Episode 5: How Do You Manage Your Firm for Remote Employees with Thomas Gardiner

The COVID-19 pandemic has involuntarily caused organizations to move to working remotely. Law firms that were originally all in office have had to find ways to manage their firms remotely.

In this episode, Casey talks with Thomas Gardiner of Gardiner Koch Weisberg & Wrona about some tips and tricks on how to manage a law firm remotely.

Tom’s many years of litigation experience and ability to connect with judges and jurors has allowed has allowed him to achieve tremendous results for those who have experienced catastrophic injuries. Teaming up with John Wrona and other members of the GKWW team has led to tremendous results for the families of those who have died or for individuals who have survived the accident.

Tom’s myriad other accomplishments have not gone unrecognized. Every year since 2007, Tom’s peers have selected him as an Illinois Super Lawyer, placing him as one of the top lawyers in his practice areas. He has also been chosen as a Leading Lawyer by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and his peers. Tom holds membership in the Million Dollar Advocates Forum–a distinction limited to trial lawyers who have demonstrated exceptional skill, experience, and excellence in advocacy by achieving a trial verdict, award or settlement in the amount of $1 million or more.

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Interview Transcript

Casey Meraz:

Hey, everybody. I’m Casey Meraz from the Legal Mastermind Podcast. Today I’m here with Tom Gardiner from Gardiner, Koch, Weisberg and Wrona. Tom, thank you for joining me today.

Tom Gardiner:

Oh, you’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Casey Meraz:

Absolutely. And today we’re going to be covering the topic, how do you manage your firm for remote employees. So, as I understand it, before COVID was your from remote at all, or was everybody working from an office?

Tom Gardiner:

Everybody worked from an office, but we have multiple offices. So, we did have employees that would be at our Naperville office when our real hub office is in Chicago.

Casey Meraz:

Okay, got it. But they were all working from one of the offices. And was your computer set up, did everybody have desktop computers or were they on laptops?

Tom Gardiner:

All desktops.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. So tell me a little bit about that transition. When you made it and what that was like.

Tom Gardiner:

I think we made the transition about March 19th when the, I think, governor gave his initial proclamation or emergency order and we had talked about doing it before that time because obviously some states were requiring the remote work. The partners met and consulted with the business manager and the office manager, and we wanted to make sure that our staff were equipped to do things remotely as well as the lawyers. The lawyers were already equipped to really handle things remotely. Staff also as it turned out were pretty well equipped.

Casey Meraz:

Okay. Got it. Well that’s good. So were there any challenges that you faced?

Tom Gardiner:

Yeah, there definitely were challenges. I think people were used to working in the office. They were more efficient in the office. Often they had multiple computer screens in the office and they only had one at home.

Casey Meraz:

Good point.

Tom Gardiner:

I think the initial inclination of people was that they worked collaboratively more if they were next to the other people they were working with or they stopped by the office of the other person. So while we certainly were used to picking up the phone and calling somebody in the Naperville office or someone would call someone in Chicago from a location or from court or someplace like that, not nearly the frequency that’s occurred since that time.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. Now from a software perspective, obviously there’s some challenges of if you have an office operation and if your case management software is not on the cloud and things like that, do you use a case management software that is cloud based?

Tom Gardiner:

No.

Casey Meraz:

So, how did you…

Tom Gardiner:

So, you’re right.

Casey Meraz:

Navigate that challenge?

Tom Gardiner:

It hasn’t really been a big problem. We have our own systems and we have Outlook as a primary source of docketing and information like that. We have systems that are triple checked, so that things appear in different locations to make sure the court dates aren’t missed, or deadlines aren’t missed, et cetera. And ironically we have been planning to go to a cloud based system before all this hit.

Casey Meraz:

Oh, gee…

Tom Gardiner:

But we didn’t make it in time.

Casey Meraz:

Bad timing. But at least you got the initial research started it sounds like.

Tom Gardiner:

Yes.

Casey Meraz:

So, that’s one thing. I’m glad that you were able to, to navigate that. Now what about the courts? Are they open throughout Illinois and how are they handling it?

