Nov. 1, 2021 – For the second year in a row, meeting the challenges posed by the virtual practice of law was the main topic of discussion at the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference (WSSFC) hosted by the State Bar of Wisconsin (Oct. 27-30).

With 18 months of pandemic experience under their belts, presenters shared a wealth of tips with conference attendees, who accessed the conference through a web portal and mingled in a virtual lobby and a virtual vendor expo area.

In setting the tone for this year’s WSSFC during her opening address on Oct. 28, conference chair Kate Knowlton sounded a theme heard repeatedly during the breakout and plenary sessions: it’s imperative to repurpose virtual technology to build community between section members and boost the efficiency of their practices.

“Using technology to its best purpose, we will not only maintain the old traditions and see our old friends, but we will make new traditions and find even more friends,” Knowlton said.

Sessions Discuss Remote Work and Vaccines

During “Lesson from the Pandemic: Part Deux,” the morning plenary session on Oct. 28, panelist David Krekeler stressed the need for lawyers to use virtual meeting technology to offer clients choices.

“I would prefer to meet everybody in person,” said Krekeler, recipient of this year’s John Lederer Distinguished Service Award. “But what I believe is the right business model is to give people options.”

Lawyers should embrace the practice of allowing employees to work from home, Krekeler said, as a way to meet the recruiting challenges that employers of all sizes are facing.

“Accepting this [work from home] as the new normal can allow us to draw in talent from far and wide, which people who have been trying to find good people to hire understand that it’s really difficult to find good people.”

Krekeler’s co-panelist, law firm consultant Jeff Krause, said that the utility of virtual technology to lawyers and their practices extends beyond the workday.

“All these things that we’ve used to reach out and meet clients can be repurposed for fun,” Krause said.

He cited virtual happy hours and scavenger hunts as examples of social events that employers have organized to help employees stay connected during the pandemic.

Responding to employment law issues raised by the pandemic was the subject of a Thursday afternoon breakout session entitled “An Altered Workplace: COVID’s Effect on Employment Compliance and Civil Liability.”

Nilesh Patel, a lawyer and the human resources director for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, said that if employers want employees to feel comfortable returning to the workplace, they should take their time in crafting plans for that return.

“For it to actually work, you’re going to have to plan enough of a buffer to develop policies, and people are going to want to see them,” he said.

Patel’s co-panelist Kevin J. Palmersheim said that employers should also take care in dealing with employees who resist vaccine mandates.

“Either to be a good human or a good employer, you’ve got to have the conversation about why is it [the mandate] happening, and what are your options? It’s not only ‘Do this or you’re fired.’ That should be the last conversation.”

Determining whether an employee who claims a religious exemption from a vaccine mandate is acting sincerely is also best handled with a conversation, Palmersheim said.

“It’s a hard line to draw. What your client can do is ask and start a dialogue with the employee and ask ‘What is that sincerely held religious belief?’”

Business Advice

Sound business advice that applies regardless of the pandemic was the topic of a Friday plenary session entitled “Tax Facts to Start or Grow a Law Practice. “Joseph W. Boucher previewed proposed changes to the state’s limited liability company law.

Among those proposed changes – which Boucher said he thinks are likely to become law – is the elimination of the requirement that incorporators choose between a member-managed or manager-managed form when filing the articles of organization.

A written operating agreement would no longer be required (although Boucher said not having one would be a mistake).

Boucher also ran through the numerous annual filing requirements for LLCs and corporations under Wisconsin law. Many law firms and their clients neglect those filings, Boucher said, and the results can be costly. For instance, a corporation that fails to file an annual report can be dissolved.

“There are certain things you have to do,” Boucher said. “It’s like renewing your driver’s license. You should have a checklist for doing these things.”

Succession issues are a common worry for both small law firms and the businesses they serve, Boucher said. He was dealing with that issue himself, he said.

“We have to train young people and hope that they come along and want to take over for us. It’s a challenging thing. I’m going through that right now,” Boucher said. “There’s no perfect answer to that. It’s a personnel decision.”

Boucher said keeping up on business requirements is essential for lawyers, pandemic or no pandemic.

“It’s always a challenging time to be a lawyer, let’s be honest, because there are lots of lawyers. There is a lot of competition. If you know your stuff and you care you’ll succeed, but you’ve got to know your business.”

Eleven Tips from the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference

Here are eleven tips from Jeff Lantz, Nerino Petro, Christopher C. Shattuck, and Bryan Sims, who presented “50 Tips in 50 Minutes” at the 2021 Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference

  1. Learn to use Zoom virtual backgrounds, to consistently display a professional-looking background no matter where you’re appearing from;
  2. Guard your privacy when using Alexa and other smart speakers;
  3. Sign up for Attorney at Work, which provides practice and tech tips;
  4. Back up your computers regularly, to protect critical data and privileged information from ransomware attacks;
  5. If you don’t like Grammarly, use Language Tool for help with grammar and spelling;
  6. Tired of paying for Adobe Acrobat every month? Consider these alternatives, which you pay once to download; you don’t pay again until you decide to upgrade:
    Kofax Power PDF; Nitro PDF Pro; Foxit PDF Editor Pro;
  7. Use one of the following services to store electronic files, to ensure that you meet your ethical obligation to safeguard client information: Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, Sookasa;
  8. To avoid distractions, turn off notifications in Outlook when you’re trying to get work done. Go to File>Option, then un-check every box listed under “Message Arrival.”
  9. Use document assembly software (The Form Tool, Pathagoras, Hot Docs, Woodpecker) to boost efficiency and cut down on mistakes;
  10. Update your Google My Business account – it’s free and allows you to add quality web links that are more likely to draw prospective clients to your firm’s website;
  11. Use web analytics: Google Analytics, FirmMetrics to learn where and how to advertise your services and make your firm stand out.

Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.