Returning to the office, employee vaccinations, flextime—these are all considerations facing contingency-fee firms as the U.S. looks toward a gradual return to some semblance of pre-pandemic life. We recently spoke to Matthew Haynie, Esq. of Forester Haynie about his views on how the pandemic has impacted his firm operations and what he sees the future looking like.
CFS: As we pass the one-year mark of COVID-19 regulations and closures impacting the court system, how has your firm changed in the last 12 months?
MH: It’s strange to think that just a year ago in February 2020 before everything shut down, I had just wrapped up a string of mediations along the east coast and at the time there was just mild chatter about COVID. When I got back home to Texas, it became a lot more real. We saw that we needed to close down the office and send everyone home [to work remotely]. The good thing for us was that all of our staff already had laptops, so it was an easy transition and we weren’t in the same position as a lot of firms who spent a lot of time frantically trying to set everyone up at home.
As far as adjusting our firm communication style to a remote setting, the first week was pretty tough, honestly. It felt like a snow day—like being at home was just going to be a temporary thing. But as we saw how bad this was, we decided to keep everyone remote for a while. At first, we were doing daily Zoom calls to check in with the staff and the attorneys, to make sure everyone was on the same page and knew what was going on. Now we are all a little more used to this setup and we have scaled back our all-office Zoom calls to every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Each department also holds a separate, additional update call on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
CFS: With the COVID-19 vaccine becoming more widely available, many are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. What is your outlook at this point in the pandemic? What is your firm’s plan moving forward as things begin to settle back into relative normalcy?
MH: Actually, before COVID, we had begun toying with the idea of a four-day in-office work week, with the fifth day being remote. We had already decided to test it out in the summer of 2020 with one of the attorneys who had been with our firm the longest. But of course, the pandemic changed that plan. I think going forward, once things truly start to settle down, we will ease back into going to the office with more of a hybrid model: three days in the office and two days working from home. This will help get people back into the swing of having a commute and the other little things that go with not working from home. Eventually, we would like to get to four days in the office and one-day remote. Of course, this plan is pending employee vaccinations. Unlike many firms, we aren’t mandating that our employees get vaccinated, but we are encouraging everyone to get vaccinated. Once they can show us proof of their vaccine, they can come back to the office if they feel comfortable and safe doing so. Once we get to 80% or 90% staff vaccinations, I think we can all feel comfortable coming back into the office on a regular basis.
CFS: The pandemic changed the way we work and has forced many to reexamine the way they run their law firms. Has the pandemic, and the changes it brought to the American workplace, changed the way you believe a successful law firm can be run?
MH: Yes, definitely. This year has changed the way we all think a law firm can be run. I think the unnecessary travel that most lawyers did before the pandemic will be a thing of the past. As I alluded to in the beginning of the interview, we were traveling all the time before the pandemic. I was constantly flying out for depositions, mediations, and hearings, but now it’s so easy I just log into Zoom and I’m there. For example, after this interview, I will be doing a Zoom deposition with a client in Hawaii and then one with a client in California. Then in a few days, I have another with a client in New York. Before the pandemic and the rise of the Zoom deposition, it would have been impossible for me to do a deposition in Hawaii one day and then be in New York just days later. So, I definitely think Zoom depositions and Zoom mediations are here to stay. That said, I do think that judges are going to want to see people again in person.
I think another positive change to our practice from the pandemic is that, since we see that people can successfully work remotely, we began to hire people from outside the DFW area. Before the pandemic, we were really restricted to the geographical boundaries of our office, but now we feel more comfortable hiring people all over the country.
CFS: Your firm has promoted its #WorkShouldn’tSuck campaign as a way to remind people that employees’ rights should be protected and their interests considered. Do you think the pandemic has changed the way employers treat their employees? How has your firm placed importance on that value?
MH: Jay Forester, my partner, started #WorkShouldn’tSuck a few years ago and it has become the motto of our firm. We’ve been trying to make sure that our employees are happy and that they stay sane during this crazy time. It’s hard for people with kids to be a stay-at-home parent, plus a teacher, plus an employee, so we have tried everything—from Zoom yoga and Zoom happy hours to socially distanced events outside and sending surprise deliveries to employees’ homes—to keep employees healthy and connected. Not all employers are COVID-friendly, but there are firms and businesses, like us, who are trying their best to be understanding and to accommodate employees. We noticed that many of our employees weren’t taking their vacation time and were saving it for when things opened back up. But that’s tough because people get burned out when they don’t take a break, so we have started implementing mandatory time off to help people recharge and take a breath. It’s strange, I never thought I would have to force people to take a vacation.
As vaccinations increase and the world tries to regain a level of normalcy, more and more firms will be faced with decisions surrounding the return to the office and the concept of flexibility. To read more from fellow plaintiffs’ attorney, click here.
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