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Taking the Jump to Virtual with Jennifer Schaller, Managing Director of The National Law Review and Megan Braverman, Principal of Berbay Marketing & Public Relations [PODCAST]
Wednesday, March 31, 2021

What you’ll learn in this episode:

  • The pros and cons of a virtual office.

  • The biggest challenges of working remotely.

  • Transitioning your technology to a virtual “platform.”

  • Advice for firms considering going remote.

  • What to ask prospective employees to ensure they’re a fit for remote work.

Listen to Taking the Jump to Virtual, Epdisode 87 of the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast.

Sharon:      Welcome to the Law Firm Marketing Catalyst podcast. Today, we’re talking about a timely subject which is affecting many of us, and that is working remotely. First is Jennifer Schaller who is a co-founder and the Managing Director of The National Law Review, a publication which many of you are familiar with, and Megan Braverman, Principal of Berbay Marketing & Public Relations, and I am Sharon Berman, Managing Principal of Berbay Marketing & Public Relations. So, we’ll be here from each of our desks today talking about their experiences and what they have to learn and what we can learn from them about working remotely. Jennifer, can you tell us about your experience?

Jennifer:    Sure, absolutely. We started as a remote company just simply because we were formed by a group of attorneys at different in-house law departments, so it wasn’t like most of the co-founders were leaving their regular positions working in corporate law departments. A former law firm administrator and I and a few other young attorneys actually started the more public-facing part of The National Law Review. So, it wasn’t like we had an office and we moved to remote. We were kind of a remote group to begin with and then we hired more remote people, if that makes sense.

Sharon:      Yes, it does. O.K., so you’ve been remote from the beginning. Basically, you started—

Jennifer:    Yes.

Sharon:      O.K., that’s a great way to start in terms of not having to transfer technology and think about things. Megan, can you talk a little bit how Berbay—we have just gone totally remote, but we’ve building to it for a while, so tell us about the Berbay experience.

Megan:       So, Berbay was founded in 1995 and since that date, we’ve had a physical office in Los Angeles and our most recent office we were in for just over twenty years in West L.A. It’s a long time and as you said, we were really thinking about going virtual for some time. For those that understand the L.A. world, traffic and the commutes are painful, and we really ran the agency like just get the work done; we don’t care what time you clock in and clock out and everybody really liked that and so the past few years, we would walk into the office and it felt like a bit of a ghost town. People were coming in later and leaving earlier to help avoid the commutes and traffic, and so once COVID hit, it came at an interesting time because our lease was coming due at the end of that year and so it really just propelled us into going virtual. I think in many ways it was a blessing in disguise because it really got our—we had to get our act together, whereas if COVID and the pandemic didn’t happen, I think we would have probably taken our time and maybe reluctantly gone out the door. So, we officially went virtual on February 1, 2021.

Sharon:      That’s true and when you say it would have taken a long time, I think about it because we had talked about, “Well, let’s talk again in a few months” and then it’s like, “O.K., how do we do this?” and it probably would have been five years from now if we really hadn’t been sort of forced in—well, not forced. It’s not that we didn’t want to do it, but it’s like, “O.K., we’d better get it done.” So, for both Jennifer and Megan, what did you think before you set this up? For both of you, what do you think the biggest challenges were going to be working remotely?

Jennifer:    We’ve always had a physical office space. It’s just having space for initial training and storage of conference and office supplies in Chicago. Right now, we have people in our main office Chicago and then we grew to Denver, and we have one of our tech people in Detroit. Since it’s always been mature attorneys or an office manager who has thirty years’ experience, there wasn’t the need to have the supervision of making sure people come in on time because in running a news service, we know if you’re producing work or not. It’s really more for initial training or for the purposes of picking stuff up. So really more of the remote issues that we’ve encountered along the way have been dealing with operating in different states and some of the laws relating to that.

Sharon:      Yeah, you just have to think about the fact that different states have different compliance standards to think about. Did you think when you brought on people in different locations like Seattle or Detroit, did you think, “Oh my god, how am I going to keep everybody together?” or what did you think the challenges might be?

