By: Stephen McNally, Esquire
Thirty years of practice does not prepare you for a pandemic. Indeed, just the opposite- complacency sets you in your ways and you struggle to adapt to a changing reality. So, when our previous law office began working remotely in March 2020, I was not prepared for the adjustment of working independently from home. At first it was a curiosity – I assumed we would be through this in a couple of months and be back in the office. By June 2020 however, it was clear this crisis would not go away until there was a vaccine and the experts opined that a vaccine was years away (thankfully, they were wrong). The choice was clear: either adjust to an independent remote work life or be left behind. I then began the slow painful process of changing my thinking; not easy at the age of fifty-five.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that the two professionals I relied upon, my then-associate, Paige Bellino, and assistant, Kristen Venable, had small children who were no longer able to attend school or daycare. With the shutdown, these two working mothers were transformed into part-time educators on top of their responsibilities as mothers and professionals. I, on the other hand, had no children at home and between the three of us, the most available time. I realized (very slowly) that the hierarchy of partner, associate, assistant in this crisis could no longer apply if we were to survive. It was all-hands-on-deck and yes, egos had to be set aside. I adjusted to their schedules and set phone calls around their childrens’ remote learning sessions. Paige and Kristen, amazing professionals under normal conditions, were able to step up their game to address trying circumstances to improve our practice area. We were a true team and by July 2020 we were hitting on all cylinders.
Indeed, Paige was able to grow her own client base during a time when many were struggling to maintain their existing base. Paige’s efforts were invaluable to our continued survival and cemented in my mind the realization that she had outgrown her role as an associate.
The lesson was learned. Rather than awaiting the return to the past it was necessary to prepare for the future. I foresee this process as two-fold. First, adjust from a traditional hierarchy approach to a team approach based upon mutual respect. When this approach is implemented, employees offer opportunities for new perspectives.
Second, in the new future one must reach a comfort level with surviving remote. Brick and mortar are no longer a priority (indeed, they can be an unnecessary expense) and the focus should be on information technology (“IT”). Once again, I was slow in reaching this perspective but convinced by Paige and Kristen, we purchased new laptops, dual monitors and docking stations and a new printer/scanner for Kristen. Life became easier and it was apparent that this future could be a significant improvement over the present. With this future in mind, we began the new firm McNally & Bellino, LLC, and I was honored to now be partners with Paige and have Kristen join us as our paralegal.
With the realization that a full-scale physical office was no longer necessary, we rented space which provided us access to a conference room and offices when needed. The landlord also provided us with mail delivery. In our team’s opinion, any more than that was unnecessary and the money was best spent on improved IT and savings to clients. We market ourselves as a firm of the future, no longer tethered to a large physical space and able to pass the cost savings on to clients by way of reduced rates. Moreover, there no longer exists the stigma of not having an oversized office. Large clients were figuring this out on their own, keeping employees at home and avoiding the unnecessary expense of unnecessary office space.
Additionally, the concept of remote benefits the small firm. With depositions and many court appearances occurring remotely, the physical office close to the court venue is no longer critical. Rest assured, the remote world will not go away soon, as Judges enjoy the benefit of remote appearances and clients/carriers recognize the cost savings since they do not have to pay for travel. Suddenly, small South Jersey firms offering services at significantly lower hourly rates can compete with the expensive North Jersey firms. The small firms can also compete for the quality talent since they can use cost savings and the perk of a flexible schedule as an incentive for employment.
While I do not know what the future holds, I am confident that this new business model –implementing a team approach, adding in flexibility for employees and building relationships on mutual respect – is a strong one and works well for our current circumstances. Our goal is to grow and add like-minded individuals to our team (we have already added Amanda Glemser and Teresa Reader), and we recognize that there may come a time where size will require a greater brick and mortar location, but the old way of law firm life is a vestige better left in the past.