The global Covid-19 pandemic has forced many countries into varying degrees of lockdown. Individuals performing jobs that are not essential to provide healthcare, food, and essential goods are largely working from home. This includes lawyers, who are now performing the majority or entirety of their work remotely, perhaps for the first time.
Asia Pacific is a few weeks ahead of the rest of the world, having dealt with the onset of the virus in January and February. With this in mind, what lessons can legal practices further afield, who are only just getting to grips with Covid-19, learn from firms in this region?
The situation in Thailand
For a period of time, the spread of Covid-19 appeared to be relatively under control in Thailand. Despite having been declared the highest-risk country outside of China at the end of January, the number of cases was limited to just 47 at the beginning of March, with one fatality.
While some countries further afield have had difficulty enforcing social distancing guidelines, there is a strong culture of compliance in Thailand and the country learned from its experiences during the 2002-2004 SARS outbreak. These factors likely helped limit the initial spread of the virus.
However, after a spike in the number of Covid-19 infections in March, the government imposed an emergency decree, giving them the power to enforce curfews, restrict travel, and close public spaces.
During the initial outbreak period, Kudun & Partners’ team was already observing strict social distancing, with a portion of the workforce already working remotely. Lawyers who had travelled abroad were asked to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return to Thailand.
‘Before this was declared a pandemic, our partners brought us into a meeting to tell us that a voluntary firm-wide “work from home” policy was being put in place and we had professional cleaning teams coming in to disinfect the whole office,’ explains Soon Aun Cheok, Head of Business Development.
Once the emergency decree was imposed, the practice quickly transitioned to an almost totally remote way of practicing. Kudun & Partners is fortunate in having the IT infrastructure to support this, whereas many Thai law firms do not.
Staff are also able to be reimbursed for the cost of additional technologies – such as printer – that they need to purchase to complete their work.
Of course, the effects of Covid-19 on the workplace are not limited to the administrative complications of working from home. A global pandemic and prolonged self-quarantine will also have a mental and emotional toll on members of your staff.
To remedy this, Kudun & Partners introduced a mentor-mentee system to provide staff with a point of contact in case they experience mental stress, panic, or other difficulties.
Prior to the emergency decree being declared, Kudun & Partners was taking extra care to ensure the virus could not be transmitted during client meetings.
‘We would ask a client where they had been in the last fourteen days and if they had travelled, we would suggest that the meeting be moved or we conduct it remotely,’ says Troy Schooneman, head of the firm’s International Practice Group.
Lawyers were also continuing to attend court, albeit with measures in place to minimise the risk, such as wearing masks.
In the last few weeks since the state of emergency was announced, client meetings and discussions are 100% remote, taking place via video conferences and webinars.
Additionally, the courts are now closed and government offices have switched to a primarily online model.
Changes in the external and business environment
Of course, it’s not just internal processes that are impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. For corporate law firms and their clients, this represents a significant disruption to the global economy.
Some areas of corporate law remain unaffected at present, such as taxation. However, others, such as foreign investment and other cross-border transactions, may see significant disruptions.
‘We’ve seen a significant increase in demand for legal advice around employment law and contractual compliance-related issues,’ notes Schooneman. The firm has established a special task force to deal with these urgent Covid-19-related enquiries.
Legal practices will need to be agile at this time and anticipate changes in the medium and long-term to where their expertise will be required.
Above all, it’s important to value the contributions of your workforce. There are plenty of digital tools that can help legal practices cope with delivering services remotely, but it’s the willingness and enthusiasm of your legal team to continue doing their work that really sets you apart.
‘Identify the most important assets you have – your human resources,’ advises Soon Aun Cheok. ‘Take good care of them in times of need and in the future, they will remember what you’ve done for them.’