Last month, we were able to catch up with Carrie Valenzuela, President of the Arizona Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators.
Carrie talks about the challenges of managing a branch office at Meagher and Greer during the pandemic, the return to the office, the technology changes that remote work accelerated, and what the future looks like for her office and her firm.
Hi, I’m Lorita Ba, I’m the Chief Marketing Officer over at Afinety and I’m here with Carrie Valenzuela. Carrie, hi, how are you?
Hi, Lorita, I’m doing well, how are you doing?
I’m doing well, thanks so much for joining us today. I was hoping actually, if you could just get started, just telling us a little bit about yourself, where you work, where you are in the country and all that kind of stuff.
Well, I am in Scottsdale, Arizona, beautiful sunny Scottsdale. My firm, Meagher & Geer is, headquarters in Minneapolis. However, we have offices in different parts of the country, Chicago, Bismark, LA, and then here in the greater Phoenix area.
And what’s your role at the firm?
I am the Branch Office Manager.
So I imagine that the last 18 months or so have been kind of a roller coaster, especially with everything that you’ve needed to manage. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Oh, sure, yes it was definitely difficult. Having the support of our Minneapolis office in a larger firm was instrumental being able to keep operations running, especially here in our office, because I don’t have a dedicated IT person on site or any like that. So relying on others to help me because I was the only one here for a few months, was so important.
How large is the branch office that you work at down in Phoenix?
We have right now, I think we’re at 12 attorneys and we have about 17 or 18 people employees total in the office.
What were some of the challenges that you guys had to navigate, especially with, I imagine with all of us, you know, we couldn’t be in the office for a little while, right?
Right, well, at the beginning, one of the things that we did was send pretty much everyone home and for my, except for essential in office personnel, unfortunately from my office, that meant I was the only one here.
Here, there were a couple of attorneys who came in regularly, but for the most part, I was doing office services, secretarial, reception work, clerical, just simply because we needed to make sure that our most important asset, which is our employees were protected and stayed safe.
It must have been so strange to be in the office by yourself throughout this entire time.
It was and like I said there were a couple of attorneys who were in pretty much every day, but I could walk the hall and not see anyone, I mean, if I didn’t seek out people, I could literally go all day without seeing any other person.
It’s certainly one of the challenges was juggling all of that, I imagine, what were some of the other challenges? Did you have either technical or staff challenges that you needed to navigate during this?
I think it was a learning curve for a lot of people, not just the attorneys, I mean, I know they already had some flexibility working away from the office, but even many of them needed to get used to the fact that they didn’t have all the paper that they were used to in their physical file. And then for staff, it was a true learning curve.
I know our IT Department worked tirelessly at the beginning, just making sure everybody’s connections worked and they understood how to remote in and to make sure that their home systems were secure enough to connect to our VPN and that sort of thing.
I imagine the bandwidth challenges too, ’cause even when you’re home, even if you had strong bandwidth, if everybody else in household is trying to remote school, or, you know, you’ve got a spouse that’s working as well.
Yeah and it was interesting because I’m sure there were, my office, I got to see a lot, inside a lot of people’s homes. Because I charge– a lot more about them than you ever had before.
Because I tried to a connection and do weekly check-ins and it didn’t have to be anything big, we called it coffee and calendars, and we just sort of went over things and made sure that people had the support they needed and, you know, just what’s coming up in your life? Whether it was work-related or are you having to deal with childcare or whatever. We wanted to maintain that connection with everyone.
I imagine that they really appreciated it because I think, certainly I’ve spoken with people that just found it so isolating, even when you’re with your family, even if you’re not living alone, it’s still isolating to just be speaking with the same couple of people in person all the time. So now is your office back in person at this point? When did you guys go back?
So June 1st, we, as a firm were back in the office full-time. Obviously, there’s still going to be some people who need to work remotely for various reasons, but it’s really been very few. You know, as we learn it’s really because of medical need or that sort of accommodation. Most of them are back.
So did that take adjustment? Obviously the adjustment out of the office took some adjustment. How was the re-entry, was it easy or did that pose its own challenges?
