How BigLaw is managing staff in the age of COVID-19

By Jerome Doraisamy|17 March 2020
Sydney CBD

The big end of town has leapt into action in attempting to manage the hundreds of employees under their respective purviews amid the coronavirus outbreak.

As of the time of writing, Australia has not been placed on lockdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as has been witnessed in other countries. However, with state and federal recommendations in place for social distancing and gatherings of as few people as possible, BigLaw firms are taking action to protect their staff and client services.

Below is an outline of how the biggest players in Australia’s legal marketplace are reacting to the pandemic:

Allens

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As of this morning (Wednesday, 18 March), all Allens staff will work remotely, the firm said in a statement.

The Brisbane office commenced remote working on Tuesday, 17 March 2020, as one of its employees “may have been exposed” to coronavirus, and as such, that office’s work from home policy went into effect early.

“These arrangements are precautionary. We continue to monitor advice from public health authorities and we believe that taking these steps now is appropriate,” the firm said.

“Allens is well prepared for remote working – it will be business as usual in terms of our client service. Clients will be able to reach Allens as normal. Health and safety is the firm’s first priority, and we will continue to implement a range of other measures in accordance with the advice and directions of health authorities.”

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In a statement, the firm’s chief people officer, Andrea Bell, said the firm’s approach for each of its offices around the globe is being guided by local government recommendations.

We are trading as usual throughout the region and are adapting to the conditions to reduce the effect of the disruption to our clients, as well as supporting the health and safety of our teams,” Ms Bell said.

Our global network and technology [enable] us to offer the same service whether working remotely or from the office and we have encouraged flexible working arrangements where necessary.

Baker McKenzie

Bakers' Australian offices has commenced a mandatory working from home arrangement from Wednesday 18 March.

"In doing so, we are prioritising the health and wellbeing of our people and their loved ones, and contributing to our community's response to an extraordinary public health crisis," the firm told Lawyers Weekly.

"Under this arrangement, a small number of staff will be available on site to provide essential services or where, on an exceptions basis, it is essential to meet client needs. These measures are in place for two weeks, then subject to review as more news regarding COVID-19 comes to hand."

In other containment measures, the firm continued, a travel ban is in place for all travel, both domestic and international, unless approved by management for exceptional circumstances.

Baker McKenzie’s National managing partner Anthony Foley said: “The firm is well equipped with the technology, systems and processes to continue to seamlessly service our clients and be fully operational during this extraordinary public health crisis. We believe this is a responsible course of action which puts our people, clients and community first.”

Clayton Utz

CU’s offices remain open for now, the firm told Lawyers Weekly, but it is “strongly encouraging” partners and employees to work from home, on the basis that reducing the number of people on-site supports social distancing efforts.

The firm is also imposing mandatory two-week self-isolation periods for any partners or employees returning from overseas, in line with federal government requirements.

Moreover, CU mental health manager Emma Howard is running teleconferences for partners and employees on how best to manage individual wellness during the pandemic.

Clifford Chance

In a statement posted on the firm’s site last week, Clifford Chance managing partner Matthew Layton said that “nearly all of our teams” are now working on a full or partial remote basis.

“We remain fully operational and able to support clients on all their matters thanks to our advanced and well-embedded agile working technologies and policies,” Mr Layton wrote.

“We appreciate that this is a challenging period for many of our clients and we are committed to bringing together the high-quality capabilities and deep expertise across our firm to help clients navigate the many complex legal issues arising in the current uncertain environment. These efforts are being led by a cross-practice, cross-sector international group of colleagues who are working together to develop our thinking, share insights and learning as the situation evolves, and to deliver fully joined up support to our clients.”

Corrs Chambers Westgarth

As of today (Wednesday, 18 March), Corrs will be operating on a remote basis, with a small team of people in each office performing essential on-site services, which will continue until further notice. 

In a statement to Lawyers Weekly, the firm’s CEO Gavin MacLaren said: “We are yet to have a confirmed case of COVID-19 at the firm, however we consider remote working to be in the best interests of our people, our clients and the broader community at this time.” 

