Nevada’s legal industry had a banner year as they helped clients navigate the challenges of COVID. Even so, attorneys struggled through a changed work environment and court system. Leaders from this industry recently met in a virtual roundtable, sponsored by City National Bank, to discuss Nevada’s legal field and what the future holds.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly roundtables bring together leaders from different industries to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
How has COVID Changed your Practice?
Barbara Buckley: Whenever there’s a huge economic downturn, that means our workload shoots way up. It also means, just like in the ‘09 crisis, we have clients who never before needed us. The middle class, micro-small businesses who suddenly lost all their income, need help trying to navigate the economic impacts of the pandemic. Every area that we handle has gone up in need and volume: evictions, foreclosures, garnishments, repossessions. The volume is just astronomical, [we had] 5,000 new calls a month just on evictions.
Michael Feder: There’s an element that is missing, and has been exasperated by COVID, we’re not in the office. Clients don’t always want to meet in person. We do a lot of virtual meetings, which misses that personal touch you get when you are in person. [In addition,] associate development is something we really do need to focus on.
Dana Dwiggins: With all the cases of COVID, individuals started being more concerned about their estate planning and wanted to get [that] done. It was months before we actually met with clients, so we had to undertake having some of our notaries become electronic notaries so we could do estate planning [virtually]. There are a lot more guardianships with people becoming incompetent and in the hospital, and more probates because of the deaths. Doing everything remotely, as far as hearings with the court, [has been a big challenge].
Alicia Ashcraft: The challenge we face as attorneys is how to remain relevant for our clients in whatever they’re facing. The dynamic is very fast paced right now. Things are changing for our clients, just as they’re changing for us. As we’re figuring out space planning, workforce and employment dynamics, they’re figuring out those things, too. For us, the cannabis world was always dynamic and ever changing, and the pandemic just kind of put that on steroids. We were one of the industries that was deemed an essential business because in good times people buy marijuana and in bad times, people buy more marijuana. So, we were perpetually busy. As every gubernatorial directive came out, we had to pivot and change our standard operating procedures and how we ran our business.
How has your Fee Structure Changed?
Joel Henriod: The fees have gone up but we’ve been able to ameliorate that associated pain for the client by keeping the cost down, especially with the lack of travel, or much-reduced travel. The things that we can do, taking advantage of technology, we print a lot less than we did before, all of those things add up. So, while the rates are a bit higher, ultimately the invoices have been pretty level. We haven’t had to increase fees significantly. In large part, because of the supply side analysis [requiring] our time, we have to raise it a little bit more. [This allows us] to see where we ought to be spending that time when there are so many demands for it.
Ellen Schulhofer: Because of the demand, clients are less rate sensitive, at least in our practices, we’ve had two record years. Productivity has never been higher; people are billing more hours than in years and years. It’s not just our lobbying practice, all of our practices are up, and not just a few percent. It’s really sort of crazy. I do think that when we return more fully to the office, that’s going to drop off. It’s not sustainable, people can’t continue to work at this pace. I think hours are going to go back to normal. Maybe the rates will sustain so that we don’t lose a lot of revenue from it.
John Steffen: Clients are more concerned with quality and immediacy. They want things done now. I know some of you have talked about how associates and attorneys are billing more hours and working harder, and we’ve seen that in pockets in our firm. But we have also seen more of the opposite [where] many [employees] are less concerned with the dollar and more concerned with the lifestyle.
How has the Pandemic Affected Pro Bono Work?
Buckley: Pro bono participation is down significantly, and I think it’s down because of all these challenges. If you’re starting at 7:00 a.m. and working until 10:00 p.m., [you may just] wait until next week to answer that pro bono email or to take that pro bono case. [Also], associates aren’t in the office [and pro bono case] interaction isn’t as casual because you can’t just walk down the hallway; that’s affected it. We’re hoping that perhaps next year that may change.
Feder: Pro bono is an excellent way to gain experience. [New associates are] not getting the hands-on experience in that realm. It’s been something I’ve been trying to focus on just a little bit more, to meet with our associates, work with them and develop them.
