After Gardere Wynne Sewell merged with Foley & Lardner in 2018, business attorney Michael Newman became managing partner of the firm’s Dallas office. He advises public and private companies on a wide range of corporate matters and is often tasked with negotiating a resolution in complicated corporate disputes and business divorces.
How are you coping amid the COVID-19 crisis?
“When Foley & Lardner implemented work–from–home protocols in March, our entire Dallas office of over 200 employees began working from home. From a technology standpoint, it was a fairly seamless process. Our IT and IT security departments did an incredible job in providing the technology that allowed for a national law firm of over 2,400 lawyers and staff to adapt to an at-home work environment over the course of a couple of days.
From then, our normally bustling Dallas office faced the same new reality that so many businesses around the country began confronting. We’ve all had to adjust to many new challenges like learning how to balance our work/ life structures, with family members becoming our new co-workers and our children suddenly becoming our new students. We’ve also had to learn some new skills, like how to conduct effective hearings and trials over videoconference.
Given the nature of the events that have unfolded over the past few months, our clients have been coping with unprecedented and ever-evolving legal issues and business challenges. Our role, as legal advisors, has been to stay ahead of the information curve and quickly changing laws to help our clients navigate these uncharted waters. This pandemic is forcing all businesses to deal with unanticipated financial hardships, unfortunate labor and employment matters, financing issues and opportunities (including the various government loan programs), contract termination and force majeure issues, as well as all of the national and local health and safety guidelines. Foley & Lardner has worked quickly and effectively to develop a resource center, offering our clients insights from across Foley’s many practice disciplines and providing timely perspectives on what our clients can be doing now and how they can prepare for the future.
Did your business continuity plan work, or were there surprises?
“We’ve had a few logistical challenges and some steep learning curves to overcome. Many of our employees have never worked from home or had remote access before this pandemic, however, the transition has been about as painless as I could have hoped for. We’ve tried to ensure the technology works for everyone and our IT department has gone above and beyond to provide assistance. In addition, our IT security measures have ensured that our technology security has not been compromised as we’ve shifted to a work from home environment.”
What are the short-term ramifications for your specific industry?
“The legal industry is not immune to the challenges of a worldwide pandemic. However, our clients still need our assistance and the demand for our services remains high. Not surprisingly, we’ve seen a recent slow down on the transactional side of the practice, as many of our M&A deals have been delayed or shelved, but we’ve shifted our transactional focus to the CARES Act and helping our clients work through the PPP Loan process and the many guidelines that have been issued under the act.
“Our litigation and intellectual property practices have remained steady over the duration of the pandemic, though the litigators are learning to do so from the comfort of their homes, as opposed to the courtrooms. In addition, as you’d anticipate, our restructuring and bankruptcy practice has been ramping up to deal with the unfortunate impact this pandemic has had on so many businesses. During uncertain times, I have found that clients tend to rely more heavily on their trusted advisors for counsel and we are gratified to see so many of our clients turn to us to help them through this period.”
Have you found silver linings in these difficult times?
“Candidly, this has been a pretty horrific time period for all of us on so many levels. We’ve had colleagues, clients, family members, and friends directly impacted by COVID-19. That has been really frightening and difficult, though most of those impacted have pulled through and expect to fully recover.
“In addition, working closely with so many clients that are struggling and watching our friends’ livelihoods impacted and destroyed has been incredibly difficult. It is really too soon and too hard to focus on silver linings in the midst of the catastrophic impact this has caused for so many. I do, however, feel gratified that we have been able to help many of our clients get through this pandemic, and I think the bonds that we’ve been forging as we fight this battle together will help us establish deeper connections and closer relationships once we get to the other side, which I hope will arrive sooner rather than later.”
How are you maintaining your company culture?
“After a few weeks, it became clear that our close-knit community was missing the daily office interactions that come from working in a large and busy law firm. As an extrovert, I was among those in need of some social interaction beyond the confines of my home. I decided the office needed to establish a “virtual engagement task force” to connect Foley’s Dallas colleagues remotely in a fun and entertaining manner.
“Recognizing that the many events that the office had on the calendar for the spring and summer were going to be canceled, I turned to our extraordinarily talented event manager, Mary Gall, to develop a virtual engagement program. I adjusted her title to “CEO – Chief Engagement Officer” and added Haley Ramsay and Rachel O’Neil to the task force. The task force has been busy with programming since early April.
“The first order of business was implementing Fitness Fridays. We engaged longtime Dallas fitness guru, Doug Rice (aka Buff Tanner) to lead the office through 30-minute boot camp-style workouts each Friday. Dallas office employees sent their best fitness selfie and the best selfie won a weekly prize. To balance Fitness Fridays, we added Meditation Mondays, where wellness coach Melissa Marks provided us with weekly tips on wellness, intention, and focus during our time in quarantine. She also guided the Foley team through several meditations in an effort to start our weeks strong and balanced.
“In addition to Fitness Friday and Meditation Monday, the task force put together a series of weekly challenges where colleagues had to tap into their competitive spirit and work on self-selected teams to complete each challenge. The weekly challenges varied from mystery photo challenges to office Jeopardy, to a scavenger hunt, and finally a friendly Skype Pictionary challenge. It goes without saying that people who choose to work at law firms have a strong competitive spirit, which came through during each of the weekly challenges. The competition was intense!
What have you learned that may change your policies or strategies for the future?
“When we return to our next normal, we will all have our memories from engaging together virtually during quarantine. By continuing to connect with our colleagues, even at a distance, we, in many ways, feel like a closer-knit unit than we ever have; we will have survived this, and we’ve learned that we’re stronger together.
“It has been rewarding to watch our colleagues be so creative, from the TikTok videos, Skype spoofs, best rubber glove balloon animal, themed costumes to the cutest “How to Cook Pork Butt” video you will ever see in your life. Since the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing anyone has previously experienced, we will always have the unique experience of working together, even while we are apart. Our culture is very collegial, competitive, collaborative, and energetic. All of those traits will remain intact when we head back to the office.”
What will things look like for your company and industry in another six months?
“At this time, we have not set an official date when we will head back into the office, though we are shooting for a staggered re-entry beginning this month. We want to ensure our office environment is a safe place for all of our employees and we want to ensure we’ve met all health and safety guidelines before giving our employees the green light to return. We are in the process of developing an extensive handbook for all our offices to serve as a guide when we are finally able to return. As we continue to work remotely, we plan to continue with Fitness Friday, and have additional ideas to give back and offer some extra attention to those living alone, in addition to implementing some other fun ideas to keep our office engaged.”
Do you have advice for other local business leaders?
“We’ve seen that communication and engagement is critical to maintaining a sense of normalcy during these highly unusual times. There’s nothing more important than communicating, actually over-communicating, when there is so much uncertainty and anxiety. Honest and forthright communication is always appreciated, even when the news isn’t positive. As for social engagement, we all need some fun and a little distraction during these long days at home and with the endless news cycle of bad news. Providing the troops with some fun and interesting home challenges, frequent wellness opportunities, group visits, and happy hours has been well received and something that has brought our office closer together, even though we find ourselves working apart.”