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Finding creativity in a crisis

How Nelligan Law invested in accessibility, employee wellness, and community service

Nelligan Law
Nelligan Law

Never waste a crisis.

It’s a philosophy the team at Nelligan Law embraced over the last year as the firm adapted to the pandemic by rethinking both its internal operations and how it delivers legal services to clients.  

Even before COVID-19 hit, Nelligan Law was undertaking a significant modernization effort, injecting business management best practices not always found at more traditional law firms.  

As the full impact of the pandemic came into focus, the adoption of many of those ideas – such as the integration of technology and remote work – were expedited, improving clients’ access to trusted legal advice. 

With lawyers hosting video meetings and the law firm offering free consultations through a COVID-19 helpline, the pandemic accelerated Nelligan Law’s transition into a new era of modern, accessible legal service.

“Things that would take eight years to fully implement are getting implemented in eight months,” says Nelligan Law CEO Mia Hempey. “As negative as COVID has been, necessity is the mother of all invention. And for Nelligan Law, that need is driving a lot of positive change.”

Mia Hempey

The technological shift

Although law firms are deemed an essential service, enabling them to keep their office doors open, many employees at Nelligan Law shifted to working remotely last spring. 

With staff no longer meeting in person or able to grab physical case files on the go, the law firm quickly transitioned to a virtual workplace, equipping lawyers, assistants, law clerks and support staff with laptops, Microsoft Teams phones and file-sharing software.

“We’re leveraging technology that big business has been using all along,” says Hempey. “It not only gives employees more flexibility, but allows our clients to get top legal advice without leaving home.”

Through video conferencing, clients are able to connect with the law team more frequently, providing them extra opportunities to ask questions or discuss their cases.  

For partner Lanise Hayes, the additional interactions created an opportunity to build an even closer relationship with her clients.   

As head of the Indigenous Law practice group, Hayes frequently works with various clients and community leaders in Northern and remote communities, advising them on land management issues, residential schools and local governance laws. 

Unable to travel to these regions in person – a journey she would undertake regularly in a normal year – Hayes relied on virtual file software, video conferencing and even social media and text messaging to keep up-to-date with her cases.

“Because of the team’s proactive thinking, it was so easy to just keep working,” says Hayes. “I immediately started booking online meetings, and my clients were so appreciative that we didn’t have a break in our communication just because I wasn’t there in person.”

Lanise Hays

Due to the success of the firm’s virtual transformation, Nelligan Law is also turning two of its board rooms into extensions of virtual courtrooms. Lawyers can connect with judges and clients via video conferencing, and participate in full legal trials from the Nelligan office. 

The transformation is part of the law firm’s vision of a hybrid future, where lawyers and staff will be able to work seamlessly between home and the office. 

Making law more accessible

For local business owners and their employees, the pandemic raised many questions surrounding temporary layoffs, sick leave and lockdown restrictions. 

With Nelligan employees prepared to take on new cases from home, clients had direct access to legal assistance when they needed it most. 

The quick transition to virtual work ensured a smooth process for client onboarding, which no longer required a client to book time off work to meet in-person at a downtown law office. 

Instead, clients are now able to discuss difficult and often personal issues with a lawyer on their own time.

For Nelligan’s clients, the switch to virtual meetings has made the legal system more accessible, says Malini Vijaykumar, a lawyer in the firm’s employment law group. 

“Being able to connect with a client virtually alleviates a lot of the stress for them,” she says. “It strips away a lot of the ceremony and it reduces it down to the heart of what we do, which is talk to people about their story and give them advice on their rights.”

Malini Vijaykumar

As a leading voice in Ottawa’s law sector, Nelligan Law also saw the opportunity to lend its expertise to the wider community. 

For many workers suddenly facing furloughs, reduced hours and the prospect of pay cuts, the pandemic was the first time they needed to seek legal advice. To make the experience easier, the firm set up a free legal helpline that residents could call to ask questions as rules on business operations continued to evolve. In total, the Nelligan team spoke with more than 500 local residents, providing advice and pointing callers to outside resources and websites for further assistance.

Many lawyers at Nelligan gave their time to the helpline, fielding questions surrounding the return to work, health and safety legislations and employee assistance programs.

For Nelligan Law, the pandemic provided an opportunity to create better client experiences and taught the team valuable lessons in flexibility and adaptability that will stay with the law firm well into the future.

“Even with COVID-19, the firm has taken on so many initiatives that have positioned the company to continue to modernize and be successful,” says Hayes. “The changes that we made in 2020 are going to stick with us for years to come.”

A dedication to staff wellness

With the majority of staff working from home, Nelligan’s leadership team implemented creative new ways for the office to stay connected and ensure those working remotely didn’t feel isolated. 

Taking a page from her business background, Nelligan Law CEO Mia Hempey began hosting monthly virtual town hall meetings to keep staff up-to-date on how the firm was fairing during the pandemic.

“Historically, law was steeped in tradition and was seen as hierarchical and not always inclusive,” says Hempey. “At Nelligan we don’t see it that way. We are a team, we provide legal services as a group and everyone deserves to know how we are doing as a business.”

To help staff make new connections, the law firm also hosted coffee chats, where employees would be paired up for a 15-minute virtual meeting with someone else in the office. Partners at the firm also hosted standing biweekly meetings for people to virtually drop by and ask questions.

Employees were also encouraged to participate in several virtual classes throughout the last year. Nelligan hosted mental health seminars, workout classes and healthy eating courses to help the team integrate health and wellness into their daily routines.

Associate lawyer Malini Vijayakumar, who joined Nelligan Law just before the pandemic hit, says it was a great way to meet her fellow employees and feel like she was part of the team. 

“All of these resources were really nice, because it made me feel like I was connected to a group,” says Vijaykumar. “As an employee, I could tell they really cared about my well-being.”