Steffen: With COVID, we’ve seen more of a shift towards time with family and a focus on physical and mental health. Where our firm used to be still working hard well past five or six, now it’s pretty empty around here [after five]. People have other priorities. That’s part of the reason why I think we’re a little bit down with pro bono. Our attorneys have plenty of work to do and it’s hard when they’re not getting their billable hour requirements to take on a pro bono case.
How has Changes in the Workplace from COVID Affected your Teams?
Mandy Shavinsky: Staffing and meeting deadlines in the current work environment [is difficult]. It got busier for everyone. In the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was understandably concerned about their future prospects for work because we had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Everyone pulled together, worked unbelievably hard and [made themselves] available, which was fantastic. You can’t maintain that forever. Now, 20 months later, it’s hard to go back to where we were. We’re [also] having trouble finding legal secretaries, paralegals and people at all levels right now; I don’t think it’s unique to just associates. Young people have different priorities and they’re taking jobs that they think more closely fit their lifestyle. I think every single service industry is facing the same dilemma. We’re in a really strange economic cycle right now and, as busy as we all are, there’s no guarantee we’re going to be that busy in a year or two.
Schulhofer: You can’t find associates. They’re being picked off by national firms who can offer them more [money] for the same [billing] hours. There’s too much work, and we don’t have enough associates. They might as well go work remotely and make $100,000 more at the same level. And, the [staff] we have are completely drained if they work at home; they have it coming from every side. They bill ridiculous hours, spend a little time with their family and then go back to work [late] every single night. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. I’m concerned about their morale, mental health and how we deal with those. We’re doing the best we can, but this industry is facing a mental health crisis in that regard.
George Ogilvie, III: The biggest concern we currently have is making the shift from the COVID world to the post-COVID world, in terms of accommodating employees. Our IT staff was incredible in making the shift from working in the office to working from home; it was almost seamless. There were some attorneys that were not prepared and didn’t acquire a taste for it immediately. A great deal of how [the workplace has] changed, as was mentioned, is attorneys are getting up at six, seven in the morning, they go straight to their desk and they’re there until [late] at night. It’s terrific on the revenue side but there’s this missing relationship and a void in everyone’s culture.
Dwiggins: We have been so busy since the pandemic started. It’s very difficult to get associates and we’ve been trying to hire for months. Either people are not moving around because of the pandemic, there’s a shortage of attorneys or [there aren’t] qualified associates. Because of that, we obviously have a lot of work, and we’ve been at the point where we’ve had to turn down cases.
Feder: One of the things I’ve been noticing is, associate development [has suffered in COVID]. No one’s in the office or interacting. Making additional time [for associates is vital]. [It’s a challenge] to sit down and mentor young attorneys, not just on how to handle a case, but [also] how to interact with other attorneys and clients.
How do you Keep the Good Employees you Have?
Shavinsky: Even with remote work and the accommodations that have been made during the pandemic, this is not an easy career, it’s very demanding. Smart young people with law degrees may choose to do a little bit of this, a little bit of that, invest and maybe dabble in practicing law because they’re not just motivated by money. [They’re motivated by] flexibility and lifestyle.
Duane Frizell: Quality of life is really where we focus [for employee retention] – more paid holidays, better benefits and a happier office [environment]. That’s a big part of the push when trying to attract people. Obviously, salaries and benefits are huge, but millennials aren’t necessarily wanting the dollar. We have to look for other ways to attract them.
Schulhofer: Even if you just call your [team] and check in with them every once in a while, that means a lot, as busy as they all are. They appreciate that human touch. [In regard to] millennials, as hard as their working on pro bono work and initiatives they care about, giving them credit for that towards their bonuses also helps keep them happy.