Tom Gardiner:

Actually, it depends on the location. Courts in Cook County, so the Chicagoland area, are open for emergencies, but we have had about 98% of our court dates canceled. That might be too low a number.

Casey Meraz:

Oh, geez. Okay, that’s a lot.

Tom Gardiner:

Yes.

Casey Meraz:

Almost everything.

Tom Gardiner:

So for a law firm that normally handles between 30 and 40 court dates a week, so 120 to 160 court dates a month, now I’ll bet you in the last month we’ve had five.

Casey Meraz:

Wow, okay.

Tom Gardiner:

And most of those have not been in Cook County? In DuPage County we’ve had some hearings. We’ve had hearings in Wisconsin, but Cook County is way behind the curve on this.

Casey Meraz:

Wow, okay. And the ones that you had, have they been remote or have you actually had to go in?

Tom Gardiner:

No, they’ve been remote. So I have a conference next week by Zoom, I had a telephone conference call this week, we had a Zoom call in a DuPage case, so that’s close to half of the number of court calls there have been. If you look at Texas, for example, they just celebrated having their 10,000th Zoom call for a court.

Casey Meraz:

Wow.

Tom Gardiner:

We’re a little behind.

Casey Meraz:

Definitely you’re way ahead of others. I guess it’s just, like you were saying, depends on the County. And that’s interesting because that’s going to create quite a backlog, huh?

Tom Gardiner:

It’s going to be a huge backlog, but what it really means is that the law firms are suffering. The litigation law firms are not bringing in the revenue they normally would. The cases are not being pushed as much, depositions are being canceled, judges aren’t ruling on pending motions. So it’s as if two months at this point have effectively vanished.

Casey Meraz:

Wow, that’s crazy. And obviously as a law firm, well any business, you depend on cash flow and being able to work your cases is very important. So I can see that that’s a major challenge right now. Are there other things… Are mediations still happening or anything like that?

Tom Gardiner:

I think there are mediations happening to an extent. I think the calculus that we make is, would the mediation be as successful if it was done remotely or via Zoom, versus in person? So in making that calculation, we look at the people involved and sometimes we conclude that really the nature of the person that we have as a client, it would be important for that person to be present in person with the mediator to have the impact.

Tom Gardiner:

In other cases, if they’re more stereotypical cases with more legal arguments than they are with factual arguments or with lawyers calling the shots more than clients calling the shots in a way in terms of recommendations to the client, those would, I think, be better suited to having a Zoom mediation or remote mediation of some sort.

Tom Gardiner:

The third category is, there’s a mediation that I’m going to do at the end of this month, where we’re just going to use social distancing within the mediation. So I think that will go ahead, but we’ll have to see how things play out on that.

Casey Meraz:

Sure. Wow. Well yeah, I think you make a good point there. That’s not something that I had really considered, but it’s interesting to hear you say that some of those are going to work out better than others and you have to make those calls. So that sounds like another kind of roadblock that’s in your way right now.

Tom Gardiner:

It is a roadblock, but I really think that the judges in the court systems could respond to this by just implementing Zoom case management dates or teleconferences. There’s a lot of things that could be done to still move the cases along and I would hope that those things are going to be implemented soon, especially in Cook County because it’s hurting all of the law firms.

Casey Meraz:

Sure, and what’s your gut feeling on that? Do you think they’re responsive to that, or?

Tom Gardiner:

So far, at least in Cook County, the response has not been particularly encouraging.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. Wow. Well hopefully they do a 180 on that and they’re able to adopt technology. I mean, it is 2020 and everything’s available to at least get by. So, that’s really interesting that’s the approach that they’re taking right now. How do you forsee this playing out in six months or a year?

Tom Gardiner:

Well, in terms of changes in the court system?

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, exactly.

Tom Gardiner:

I don’t know that there’re going to be that many changes within the court system if the restrictions are eased. If people get to go back to court, I think that in a bigger court system like Cook County, the Chicago court system basically, you’re going to have things returned to how they were just because there’s a tradition of doing that. You’re going to have some judges that are going to say, “I’ve been exposed to doing things differently and I’m going to consider doing things differently.” But I think those will be in the minority in the Chicago market.