Jennifer:    It is really, really organic. The Detroit person is one of our more technical guys and he has a tight relationship with my spouse, who actually handles the real high-level oversight of the more technical end of the website because we’re an extremely high-volume website and they’re kind of buddies. So, they handle their thing and the Denver part of it grew very organically by adding an additional tech person in Denver. We had a person who had been working with us for a while who was relocating out there for her husband’s position and so we agreed to keep her position and we’ve just found a whole little kind of hub of really good talent out there. We’re actually now starting to actively hire more towards the East Coast and bring in people in specific time zones where we might not have anybody, but the other part of it was just based on people—we try to accommodate the needs of our employees and to try to make it a win-win with the company’s goals.

Sharon:      And Megan, were there challenges that you expected or that you didn’t think about that popped up?

Megan:       Most of the challenges that we faced were expected. I mean the typical ones like—well, change is really hard, especially from a technology standpoint, so I think there are always technology issues along the way. I expected that. I knew people were going to have trouble adapting to the new system, especially when you’re used to something for so many years. I think there will be challenges to come because we’re still in the midst of a pandemic. In California, we’re pretty locked down here. I think there will be different kinds of challenges when everybody can start seeing each other again, like logistical I think is a little bit hard right now. Before, we would all be at the office and we’d jump in the car together and go see a client and I think that will be different. I think what Jennifer said—it’s like Jennifer has an office where you can kind of do some physical pickup of things. That’s all going to be remote for us and we’re going to be doing drop-offs of computers when we have a new employee and if someone leaves, picking them up and how that’s all run and handled. Those things I think are challenging. You don’t really think about all those little things as you move virtual, but those were all challenges and things you have to figure out a plan for.

I think the one challenge that—not only is it happening now, but I think it will get harder as we continue to be virtual and live in this virtual world longer, is we’re in the creative space and so there is a lot of collaboration and right now every collaboration is intentional. So before in the office, you would just say, “Hey, Sharon, can you swing over here and take a look at this? Look what do you think?” And we would sit there and have it out or I’m sure it happens the same with you, Jennifer. We sit down randomly and have brainstorm sessions and strategize. Now all of that has to be intentional. It’s more like, “Sharon, do you have twenty minutes tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. to go through this” and so it’s less of a spur of the moment and I think that that will—it can impede collaboration.

I think there are ways to combat and ensure that we’re doing the same things as we once did physically. For example, we’ve created something called Co-llab which is really just an intentional weekly meeting where we can all get together and bring things to the table. There’s no agenda. It’s just like, “Here’s my challenge” or “Hey, can you look at this ad? What do you think?” or “What about this copy” or “I’m struggling with this pitch” and we can all just bring things to the table. So, it has to be much more planful and intentional now.

Sharon:      In technology—because technology was the most daunting thing—I mean there are a lot of like you say, bugs that have to be worked out, but to me, from my perspective, it was thinking about how do we move the technology, are we in the cloud or is it a server or whatever and then also, we use Microsoft Teams in terms of collaboration. Jennifer, you are on Slack?

Jennifer:    Yeah, the technical end of it has been the easy part for us because we’re a tech-based company given the volume of publishing that we do. We publish anywhere from 65 to 85 articles a day, and that’s why we also have people in different time zones. It’s sort of challenging when we’re hiring and we’re like, “We’re publishing anywhere from six in the morning to seven at night” and interviewees are like, “I’m not working those days.” We split that up into different work teams and that concept gets kind of messy in a lot of the minds of people we interview who are working nine to five, but ultimately our clients win if we get the best results for them which means a quick turnaround on their publishing and we win because we make half of our revenue from advertising, so we have every incentive to get their content out there quickly and to do the best with it that we can. So, since we have people working in different shifts, in different time zones, all to produce news content, they have developed a great system on Slack where they talk throughout the day, figure out who’s doing what, who’s doing the social media, who’s doing the formatting of the content and the SEO work and who’s publishing it.

