‘Looking ahead: what Canadian law firms can discover from their counterparts’?
The first patient was diagnosed as suffering COVID-19 late January. Putting mainland China to one side, this meant the city was several weeks ahead of the rest of the world in the Covid-19 pandemic. Most law firms had some form of business continuity plans, however few of those plans had anticipated either the speed or magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experience has already shown the importance of a robust and resilient IT infrastructure, supported by a capable technical team together with flexible working arrangements for laywers, support and business services. The protracted nature of the COVID-19 situation has reinforced the need for proactive client management initiatives that support ‘virtual business development and marketing’. Another lesson that is well-learnt, yet again, is clear and consistent communication.
As Canada also turns a corner in the coming weeks, what lessons can law firms learn from their counterparts in Hong Kong?
Business continuity planning
Last year’s protests in Hong Kong served as a live stress test of law firms’ business continuity and crisis recovery plans (BCP). A number of firms took note of that experience and reviewed and updated their plans. This included establishing a response team, with partners, HR, Facilities, IT and other business support heads. The group was responsible for assessing and managing emergency situations in real time, monitoring and implementing any guidance issued by the police and other emergency services, public transport authorities, government departments and agencies. These teams would also issue staff updates and other internal communications while acting as contact points for staff enquiries.
A handful of firms went further, and upgraded their remote working IT platforms, purchasing more internet bandwidth and cloud computing capacity. An even smaller number equipped all of their staff with laptops, trained them on remote access to their firm’s IT systems and asking all staff to take their laptops home each night.
Self-directed team approach
Global multinational law firm, Eversheds Sutherland, implemented flexible working policies during the protests.
The support teams, in particular secretarial and PA teams, were all self-managed. After discussing the workload with their fee-earners, they designed their own roster for days working in the office or from home. This eased the pressure on team members with family responsibilities, such as pre-school children and elderly care. Taking this approach had the additional benefit of maintaining morale, according to Tim Wright, Eversheds Head of International Operations Asia.
The COVID-19 outbreak in Hong Kong began in late January, immediately following Chinese New Year. The first few days after the virus struck were confusing, with conflicting media reports and coverage, limited information on the nature of the disease, how it was transmitted or the extent of the outbreak.
The first stage of the Eversheds’ BCP plan was put into action the following week, when the first ‘all staff’ email was sent by Stephen Kitts, Asia Managing Partner. The protests had made clear the importance of regular staff communications, with a consistent tone and messaging. One important lesson was to avoid any temptation to ‘over-communicate’. The first step was to provide detailed information on the steps being taken by the firm to address the safety and well-being of staff.
Intra-team communications were equally important. Teams held daily ‘virtual’ team meetings via Skype, attended by fee-earners and the support staff. Teams that were working on major transactions or matters would hold morning and late afternoon calls. These calls meant partners could monitor utilization and capacity, with work transferred between partners/teams to ensure an even balance and that deadlines were met.
Changes in practice areas
Firms are seeing spikes in employment and insolvency work, according to Damien Laracy, Managing Partner for Hill Dickinson’s Hong Kong office. In particular, employers are seeking counsel on workforce terminations and pay liability, as well as on implementing emergency measures, such as safety procedures for employees. Many businesses and individuals are also increasingly unable to meet their obligations in the current market and are seeking further guidance.
Capital markets was the first to slow down, and large-scale M&A transactions have come to a near halt. There is still some growth in Hong Kong’s business sector with corporate work focused on mid-sized and smaller businesses, restructuring, and smaller M&A deals. There is also some equity capital markets work generated from local businesses, with approximately 40 ECM listings in the first quarter (Deloitte recently estimated 160 ECM listings this year).
Wright said the firm proactively engaged with clients immediately after Chinese New Year. Eversheds was one of the first firms to launch webinar ‘menus’ with topics that were specifically tailored for clients in a particular sector. Fully customised menus were created that were designed to meet the specific needs of some of the largest clients. The response from clients was positive, with a number writing to thank partners for the time that was invested in delivering these custom webinars. This contrasted with the ‘spray and pray’ tactics adopted by other firms.
Eversheds also used the opportunity to highlight their use of the latest IT infrastructure and flexible working policies. They demonstrated to clients in ‘real time’ that the firm’s considerable investment in technology, and ‘battle tested’ remote working options, meant they could support clients in even the most trying of situations.
Looking ahead – the legal industry post-Covid-19
As Hong Kong continues to’ flatten the curve’, law firms are now looking to bring people back into the office.
Modified working arrangements, such as alternating teams and flexible seating arrangements, have been rolled out, and firms are assessing their needs as they step into the new normal. Nonetheless, remote working and digitisation have proven themselves as key mainstays of corporate culture and may be a determining factor in an organization’s operational resilience and continued relevance in a post-Covid-19 world.
Miriam Leung, Director