As cases of the coronavirus accelerate, law firms including Mayer Brown, Eversheds Sutherland, Allen & Overy (A&O), Mishcon de Reya, Hogan Lovells and Fieldfisher have established COVID-19 working groups to help clients.
The moves come after swathes of firms ordered employees to work from home in the City and around the world in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease, which has so far racked up 244,553 confirmed cases globally and claimed 10,031 lives. Cases in the UK have ratcheted up at an alarming rate, with 2,716 cases and 137 deaths reported at the time of writing, with the UK government poised imminently to impose a lockdown to stem the spread.
Mayer Brown has set up a global response team spearheaded by the management committee and office managing partners and launched a COVID-19 web portal and blog to provide answers to frequently emerging questions from clients. Tools include a global travel navigator facility with a heat map of regions affected and various restrictions there.
Speaking to Legal Business, Sally Davies (pictured), Mayer Brown’s London managing partner, said: ‘There has been so much information coming out on coronavirus and we have been sending multiple alerts out to clients. We wanted to consolidate everything in one place and make it easy to navigate.’
Davies said the response was largely crisis management and advisory at this stage, and expects further down the line client questions will turn to recovering money from the government as well as restructurings. The management committee and office managing partners are having daily calls on the coronavirus and have established and email group and WhatsApp group to quickly share knowledge and information.
‘There are questions over what a complete lockdown might mean. Can buildings and businesses be accessed at all? Can contracts be terminated or put on hold? What do the provisions which deal with force majeure and epidemics mean? Who pays for the delays and losses? As well as advice on business rates for large empty offices and employment issues around home working.
Eversheds has augmented its existing firm-wide working group with a global working group to deal with any litigation-related client requests around the coronavirus.
The group includes 13 partners: Jessica Neuberger (UK), Greg Falkof (Paris), Matthew Taylor (UK), Simon Brooks (UK), Paul Taylor (UAE), Michael Bahar (Washington DC), Meghana Shah (New York), Matt Gatewood (Washington DC), Tim Hill (UK), Mark Yeadon (Hong Kong), Joos Hellert (Germany), Yuri Wehrmeijer (Netherlands) and Remi Kleiman (Paris).
Paul Worth, co-head of global litigation, told Legal Business: ‘The global working party was set up to ensure a consistent approach. Just in the UK we have 600 people and 500 lawyers in my group so we wanted to make sure there weren’t hundreds of slightly nuanced responses to, for example, questions around force majeure. We wanted to ensure a joined up approach to make sure we had a clear understanding of client needs.’
Worth says that the firm is using webinars to tackle questions on M&A, real estate litigation, contract termination and force majeure: ‘We are not giving away the crown jewels but are offering high-level advice to clients.’
Worth added that that the firm was producing a global guide to force majeure across 40 jurisdictions to respond to the single biggest issue lawyers are being asked about, taking just a fortnight to produce where it normally can take months.
Worth draws parallels with the foot and mouth disease crisis of 2001 in terms of the types of issues that will likely emerge. ‘We advised the government on many millions of pounds of contract disputes connected with foot and mouth. I expect the coronavirus could lead to disputes around the allocation of government funds and resources. What clients need now is different from what they will need in six months’ time when the impact on global economies will automatically create opportunities for disputes.’
Elsewhere, Fieldfisher has responded with a one-stop-shop to offer commercial, employment, corporate and disputes advice in one place.
Ranjit Dhindsa, head of employment at Fieldfisher, told Legal Business: ‘The hub has expanded into having all the different advice you may need in one place. It has employment lawyers, commercial contract advice, litigation advice, insolvency lawyers, if your business can’t survive. What we have done is forget about expertise in isolation. When a board is in crisis you want the whole picture.’
Latham & Watkins has similarly established a task force, A&O a working group, Mischcon a cross-firm COVID-19 team, Hogan Lovells a hub to assess the potential impacts as well as multiple tools covering areas such as supply chain disruption, and Cooley a coronavirus resource hub to provide clients with advice on the pandemic.