Tom Gardiner:

Now, if you look at other places, ironically, the non-metropolitan areas are way ahead of many of the metropolitan areas. And the reason for that is that those areas have had to deal with distance. So if you have a County that covers a large square mile area but only has a couple of courthouses, the lawyers have to drive an hour plus to get to court, sometimes for a 10 minute court call.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, good point.

Tom Gardiner:

So in those rural areas in the outline areas, they are far more aggressive about doing things by phone, especially phone, with call-ins et cetera. You can probably do 90% of cases in Wisconsin without going to court.

Casey Meraz:

Wow, that’s incredible.

Tom Gardiner:

So, let’s say you have a summary judgment argument, a big argument, motion to dismiss trial, of course, pretrial conference, those things you’re going to go to court for. But in terms of just case management, discussing what the future court dates are, discovery issues, things like that, really judges are very open to having the lawyers not in court.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. It makes sense. And again, that’s kind of the route that they should be taking, it seems like. So it’s funny that the smaller areas are the ones that are having the most success with that right now.

Casey Meraz:

And let’s kind of shift the conversation just a little bit to talk about how the management has been too for your remote employees. So we talked a little bit about the case management software. How do you stay in touch with… First of all, how big is your firm, employee-wise, and then how do you all stay in touch and in communication?

Tom Gardiner:

We have about 24 employees or so. And there’s somewhere around 18 lawyers or so. Most of the contact has been via phone. There’s a weekly docketing meeting of all lawyers, except some partners, that is held on Wednesdays. That’s by Zoom. So everybody gets to see each other at that time by Zoom. Partners meetings, traditionally, are held one time a week. Those have been by conference call, but I think we’re going to start doing those by Zoom now as well.

Tom Gardiner:

So the communication actually I think has been pretty good because people have adapted to the situation because they had to.

Casey Meraz:

Exactly, yeah.

Tom Gardiner:

I think our people would have preferred to just walk across the hallway and talk to somebody. But now everyone’s picking up the phone and talking to them that way or doing Zoom where it’s appropriate.

Casey Meraz:

Sure, yeah. And that seems to be what I’m hearing a lot. And what I feel is the best anyway. Some firms use instant message, is that something that you adopted at all?

Tom Gardiner:

We did a little bit. We have a Slack channel. And some people are using that, but we haven’t fully adopted that. I think because of the nature of how this occurred, we just immediately had to make a transition to things that were in place as opposed to doing things that weren’t in place.

Casey Meraz:

No. Yeah, and of course, like with any software, or any process even, if you don’t have adoption it’s not really going to do anybody any good.

Tom Gardiner:

Right. We’ve had some difficulty in terms of remote staff, in particular. Because I don’t think they’re as efficient at home as the lawyers are. They have different responsibilities and they don’t have a full office, many of them at home, in the way that lawyers are just used to having. And everybody in our place has at least one computer, a laptop, a printer, printer scanner type thing, and they’re equipped.

Tom Gardiner:

For staff less so, more dependent upon the office. Every staff member has said to us that they’re more productive at the office. So what we’ve done is we’ve rotated staff through the office during the crisis and we’ve just had a lawyer or two in the office during that time. More staff than lawyers.

Casey Meraz:

Sure, yeah. And that’s definitely an interesting approach as well. So you can still get in there and if your employees find it more productive, that’s definitely important. What advice would you give to, not necessarily your employees, but other law firms who have remote staff and how maybe they can be more efficient at home? I don’t know if you’ve found anything through your conversations that might help.

Tom Gardiner:

No. You know, I don’t know. I looked at programs that I haven’t adopted because we really trust our employees. But if you look at some of the software that’s out there for companies that do huge remote operations, you sign in, you sign out, they track the time, they track the keystrokes, you can do some of that with Slack even. But we have elected not to do that just because we generally trust our employees and I guess it was well taken to trust them because they’ll confide in us saying, “We’re not really as productive operating this way.”

