How SME firms are battling the coronavirus

By Tony Zhang|19 March 2020

Although BigLaw has sprung into action in attempting to manage the coronavirus situation, SME firms have been experiencing a unique battle of their own.

Boutique firms and medium-sized firms have geared their plans to help tackle COVID-19 as the evolving outbreak continues to have an uncertain impact on law firms. 

SME firms are facing the challenges of addressing the delicate balancing act between ensuring that their staff are safe and healthy whilst juggling with increased issues and concerns from clients who have been impacted heavily by the virus.

Like most BigLaw firms, SME firms have already established strict measures including working from home and social distancing. 

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Many SME firms have also enacted various plans of their own, tailored to help them including multiple contingency plans, working flexibility and the adaptability measures in place to keep business operations as usual. 

But a common theme SME firms are facing is the coronavirus’ scale of impact on their clients and their businesses who have been significantly affected by the outbreak. 

Business interruption is one of the biggest impacts. Firms such as  Bartier Perry, Cooper Grace Ward and Speirs Ryan have all reported on the impacts their clients are facing with uncertainty and immense business interruption across the nation. 

So far, SME firms’ clients have faced issues including workplace and employment challenges, impacts upon financial forecasting and business viability, preserving companies and protecting directors in times of pandemic.

Employment law has also become one of the biggest central topics for lawyers to deal with right now as coronavirus uncertainty begins to result in major job lay-offs and cuts.  

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With unemployment rising, firms like McDonald Murholme and Bartier Perry have had an immense number of clients coming to them for legal advice about workplace and employment law and what they should do as the outbreak continues.                

Furthermore, there have been surges in client requests for advice on risk issues associated with COVID-19, including workplace health and safety advice, coupled with advice on the impacts on supply contracts and retail leases.

The current situation remains too fluid to be predictable and there are many legal grey areas and unanswerable questions. 

Technology has also played a vital role for boutique firms; many firms have ensured that they have sufficient IT capabilities in order to have better capacity and flexibility for normal operations. 

Many SME firms like Swaab have noted that they have upgraded their IT departments sufficiently to meet the need. 

Furthermore, for some firms such as Speirs Ryan, this situation is the first major downturn being experienced first hand by many of their younger staff. 

Young lawyers around Australia are going to experience what it was like in the GFC period which many of their mentors have undoubtedly experienced. 

Lawyers Weekly got in touch with some of the SME firms on how they are managing with the coronavirus and have outlined their response below:

Bartier Perry

Bartier Perry said the firm had already put in place a disaster recovery and pandemic response plan last year prior to coronavirus’ emergence. 

Working with chairman Andrew Frankland, the firm has used that plan as the basis of preparing their people and helping clients respond to the upheaval that’s happening. 

Bartier Perry CEO Riana Steyn said that from Monday, 23 March following the firm’s pandemic preparedness testing to ensure that systems are sufficiently robust to manage a remote workforce, the majority of the firm will be able to work effectively from home, “ensuring we can continue servicing and delivering quality service and advice to our clients.”

“We have a really strong culture at Bartier Perry so one of the things both Andrew and I will be focusing on as priority is how we manage that across a dispersed workforce and ensure the ongoing welfare of all our people, clients and community,” Ms Steyn said.

For the impending impacts on their clients, Bartier Perry said they are well prepared and so are pivoting to focus on the short and medium-term financial impact this pandemic will have on their clients. 

“Wherever possible we are reaching out to talk to them about what they can do now to prepare and adjust for the next six months,” Ms Steyn said. 

“Clearly some of our practice groups such as our workplace law & culture team are right now managing well a huge inflow of client queries.”

Measures to help clients include launching a COVID-19 resource page which will be constantly updated with the latest information and insights and setting up a hotline for existing clients so they can have an initial discussion about the challenges they might be facing.

“There will be times both as a firm and in working with our clients in the coming weeks and months when we know we’ll have to change direction to get a better or safer outcome,” Ms Steyn said. 

Cooper Grace Ward

According to Cooper Grace Ward, they have been monitoring the situation closely ever since the outbreak began and have enacted contingency measures. 

Since the start of the year, Cooper Grace Ward has been following the COVID-19 situation closely and monitoring government and health authority updates to minimise transmission risks, particularly in relation to business travel, client meetings and conferences.

“For many years, Cooper Grace Ward has had a business continuity plan and disaster recovery program (BCP/DRP) in place to protect our clients, the firm and our team members in the event of a significant disruption to our daily operations,” the firm said. 

“Our BCP/DRP is designed to minimise the duration and disruption of any such incident and ensure a smooth, rapid and orderly recovery, so we can continue to provide services to our clients.

“Our top priority is the health, safety and wellbeing of our team members and our clients.”

Working remotely from home is not a concern for Cooper Grace Ward, according to the firm “as the firm has a strong flexible working policy.” 

“Currently over 40 per cent of team members have some kind of flexible work schedule in place and work remotely on a regular basis,” the firm said. 

Cooper Grace Ward has also seen the increasing surges in clients who are impacted by the outbreak. 

“The firm has also seen a surge in client requests for advice on risk issues associated with COVID-19, including employment and workplace health and safety advice, coupled with advice on the impacts on supply contracts and retail leases,” the firm said. 

At this stage, all team members remain working from their Brisbane office, but are ready to work from home if the government calls a country-wide shutdown.