“Our implementation of business continuity measures over the past month, including live tests of our technology, systems and processes, has ensured we are well prepared to continue to operate effectively. We are working with our clients to support them through what is a challenging time for everyone.”

DLA Piper

A firm spokesperson for DLA told Lawyers Weekly that the firm is “global and nimble”, and thus is well placed to support its clients and staff in agile ways.

“We maintain a robust business continuity management system and comprehensive plans have been embedded right across the firm, with clear health guidelines, domestic and international travel restrictions in place across all offices, and large events postponed, to ensure the health and wellbeing of our people and our clients,” the spokesperson said.

“Our flexible work practices are well established, and we have the necessary tools and technology to allow our people to work remotely, access our systems and conduct meetings virtually, whenever they need to. Our offices remain open, but many of our people are already working from home, in preparation for larger scale remote working.

“These are uncertain times, but DLA Piper is well prepared for what comes next, and confident in our ability to continue to deliver the seamless, high-quality support our clients expect from us.”

Gadens

Numerous precautionary measures have been put in place by Australian law firm Gadens. In a statement issued last week, it said it has: stopped all non-essential business travel, ask its staff to work from home for 14 days if they have travelled internationally at all in the past fortnight, asked staff to self-isolate if they have been in contact with any person confirmed to have COVID-19, and cancelled certain events.

Furthermore, it is working “in conjunction with our landlords to ensure there is a daily disinfection regime throughout the buildings in which we have offices and this is being constantly monitored and adjusted where necessary”.

“We have in place a plan that will allow our services to continue to be provided remotely, as much as is practical, in the event that our premises are closed. Continuing to service our clients is one of our key priorities,” the firm said.

Gilbert + Tobin

In a statement, G+T COO and partner Sam Nickless has encouraged staff across its national offices to work from home as of Monday, 16 March 2020, “except if there is a business critical need to be in the office”.

The firm expects that over 90 per cent of its staff will be able to work remotely, he noted, with the offices remaining open for “business critical meetings” and support staff such as IT.

“Staff across our Sydney, Melbourne and Perth offices are now working from home for an extended period. At this stage we don’t know how long this will continue, but we will monitor and evaluate continuously,” Mr Nickless said.

“To be clear, this is an action we are taking as a precaution and to implement social distancing as a preventative measure. We have been extremely fortunate that, at this stage, we have not had any of our staff or their close family members test positive to COVID-19. We are not in a compulsory quarantine. We are not aware of any particular risk profile from our firm over and above the general community risk.”

In addition, the firm has made sure that staff have suitable OH&S arrangements in place for working from home, as well as access to the employee assistance program.

Herbert Smith Freehills

In a statement provided to Lawyers Weekly, HSF said it has implemented “a number of precautionary measures” having been monitoring COVID-19 since the beginning of the year.

“These include permitting only essential business and client-critical international travel, following local restrictions and government directions, a 14-day self-quarantine period for people where required, enhanced cleaning in offices and increased awareness around hygiene practices,” the statement read.

“In addition, we are encouraging any staff that would like to work remotely to do so. We have secure and robust systems in place and the capacity to support our people and maintain business as usual. Most of our client meetings and events will now take place via phone, Skype or webinar, although a small number of essential meetings and events may still need to take place in person.

“Our response has not been informed by any known cases of COVID-19 among our people, but we believe this is the right thing to do.”

To the best of the firm’s knowledge, none of its employees have contracted the virus as of the time of writing.

HWL Ebsworth

In a statement posted to its website yesterday, HWL said it is in a position to implement its business continuity plan “at any time”.

“Our existing business continuity plan covers a scenario such as COVID-19, and we are confident that there will be no disruption to our service delivery to any of our clients,” the firm said.

“Our business continuity plan includes staff working remotely from the office, as required, and we are in the fortunate position to have team members with relevant skills based in each of our offices located in every state and territory of Australia.