Tom Gardiner:

There are some projects within the office in terms of organizing things and doing future projects and things like that that are kind of more physical than they are mental too. And those are the sort of things that would normally take place when you have some level of slowdown. So anyway, we’ve tried to deal with some of those issues remotely, but I’m not so sure that I feel we’ve been tremendously successful at increasing productivity from staff.

Tom Gardiner:

I also think though that because the court slow down, staff has less to do. So we have staff submit time sheets to us showing what they’re doing at home, for lawyers, and one of the complaints is we don’t have as much work as we normally had before the courts were compromised.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. Well, yeah, it’s a learning experience and that’s a big problem, of course, going back to that. It sounds like Cook County in particular. So what about new case intake? Has that slowed?

Tom Gardiner:

Yes, we still have case intake but it’s slow just because the pandemic and the recession are taking a big toll on businesses. So on the business side of our practice, I think the businessmen are very conservative and what I’m seeing is the same mentality that I saw during the Great Recession where businesses would look at cases, and bringing cases, defending cases, dealing with cases, in a way that they didn’t before the recession hit, in the Great Recession and now in our current recession.

Tom Gardiner:

So what I have seen, and what I predict we will continue to see, is the folks that would otherwise fight to the death sometimes will say, “What about mediation? Or, how can we resolve this? Or, why don’t we see if we can get in a room together and do something that makes sense for everybody here?”

Tom Gardiner:

So on the business side, definitely it’s having an impact. I think not meeting with people has a big impact too. Some of the business people, individuals, whoever the potential client may be, they like to at least look their lawyer in the eye, shake their hand, et cetera, and there’s more reluctance to just say, “Oh, this disembodied voice is now my lawyer.”

Casey Meraz:

Good point.

Tom Gardiner:

So I think that’s a hesitation. Now, on the other side of things, we have a really active personal injury practice, active family law practice, in those areas I think the recession has caused a slowdown in family law cases coming in. Very personal cases, so they probably want to be present as well. But with all the economic uncertainty I think this is not the time that people are thinking to get divorced, they’re thinking about how do we keep a roof over our heads.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, good perspective.

Tom Gardiner:

On the personal injury front, and medical malpractice front, and nursing home front for that matter, those are big practice areas for us. On the nursing home front, there’s immunity right now and they’re shut down, so there wouldn’t be visitations anyway. On the medical malpractice front, a lot of surgeries are not taking place, most elective surgeries are being delayed, so we don’t have a whole lot of intake. We’re on the plaintiff’s side on these cases. And on the personal injury front, people are aren’t driving so much that insurance companies are giving them refunds, so there are fewer accidents.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, exactly. Mm-hmm (affirmative), less accidents. Yeah. I don’t know how it is over there. I know in California accidents are down 50%. I’ve not looked at the statistics there, but I’m assuming it’s same or similar.

Tom Gardiner:

Yeah, you’d probably actually drive down the 405 and enjoy it.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, you can actually get down the 405, so that’s a first. So, okay. Wow. So primarily, as far as an advertising vehicle, are you online, referral? And I was just curious if those channels specifically saw any type of difference in slowdown.

Tom Gardiner:

Yeah, I haven’t really studied those very closely, but I would say that referral is our main source of business. Probably 80% of our cases come from other lawyers. That has definitely slowed down because the other lawyers aren’t working as much and they’re not getting as many cases and it’s just kind of like there aren’t as many touches to other people. And so as a result, of course, we still are getting cases in, but not what I would view as our regular volume.

Tom Gardiner:

In terms of online, we don’t do really advertising per se. We have a newsletter, we send it out to people, it’s informative, it’s useful to people. We’ve put a lot of things out on COVID-19 in terms of employment law issues, and we have a very active employment law area right now because of all the impact here. So in that area we definitely had lots of phone calls when COVID-19 was just rearing its head and people were looking at the recession, and the governors were starting to close things down, and the business owners were calling saying, “We need to lay people off,” and talking about strategies and laying people off from what our advice was.

