By Patrick Connelly  |  Buffalo Law Journal, Buffalo Business First  |  Oct 13, 2020, 6:00am EDT

Larger law firms adjust offices to meet Covid-19 working needs

Employees at a sampling of Buffalo law firms that fall into the mid- to large-size classification have learned to adjust to new checks before returning to the office.

Staff at Phillips Lytle LLP and Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LLC must answer questionnaires to see if they have symptoms associated with Covid-19.

“We do it daily,” said David Pfalzgraf, managing partner at Rupp Baase. “It’s pretty user-friendly. It asks about 10 questions.”

Phillips Lytle Managing Partner Kevin Hogan said employees receive a daily email at 5 a.m. with a self-evaluation, including a temperature check. And when they arrive at the office, a machine greets them to take it once again.

“We’re using a digital face recognition touchless monitor that’s on a pedestal,” Hogan said. “When our employees come in, it recognizes them, takes their temperature and tells them if they’re free to go work. It also provides us with data that’s easily capturable for use in contract tracing if there ends up being someone with a positive diagnosis.”

Tools like this were seldom heard of before the pandemic. Now seven months in, they’re common and workers have adjusted.

Attorneys were deemed essential workers, though many firms allowed most employees to work remotely. That has given legal professionals a taste of what extended remote work can be like, as well as how they manage caseloads away from the office.

Michael Colacino, president of New York City-based Squarefoot, works with law firms to determine spacing needs for planned growth. In recent months, there has been a 20% increase in inquiries.

“For the smaller firms, you have three basic types of space,” Colacino said. “Partner offices, offices for attorneys who are associates or of counsel and support-staff space.”

For social-distancing purposes, he said, partner offices are typically large enough to get by. Space for the others, however, is a different story. In tighter offices, he suggested that supporting staffers only come in when they need to complete in-person tasks.

“We’ve been talking with people about different methods of rotating through their office,” he said. “It’s hard enough to run a business without thinking about the logistics of suddenly having half of your space be unusable.”

During the pandemic’s early months, Hogan said he met with managers in facilities, human resources and IT to see how they could safely bring more people back while reducing anxiety over potential virus contraction. The firm’s immediate changes include a hold on large meetings, admittance of only necessary guests and propping open some doors to reduce frequently touched hotspots.

“From a layout perspective, our offices have not changed at all,” Hogan said. “We have a generous amount of space. Half or more of the people have their own private office with a door.”

Cubicles at the firm for other staffers are spaced enough to comply with federal and state suggestions, he said.

In Buffalo’s Liberty Building, space is tighter at Rupp Baase, something that has been compounded in recent years as more attorneys and staffers were hired. During the pandemic, it shifted to a cloud-based tech setup to make working remotely easier.

“We’ve become much more technology focused and friendly as we have more lawyers and some support staff (right now) working from a permanent basis at home,” Pfalzgraf said. “I think we’re going to continue to invest in technology to allow our people to work as efficiently as possible in the office or at home.”

“We’re definitely going to look at our office space to reflect changes in the work environment,” he said. “Maybe we can do some office sharing or do some permanent work-from-home things. We want to make sure we are building the firm in a way that would be ready for future challenges.”