For our particular office it was, for the firm it had challenges just because there were so many more people. Our office, luckily we are very spread out to begin with. We had a lot of space, nobody was too too close to anyone else. There was at least, especially like the secretarial staff, there were at least an empty cubicle between them. So we really tried to focus on letting everyone know these are the steps we’re taking to make sure that everything is safe and clean and that we’re adhering to guidelines as far as social distancing and letting people, you know, we’re no longer under a mask mandate here and we haven’t been in Arizona for quite some time, but letting people know, if you wanna wear a mask in the office, you can and everyone’s gonna respect that
I think that’s such a key thing, the respect piece. I’s such a volatile time. Everybody’s emotions are on high. I imagine that that focus on respects that you’re promoting throughout the firm and I’m sure most people already feel that naturally, but I think just having a concerted effort on focusing on respect must be so reassuring for folks when it’s still volatile.
I think so and I, you know, I think it’s important that we listened and we said, “Hey, I understand this is what you’re concerned about. We still need you back in office, but what other steps can we take?” And even when they’re back, just checking in and saying, “Hey, how do you feel today? Are you feeling a little anxious? What’s going on? Are you more comfortable?” And I think, at least for me and my interactions with employees, as long as they understood what was going on, we were open, we were transparent about what was happening and they saw that we actually do care about what’s going on with them. They felt safer and they felt more comfortable coming back.
That makes sense to me. So what does normal look like for you, for the rest of the year?
This year I think normal is a little bit different than impact. It’s not back to pre-COVID at all. We still have people, mainly attorneys who have had to shift and so they’re not in the office as much. So there’s that. And some people have learned to work better without as much paper to really utilize the technology. I know that as an industry legal has been historically slow to change in many aspects and taking on the purely electronic forum has been one of those. And so I think this has helped encourage people to use technology, to automate, to make things easier and more efficient for them.
Okay, are there, for the most part with the technology, is it stuff that you already had and people are finally really taking advantage of, or were there new technologies or software that you guys, identified during the pandemic to help?
Well we definitely had to use Zoom. Everyone learned how to use Zoom.
The whole country learned how to Zoom!
We had a lot of the technology, luckily our firm was in a position that they could quickly adapt to people being remote. We did have to make some changes. The system we were using for the few video conference calls and that sort of thing just didn’t work. It was taxing our system a little bit too much. And so that’s when Zoom came in and that kind of thing. So it was helpful that our firm and our management committee were secure enough in knowing what we already had and that it was stable to say, “Okay, we are willing to take these other new technologies and apps and all of that kind of stuff into account and use that too, and just incorporate it into our systems.”
Now, do you guys use remote desktop software or anything like that or did everybody have laptops?
So most of the, well, all the attorneys, I think there might’ve been a couple of anomalies, but most of the attorneys had laptops already and I had a laptop because I would take it home and stuff like that, but staff did not. So we made sure we went through any spare laptops we had, I know we don’t have as many spare hardware systems anymore, because they’ve been used.
Well, used well at point.
Exactly and a lot of people use their own system and would, we did have remote desktop. So everyone had to either use a VPN or that was sort of native on their computer or a web-based remote application.
So as we think beyond kind of the next few months, are there things that have happened that you think are now gonna be permanent and to the way that your firm works, lessons learned?
There are some, we, like I said before, we kind of got pushed into some changes that prior to COVID people were resistant to. So for instance, all of the attorneys, all the time keepers electronically review their bills down and prior it was printing out out reams of paper. So that’s gonna be permanent and I think everyone’s just on board with that.
Some people are coming back to the office and printing files that were not printed before. And now it’s kind of like, “Well, maybe I do wanna use paper again,” but for the most part, I think people are used to looking at things electronically. And I mean, even like you were saying, what new apps, applications, and programs, and hardware even, and people are saying, “Hey, well, can I just do this on my iPad? Or isn’t there a separate program I can use or an application that will just do this easier so that they don’t have.” So they’re starting to think more–
That’s a huge difference. Just even the mindset change of being open to different ways of doing things than we’ve been used, you know, used to doing them for years. So are there, as you look ahead, right?
Are there major initiatives either that maybe you had planned before COVID you mentioned a couple of them from a technology perspective, but from your world, what are the things that you’re thinking about longterm for your office and for your firm?
