“What We’ve Learned: COVID-19” – Barton Among Managing Partners Interviewed in Baton Rouge Bar Association Article

Read the May/June issue of The Baton Rouge Lawyer

Taylor Porter Managing Partner Bob Barton was among several Baton Rouge law firm managing partners interviewed in “What We’ve Learned … COVID-19” featured in the May-June issue of The Baton Rouge Lawyer, a publication produced by the Baton Rouge Bar Association. The article was written by John H. Fenner, vice president, corporate general counsel and chief ethics and compliance officer for Turner Industries, and also the managing editor of The Baton Rouge Lawyer.

Barton said, “We know now that working remotely and virtual teleconferences, as a way to do business, are significant trends in our legal industry that are here to stay.”

Below is the full text of the article.

“What We’ve Learned … COVID-19”

By John H. Fenner

The world as we knew it changed mere days after LSU beat Clemson for the National Championship on January 13, 2020. On January 23rd, China sealed off Wuhan and a poster on Tigerdroppings began a thread titled, “People are Falling Dead on Streets of Wuhan.” That thread would eventually reach almost 1,200 pages.

Mardi Gras 2020 was on February 25th, which, in retrospect, was likely one of the planet’s largest super-spreader events. The first confirmed U.S. death was on February 29th. On March 11th, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.

Restaurants, gyms and cruise ships shut down. Businesses across the globe halted or contracted. Orders were communicated to cut costs and save on expenditures. This article’s author is General Counsel for Turner Industries, and those orders were passed on to outside counsel to hit the pause button on virtually everything. Courts closed and dockets froze.

The flow of time last spring seemed to change due to rapidly unfolding events and our collective psyches’ feeble attempts to assimilate information. Monday through Friday during the third and fourth weeks of last March seemed less like five days and more like six months.

Like every business that grappled with the unfolding crisis, Baton Rouge area law firms scrambled. The Baton Rouge Lawyer reached out to local firm managers and spokespeople to discern how they and their firms coped, and what they learned. Readers will appreciate the candor of some of these responses. To say the spring of 2020 was fraught with uncertainty is the understatement of the year the decade the millennium all time. Many firm managers acknowledged difficulties in adjusting. To them and to all who provided input for this article, on behalf of The Baton Rouge Lawyer, thank you.

The first question we posed to area firm managers and reps was more of a fill-in-the-blank exercise:

If I could travel back in time a year and have a conversation with my younger self about managing my firm/office during the COVID-19 pandemic, I would tell my younger self …

Keely Scott would be candid with her doppelganger: “The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are going to last much longer than expected and in fact will change certain ways of communication that will stay with the profession and the way the firm is managed permanently.”

Drew Blanchfield would echo that candor: “Do not believe them when they initially tell you things will be better in six to eight weeks. Be patient and adaptive because everyone is in this for the long haul.”

Bob Barton would “tell myself that things are going to be ok.”

John Braymer would inform himself that “business operations can continue in a normal fashion even under abnormal circumstances.”

Phyllis Cancienne would “tell myself that there are tough times ahead, but that I’ll get through it all by continuing to focus on the things that have always mattered most: my family, both at work and at home. I’d also tell myself to stock up on wine!”

Last spring, adjustment to an uncertain playing field muddied the word “surprise”— indeed the word itself became almost meaningless. But the spring did yield its share. “We were least prepared to manage a large group from afar,” said John Braymer. “But our biggest surprise was our ability to function at a high level during a pandemic requiring remote work and dealing with five hurricanes that disrupted our business in a significant manner.”

Steve Thompson observed, “Mentally, I don’t think we were ready and did not dream it would last this long.”

For Drew Blanchfield, “Obtaining laptops for all staff and setting them up remotely was a challenge. The supply of laptops dwindled quickly and soon became unavailable in the marketplace.”

Winston Decuir, Jr., was surprised by “how well the team continued to socialize and bond through other mediums like MS Teams and Zoom. Instead of chatting over the coffee pot, we now share pics of weekend adventures in office chats virtually.”

Steve Thompson was most surprised that “[t]he staff really wanted to work in the building, not from home. Attorneys preferred to work from home.” For many other responders, the opposite was observed vis-à-vis the staff and the attorneys.

Probably the widest divergence of opinion related to productivity and the effectiveness of working from home. All managers supported remote working as a necessity. But there was difference of opinion as to the effectiveness of the practice.

Jeanne Comeaux best explained the alternate perspective: ““I think working remotely, while certainly necessary sometimes, is not ideal. It can create obstacles to ordinary interaction and joint problem solving that organically occur when people are working in the same general space.

The inefficiency of not being able to walk down the hall to talk to a partner or associate bothers the heck out of me. It can change the culture of a workplace and create what feels like a loose association of solo practitioners, as opposed to a unified team. All in all, I think we are better when we are together.” Steve Thompson adds, “Productivity is down when folks are not at the office in my opinion.”

Transparency and teamwork were vital in dealing with staff. “We tried to convey optimism to our team but were also realistic and forthright about potential impacts on the firm,” said Bob Barton. “I have had several employees convey their appreciation for the firm’s transparency throughout the year.”

According to Drew Blanchfield, “The pandemic was viewed as a common foe and everyone pulled together and has dealt with it.”

A question about unsung heroes brought unanimity in the form of kudos to staff employees. For Winston DeCuir, Jr., “My administrative assistant has been a godsend. I can get easily distracted and not stay on task. In a virtual environment, she would send me emails or texts throughout the day keeping me on my to-do list.” For Drew Blanchfield, “When our office closed during the start of the pandemic, we had a skeleton crew of approximately five people who went in and kept the office open.”

Staff mental and emotional outlook was also important to area firm managers and reps.

Valerie Bargas observed at the outset, they were, “stressed, uncertain, confused (at times), despondent. We have to be open to the impact of COVID on our staff’s mental state. Uncertainty about the future created much of these feelings. But, most of our folks refocused on work —rather than sitting and doing nothing. It made a difference!”

For Phyllis Cancienne, “I have been extremely proud that our employees’ health and well-being were, and continue to be, the #1 priority for our firm. To help our employees cope during these difficult times, we hosted a four-part webinar series for both attorneys and staff titled “Surviving, Thriving, or Somewhere in Between: Mastering Essential Survival Skills in the Middle of a Pandemic,” led by Dr. Rachel Fry, a psychologist and legal wellness expert.”

Most of the managers feel that the days of the crowded conference room are over, and everyone wishes they’d bought more stock in Zoom and Microsoft (Teams).

Keely Scott says, “We believe there will always be some aspect of virtual conferencing going forward. However, the practice of law is best done in person.”

Bob Barton agrees: “We know now that working remotely and virtual teleconferences, as a way to do business, are significant trends in our legal industry that are here to stay.”

According to Valerie Bargas, “Virtual conferencing is a useful tool for meeting and talking to people when it is unnecessary to drive. For a conference that will last 20 minutes or a short deposition, virtual conferencing is a better tool for the profession. It also encourages productivity and efficiency. There is still a need to meet in person, but that need can be weighed with the value of such a meeting, forcing lawyers to choose the better option.”

We conclude this article with a proclamation and a final observation from Winston Decuir, Jr. The law firm managers and reps proclaim a universal comment that arguably rises to the level of Edict: Everyone hates cross examination by Zoom. It … just … isn’t … the … same. And finally, according to Winston, “Lawyers are a social bunch and we tend to solve problems through personal interaction.”

The new normal may never crystalize and will for the foreseeable future be as clear as mud. Law firms continue to evolve in how to practice law in the new abnormal and how to manage their staffs.