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This article, like many others, was first published exclusively for long-term supporters, some time before everyone else got to read it.

Law firms respond to virus: CAM to stress test WFH as firms do policies, cancel parties, advise clients • Recruitments not yet affected • Courts begin to react [UPDATE-2]

Current advice from largest firms is: Don't panic, do plan ahead

Firms employ range of early measures to stay ahead of the novel coronavirus
Firms employ range of early measures to stay ahead of the novel coronavirus

Apart from being early out of the gate in advising clients on the potential legal fall-out of the global pandemic of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (causing COVID-19), India’s law firms have been beginning taking a number of measures to deal with an expected spike in reported infections, including one firm stress-testing its “work from home” (WFH) arrangements.

Update 16 March 2020 12:50: Several firms - currently J Sagar Associates (JSA) and Khaitan & Co - have announced they would respectively close their offices from tomorrow or allow anyone to work from home who wished to do so.

India’s officially confirmed Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) figures may still be comparatively low and hard to get an authoritative read on, but judging by the spread and patterns in other countries that have carried out more testing, early and effective precautions are a good idea to at least minimise disruption to business and health of staff, if not preventing wider outbreaks.

Apart from a majority of global and domestic law and business conferences having been cancelled, we understand that one Indian law firm has cancelled its long-planned birthday celebrations later this month soberly noting that “health and safety comes first”.

And, doing what lawyers do best, a number of law firms have also sent out COVID legal alerts to clients in recent weeks on how clients can deal with some of the legal challenges posed by an epidemic or pandemic of this scale.

Health and safety for human resources

While the numbers working in law firms may be small, compared to the potential time bomb that overcrowded court rooms and fragmented court complexes present to litigators and their clients.

Update 19:32: Both Supreme Court and Delhi high court have restricted hearings except in urgent matters, would not insist on the personal appearance of parties except when indispensable, and taken a number of other measures; the Delhi high court has also released guidance to lower courts in a 17-point note on how to deal with the outbreak. Other courts appear to be quickly following suit.

Nevertheless, as workplaces, some law firms have hundreds of staffers working in close quarters and many of these are globe-trotting lawyers, so law firms and client offices can be prime ecosystems in the spread of viruses such as Corona.

“This is an unprecedented situation for the world at large,” noted Khaitan & Co in an internal email. “So while it is important that we do not panic or react without thinking, it is even more important to exercise caution and base our day to day actions on advice that is from a reliable source and not add to the general confusion.”

Observe good personal hygiene Practice frequent hand washing with soap / hand sanitizers. Follow respiratory etiquette – cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. Avoid close contact with people who are unwell or showing symptoms of illness – such as a cough, runny nose, etc. Avoid all crowded & closed places, especially malls, theatres, etc. - from Khaitan & Co internal email

All firms we have spoken to said they were following basic measures of office cleanliness and making soap and information on reliable safety precautions against the virus widely available amongst its staff. “We are doing what everyone is doing,” said Khaitan & Co director of human resources, Amar Sinhji. “Disinfecting offices, keeping hand sanitisers and avoiding large meetings.”

Such so-called “social distancing norms” and voluntary quarantines are de rigeur these days amongst most firms.

“Anybody with flu is being told to take leave or work from home to avoid spreading infection,” noted one BigLaw lawyer, about the policy rolled out by most businesses, adding: "[I am] sure more [measures] will follow as this crazy situation develops.”

Sinhji added: “If immediate family [members of staff] has been to any of these countries, we would encourage [staff members] to just stay at home for a while for a voluntary quarantine period.”

Additional measure, confirmed to have been taken by firms such as AZB & Partners and Khaitan & Co, for instance, includes disabling biometric systems (such as germ-magnet fingerprint-readers).

Most major law firms have also all but banned international travel (uncertain infection risk aside, the difficulty of getting permission to return home from a lot of countries alone might make that a choice most would make voluntarily at the moment).

Most are counselling staff to avoid domestic travel too.

Update 15 March 2020: L&L Partners managing partner Rajiv Luthra had sent out an email on Friday (13 March) to staff announcing the firm’s measures, including some of the above, as well as “efforts to procure temperature guns” to check whether anyone entering the office was running a fever - one of the likely symptoms of an active COVID 19 infection (though temperature alone or lack thereof is not necessarily a foolproof sign either).

Continuity in tougher times

If the situation gets worse, it is likely that the only effective prevention measures will be similar to those eventually carried out in China and now in Italy, effectively shutting down most business for some time (as is already happening across most Indian universities, as we have reported).

Ensuring that lawyers can continue to do any (howsoevermuch reduced) client work from home rather than commuting to the office every day, will be an essential part of that.

J Sagar Associates (JSA) has sent a note to clients outlining the firm’s “operational readiness” and “business continuity” policies. These include, according to its email, that its lawyers and support staff are able to work from home effectively, assisted by cloud-based software and remote and electronic filing of documents in disputes.

A lot of the bigger law firms, assisted by off-the-shelf remote working technology, said they would be ready to work from home (we had reported in 2018 that Khaitan was looking to increase remote working arrangements for the benefit of its young workforce).

“We are prepared,” said Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas managing partner Cyril Shroff about the firm’s standard plans to deal with COVID-19.

Additionally, he confirmed that the firm also had a stock of N95 masks to “give as needed”, said Shroff, though none were being handed out to lawyers at present (health authorities recommend that N95 or other face masks should not and need not be worn every day by those not sick or not dealing with patients).

Cyril Amarchand would also do a dry-run of remote working in the coming week, in order to stress test existing information technology (IT) systems for high-load usage and smoothing the potential transition of a significant amount of its work force working from home (WFH), should the need arise (several large global international firms have also begun carrying out such stress tests).

Shroff said that while currently everyone was " working normally”, from next week 50% of staff would trial working from home at the same time, as a test, followed by another dry run of 100% working from home.

Update 15 March 2020: Regarding working from home, Luthra noted in the email that the firm had ramped up its capacity, "…preparing itself for any unfortunate eventualities, God forbid (!), the Firm has, as of 3pm today, made arrangements (with proper cyber security) for upto 60+ individuals, to work from home.”

Recruitment prospects: Situation still normal, for now

One of the more long-term and probably unavoidable side effects of COVID 19 may be the lasting economic damage that is all but certain to be inflicted on the already fragile world and domestic economy.

A recession would not leave lawyers unscathed, though at present, law students have not yet felt a pinch in lower recruitments.

We contacted three national law university (NLU) recruitment coordination committee (RCC), all of whom said that no law firm had currently said they would not hire, though a fuller picture might only emerge in the coming weeks and months after Days Zero.

One RCC member said: “We have been contacting companies for in house jobs for the past couple of months. Only three to four companies explicitly told us that they have a hiring freeze. The rest were very much interested in hiring.”

Cyril Amarchand managing partner Cyril Shroff said, when asked, that the firm did not have any plans to cut down on campus recruitment at the moment.

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