On the front end, we do scheduling as far as a month out on our work calendar. We have a system where; we ask folks to put their preferred hours to help fill publishing time slots during the day so we can cover the publishing cycle. Then we also have staff available on the weekends for publishing and customer service—so it’s like our road map for things. I wish I could have found something to read on how to do this, but we just kind of felt our way through it with both the scheduling of people and the timekeeping and then the daily conversations on Slack kind of evolved organically.

We have subcommittees for social media, advertising and SEO and a couple of other groups for projects and then we have regular team meetings. We usually will have a written agenda of things for our meetings that we want to go over, not that we can’t talk about different things, but in order to have a roadmap of who’s going to be covering what and what the deliverables are from the last meeting, so everybody knows they’re going to be held accountable and to have their stuff ready. So, we’ve just had to develop a lot of formalized systems but have done it through technology.

Sharon:      It’s interesting how—I’m sure you’ve hit roadblocks along the way and said, “O.K., we tried that. That wasn’t really the way to go.” You also have been able to do this over time, whereas a lot of firms are scrambling right now. Yes, there’s an aspect of scrambling, but we had a foundation of people working remotely. It wasn’t like, “Oh my gosh, what are we going to do?” It’s nice to have that luxury of trial and error and it sounds like it’s really served you well in terms of “O.K., we tried this. This is the way we want to go. Let’s go around this way.”

Megan, for firms that are considering or who are in the midst of going remotely or debating whether to revert back when get to the new normal or to go totally remote, what do you think the firm should be thinking about?

Megan:       Well, I think it’s a big decision for a lot of firms to decide what to do when things start to get back to normal. I’ve talked to so many people who have said that they love the virtual world, and their employees and the staff love the virtual world. It gives them a lot of flexibility; a better workplace balance and they can’t imagine going back. I’ve spoken to a lot of employees who have said they’re not going back. So, they’re really hoping that their employer’s going to be amenable to their request because they can’t imagine going back into the office. I’ve talked to a lot of folks that feel differently. They really believe in having that physical presence and having that office and having people there every day.

I do think that this pandemic has changed the mindset on virtual. I think there are a lot of sort of nonbelievers out there that turn believers because in their minds it was impossible. I mean there was no way that they could operate virtually, but when you’re forced to operate virtually, you realize that you can and actually there are a lot of benefits that come with it. I do think there are more believers out there. I think that that will change permanently. I think if you’re considering embarking on going virtual, even partially virtual, maybe you decide to have your employees come in twice a week or whatever it might be or downsize your offices. You just kind of share space differently. I think you really have to come up with a plan of action. To me that was so crucial when we made the decision, we were going to officially go virtual.

I did a ton of research and thought about—I mean technology is one small piece. Privacy is a big piece. For example, there are some employees who are sharing their living with a roommate or a partner and you have to think about privacy issues beyond just secure technology, but what if someone’s overhearing conversations of confidential information, but they’re living in 600 square feet, what do you do? So, there’s a lot under each umbrella. I think that plan of action includes everything from how meetings are going to work, as Jennifer went into detail about how they handle their meetings, what to do when like for example the internet isn’t working very well at home. That happens all the time. It’s amazing. It’s like no matter how much you call your internet provider, nothing happens. So, what do you do when something is the matter with your internet?

I think of all these things—first there’s a lot online. There are a lot of people who’ve done this, so talk to people who’ve done this; they can tell you their mistakes or the things that they overlooked, but a simplified plan of action of all the things we needed to be thinking about really kept us on track and made sure that we really—and we did things in phases. I think that was a big thing for us. Don’t try to tackle everything at once. We had almost a year to move out of our office. We took that time, and we did little by little by little. That was so helpful. If you try to move out of an office in a month, you are going to be scrambling.

Sharon:      I think you made some very good points about the fact that if you do it in phases. First of all, I do have to say that you were the main planner and driver of going virtual and I give you a lot of credit because it really went—it happened, and it didn’t happen with people tearing their hair out. So, I think that’s—

Megan:       Just me tearing my hair out.

