Many states considered law firms to be essential services when issuing stay-at home orders. Even with that designation law firms were asked to operate with telecommuting or distancing as their default day-to-day operations. Now, with many states rescinding business closure orders, law offices are able to reopen, and operate in a manner closer to their pre-pandemic methods. The question many firms should be asking themselves is how to reopen a law firm with the pandemic being far from over.
Should you reopen your law office?
There's no need to rush to reopen if you're working remotely. If you do reopen, take extra measures to prioritize the safety of your staff and clients.
When looking at this question on how to reopen offices, law firms likely have several options.
Do you have to open your office just because restrictions have been lifted in your area? No. Law firms can absolutely be open to the public without their physical offices remaining open. If your firm is fine operating either remotely or with strong social distancing, there is no rush to go back to a storefront operation.
The second option is, of course, to reopen your law office. Does this mean going back to the status quo? Also no. You’ll need to reopen your law office with new safety plans in place for yourself, your staff, and your clients.
Here are some planning resources and considerations that can help you reopen your law office.
State and federal guidance on reopening
There is plenty of information from both state and federal agencies to help guide businesses, including law firms, in how to reopen their offices.
The first resource that law firms should review prior to reopening is guidance put out by both health and worker safety government agencies on operating an office environment safely. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has put out guidance on how to structure workplaces to operate safely when economy is open.
The guidance in part states:
- Encourage workers to stay home if they are sick.
- Isolate any worker who begins to exhibit symptoms until they can either go home or leave to seek medical care.
- Establish flexible worksites (e.g., telecommuting) and flexible work hours (e.g., staggered shifts), if feasible.
- In workplaces where customers are present, mark six-foot distances with floor tape in areas where lines form, use drive-through windows or curbside pickup, and limit the number of customers allowed at one time.
- Stagger breaks and rearrange seating in common break areas to maintain physical distance between workers.
- Move or reposition workstations to create more distance, and install plexiglass partitions.
- Encourage workers to bring any safety and health concerns to the employers’ attention
These make sense, but how many law firms have space to carve out a six-foot distance from visiting clients in their office? Read this guidance carefully, combine with any state guidelines, and do what you can given your own office space and circumstances. If you can’t meet many of these guidelines, this may be a sign that you need to hold off on reopening your law office a little longer, or get creative with how you keep clients and staff safe.
Guidance from state health agencies
In addition to reviewing the OHSA’s guidance, you’ll also want to review guidance on reopening from from your state, as this may provide more specific, in-depth advice.
For example, California’s guidance for office workplaces is more exhaustive, pulling in OSHA’s but also the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) ongoing guidance. In addition to suggestions, California has included planning checklists and key prevention practices.
Here is an overview of California’s office precautions, with more detail in the guidance linked above:
- Physical distancing to the maximum extent possible,
- Use of face coverings by employees (where respiratory protection is not
- required) and customers/clients,
- Frequent handwashing and regular cleaning and disinfection,
- Training employees on these and other elements of the COVID-19 prevention plan.
Tips for reopening your law office safely
1. Provide training
Training factors heavily in preparing your law firm to reopen. You’ll want to ensure that everyone in your office is on the same page about best health practices, and that you’ve made a plan to address any concerns.
2. Have clear policies
You’ll need a united front when it comes to enforcing hand washing, social distancing, and mask-wearing with both firm members and the public. Each member of the firm should be able to explain to clients the health precautions in place and how clients will be expected to contribute when visiting. You’ll also want everyone to understand if there will be disciplinary actions when a firm health policy is flaunted.
3. Create times and zones of responsibility
Borrowing from health care professionals’ strategies, create times and zones of responsibility.Do not let there be overlap between those times and zones. These zones should be based on the following questions:
- Who has to be in the office? (Can/should anyone continue to work remotely?)
- Do they have to be in the office at the same time?
- Who has to interact with others outside the office?
For example, attorneys attending public hearings should not be in the office at the same time as paralegals, IT staff, and office administrators whose duties are not public facing. Designate rooms in the office as public facing versus staff-only and strictly enforce their separation. This will minimize risk for both staff and clients.
4. Provide flexibility as needed
Also recognize that the need for flexibility is still ongoing as the pandemic continues. An employee with an underlying condition or at-risk family member with the same may need a different work plan than the rest of the office. Firms should recognize and support the individual needs of employees when they voice health concerns.
5. Look at all aspects of sanitation when reopening your law office.
The hardest issue to overcome in reopening may be adequate sanitation, social distancing, and allowance for air circulation.
Soap and water, or hand sanitizer that is 60% alcohol may be relatively easy to provide. Controlling your office’s ventilation to reduce infection due to recirculated air may not be something every office can handle, and the CDC’s recommendations of air circulation and central air filtration may be difficult to implement.
6. Consider creative solutions
Firms determined to reopen may need to embrace the creativity exhibited in previous pandemics. For example, during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, San Francisco held open-air court hearings in an attempt to minimize chances of infection.
Can every office operate outside? No, but the patio may be neutral ground where public-facing and non-public facing employees can briefly meet from a safe distance.
These are trying times. Whether or not restrictions are lifted in your area, there’s no need to rush back to the office, especially if your firm has been operating remotely. If you do go back to the office, ensure employees can keep their distance, enforce strict sanitization of shared surfaces, and above all, make sure that everyone coming into the office feels safe. Your clients will appreciate your commitment to protect their health and safety.
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