Perspective from Law Firm Leaders: One Firm’s Response to COVID Offers Lessons for the Industry
People show their true character in a crisis—and so do law firms. As the U.S. enters the seventh month of the coronavirus pandemic, law students, associates, and clients have looked to law firms for leadership, in the workplace and in society at large. The unprecedented disruptions sweeping our country have forced us all to navigate a range of personal and professional challenges, and for those directly affected by COVID-19, to experience incomprehensible loss. But trying circumstances also offer opportunities: for collaboration, innovation, altruism, and resilience.
From the first days of the crisis, the focus for many team leaders has been to mobilize cross-functional teams to reduce risks, protect employees, address client needs, and keep the firm fully operational. O’Melveny asked some of its firm leaders to reflect on the transition to remote work and the ways firm employees, clients, and communities have adapted to the new normal. Looking forward, firm leaders also continue to focus on ensuring that the collaborative efforts undertaken during stay-at-home orders can help them maintain productivity and continuity into the future. Everyone recognizes there are still many unknowns, but the lessons O’Melveny has learned over the past few months have prepared the firm for whatever comes next.
Many law firms transitioned to remote work overnight. How did O’Melveny adapt and what lessons have you learned from the experience?
George Demos, Chief Operating Officer: The first phase was all about being prepared. While no organization can claim to have had a playbook for navigating the complexities of COVID-19, O’Melveny had a powerful advantage going into the crisis thanks to the work of the firm’s Business Continuity team. For more than a decade, the Business Continuity team has regularly examined and updated essential business processes to ensure smooth operations during a widespread crisis. So when COVID-19 sent the world into a tailspin, O’Melveny had a clear roadmap for addressing the myriad of the shorter-term issues posed by the virus.
The second phase was to be resourceful. We immediately formed an internal Coronavirus Working Group to make sure all the firm’s bases were covered during the pandemic: uninterrupted client service, secure remote access for 1,500 people around the world, updated HR policies, and compliance with fast-moving guidance from government and health authorities. These detailed work streams became full-time jobs for many of our firm leaders. Their careful work helped the firm keep employees safe, provide seamless IT service, and deliver resources for parents trying to navigate their many roles while working from home. Our team established a dedicated section of our firm Intranet where lawyers and staff can conveniently access Coronavirus-related material, including CDC, state and local health guidelines, remote work protocols, parent/family and financial resources, and contact information for critical business service groups. O’Melveny also made wellness a top priority and worked closely with its employee assistance program, CCA, to make valuable resources available to attorneys and staff—critical components of the firm’s ability to operate in a crisis. And we encouraged all employees to make self-care a priority by offering a new, paid Mental Well-Being Day this year.
The third phase—our current phase—is to be innovative. There have been challenges, but the opportunity to be innovative in how we can connect with each other and support each other professionally and personally is inspiring.
COVID-19 has impacted every industry, including law firm clients. How is the firm being responsive to client needs, both short-term and long-term?
John Hodder, Managing Director for Marketing and Business Development: In addition to providing a safe and compassionate environment for their lawyers and staff, law firm leaders need to be able to react to the concerns of their clients, especially during times of unexpected economic disruption. As the coronavirus spread, so did its economic fallout. To help clients manage their immediate response to the pandemic, as well as the long-term ramifications to their business operations, O’Melveny quickly assembled a client-focused Coronavirus Task Force led by our partner Lisa Monaco who served as President Obama’s Homeland Security Advisor. Her expertise and background has given many of our clients the confidence and insights they need to maintain their own continuity, both during the initial days and beyond. She works with a team of several other former senior government officials to provide valuable assistance on diverse matters.
O’Melveny has also renewed its commitment to staying connected to clients. Partners regularly pick up the phone or open a Zoom window and check in with their client contacts, not merely to see how business is going, but also to find out how they are doing—physically, emotionally, and personally. Taking the time to reach out signals that delivering exceptional client service is rooted in truly caring about every aspect of a client’s wellbeing.
The past seven months have been trying times for everyone. How has O’Melveny demonstrated its commitment to its communities during the COVID crisis?
Rochelle Karr, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility and Alumni Relations: Given the pandemic’s economic impact, students and lawyers may wonder how law firms will respond to the increased needs of their communities. O’Melveny was quick to join several clients on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, providing critical legal services to aid vulnerable populations.
O’Melveny’s readiness to take COVID-related action even inspired the structure of its all-virtual 2020 summer program. To address the needs of our communities at this trying time, O’Melveny made the bold move to have our entire class of summer associates devote the lion’s share of their summer to virus-related pro bono legal projects. By marshaling their collective talents for the public good, O’Melveny’s summer associates have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do rewarding, impactful work that is emblematic of the firm’s longstanding support for our neediest communities.
The firm also rallied across its offices to deliver urgent relief around the world. An O’Melveny team in Asia set up a relief drive with MedShare, a global humanitarian aid organization, to raise money for coronavirus support in China. And through the generous contributions of employees, coupled with the firm’s match, MedShare shipped 1.8 million respiratory masks and 200,000 protective gowns to medical personnel in China, equipping healthcare professionals, clinics, and hospitals there and in the U.S. as they continued to fight the pandemic.
O’Melveny has also navigated clients through complicated matters directly impacting our communities. The firm’s work with the State of California helped to swiftly and efficiently respond to the COVID-19 crisis. O’Melveny’s restructuring and health care teams worked with California Governor Gavin Newson to help reopen a shuttered hospital in Los Angeles and revitalize an underutilized facility in the Bay Area to add more than 500 desperately needed hospital beds to the state’s supply. O’Melveny also represented California in an innovative agreement with the Motel 6 chain to provide as many as 5,000 rooms to house the homeless during the pandemic.
Staying connected in a time of remote work can be especially difficult for large organizations like law firms. How is O’Melveny meeting this challenge?
Jeeho Lee, Firmwide Hiring Partner: As the COVID-19 crisis continues to keep lawyers and summer associates home, maintaining connections—internally and externally—has never been more important. O’Melveny has a unique culture, where cooperation, genuine collegiality, and a shared sense of purpose are paramount. With lawyers and staff physically distant, the firm has found novel ways to remain “together.” For example, in the early days of the pandemic, Jeremy Maltby, the Washington, DC, office head and Italian cuisine enthusiast, has hosted virtual cooking classes, inviting lawyers, staff and summer associates to bond over his amatriciana recipe.
During the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, the firm’s employee networks offered ways for lawyers and staff alike to tap into the firm’s united strength. For example, Racquel Martin and Trisha Parikh, Co-Chairs of the San Francisco Diversity Employee Network reached out personally to their members and allies, encouraged them to share personal stories and strategies to cope with uncertainty, and provided fun virtual events like a movie night and discussion. Their work, and the work of our other employee networks, continues as we deal with new crises and they help the firm identify more actions to deepen connections among all colleagues.
“I am a firm believer in bringing your full self to work in order to build genuine and lasting relationships with colleagues,” says Racquel Martin. “Often, those relationships begin with conversations during lunches, coffee breaks, and random strolls through the hallway that allow you to pop into someone’s office. The lack of in-person interactions within our O’Melveny community made an uncertain and chaotic world that much more difficult to cope with.”
“When listening to others in virtual town halls and one-on-one conversations, we recognized a need for people to connect with one another, not just to vent about what was going on at work, but to talk about how their lives were being impacted and how they were learning to adapt and adjust, adds Trisha Parikh. “We wanted to create whatever spaces we could for people to be reminded that they were supported, appreciated, valued, and understood.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Melveny has shown that a foundation of preparation, connection, and commitment will help a firm withstand even the strongest storm.