Tom Gardiner:

Then once the funding programs came in, the PPP, et cetera, then the calls came to us about the programs and the strategies in taking the money and eligibility and things like that. So the two would then dovetail because you deal with how would the PPP fund things for a business that’s looking at laying off lawyers or laying off employees. And then who do you lay off? So if you look at those programs, it’s not so simple to say, “Oh, we’ve got this amount of money. I can spend it on payroll because there’re restrictions on who gets paid the money.” So executives don’t necessarily get paid all of that money. There’s limits in that.

Tom Gardiner:

So you have to look at who gets laid off, who gets brought back, what percentage they get brought back at. And then the biggest issue there is when you look at those factors, you’re considering the forgiveness aspect of the PPP. So, what I’m seeing is the business owners, most of whom went through the Great Recession, are intent on using the money for eligible expenses, but not having a loan, at the end of the year.

Casey Meraz:

Exactly, yeah. And that’s 75% payroll, right? Or it qualifies [inaudible 00:24:52], I guess.

Tom Gardiner:

Yeah, it’s 75% of… Well, your payroll is eligible. Employees can be reduced by 25% of their pay and still be considered a full time employee. If you don’t return your full time employee count to what it was on February 15th of 2020 then you get penalized. So some of it becomes a loan, not a grant. And for employees who make more than $100,000 a year, you get a prorated amount. So up to $100,000 you can use for payroll, amounts over $100,000 you cannot use the PPP money or it becomes a loan.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. Yeah, I know. That makes sense. I appreciate you sharing that because a lot of people… Well, those that have got it are definitely going to need to stay on top of that and I’m sure this round of funding, I’m not sure where it’s at now, but I’m sure it’s probably going to be gone soon.

Tom Gardiner:

Yeah, people have been funded pretty well this last time. I don’t know. I have been hearing more people are getting the money for this second round than the first round, I got mostly calls of frustration.

Casey Meraz:

Yeah, no, I believe it. That was all at the talk everywhere, everywhere I looked anyway. So, wow, that’s incredible. And going back to your employment side of things, I think what you’re doing there is really awesome. Staying relevant with that newsletter. It’s hard because your firm doesn’t sound like you do a lot of traditional advertising or anything like that since you’re based on a lot of referrals, but you still need to stay relevant. And you’re doing that by giving away information or tips through your newsletter and staying in people’s minds. And really that’s probably what you need to do right now. So I really like that approach of what you’re doing,

Tom Gardiner:

I think it’s been successful. We’ve had so many compliments from people and thank yous from people. So it was good to do that and it’s important for our clients, so we had to stay on top of that area.

Casey Meraz:

Absolutely. Well it sounds like that you are running a great firm with a great brand and sounds like you also have a great group of people. So you navigating this I think you guys are going to do just fine and I hope that things kind of return to normal quickly for you, especially in Cook County. Do you have any parting advice for anybody that’s in this situation and their firm is struggling on what they should do?

Tom Gardiner:

Well, I think the most important thing to do is to be conservative about the situation. I think that there are going to be plenty of law firms, especially mid and smaller sized law firms, who are going to hope that they can change nothing and get through this time period. And the bigger law firms are being more aggressive about it. They’re cutting staff, cutting pay, making different moves. But the smaller firms I think are going to be more likely to just cross their fingers and hope that things get back to normal. And I don’t think that is a reasonable approach to the situation because I don’t think, based on the Great Recession experience that we had, that things will get back to normal that quickly.

Tom Gardiner:

Things may get back to normal in terms of people going to the grocery store and doing the day to day shopping and getting things at Home Depot for the summertime and things like that. But for law firms, I think that there are a lot of other expenditures that will be first in people’s minds and executives minds before coming to law. So that’s why I think we will be lagging in terms of recovery.

Casey Meraz:

Got it. Well, you’ve been through some of this before and your experience is very valuable, so I appreciate you sharing that and that insight with our audience. So Tom, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it and look forward to catching up again soon in the future.

Tom Gardiner:

Thank you, Casey.

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