Some of the key measures Cooper Grace Ward have undertaken include:

  • Team members have been asked not to attend off-site meetings, travel or attend conferences
  • Our flexible work arrangements are such that many team members already work remotely on a regular basis and we have had a rolling roster of full practice groups working remotely in recent weeks, to test our systems in case of a full office shutdown or a broader Australia-wide shutdown
  • The firm’s IT team has been ensuring all team members are fully equipped to work from home, including supplying laptops and internet access where needed
  • The firm’s annual Adviser Training Day and SMSF Conference has been transformed from a large-scale public event to a live stream-only event, with most of the participants choosing to maintain their registration and participate online.

Keypoint Law

Keypoint Law has said the firm is working remotely from 18 March until further notice; except where attendance at their offices is essential. 

Where office attendance is essential, it is strictly controlled, including by adopting all of the recommended social distancing measures.  

For Keypoint Law, the transition to remote working happened without much upheaval fortunately, the firm said. 

Warren Kalinko, the firm’s CEO said: “Despite the shift of our entire team to remote working, we remain totally committed to meeting our clients’ needs, and are as responsive to those needs as we always have been.”

“Lots of our team regularly work remotely, and we have the technology to make this seamless. And whilst I’m sure we will miss all the casual interactions which [take] place in our office environment, we have very good collaboration tools which will ensure our team remains connected and can continue to work together effectively.”  

Furthermore, according to Mr Kalinko, many clients have turned to Keypoint for advice on the unprecedented situations they face.

“We are using insights gained to keep all our clients updated on the rapidly changing business landscape,” Mr Kalinko said. 

McDonald Murholme 

For McDonald Murholme, the firm’s general manager Kathy Zmijewski said that all companies need to have a contingency plan in place to deal with the unprecedented situation that the coronavirus has created.

“It is our priority as an employment law firm to remain efficient and productive at this time, to ensure that vulnerable employees are supported.

“The effect of this pandemic has already been reflected in the changing nature of client enquiries, with an increase in employees concerned about their job security and leave entitlements,” Ms Zmijewski said. 

McDonald Murholme has used this opportunity to revise and strengthen its business continuity plan to ensure a smooth transition for employees working from home where necessary.

“We believe that the key to ensuring ongoing productivity is to implement compassionate and resilient policies to ensure the safety of our own employees and clients,” Ms Zmijewski said.

Measures in place include transitioning all business operations for flexibility in the event of future lockdowns, providing alternative transport solutions to employees and ensuring all contingency plans are in place. 

“Risk management is a vital component of all business operations, and at times like this we encourage all employees to seek legal advice if they are concerned about their employer’s response to COVID-19, Ms Zmijewski said. 

According to McDonald Murholme, they are also dealing with a Victorian labour market that is currently facing significant disruption with a decline of 13.6 percent in job ads based on recent SEEK figures. 

Furthermore, according to the firm, some smaller law firms have been calling McDonald Murholme for advice and that “advice has been provided without charge to our fellow professionals.”

“Senior management is monitoring the situation very closely and [has] been providing regular updates to staff as the situation changes and evolves,” Ms Zmijewski said. 

“By providing alternative transport solutions to employees we have been able to reduce the reliance on public transport, therefore reducing the risk of contracting the virus.”

McDonald Murholme will remain open for business to provide advice within its core business as an employment law firm.

Speirs Ryan 

Speirs Ryan has been implementing strategies over the last four weeks to ready themselves for likely and potential implications.

Partner and founder of the firm James Ryan said they have acquired additional monitors, docking stations and laptops to ensure all staff can still work efficiently from home, and have been testing our systems to make sure it could handle the extra load.

Furthermore, extra cleaning will be implemented with additional hygiene and material practices. 

“Our focus this week has been to reassure anxious staff that the firm is heading into this crisis in good shape, that we have the leadership and resources to adapt, and that both life and business will go on,” Mr Ryan said. 

“The next phase that will be critical for all businesses will be taking stock of the changes being faced by clients and the market generally, and to adapt.”

For Speirs Ryan, the firm is already advising clients on likely implications on their leasing portfolios, mortgage funds and transaction pipeline. They have been flagging with clients the impact this will have on decision-making around options of renewal, and how common law relief may impact contracts.

“We are already repositioning ourselves to be well [placed] for an inevitable increase in enforcement matters, and will continue to make sure our team has the right skills and expertise to handle a changing mix of work,” Mr Ryan said. 

“This will not be a temporary adjustment. We expect there [will] be structural changes that result from this event including how we work, supply and distribution chains, means of trade and how (or more importantly, where) we source inputs.”

Furthermore, the firm understands that this is the first major downturn being experienced firsthand by many of their younger staff. 

“For those of us that worked through the GFC, we know the challenges which lie ahead but also know that firms and businesses that adapt can still thrive,” Mr Ryan said. 

“We are a nimble and dynamic team, and are well placed to weather this next period.”

Swaab 

As of effect on and from 23 March 2020, Swaab will implement a working remotely regime under which 50 per cent of their staff (green team) will work remotely for a week whilst in the following week the remaining 50 per cent of their staff (red team) will work remotely. 

Mary Digiglio, managing partner of Swaab said this regime will be repeated until further notice. 

“With the benefit of a recent IT hardware upgrade to laptops and softphones, driven by our strategy to maximise flexibility and agility, we feel confident and calm about the adoption and success of our response plan,” Ms Digiglio said.

A focus on hygiene has also been implemented like many BigLaw and boutique firms including heavy cleaning and additional hygiene measures.

For Swaab the firm said that many businesses have come to them during these tough times.

“It is our aim to maintain a high level of client service and business continuity during this uncertain period and we are confident that the plans we have implemented will ensure this,” Ms Digiglio said. 

“We are confident we have appropriate capacity to deliver on your needs in accordance with the expectations you have become accustomed to.”

How SME firms are battling the coronavirus
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