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How remote work and pandemic concerns are changing Pittsburgh law firm offices

Impact on practice areas

It’s not hard to see which practice areas have taken off as clients struggled to keep abreast of new laws — the complexities of the CARES Act is still keeping lawyers busy — and mandates such as Pennsylvania’s shelter-in-place order.

“You’ll have hot areas like labor and employment and government relations and look for ways to beef them up, “Dougherty said. “That’s normal, it’s what’s going on in the economy.”

David Strassburger, president and managing shareholder at Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Gefsky, said his firm represents policy holders, “so there’s been lots of questions and work with respect to insurance coverage,” and a lot of business owner workout-type questions with lenders and commercial space workouts between landlords and tenants.

Eckert noted a “tremendous” increase in work with clients in some very specific practices like hospitality and gaming.

“Some of our lawyers were busier in March than they’ve ever been in their lives,” Hudak said.

But when it comes to practice shuffling, firm leaders concurred that it’s too soon to make decisions. Most have cobbled together Covid-19 teams or groups from existing practices. For example, Babst Calland’s multi-disciplinary group has lawyers covering employment and labor, corporate, force majeure evaluations and stimulus programs.

“Our people have dealt with it seamlessly,” Bluedorn said.

He has seen practices pick up in surprising ways, but the common denominator has been client-driven.

“Litigation has just been through the roof, even despite court closures, and we’ve had a number who want to move forward aggressively,” he said. “Our regulatory practice has been busy, particularly pipeline safety.”

Babst Calland has take steps to do some restructuring in aspects of energy and mineral title work, but that was not Covid-19 related.

“We want to see where we land, what things look like as the dust settles,” Bluedorn said. “Then we can start looking at practice areas.”

Lori Carpenter, president of recruitment firm Carpenter Legal Search, said bankruptcy is a practice area that has greater demand in any economic downturn.

“However, there has been a significant increase in labor and employment, including unemployment and workers’ compensation, real estate litigation and technology, including data privacy and security,” she said. “As the economy regains its foothold, I believe there also will be opportunity for lending, mergers and acquisitions and other corporate work.”

Carpenter suspects lawyers may be even more receptive to changing firms.

“If they are at a firm that furloughed employees and cut compensation over the past few months, they may be interested in moving to a firm that did not have to take those measures because of the pandemic,” she said. “I think the economic downturn has given lawyers a really good look at the financial status of their firms, and some might want to transition to a firm that offers more stability or is not so financially leveraged.”

Working from home

Firms agree that remote works, but how they’ll use that concept going forward is still playing out.

“I don’t want to become a virtual law firm; I like the culture, collegiality and camaraderie we have, and it’s difficult to maintain that virtually,” said David White, CEO at Burns White PC. He returned to the office during Pittsburgh’s yellow phase. “There will be some changes, but we’ll primarily be an office-based law firm.”

If firms continue to be more lenient about lawyers working remotely in the future, that will make it easier to recruit and hire at least some specific talent — possibly in other geographies, perhaps those who have family obligations or are addressing health issues.

“It certainly would open up the candidate pool for law firms and corporations if they offered that flexibility,” Carpenter said. “However, a law firm or corporation must establish clear expectations with remote working. We have spoken with several clients who will not continue to offer 100% remote working, as they feel that their culture depends on their employees engaging with one another in a tangible way in the same space. However, others are still considering their options. Regardless, a law firm must be prepared to answer that question when hiring new talent because it will be something that will be asked.”

Read More: How remote work and pandemic concerns are changing Pittsburgh law firm offices - by Patty Tascarella, Pittsburgh Business Times

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