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We sure were excited to announce our expansion into Seattle — and we still are. We continue to serve clients, uninterrupted, in both Seattle and Denver. But with COVID-19, our big announcement has turned into a story of adversity and adaptation.
We are a Denver-based law firm that opened in Seattle last month. Our mission is to increase access to high-quality legal services for small businesses and individuals. Expansion is an inherent part of that mission. We were drawn to Seattle in particular for its culture and economic opportunities. While Washington has been full of many pleasant surprises as we open our Seattle office, we never expected to contend with being in the hotbed of a once-in-a-century pandemic.
We know that COVID-19 has brought real human tragedy to many. Our story is not a tragedy, it is just a story of business challenges. But since we advise small businesses everyday, we think it is important to share our experience as one of the only businesses in the world crazy enough to open in Seattle last month.
On January 14, 2020, I flew to Seattle to interview prospective attorney candidates to lead our Seattle office. I found an amazing attorney (whom I had previously vetted) and hired her on the spot. The very next day, we now know, a passenger traveling from Wuhan, China to Seattle-Tacoma Airport brought the first case of COVID-19 to the United States.
On February 24, our Seattle office officially opened. That same week, on February 28, 2020, the United States saw its first COVID-19 death, in suburban Seattle.
The following week, on Tuesday, March 3, Northshore School District near Seattle closed its doors to train teachers on online learning, and went to a fully online format two days later., conscripting our rockstar attorney into involuntary service as a part-time homeschool teacher.
Meanwhile, our Seattle strategy relies on personally serving many Microsoft employees as clients. That same week (our second week operating in Seattle), Microsoft announced the closure of its Redmond campus, and our telephones abruptly stopped ringing for days.
Needless to say, we have had to work hard to adapt and face these challenges head-on. That means getting the word out to potential clients that we are still open for business. That means assuring existing clients that we can still serve them. And that means doing our best to serve many Washingtonians nervous about medical directives and end-of-life wishes.
We’ve also been learning. As the virus spreads across the country, it will affect businesses everywhere in similar ways. Seattle’s story will become everywhere’s story. Here is some of what we have learned, along with the best advice we would give to our own clients.
We are proactively communicating with prospective clients to assure them that we can represent them while still using social distancing best practices. Communicating with our clients and prospective clients is about more than sending a boilerplate email urging people to wash their hands. It’s about addressing their specific concerns with respect to using our services. How can they sign documents remotely? Can they receive a full consultation without coming into the office?
We have always leaned more heavily on technology and remote working than a typical law firm, but now we are redoubling our efforts. We offer e-sign capabilities, video conferencing, and work with mobile notary services when necessary and appropriate. We are still able to offer our full suite of services, even in the Seattle area.
COVID-19 also has prudent people thinking about worst-case scenarios. In the legal realm, this means thinking about estate planning and living wills. We provide clients with advanced medical directives that lay out their wishes for medical care should become incapacitated, as well as their end-of-life wishes. We offer these services with very little turnaround time. We also provide price transparency, listing our flat fees right on our website (rare for law firms). We can meet with clients in person at five locations throughout Seattle, but we are also working with mobile notary services to meet clients where they are.
We are monitoring the unfolding situation as the House, Senate, and White House attempt to reach a stimulus deal. The final version of the bill could include benefits for small businesses, but it will likely include new obligations and compliance burdens for small businesses as well. We are monitoring the bill as it develops to help our clients understand, comply with, and maximize benefit from the stimulus package.
We always try to stay nimble with a paperless office and remote telecommuting capabilities. But these times call for revisiting — and sometimes augmenting — our existing employee policies.
We recognize that the future of business will be built around remote workers. That is why we’ve always encouraged flexible working environments. In response COVID-19, as of today, all employees in Denver and Seattle are working from home to help stop the spread and flatten the curve.
Like many people these days, lawyers, paralegals, and other members of our staff can complete most of their duties anywhere with an internet connection. If there is no need to come to the office, then there is no reason to force people to come in! Our policy is really as simple as that.
Furthermore, we’re taking strides to ensure that no one feels pressured to come into an office. Having a policy is not enough. It’s essential to also build a culture that supports and nurtures those policies. We don’t want to guilt-trip people or say one thing but mean another. Therefore, we have announced that the policy is now that people will work remotely until further notice.
The CDC recently released a set of guidelines for businesses to take in response to COVID-19. One of those guidelines is to encourage sick employees to stay home.
This policy is already in place (and irrelevant for as long as we are all working remotely), but once again, it’s important to make sure that staff are aware of the policy and adhering to it. We never want to be the type of workplace that governs with fear and we strongly believe in trust and autonomy.
Along those lines, no employees are required to provide doctors notes or anything like that for extended absences. According to the CDC, “healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely way.”
Hosting a video conference is easy, so why not embrace them? As more people opt to avoid in-person contact, we’re making an effort to talk to clients and potential clients on Skype, Zoom, Facetime, etc.
Nothing will ever beat face to face communication, but video chat is the next best thing.
Some of our employees suddenly have children at home with no childcare. As the virus spreads, most businesses will likely have employees contract the virus (if only in a mild form). This means that we need to support each other.
We have always thought of ourselves as a startup, which means that everyone needs to wear multiple hats. Because each member of our team is already capable of doing more than one job, we are already able to cover for each other as necessary. This means that as the situation unfolds, we are prepared to proceed without any business interruption. It also means that we are fostering a supportive environment for our team members.
For employees with young children, we’ve signed up for Nanno for our employees to make it easier for our team to find and schedule affordable childcare while schools are closed. We have also recommended online learning tools like Beanstalk to our team keep children stimulated while staying home.
The Coronavirus is obviously going to impact many, if not all, industries in the coming days. That means that we need to have important discussions on what that means for the firm, employees, vendors, families, and everyone else involved.
These discussions should not only cover our policies regarding sick-leave and paid time off, they should also discuss more fundamental things like what to do if you’re not feeling well, what actions to take if you’ve come in contact with someone who may have the virus, how to responsibly talk to people who may not be as well-informed about the virus, etc.
It’s also essential to discuss business-related matters. For instance, how will we manage our workloads if we’re short-staffed? What will we do if we can’t meet our revenue numbers? What work can we put on hold and what travel plans need to be canceled?
Obviously, we don’t know what we don’t know. The situation will continue to develop. But it is important to try to plan and communicate effectively in times of uncertainty.
In times of uncertainty, it’s important to maintain a level head and create plans to mitigate risks. As a law firm, we do that every day when we draft contracts or review operating agreements. But we’re far from experts on infectious diseases and viruses. We present these actions not to brag about what we’re doing or to incite fear. We simply want to share what we’re doing so we can encourage a conversation. We would love to hear what your organization is doing (or not doing), and as information develops, we might add or take away from this list.
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