Strictly enough for my particular office. One of my big initiatives is to get through all of the old closed files that we have in storage, and really look at a purge because the, you know, many of them are coming up on, you know, it’s time to destroy or return and do those kinds of things. We’ve kept them this specified amount of time and for over a year, nothing happened. I know that I need to put on my work clothes and get down to the warehouse where they’re all stored and really just go through them.
Normally, and you know, it’s kind of funny ’cause normally we bring a file or box to review in the office and then they would come back and then I’m like, there are so many that we need to go through. It might just be easier if the receptionist and I go take a half day and just go down and like get our hands dirty.
And sometimes that’s the only way to do it, especially when it’s built up over the last several months. I imagine just kind of diving in and just going to down on it, it’s the only way it’s gonna get fixed.
Well, and that was another thing that came up is, you know, I realized there are a lot of things that can’t be done remotely. And or that we don’t necessarily want them done to farm out. We wanna find a way to do them and it’s that in-person connection whether the, you know, sitting across the table or a desk or with zoom because you can pick up the phone, but it’s different. And we learned that we wanna see people, we want to keep that culture and community that we had before.
Yeah, I was just gonna ask do you have other examples of things that you wanna make sure and preserve that you realize how important they are to do in person or physically in a way that maybe hadn’t appreciated before?
Strangely one of the things that I’ve found now that we’re back in the office more is our celebrations of each other.
Whether it be winning an argument in court or a big decision or a birthday or somebody is gonna be a new grandma, that sort of thing where we can all kind of make a point of saying, “Oh, did you hear so-and-so did this, or did that?” I mean, it’s great to see the emails coming back and forth about some of these things. And we do the electronic birthday cards.
It’s not the same.
It’s not the same as cutting into a cake or having the ability to get together and eat lunch in the large, you know, and just joke around and talk to each other. What have you been streaming on your pandemic watching?
Yeah, figure out what’s next on your binge list based on a casual conversation, right?
No, I think that’s really good point because as much as we can do lots and lots of things to help keep that spirit there’s nothing quite like being around each other and celebrating the personal and professional victories or things that are happening. I think that’s really good insight.
One of the things that I know about you Carrie, is that you’re very involved in your regional ALA. Can you tell us first, what your role is today in your local ALA Chapter?
Yes, currently I am the President of the Arizona Chapter of ALA. I have gotten, received so much from the Chapter over the years. And it’s funny because it just felt like something you should be doing. Like, why wouldn’t you volunteer? Why wouldn’t you become more involved? And the more I started to do within the Chapter, the more I got out of the Chapter, sort of.
What other roles have you played in the regional ALA?
So I have been, well, president-elect last year, which was, I have to say our president last year, Jerri Buchtel was amazing and she really got us through and I don’t, I am just glad she was in charge then. And she was able to navigate us through all of those choppy waters, but I’ve been the Secretary on the Board of Directors, VP, like I said, it’s been interesting because at least for me, the more involved I am, the more I get out of the organization charged with the networking and the communications and that sort of thing.
Is there a role that you’ve had that you’ve enjoyed the most? I won’t tell anybody.
I really liked being secretary. It was the right amount of organization and making sure that I had everything right, the minutes and getting notices out and doing that sort of thing and also being the support for other people and being able to help.
And we’re now one of the things that I find challenging as president is I don’t want to overwhelm anyone else. So should I ask for someone to do this? Or someone doesn’t immediately step up, I’m like, “Okay, I’ll just do it.” ‘Cause I don’t wanna anyone feeling like they’re overwhelmed, especially coming out of last year.
Right, right, right, I can appreciate that.
But everyone is like, “Carrie, let us help, we wanna,” and I’d say, “Yes, you’re right, you’re right!”
I mean, this is, well this is the great thing about the community is this desire to make sure that nobody feels like they’re sharing too much of the burden and to be able to try to help each other. I imagine you did a lot of that during the pandemic. Relying on each other as new situations came up to just understand what other people were doing.
Well, Carrie I hope, I imagine you’re going to Austin this year, yeah?
Yes, I’m very excited about that.
I think we all are. So we’re definitely looking forward to it too. Well, Carrie, I really appreciate your time today.
No, Lorita thank you.