Jennifer:    Your hair still looks very good.

Megan:       Thank you, thank you.

Sharon:      Jennifer, you must have seen over time a real evolution in how people view—ten years ago, you just didn’t say if you weren’t going to the office. You must have seen a real change.

Jennifer:    Well, we have one advantage. We’re the kind of business that nobody visits us, so it’s not like we’re going to have client visits. That was one thing that kind of made things a little bit easier with the whole virtual situation, but yes, perceptions have changed drastically over what it means to work from home and we work very purposely when we interview to ferret out people’s perception of what it means to work from home because being in the publishing business, there’s a lot of freelancers and there are a lot of folks who are like, “I’m just going to work when I want to work” and we try to explain the rigid schedule of news publishing, if they haven’t worked for a newspaper or a daily publication, how—no,  it’s got to be between certain hours and that there’s structure in order to produce the product that we do for our clients. But yeah, I mean initially ten years ago, there was a perception either that it was kind of two extremes, either you were like some lady who’s doing quilting in her basement or you’re like Bill Gates and you can work from the south of France and there were very few in-the-middle kinds of situations.

So yeah, it took a little bit to educate people whom we were bringing onboard on what the expectations were. I mean we’ve learned an amazing amount over the years—it’s a huge red flag if somebody says in an interview like, “How do you know if I’m working” and it’s like, “Oooh.” So, we just have figured out mostly through being exceedingly descriptive when we post jobs and then continuing through the interview process of explaining what our daily routines are, and to explain that there is some expectation of an in-person component for both work and training.

For training, we train normally pre-COVID three weeks one-on-one to get folks into the publishing process because it is pretty difficult to find people who have SEO experience and legal experience and publishing experience, we’ve yet to find the trifecta of somebody who has all those things. So, we’ve found it most effective when we train to sit down with people so we can see if, versus virtual, if their eyes are glazing over because we’re going over something that’s routine for them or if it’s a new task that they have no clue what’s going on, so we can better tailor our training and also develop rapport because we know eventually, we will be working remotely.

We have multiple people interview everybody when we hire, which some interviewees are confused by. Especially in the publishing process, it’s an all-day-long cycle of either different team members coming on and tagging in or working jointly in different parts of the publishing process. We really want a cohesive team, and we want anybody who’s joining us to know what they’re getting into and to have as many different people to talk to, to get a flavor for that. And by the same token, anybody we bring onboard, we want the full buy-in of our staff. So, the net of it is, in person when we can, monthly in-person meetings, like we do an LMA meeting and usually work together as a group in the afternoon pre-COVID. -. In-person training and then we do lots of conferences, and we try to mix up the people who are going to different events and can get to know their coworkers and their clients better.

Sharon:      That’s really nice. You have the independence and then really work to build the camaraderie among different people. Megan, what do you think? What are some of the questions or what are you looking for when you’re asking somebody about coming onboard to Berbay?

Megan:       So, we’ve only hired one staff member virtually and onboarded and trained this person virtually, so we’re fairly new to doing this and I think a lot of the questions and sort of what we’re looking for in a candidate is very similar to before. There are of course questions related to their space. Do they have a designated office space or not, and have they had experience working virtually? Would this be their first experience? How do they manage their time productivity?

It’s interesting. I found that we are working more productively, longer hours virtually than when we were in the office and there are a couple of reasons for this. I think one reason is that we’re all locked down, so there’s nothing else to do, so we just fill our time with things that we need to get done. I think that because you have a lot more flexibility, that you kind of work different hours. Sometimes you’ll work a big chunk in the morning and then you’ll take an hour or so break, eating lunch, maybe going outside and then you’re back to working. The fact that you’re able to break whenever you want during your day at the convenience of your schedule I think works really well versus when you are in the office, you are in the office. Even if there was a slow period, you were in the office.

