen an increase in the number of divorce-related inquiries since the pandemic began, which I think it makes perfect sense. As stated previously, while there are many families fortunate enough to use this time as a gift, where they can spend more time together with their families, catching up on family activities they may not have otherwise had time to partake in because of work, other couples and families are experiencing severe strains on their relationships which is leading them to debate filing for a divorce. Being under quarantine requires you to become reacquainted with your spouse, and unfortunately, many couples are seeing that they themselves or their spouse have become very different over time, resulting in a lack of commonalities between them. Many women have even found that their husbands are not very in tuned with their children’s lives and in fact, some women claim their husbands don’t know their children at all. This stark reality has really hit people hard and might be the last straw that pushes them to file for divorce.
Prepare to Hit the Ground Running Post-COVID-19
Given the fact that this pandemic and ultimate quarantine is forcing many couples to re-evaluate their marriages and financial circumstances, my best advice is to prepare to hit the ground running once this crisis ends and make myself available to anyone in need of advice at this time. Courts are not open for the filing of any divorce actions at this time, but clients can still retain you and the papers can all be drafted, completed and signed so that when the clerk’s office does re-open papers will be ready to be in-line for the first round of new filings.
Lauren F. Riesenfeld, Esq., represents clients in complex issues involving matrimonial and family law cases, and criminal defense matters for clients who are charged with misdemeanor and/or felony offenses. Lauren’s prior experience as a junior accountant enables her to represent clients in matters involving complex financial and tax issues, which so often accompany divorce and custody litigation. www.lfrlawpc.com