On the eve of Memorial Day weekend in 2020, the U.S Department of the Treasury and the Small Business Administration released long-awaited Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness guidance.
Although Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel had geared down for the holiday, the firm shifted back into work mode and began a long night of preparing a summary for its clients.
Managing partner Mark Cunningham was the first to dissect the text in the firmwide effort.
“It was 10 o’clock on Friday night, and here comes a new set of rules,” he recalls. “I worked on our analysis until about 2 in the morning.”
Chambliss attorneys Justin Furrow and Jim Catanzaro grabbed the baton from Cunningham, and at 10 a.m. Saturday the firm issued a client alert summarizing the key information.
Like a white plume pouring out of a smoke bomb, the information spread far and wide, including the desk of Wall Street Journal reporter Yuka Hayashi, who cited Chambliss’ update in her May 23 article titled “Questions Persist After Release of New Small-Business Loan Rules.”
Grateful for the summary, Hayashi mentioned the firm on Twitter, posting, “Kudos to @CBSLawFirm for whipping up an early read on the latest PPP forgiveness reg while the rest of us were busy complaining about how it was ruining our holiday weekend.”
Cunningham says the nod from the WSJ is one of the moments about which he is the proudest as he looks back on Chambliss’ performance during the pandemic.
“I believe we were one of the first firms in the country to release an analysis. We wanted to place it in the hands of our clients as quickly as possible and be seen as leaders in our industry.”
Chambliss enabled its rapid response two months earlier when its leaders sketched the blueprint that would guide the firm through the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Providing “exceptional client service” was on the list of priorities, Cunningham says, but it was not at the top.
Before the firm could serve businesses and other local, regional and national entities, it needed to ensure the health and safety of its attorneys and staff, Cunningham explains.
“It was a situation unlike any we had seen before, so there was no game plan for how to handle it. But when we looked at our priorities, keeping everyone safe and healthy was our No. 1 concern.”
In response to Center for Disease Control guidelines and Hamilton County mandates, Chambliss initially shifted to a mostly remote workforce. However, Cunningham says the layout of the firm’s space in downtown Chattanooga’s Liberty Tower afforded it the freedom to allow people who wanted to work in the office to do so once that was legally permissible.
“Luckily, our space is set up to allow for a fair amount of separation, so we had to make only minimal adjustments to our flow,” he adds.
Other changes included limiting the number of people in particular rooms, installing barriers wherever necessary and – sadly – canceling cake day.
“We had to stop doing some of the things we enjoy, like eating cake together,” Cunningham laughs. “That wasn’t a big deal, although we do eat a lot of cake.”
Cunningham says Chambliss’ attorneys and staff were able to function within this framework without spreading the coronavirus.
Although the firm did sanitize the affected spaces when an employee reported contact with the infection outside the workplace, after more than a year since the beginning of pandemic, it hasn’t needed to take any other action to prevent an outbreak within its walls, Cunningham claims.
“We felt comfortable working within that environment, so we returned as much as we could to an in-office work environment early on.”
Chambliss matched its ambitious homecoming with an equally bold determination to hold on to its workforce.
Cunningham says as he and the rest of the firm’s leadership read reports of law firms across the country furloughing staff, offloading associates and shedding partners, they resolved that Chambliss would “look as similar as possible when it came out of the pandemic.”
A year later, Cunningham reports only “positive adjustments” in personnel.
“We’re essentially the same group, and our relationships with each other are stronger.”
To ensure this would be the case, Chambliss obtained a PPP loan for paying attorneys and staff who chose to stay home due to either “legitimate fears” or because they needed to care for children or loved ones, Cunningham notes.
“The loan allowed us to continue our operations and keep people employed.”
After ensuring it could stabilize its operations and workforce, Chambliss felt confident it could also “continue to provide exceptional client service,” Cunningham says.
Since Chambliss had the infrastructure for working from home in place long before the pandemic was little more than scattered reports coming out of China, attorneys and staff members were able to choose to work from home.
“A few of our attorneys have worked almost exclusively from home throughout the pandemic because of their personal situations, and they’ve been effective,” Cunningham adds.
As the pandemic wore on, Chambliss checked its bearing and performed a self-assessment during a young shareholders meeting in August. During the socially distanced gathering, the firm gained insight into its character, mission and abilities, Cunningham says.
“We’ve come to realize we like being an autonomous, independent, mid-size firm. We were able to be nimble during the pandemic because we don’t have multiple offices and several layers of committees making decisions. We operated out of one office and were able to easily track everything.”
Cunningham says Chambliss also has a fresh appreciation for being a Chattanooga firm, even as its achievements during the pandemic increased its standing regionally and nationally, he adds.
“We realized we’re collaborative and want to work in person. While Zoom is great, we can’t virtually mentor associates as effectively as we can in-person.
“At the same time, we have the ability to develop relationships with clients across the country. The shift to remote work environments actually helped us because our national clients recognized that the distance is not an issue for us. We can provide exceptional client service working remotely, which makes us more competitive as a midsize firm in Chattanooga.”
Both Cunningham and Catanzaro say the entire firm – including its staff – is responsible for its accomplishments during the pandemic.
Even when Cunningham, Furrow and Catanzaro were burning the midnight oil the evening of the PPP release, members of the firm’s marketing team were up with them, including Aricia Gallaher, Megan Bissonette and Paige Bureau.
“They deserve a ton of credit for reviewing, critiquing and publishing our report,” Catanzaro says. “We were elated our work and commitment to being right but fast had not only paid off for our clients but also would be available to PPP borrowers and those considering such loans who might read the WSJ.”
Furrow adds the PPP guidance the firm put together underscored the close-knit nature of the team at Chambliss and its passion for client service.
“We were willing to pull together and work nights, weekends and holidays to make sure our clients and readers had the most up-to-date information in a time of need.
“It was humbling and gratifying to have so many people – from firm management on down – dedicated to ensuring that, even in such a trying time, Chambliss was continuing to fulfill its mission and uphold its core values.
“It confirmed for me that the decision I made 13 years ago to work with this firm, and particularly these people, continues to be the right one.”
Cunningham says he’s proud of the firm but ready to move on.
“We don’t want to do this again. We feel like we know who we are now, and we don’t want to be disabused of that next week.”
Cunningham is also relieved Chambliss didn’t take extreme measures in response to the pandemic but carefully considered each step forward.
“A few of the large firms around the country abandoned their office space and moved to a completely remote work environment to tighten up their overhead for what was coming. But the world was wide open, and I’m pleased we chose a different path.”