You just kind of did what you needed to do, but I do think when you’re finding candidates, I mean you really need someone that is used to that autonomy and if they’re used to working side by side with people and they’ve never had that remote autonomous position, I think that’s going to be challenging. With that said, if they’re a very disciplined person and motivated and proactive, all the qualities that probably any company looks for, I think that a lot of people can adjust and will find—if you probably talked to anyone at Berbay including myself, we all agree that it’s just been so amazing working virtually. I mean there’s a lot less planning you have to do and that frees up your mind for other things, like for example a lot of us who go to the office, we think about meal planning: what should I make the night before so I can bring lunch in the next day or what time do I need to leave so I can get into the office on time for whatever call I have? You have to think through all those things. You have to plan them. Even your outfit, when you’re at your office, some people love to do the day before if you have a meeting. So, there are a lot of things you have to think through. I think the fact that you have more brain space now and not have to think about that makes a big difference. I know I sort of got sidetracked with the questions, but I think those are all the things that you can kind of probe a candidate for in terms of discipline, ability to be autonomous, their experience with remote work, etc.

Sharon:      No, I mean there is more brain space because you don’t have to figure out what time do I go to the gym, should I make lunch, should I pack dinner for the night before for lunch. I think the main difference—what Berbay and Jennifer are saying—and I thought that was an interesting point—is somebody in what we do, can be a freelancer in a sense. I mean they can be part of our team, but be a freelancer, where, Jennifer, you need somebody who is going to be available at certain times; it doesn’t matter if there in an office or not; they have to be available to take an assignment at a certain time and get it done at a certain time. So, that’s interesting because I think candidates who haven’t been exposed to what Jennifer is saying would have a hard time sort of wrapping their heads around the fact, “Well, I’m not a freelancer, but I’m not in an office.”

Jennifer:    Yes, it’s been challenging. We really, really, really, really try to front everything in the interview process. That makes it sound like there’s something sinister going on here. We have exceedingly talented people. Most of them have advanced degrees and have years and years of either publishing or SEO experience or editorial experience and some legal, and so to talk to interviewees and say, “Well, we kind of work in an assembly-line environment” for lack of a better way to put it because we have somebody who checks what’s coming in and then verifies that we can publish it, formats it, does the SEO work, has an editor look at it and makes it go live, does the social, does homepage placement. We kind of repeat that process for 60 to 85 articles throughout the day.

As things come in, editorial questions come in from our clients who want changes to things or just have general questions and to understand the interdependence of how to do that for 12 hours a day with different people working, it’s easy to explain it to somebody who’s worked in a news environment, but even with that, that tended to be more print, intended to be super deadline specific, we tend to publish live and cut things off at a certain time in the day. So, there’s a lot of judgment calls at the end of the day if we have things coming in still if they’re breaking news, if we publish them or wait until the next day.

So, that whole process I think is somewhat unique between having our own writers’ writing, original contributed content and then syndicating content from law firms and mixing it up into a newsfeed. That’s not super-common out there. It’s not like we can recruit people who’ve been doing the same thing at other places. There’s a learning curve and a trust curve.

Sharon:      No, I can understand that. That would be a difficult thing to find. To me, I’m still struck by having to explain these to them overnight. It’s not freelance, but you’re working virtually basically. So, Megan and Jennifer—Megan, let me start with you.  Based on your experience, what would you tell other firms who are considering going totally virtual or what would you say the benefits are? What would you do differently? What would your advice be to them?

Megan:       My advice to those that are going to go virtual, first is give yourself—however much time you think it’s going to take to really go virtual, I would double it. I think the fact that we had essentially a year to do it was incredibly beneficial and mind you, I took that year very seriously. It’s not like I started four months out. I mean I really started at the top of the year and just started chipping away at the paint because that was the only thing that my brain could actually handle getting out of this physical office and transferring technology and all of the things that had to come with it. So, I would say give yourself ample time.