“At this stage we have not seen a material increase in staff absenteeism, however the breadth of our national resourcing and a proactive approach to our staff working remotely will minimise the risk to our clients.

“We have also been interacting with our external suppliers to ensure that their business continuity plans are appropriate. We will continue to monitor their service delivery, and in the event that their businesses are materially impacted, we have alternate suppliers ready to take on those roles.”

Lander & Rogers

Despite having no reported or confirmed cases of the virus, Landers asked its staff to work remotely as of Tuesday, 17 March 2020, with a handful of employees to remain on-site for functions that cannot be done remotely.

“We recognise that we are in a very fortunate position to be able to conduct our business remotely without any impact on our clients and our high service delivery. This is because flexibility is an important part of our connected and innovative culture,” Landers CEO Genevieve Collins said.

“By taking this step now, we are minimising the risk of exposure for our people travelling to and from work and the potential spread of the virus with large numbers of our people working together in offices. It will also help keep our premises free of the virus, should you or our people need to attend in-person meetings at any of our offices.”

The firm has also reassured its clients that they will continue to have access to lawyers via email, telephone and video conferencing and that those lawyers will remain available for in-person meetings and attend court dates.

King & Wood Mallesons

KWM offices remain open “but on a limited basis”, the firm’s Australian chief executive partner, Berkeley Cox, said.

“We have asked all of our people in Australia to work remotely until further notice unless working in the office is absolutely essential for client matters where a physical presence is required and there are no appropriate alternative arrangements,” he said in a statement.

“There will be a transition period over the next couple of days as we help our people and our clients prepare for this change and we will continue to review our position as the situation evolves.”

Additional registration requirements will be in place for all visitors attending meetings on KWM premises, Mr Cox said, and clients and visitors who have travelled overseas within the past 14 days, come into close contact with a suspected or positive case of COVID-19 or are showing symptoms will be asked to conduct meetings by phone or video, rather than face-to-face.

In comments aimed at the firm’s clients and relevant stakeholders, Mr Cox stressed that even though many lawyers will be working remotely, the firm remains committed to its service delivery.

“We have tested our systems and infrastructure and we are confident that we can continue to support you and your teams as you would expect from us,” he wrote.

MinterEllison

As of Tuesday, 17 March, Minters said it has had no reported positive cases of COVID-19 amongst its people but that it has established a risk management team “solely focused” on monitoring and dealing with the pandemic.

“They have put in place a wide range of precautionary measures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our people. Our COVID-19 response is part of our overall business continuity plan which is regularly reviewed by our board,” Minters CEO and managing partner Annette Kimmitt said in a statement.

No planned office closures are in place, the firm said, but all in-person meetings are being conducted by telephone or video conference and office visitations are restricted.

Other actions taken thus far by the firm include: staff who present flu-like symptoms will work from home and not return until 24 hours after those symptoms have gone, staff who have come into contact with suspected or confirmed cases will work from home for 14 days, only business critical travel is being approved, and “additional investments” are being made in IT infrastructure, hardware and software for anticipated increases in remote access.

Norton Rose Fulbright

In a statement to Lawyers Weekly, NRF said it has a detailed business continuity plan that has been agreed globally and implemented locally.

This includes, the firm said, a mixture of flexible work, social distancing, worksite hygiene measures, and a range of other precautions.

“We are keeping all of our Australian offices open for business, with a number of our staff working remotely as we implement some precautionary social distancing measures with effect from Wednesday, 18 March 2020,” the statement read.

“Flexible work is already a common feature of our operations and so this experience, together with recently trialling large numbers of people working remotely, means we are confident that an increase in remote working will have no impact on our ability to continue to provide high-quality services to our clients.

“We have also done a complete review of our events and other large meetings, and decided to postpone many of these. In the process we have contacted clients with advice about how they can safely meet with us, whether at our offices, theirs, or some other location. In line with Australian government advice, we are also limiting travel for business critical purposes only.”

How BigLaw is managing staff in the age of COVID-19
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