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Private Jets, Canceled Meetings: Law Firms Try to Dodge Virus

March 6, 2020, 8:44 PM

Law firms are trying to avoid coronavirus contagion, but ending in-person contact with colleagues and clients is not always a viable option, leaving them to seek new modes of travel and communication including private jets.

Some are trying to minimize their lawyers’ chance of contracting the virus spreading around the world and fueling general uncertainty and anxiety by avoiding the risks that come with commercial air travel.

Charter services say that they are seeing an uptick in demand from more law firms to book flights for a lawyer or a team of attorneys for depositions, hearings, and meetings.

“I counted 12 new firms that have booked just this week alone,” said Justin Crabbe, CEO of Jettly, a private jet charter network based in New York and Canada, which has about a half-dozen large international firms as long-standing clients.

“Some of them have told us that they’re switching to private flights for their team as a precaution for themselves personally, but also for their firms as a whole. The entire law firm can’t be under quarantine or sick with the virus.”

Encore Jets, another charter service, said the company has had a 20% uptick in business from law firms recently.

“We’ve had some international trips but mostly it’s been domestic, getting to meetings or seeing clients,” said founder and owner Damian Perna, in New York.

The charter service operators declined to name their law firm clients out of concern for their privacy.

Uses of private aircraft is not new to the law firm world, particularly at large, high end firms. Several firms did not respond to request for comment on whether they’re currently using private flights. One , Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, said they are not.

Big-ticket expenses are not something firms are eager to highlight in an era where budget-conscious clients are reading invoices more carefully and pushing back on certain spending.

Costs of flying private vary widely but a flight for up to six lawyers can cost around $5,000 an hour, Crabbe said.

Owning a private plane and staffing it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but even one firm that does so, Patterson + Sheridan of Houston, said it’s likely to cancel its upcoming monthly flight from Texas to California because more clients are not in the office.

“We are about to pull the plug on the flight,” said partner W. Bruce Patterson. “In Southern California, many of our clients now are at home. There isn’t anyone to see when we get there.”

Avoiding Infection

Firms are trying to avoid clusters of lawyers and staff becoming infected, and grinding firm work to a halt.

Law firm partners, a large proportion of whom are Baby Boomer ages, are also among the most vulnerable populations for health fallout from coronavirus infections.

“In law, people are the whole ballgame. You don’t want to have your owners and your salespeople all in the same place,” said Kent Zimmermann, a legal strategy consultant for Zeughauser Group.

Late last week, Latham & Watkins was among the first major firms to cancel a planned meeting, announcing it would not hold a global partners gathering in New York because of “the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.”

“Clients are trying to get ahead of it,” said Howard Mavity, a partner at labor and employment firm Fisher Phillips. “We have been inundated with literally hundreds of calls.”

Many firms, including Mavity’s, are assembling task forces and posting online resource centers to help clients navigate the business fallout from the spread of the virus.

Paul Weiss, for example, has coronavirus guidance, and has named a task force, for company boards and management to help navigate coronavirus, including mitigating the cybersecurity risks and the impact of the outbreak on securities reporting.

Even when lawyers and clients do get together, the customs of hugs and even traditional hand shakes are receding amid concern over possible virus transmission.

And Skype and other technologies are replacing meetings, to minimize the likelihood of infection.

“There are a lot of canceled meetings, and people are washing their hands with the precision of surgeons,” said Zimmermann, who travels widely.

At a law firm gathering in Miami this week, he wasn’t shaking hands. Instead, he offered colleagues a fist bump, and they gladly bumped back.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Olson in Washington at egolson1@gmail.com
To contact the editor on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com

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