I think that there are an enormous of benefits from working virtually, challenges too, but I think that there is a new meaning to the work-life balance. I think that whatever the new normal looks like, I believe that people are going to be permanently changed. Maybe everybody can’t wait to get out of their house and I’m sure a lot of people can’t wait, but at the same time, I think once we’re able to get out, I think we’re going to love the fact that we had that time at home and with our family and the quality time and we’re going to need that, and I think the virtual workplace offers that.

I would say the other piece of advice too is have someone to support you. Don’t think that you have to do this all your own. This was very a team approach of Berbay. Everybody had a role in going virtual. Every single staff member had a role in helping get to the virtual space. So, someone has to lead the charge of course, but just rely on your staff as much as possible and everything is overwhelming with change. I think just taking it day by day—I know that that’s such a simple piece of advice, but it’s really true. I think I had a realization moment where I knew that I couldn’t think too far ahead. You just think about the day, think about the week and what you’re going to achieve and over time, you’ll see how much progress you’ve made.

Sharon:      Megan, we had that year, and you had that year, but that still sounds like if you could have had more time, you would have. At the same time, if this hadn’t happened and we said, “O.K., we’re going to go virtual,” I think that five years down the line we’d still be converting. So, what do you think? Do you have an idea of what—is it a couple of years you think? What would you say?

Megan:       It’s a good question. I think it depends on the size of your company. I think that plays a big role. I mean we had one office. We were a small team. We can work leanly. There’s not a whole lot of bureaucracy, so decisions were made very quickly, very easily. So, I think depending on the size of the company, that can change. I think if you’re working with multiple offices and maybe each office is doing something different, that can be a challenge. I do think creating some kind of timeline, even if it’s over a long period of time, that’s O.K. You just have to create a timeline and really stick to it because we were forced into that timeline, but I think that it was probably one of the more beneficial motivators we had in place. It was like we had that—we couldn’t change the timeline. It wasn’t like we could say, “Well, our lease was up. We weren’t going to renew, so we had to get out of the office by February 1.” I think that’s why the timeline is so crucial, but again, I think you’ve got to rely on your staff and it’s so important. You can’t do this on your own. I talked to probably ten other employers who went virtual. I just picked their brains for 20, 30 minutes and just got the rundown of everything I needed to know, and you just get it done.

Sharon:      And you did and once again, I give you a lot of credit. Jennifer, in wrapping up, what would you like people to know? What do you think they should know about working remotely or going remote or words of wisdom?

Jennifer:    Well first of all, what a wonderful way you guys rolled it out, you had a hard deadline, but a lot of runway at the same time in order to make it happen and it’s fantastic that you pulled together as a group. One thing I can say, we were exceedingly blessed to have an extremely strong office administrator when we first started. Not only was she very experienced in the law firm world, but she was technology savvy, and you don’t always find somebody with a huge amount of experience in tech and office systems. So, we had her—thank you, Shirley—early on and actually now she works for a client of ours and came from a client of ours before.

So, I would say if you can, start out with strong parameters like having filing protocols and having systems for reporting time and requesting time off, formal systems for payroll. Just because you’re working remotely or have a small team, that stuff doesn’t go away. I think the stronger systems that you have in place like they do at larger companies makes it simpler to make that transition and then just letting team members know not only do they have input into how to change them or tweak them, but that we actually do take our team’s input and implement the changes.

Sharon:      And I think that’s a good point because I think that goes a long way in terms of pulling people together and making them feel like they’re part of something, at least knowing what the protocols are. It’s not like, “Well, I can do whatever I want. I’m floating in space. I can do whatever I want.”

Jennifer and Megan, thank you so much for talking today. I’m sure that those listening gleaned a lot of information and we gave everybody a lot to think about and I hope we didn’t scare anybody off. Thank you once again for being here. Jennifer Schaller who is the Managing Director of The National Law Review and Megan Braverman who is Principal of Berbay Marketing & Public Relations. Thank you both.

Jennifer:    Thank you.

Megan:       Thank you.

Sharon:      We hope you apply what you learned here today to propel your firm forward. If you have questions or want even more resources, go to Berbay.com and as always, thank you for listening.

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