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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, January 1, 2021

Pandemic fueled creativity and collaboration for Chattanooga’s legal community




Scott Parrish recently completed his first year as chairman of Miller & Martin. - Photograph provided

There are many types of law, just as there are many lawyers and firms to practice it. Even in a legal community as close as Chattanooga’s, their paths might not often cross. But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, everything changed. Lawyers, law firms and courts had to find a way to safely conduct business.

How to do so in those early days, and then find workarounds as it became apparent the pandemic would be lasting for months, was a huge challenge, says Scott Parrish, who recently completed his first year as chairman of Miller & Martin.

Here he talks with the Hamilton County Herald about how his firm managed that pivot, and what lessons lawyers and other professionals in and around Chattanooga have learned in 2020:

It’s safe to say 2020 didn’t go as you might have expected. What were some of the biggest challenges your firm faced this year?

Scott Parrish: “Our pandemic-related challenges were an interplay between three things: anticipating and meeting the needs of our clients; the health and safety of our staff and attorneys; and attending to the day-to-day and long-term business demands of our firm.

“We had to deploy a primarily office-based workforce of well over 200 attorneys and staff to work remotely from four locations. That was a huge logistical and scheduling challenge for our IT and HR departments, because we had to equip and train people to use certain types of equipment they may not have used before.

“And we had to have some essential business functions conducted from our office, so we had to work around those issues. And during all that, we had to identify cost savings to offset the declines in revenue and do that without any furloughs or layoffs of any kind. We were successful in that regard.

“When we did begin to bring people back to the office, we had to address social-distancing requirements and create safety policies. We hired consultants to educate us about the virus’ spread and effect. We had to keep communications flowing to all our offices, attorneys and staff throughout all that, which meant a lot of outreach to all departments and levels.

“Our morale was certainly affected, because we couldn’t get together for holidays or other events, but I am delighted to say that we met every challenge we’ve had to face so far, and our client service has not suffered because of the pandemic. That is because of the super-talented and dedicated staff and attorneys.’’

HCH: How did the city’s legal community handle the challenges COVID-19 created? What were some standout moments, or actions, for you?

“We made it work. I am so proud of the way our local bar and judiciary worked together in this difficult time. The attorneys here have found ways to be cooperative and collegial as we all are getting through this. And a good byproduct of the pandemic is that our excellent and innovative state and federal judiciary here found ways to manage dockets for judges.

“For instance, juries no longer sit in the jury box – they are spread throughout the courtroom. And we all appreciate our federal judges conducting preliminary hearings and sentencing remotely over web-based platforms. The state courts invested in technology to allow witnesses to testify remotely for live trials, and that has been good. All the changes have been well received, and I think we’ll see a mix of virtual and in-person trials in person, if litigants agree to that.’’

HCH: What were some things your firm put in place as workarounds that may become permanent ways of doing business?

“I think there is a realization that not all attorneys and support personnel need to be in the office all day, every day, to get their job done. We have been able to meet client needs with people working remotely, and by and large as we’ve migrated back to the office, we’ve been able to support those attorneys and staff who are choosing to stay home for a while longer. We haven’t seen a drop in productivity as a result of a workforce that’s partially remote, so I think that is here to stay.

“Our attorneys have also gotten a new grasp of all the technological capabilities we have to help us work more efficiently, and that will be great. Our attorneys, paralegals and staff are able to work more efficiently by themselves, and through teams on which they are placed, without as much support-personnel help. We’ve used Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and those are both here to stay.

“Our clients have responded favorably to web-based meetings and collaborations, the ability to meet face to face virtually and share screens, view and discuss documents, all without having to leave the safety and comfort of their home or office. That has been a very positive experience for clients, and I believe that trend is going to continue long after the pandemic has ended. We’ll certainly continue to provide it. Someone won’t have to drive downtown or catch a plane if they are out of the area, for an important legal meeting.’’

HCH: Do you see that kind of mindset in the larger legal community, as well?

“I do think we’ll see a similar shift for routine court appearances that involve out-of-town council, as well as depositions of some types. Right now, most of those are being conducted virtually, and may continue to do so. I believe key and high-stakes court appearances are going to go back to being live and in person, but a lot of these other things we’ve discovered work just as well remotely.”

HCH: Once things become more normal, what are some goals (for yourself, for the firm) that were pushed to one side and can now be worked toward again?

“We are certainly looking to expand some areas of practice that we have, and we are going to develop more depth and bench strength in some areas. It’s about growth, whether that means hiring one or more several practice groups, or combining with a larger group. We had to shelve a lot of plans because folks were trying to focus on getting through this year.

“Also, Miller & Martin has been around more than 150 years. That’s because we have talented attorneys and great clients, and also because we have a wonderful culture. We have many attorneys who have been here their entire career. I have been here 30 years, and we have lawyers who have been here more than 45 years.

“That is a testament to what a great place this is, and the culture we have been able to create and maintain. We also are looking forward to spending some time together. It has been so long since we’ve had an in-person event, or a retreat, and we hope to do that in the coming year. We focused a lot of technology and efficient ways to conduct.’’