Women in the Law—Managing a Law Firm in the New "COVID-19 Normal"

Elizabeth DiNardo, Esq. | Associate Counsel

JenniferGoreMaglio_WILIt’s hard to imagine that just a few short months ago, the thought of American life grinding to a halt seemed unfathomable. And yet, here we all are. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home, a “new normal” has developed since the time that stay-at-home mandates threw us into a chaotic new reality. This new normal has blurred the lines of our work and home lives, as many of us now juggle Zoom meetings from our living rooms in between home schooling children and checking in on our families and friends.

Work-life balance has never been more important and yet can seem so difficult during these challenging times. In this article, as part of our Women in the Law series, we shine a light on some of the most influential women in the legal industry and share what compels them to strive for excellence in serving their clients. This month, we profile senior appellate attorney at Maglio Christopher & Toale, Jennifer Gore Maglio, and learn how COVID-19 has affected her firm and how she has adjusted to the ever-changing situation.

The timeline of the COVID-19 crisis being on Jennifer’s radar started earlier than most. Although she herself is based in Florida, her firm operates a west coast office in Seattle—one of the first American cities to have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak. “We had a bit of an early warning because of our Seattle office. When things started getting scary out there and the local government asked workers to stay home if possible, we closed that office.” Like dominoes, the rest of the Maglio Christopher & Toale offices began to close down. The Washington D.C. office temporarily shut its doors, followed by Jennifer’s local office in Sarasota, Florida soon thereafter.

“We’ve always used school closures as a trigger for office closure, so when schools in Florida announced closures, that meant the Florida office had to shut down. So, the firm as a whole, was remote by mid-March.” As difficult as the switch to a fully remote office has been, Jennifer reflects that the firm was perhaps more prepared than many of its peers across the country. “I am extremely lucky because I have the best IT team ever! Thanks to them we were all prepared to transition to a remote working environment at the drop of a hat. Every employee in our firm had previously been given a laptop that could be managed remotely by the IT team. We were already using Zoom as our office phone and conferencing system. Plus, we’ve been a paperless firm since we began 21 years ago, so there were no issues about file access.”

However, the logistics of the initial jump from a brick and mortar firm to a fully remote operation was just the beginning. Operating a practice during this time of limited face-to-face contact and widespread physical court closures presented another layer of challenges. Jennifer lost no time addressing the novelty of the new working situation she and her employees were experiencing. “At our first firmwide meeting post-office closures, we started with everyone introducing their children or pets as their new co-workers, which was a fun way to acknowledge our new reality.”

Facing directly, the challenges of this “new reality” in which her employees are working, has been key in Jennifer’s approach to firm management. “Many of our employees have children and are figuring out how to share childcare responsibilities with their working spouses, while attending to their cases. Others are quarantining in small living spaces with multiple family members who are also remotely working, making it hard to find a quiet space.” She goes on to say, “I’m trying to temper my emails about deadlines and firm expectations with the acknowledgement that everyone’s starting point is different these days. I am trying (but not always succeeding, unfortunately) to approach management with more patience and understanding that what was simple last month may not be so easy now.”

While ensuring that office productivity remains up to standards, Jennifer says that she is always striving to maintain company culture while everyone is separated from each other. The firm has taken steps to focus on providing face-to-face time among employees by increasing the number of Zoom meetings. Keeping up office morale is one of the best ways to keep productivity high and with that in mind, the firm has instituted remote happy hours and Zoom group lunches, in addition to using Slack as a convenient platform for firm employees to voice their thoughts and concerns. Her team is also committed to keeping each and every one of their clients up to date on the changing situation. “After a few concerned calls from clients, we realized they feared us coming to a halt on their cases. To calm these fears, our paralegals reached out to each client to let them know we are still here, working remotely, but able to be contacted in exactly the same ways as before.”

Along with her staff, Jennifer has had to adapt to new working conditions as well, since she, along with her husband and law partner Altom Maglio and their teenage children, have transformed their home into both a remote office and school. A self-confessed non-multitasker, Jennifer has admitted that it was difficult at first to find her stride while working from home. “For my home office, I started out at the breakfast table thinking I would enjoy being able to keep an eye on movements of my teenagers and would be close enough to where my husband was set up in the den, that I could pop in when we needed to talk about a firm issue. Turns out that setup was way too public for a non-multitasker like me! I was distracted by AP class discussions, nonstop cooking in the kitchen and my husband’s endless Zoom calls.”

Jennifer ended up finding the ideal location for her home office was in her bedroom, far from the distractions of kids and constant meetings. As she prepares for her first-ever telephonic oral argument, Jennifer admits that it wasn’t only her new work environment that she had to adjust to, but it was also the changed rhythm of her workday. “I’ve gained hours that were previously spent driving kids to school and practices but also lost things that anchored my day. Knowing I had to leave the office at a set time to pick up my daughter kept me on task. Now it’s easy to go from bingeing on work to losing time to the distraction of bingeing on the news.”

With the lines between work and home so intertwined, it may be a struggle to maintain boundaries that once kept these two areas of life reasonably separate and distinct. Jennifer says that during one of the firm’s Zoom calls, they discussed this problem and offered suggestions on how to keep a productive routine. The first step is finding a designated work space that you can concentrate in and the second is taking time away from that space. Jennifer says that taking a walk every morning before starting work has helped to put her in the right mindset to start her day. She goes on to say she always tries to have lunch away from her desk. However, leaving work at a set time everyday has admittedly been a challenge for Jennifer, something she has always struggled with. “Since I am an appellate attorney, my work is pretty solitary anyway. I’ve had the office lights turned out on me many, many times when the last person leaving didn’t realize I’d been there all day.”

In the end, the team at Maglio Christopher & Toale is taking this new normal one day at a time. “I like simple mantras: during this time, I am trying to approach each day by reminding myself to keep an open heart and an open mind as we all face these new challenges.” Concluding her thoughts on this strange situation we’ve been thrown into, Jennifer sums it up saying, “At the end of the day, I am beyond grateful for how fortunate I am in my family and in my firm. This is a stressful and heartbreaking time for so many. We are so lucky that we can continue to work and be there for our clients and each other.”

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