Forward thinking lifts pandemic-ready Nixon Peabody

Gone, not forgotten: All of Nixon Peabody's international offices -- including 12 in the United States and four across Asia -- closed March 13. But the law firm was ready.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Like virtually every business in virtually every industry, law firms are scrambling in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some more than others, though – not every business, and certainly not every law firm, was as ready as Nixon Peabody.

Thanks to modern thinking, a few nimble pivots and some old-fashioned serendipity, the international law firm (12 U.S. locations, including a thriving Jericho office, and four across Asia) remains business-ready – if not business-as-usual, notes Long Island Office Managing Partner Allan Cohen, as close as possible.

“All of our attorneys have the capacity to work remotely, and we equipped all of our staff with laptops,” Cohen told Innovate LI. “We are presenting ourselves to our clients as ‘open for business.’”

Nixon Peabody’s strategy runs a little deeper than simply handing out ThinkPads and sending employees home, though even that exercise – involving hundreds of paralegals and assistants across Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore and the United States – was no mean feat.

Allan Cohen: Ahead of the curve.

All of the law firm’s offices closed on the same fateful day (Friday the 13th, for those keeping score) and when they did, attorneys who routinely traveled for business came home – along with their firm-assigned laptops, reserved for lawyers on the road.

“Because our attorneys aren’t traveling and don’t need the laptops, they became available for the staff,” Cohen noted. “We also had an additional inventory in case attorneys needed them.”

With the crew safely sequestered and tech-ready, Nixon Peabody has been running remote-training seminars on working from home, utilizing videoconferencing solutions such as Cisco WebEx and Cisco Jabber, an enterprise solution incorporating myriad mobile devices.

But while some businesses, caught flatfooted by the quasi-quarantines, are just now cold-starting their “WFH” protocols, Nixon Peabody had a running start.

“Six months ago, we began to increase staff opportunities to work from home,” Cohen noted. “So, those people were ready for this – and it made us more comfortable with the idea that working remotely works.”

The pivot to remote functionality – long before the novel coronavirus reared its ugly head – had “nothing to do with anything like [the pandemic],” according to the managing partner, and everything to do with smart 21st century business practices.

“We were looking for opportunities to give our staff more flexible schedules,” he said. “Work from home, come in less often … we were sort of on this path already, and it has made the transition to everybody working from home a lot easier.”

Cohen also referenced the “NP Institute,” an ongoing series of internal professional-development classes that kicked off in 2019 and was similarly preparing Nixon Peabody staffers for remote functionality before work-from-home became the global standard.

“We have internal classes all the time,” he noted. “So now, we’ve basically collected all of the educational presentations that have come before and supplemented them with things that are focused on training people to work from home.”

David Cheng: Head of NP’s Asia-Pacific practices, key member of the firm’s Coronavirus Response Team.

Other crash-courses-in-progress include Nixon Peabody’s up-and-coming Coronavirus Response Team, which Cohen described as a multidisciplinary squad built specifically to keep abreast of rapid-fire changes in local, national and international law, and to share that up-to-the-minute info with the firm’s nervous clientele.

“This is a collection of attorneys in various disciplines, definitely labor- and employment-heavy, following the developments, sharing amongst themselves and sharing with clients everything that’s available on federal and state programs,” noted Cohen, who said the need for a frontline team of real-time experts became immediately evident.

“When (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo sent everyone home (on March 20), calls from clients were stacked up, one on top of the other,” the managing partner said. “Clients were lined up to speak to us, to find out if all or even parts of their businesses qualified as ‘essential.’”

The firm and its clients had obviously sailed into uncharted waters, and “we had to be able to address the questions that our clients were asking, and the questions we expected them to ask,” Cohen noted.

“When a client calls up and says, ‘What is my responsibility toward my employees?’ we don’t want to respond, ‘We’ll get back to you,’” he added. “We need to have that information ready for them.”

Hence the response team, maintaining a foothold on a rapidly shifting landscape of state restrictions, federal mandates, confusing rhetoric and other critical business factors, further muddied by case-by-case qualifiers.

“You could be a Long Island company with operations in other states, so it’s not like you can just comply with the laws of your home state,” Cohen noted. “And things like this are going on all over the world.”

The Coronavirus Response Team will keep at it throughout the crisis, according to the managing partner, however long that may be. Cohen didn’t care to venture a guess as to when things might normalize for Nixon Peabody and the rest of the global business community, though he did have some ideas about new norms in a post-pandemic world.

“When there’s something like the (Great) Depression or the banking crisis or 9/11, there’s always some fundamental change in how we go forward,” Cohen said. “A lot of the lessons wear off over time, but some are never entirely lost.

“I do think there will be fundamental changes in how we conduct ourselves, including our business lives,” he added. “But I also think things will largely normalize, just like we’ve gotten used to heightened security – after a while, you don’t even realize there was a change.

“It just becomes the norm.”