Thomson Reuters Institute hosted the 19th Annual Law Firm COO & CFO Forum last week, and among the highlights was a session moderated by Haile Arrindell, director of Market Development for Global Large Law at Thomson Reuters.

In the session A Fell Clutch of Circumstance: Navigating the New Risk Environment, panelists explored the risk environment that businesses are encountering in the push for a return to normalcy. They discussed how firms are building multi-disciplinary COVID-19 resource teams and examined leading firms’ strategic approaches and comprehensive risk mitigation techniques. Panelists included:

  • Mark Combs, chief information officer, Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC
  • Tracy Elmblad, chief information & operations officer, Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP
  • Mat Rosswood, chief operating officer, Kramer Levin LLP

Legal Current had an opportunity to catch up with Arrindell after the forum, and she shared panelists’ insights from their session. Below is a recap of the conversation.

Legal Current: Now that firms have implemented their business continuity plans, what surprised you when looking back on the last several months?

Arrindell: Firms were prepared with robust business continuity disaster recovery plans, accounting for regional and local disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, civil unrest and even active shooters near office locations. But this pandemic presented new challenges, specifically, providing all lawyers and staff with the necessary hardware and software, as well as ensuring office access for critical staff. For an industry that traditionally resisted remote working environments, law firms demonstrated resiliency, adaptability and the ability to move quickly to adjust to a truly global disruption.

LC: Now that employees are often working outside of their offices’ secure environment, how are law firms managing the risks related to technology with devices they do not own?

Arrindell: Where needed, firms are looking to revise telecommuting policies to reflect today’s working conditions to ensure that employees have what they need to remain productive while maintaining client confidentiality and adhering to outside counsel guidelines. The focus on cybersecurity and the protection of internal data and, more importantly, client data has not waned. In fact, there’s been a renewed focus on training and awareness with employees to educate them on the potential security and privacy risks. The pandemic accelerated the legal industry’s acceptance of and migration to cloud technology as a security and data governance safeguard.

LC: How have recent events affected your firm’s external relationships with clients?

Arrindell: As an industry that thrived on interpersonal interactions, there’s been a noticeable shift in how lawyers engage with clients. Panelists highlighted how their firms have innovated over the past several months to keep these client relationships healthy and connected by hosting virtual cooking classes, escape rooms and wellness sessions. These efforts have helped maintain client relationships in ways that are not only relevant for this moment but will also influence client-facing activities in the future.

LC: How are firms managing back-to-office risks and regulations across states, counties, cities and even buildings?

Arrindell: At the start of city- and state-mandated quarantines, law firms began return-to-office planning. No detail is too small to overlook, from providing masks, limiting in-office personnel and re-arranging spaces to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Firms are implementing all these recommendations to provide a safe return to the office.

LC: What have firms learned – or what best practices have they adopted – to maintain culture when people, generally, are not required to be in the office?

Arrindell: Law firms are embracing technology – especially collaboration tools – to help lawyers, internal business teams and clients work seamlessly to deliver against client expectations, as always. Lawyers had to contend with learning multiple new systems, and in some cases, alter their approach to practice in order to be more effective in virtual settings.

LC: How has the pandemic changed firms’ three-to-five year strategies?

Arrindell: The COVID-19 pandemic provided the legal industry a pathway to change. For example, it may have taken months to achieve leadership buy-in for a tech rollout in the past. Now firms can identify the need and move quickly to address it. Additionally, law firms have had to become much more creative around staying connected as internal teams and with their clients. Moving forward, panelists hope this momentum to embrace new technologies and create new ways to maintain and build community will endure in a post-COVID environment.