Buckley: We need to remember, the same things that worked before will work now, we’re just not in the habit of doing them. For example, I just called someone who didn’t receive a judicial appointment to [tell them they] have a bright future ahead [and to] not get discouraged. [We try to tell] attorneys we work with, “Thank you” and “We appreciate you.” We don’t take the time, because we’re busy, [which can] increase the stress when we don’t have those interactions. The same things that worked before will work now; we just have to make time to do them.
How Backlogged are the Courts Right Now?
Ogilvie: From what I understand, there is a backlog of criminal trials that reaches from here to 2024. On the civil side, I feel like I’m a canary in a coal mine for all the judges with the trials that I’ve had since August; it’s just been back-to-back. Trial court judges are getting pressured by the Supreme Court to start removing this backlog and they’re pressing forward. It’s going to end up being more of a burden on the practitioners because the judges are going to press these cases going to trial and there’s just not enough time in between trials to get prepared.
Henriod: We’re heading into a couple of years of back-to-back trials. The only thing that we really saw slowdown was trials. Case filings continued, deals continued, transactions slowed down a little bit immediately after the shutdown, but then quickly resumed. Now we’ll work through it, mustering enough resources to keep up with demand.
Dwiggins: The big difference is in jury trials, since they were suspended for so long. I know the courts are giving priorities to those. I do mostly probate and the three probate judges do have substantial civil calendars, and even criminal. They’ve told us, as far as evidentiary hearings, which are essentially non-jury or bench trials, to get them done. [They basically said,] once they started allowing juries, you’re not getting on the calendar unless the jury falls through.
What Does the Future Look like for the Legal Industry?
Steffen: There are just so many things that are likely here to stay – staffing changes, working remotely, an emphasis on mental and physical health and how the court operates. Firms that are nimble are going to thrive. There are changes that all of us have had to make in order to survive in this environment. When it comes to how we work, bill and communicate with clients, everything’s changing. We have to be willing to adapt accordingly and get rid of age-old ways of running law firms.
Ashcraft: I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way things were before. For some clients, we will sit down at a table in a conference room and talk, but the vast majority of how we communicate and how we connect with our clients is, I think, forever changed.
Ogilvie: We intend to shift back into the office and reintegrate at the beginning of January. We’re working through what that means. Clearly, we’re going to need to make some accommodations that are different from what the world we lived in preCOVID. We haven’t made a determination what those accommodations are and what that means for staff and space requirements moving forward.
Frizell: We’ve had a seismic shift in terms of the efficiencies of conducting business. That’s going to translate into lower fees and costs for clients and increase our productivity. However, as mentioned, we can’t meet in the halls and I’m curious to see what settlement statistics [from this time period] are going to show. From my experience, most of the cases settle on the courthouse steps or in the hallways.
Schulhofer: We’ve done surveys, and the vast majority of our employees want to work at home two to three days a week. If we don’t accommodate that, we’re going to lose more people and we can’t afford that, as busy as everybody is. What we’re looking at now is re-evaluating our office space. We just don’t think people are going to come in like they did before.
Henriod: The biggest frustration is not knowing what the future holds. We can guess that it’s the “new normal” or that we’ll be back to something like it was before. In the end, humans prefer to spend more time with each other on average than less. Maybe, [the future workplace is] a hybrid where we’ve learned to accommodate more remote work. We live in a time [where we can only] see a few months down the road.
Feder: I’m looking forward to when we’re sitting around a table again, doing these meetings and courts reopening. There’s an efficiency [to virtual], and there will be a blend, eventually, of the two. Once the comfort level gets there, more and more people will come back.
Ogilvie: There’s going to be a hybrid going forward. We’ve had video conferencing capabilities for twelve years, but that was between practice groups and management committees. Prior to March 2020, I had never participated in a [virtual] call outside of the office. Now it is a daily occurrence and it’s sometimes two or three a day. Post COVID, we’re going to see the economy transition back more to services as opposed to goods, where it’s currently focused. I think there will be a similar transition in the practice of law. We will get back to a lot of what we were doing before, but I think a lot of what we’re seeing right now is here to stay and probably for good, for the benefit of all of us.