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55 – Jacob Leibowitz – Overcoming COVID-19: Working Remote & Staying Afloat

In this special episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael discusses COVID-19 with fellow trial lawyer Jacob Leibowitz. This episode focuses on adapting your firm to function in an ever-changing crisis situation, including insights on safety, remote work, technology, cash flow, and employee morale.

The show begins with a discussion on using technology to keep cases moving. Jacob emphasizes the importance of continuing to have depositions utilizing video conferencing technology. Their firm has chosen to use Zoom for depositions, mediations, and client meetings, and they have been successful with it. They discuss the pros and cons of Zoom, highlighting many useful features including video recording, “breakout rooms,” options to increase audio quality, and a way to share exhibits that Jacob argues is even better than the in-person method. The challenges of this technology for depositions, and in many states across the U.S., is the person who swears in the witness needs to be in the same room to make the oath sufficient. Jacob shares how the Supreme Court of Texas has assisted with this. The use of online notaries is also discussed and both Michael and Jacob implore the listeners to reach out in their respective state to determine if this can be a solution.

Originally, Jacob believed mediations via video conferencing would be extremely complicated, but he has been pleasantly surprised by the ease of using breakout rooms in Zoom. While some mediators have resisted, Michael is confident they will come around soon, telling them “Either you’re not getting paid or you’re going to do it this way.” Jacob echoes this thought by stating, “It’s here right now, and we have to adapt to it.” They apply this same reasoning to defense counsel who may have objections. Michael strongly believes if the defense doesn’t bill, they don’t make money, and they don’t survive. Jacob thinks it is the plaintiff lawyer’s responsibility to push the case, educate all parties involved on how to use the technology, and has been kind enough to create a Zoom Deposition Guide to share with everyone. This guide can be shared with defense counsel, mediators, and anyone else hesitant with this process. (A Zoom video tutorial for clients has also been created and can be found here)

The conversation shifts to remote work and how their firm of over 30 employees in different office locations has navigated the transition of physical office space to a virtual office space. The process began with Michael deciding to purchase company laptops for staff who did not have one. This was necessary because his IT company would only allow access to the server through a private VPN on a company-owned computer for security reasons. They discuss other challenges of remote work during a quarantine, including working with kids at home, server capacity, and cloud migration. Jacob then shares valuable advice for other firms to mitigate these challenges by advising “You just need to go full force into this, because you’re going to end up learning a whole lot, and you need to.” The reality is no one knows how long social distancing and a nationwide quarantine will last, so lawyers need to adjust accordingly.

On a serious note, Michael recognizes that regardless of technological innovations, the COVID-19 pandemic will disrupt firms’ cash flow. He shares his experience with a market panic and how he has been proactive in protecting the firm’s finances through pulling out money ahead of time and watching his finances very carefully. He also cautions other firms against laying employees off too soon, citing the proposed stimulus bill (which has now passed) would provide loan forgiveness to small businesses who use the money for payroll. He also understands that sometimes, you have to do whatever is right for your firm to stay afloat during these challenging times.

With all these sudden and extreme changes, employee morale can fall to the wayside. Jacob asks Michael what many listeners must be wondering – How do you keep employee morale up during this process? Michael simply states: “We’re overcommunicating.” His firm has focused on having consistent and frequent video conference calls to communicate on daily tasks, collaborates on larger projects, and even gather socially for a Friday evening virtual happy hour. He explains how important it was to tell his staff they could financially handle a 3-4 month quarantine and not have layoffs, and ensure staff of his focus on keeping everyone safe, be it their health or job security. Jacob compliments Michael on his efforts so far and adds that he feels morale has actually increased since the beginning of this crisis, noting that employees can see the massive amount of effort and reassurance given so far. Michael also believes “overcommunicating” applies to clients and referral attorneys and has made an effort to touch base with everyone in his network. This has led to his firm continuing to receive case referrals because they are being proactive.

Lastly, Jacob and Michael discuss their main takeaways during COVID-19. Jacob sees this time as an opportunity to gain skills to better your practice, spend more time with your family, and push your abilities as an attorney. Michael agrees and adds that it’s more important than ever to take care of yourself physically and mentally. He also emphasizes the importance of patience and thankfulness during these difficult times. Michael ends on a powerful note: “We all need to step up and be leaders – leaders for our firms, leaders for our clients, and leaders for our communities.”

This episode also covers virtual court hearings, telemedicine, self-insured retentions, Microsoft Teams, why clients are liking the face time with attorneys using Zoom, virtual document signing (www.notarize.com), and the efficiency of technology.

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