We had the chance to sit down (virtually) with Sarah Stromberg, President-Elect & Chair of the Business Partnering Committee of the Mile High Chapter Association of Legal Administrators.
Sarah chats about her experience over the past 18 months as the firm administrator at Harris, Karstaedt, Jamison & Powers PC, the challenges she faced and overcame, and what she’s thinking about for the rest of the year.
Hi everyone, I’m Lorita Ba, I’m the Chief Marketing Officer at Afinety, and I’m here with Sarah Stromberg. Sarah hi.
It’s such a pleasure to see you today. Can you give us a little bit and tell everybody a little about yourself, your firm and what you do?
Yeah, I am the firm administrator at Harris, Karstaedt, Jamison & Powers. I’ve been here over 20 years, basically soup to nuts, do everything.
So as you think about the last 18 months, what’s your life been like? What have you been responsible for? What are the things that you’ve had to deal with?
Yeah, I think COVID threw us all a curve ball. Definitely, have had to pick up and do more, I would just say day to day things to help other people out in a firm whether they be timekeepers or secretaries, getting stuff mailed out, printed out hard copies to attorneys. I’ve been in the office with about eight people during the entire time of COVID, but their main, the staff have either worked a couple of days a week or not at all. So that’s definitely kind of added to some of the stuff that just has to be taken care of and then all the changes that have just happened with COVID, all the employment law changes, all the new health code regulations and every day just having to juggle and shift based on what you’re being told.
That must’ve been really challenging ’cause it’s every day is not only a new challenge, it’s like a completely different sphere of things.
Yeah, yeah. And I will be glad when this is all over, .
I don’t think you’ll be the only one.
No, no I don’t think so either. I think I have a lot of company there.
So what are some of those challenges, what would you say were the biggest ones that you had to kind of find solution for?
Initially it was just kind of dealing with, how are we gonna function? At least most of the staff, at least being in the office every day to now having to move them remote, that was a huge challenge and then just kind of the challenge of keeping us as a cohesive group during all of this, because there are some employees I have not seen since last March.
So or if I’ve seen them is just been on a Zoom call or something like that, but no face-to-face. So.
Yeah. Now, technologically speaking, did everybody in your staff have laptops or did you have desktops and you had to figure out what to do?
A lot of people had their own home computers were a smaller firm, so not really financially able to just go out and buy laptops for everyone.
But we did have some laptops available that I could give out or loan out to people if they didn’t have a computer set up at home.
Do you guys have remote desktops then? Or were people just –
Yeah, we have remote desktop connection.
So that at least made things a little bit easier when they were coming in from the home computer and you didn’t have to worry about some of the security as much.
But I mean, just even that was a struggle because they weren’t all set up with a portal to get in and just trying to set up other security features like multi-factor authentication and things like that just because it is scary and we had some clients that were saying, if you’re gonna do this, we need you to take some extra security precautions. And so, I was really just very proud of my IT to be able to just go, here’s what we’re gonna do. And we can get this set up and now we’ve got that taken care of. And, I would say within just the span of a week, it was like, we have to completely change how we’re doing everything.
Especially I can imagine, especially when you’re talking about home computers, I know we’ve talked to people where you’ve got kids that are accustomed to playing on the computer and it’s not like there’s anything malicious going on, but you also don’t want them accessing anything by accident. There’s of all of that kind of concern. So I’m glad that that was, it was at least something that you were able to overcome. So on the sort of social aspects, what were some of the things that you had to do to try to keep that the cohesion in the office?
Just lots of communication, lots of emails being a smaller firm I’m not sure we were that successful because I just felt like it was difficult. It was difficult. And even if we did a Zoom meeting, not everyone’s technology was working that day or not everyone would turn on their camera or had a camera to turn on. It’s just, it’s difficult that way.
And I think, a lot of the things that we used to do as a group were definitely, face-to-face, very informal, just like, Hey, let’s, having a happy hour today in the kitchen at four o’clock and everybody sign off or things like that. And you’re just not really able to do that when you’ve only got very small number of people in your office plus with all the safety precautions, I mean, nobody wanted to gather, nobody wanted to be in a room with somebody, it was like, yeah I mean, I used eat lunch at my office, I feel better that way, so.
So now Sarah, you are you guys back in the office yet? Or what’s happening there?
We’re having everybody come back July 12th, so next Monday, and then-
A lot of prep work.
Yeah and so we are gonna do a hybrid, we’re gonna do a hybrid model going forward, so most of the staff will have the option or the staff does have the option to work two days a week from home if they choose or they be here in the office. And then, the attorneys were always sort of hit and miss anyway because their schedules sometimes meant that they’re out of the office or they have to be on a client’s job site or in court or at another attorney’s office. So the attorneys there probably won’t be much of a change there, although some of them hopefully we’ll get to see them a little bit more regularly.
Now how large is your office overall?
I’ve got 21 people.
Yeah and so you have the eight of you that were, that have been there consistently and so next week it’ll be, I imagine it’ll be quite different to suddenly have everyone else back in.
I think it’ll be nice and I’m really looking forward to seeing faces that I haven’t seen in months or at least see them more consistently ’cause that part has been difficult when you’re going, you just need to ask a question, but you’re having to send an email and wait for an answer or call and leave a voicemail and then wait for a call back. It’ll be nice just to be able to run down the hall and be like, okay, five minutes I just need this, so.
So you mentioned the hybrid work schedule, are there other, like more permanent changes that you’re expecting, your firm to adopt as a result of the last 18 months? Things that you guys have learnt?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely think Zoom is not gonna go away, I think for our clients, I think a lot of them like the option of being able to do things via Zoom. So I think that there will be more of that attorneys will have to be able to be more tech savvy to operate the different portals, the courts are using Webex, I’m just not, I’m not sure everything will go back, I’m not sure it’s firm standard, but I do think that that’s where we’re headed. We’re gonna have more of this remote video communication than we had in the past.
Yeah, I hear that from others as well, but whereas before maybe there were just constant in-person client meetings that there’s an expectation that some level of those will be more virtual and you’ll have fewer in the actual office.
Yeah and especially if you’ve got people that are out of state, this is more convenient than hopping on an airplane if you need something, it is still nice to be able to see people. So we ended up purchasing several webcams and things like that, over the past 18 months, so everybody has the ability, at least the attorneys all have the ability to do things like that in their offices.
Got it. So as you think kind of even longer term, are there major initiatives that you’re working on either that maybe had initially been planned for last year, they got delayed or new ones that have emerged?
Yeah, I wouldn’t say anything big for this year, I think the goal is just to get through this year and to try to have some sense of normalcy.
By the time we enter 2022, we had done like a large computer conversion right before COVID so that was great, we had already taken care of a big technology piece, right before COVID.
Wish I could say foresaw that, but it’s just luck of the draw, that’s how that worked out. But no, not at this point. I think I just wanna get back to normal, get back to whatever the new normal is, having people in the office. And I think trying to rebuild our culture because it has been, it’s been difficult when you don’t see people and like I said, being small, so much was informal and in-person trying to figure out how do we shift now.
Are there different ways in which you might use technology or are there new groups or things, communication methods that you’re gonna use to try to encourage that or more using better the things that you already have in place?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely think there’ll probably be maybe more Zoom, even having people back in the office, probably not gonna have everybody back in the office the same day, so-We’re probably gonna have to go to doing more meetings, more things via Zoom. Trying to figure out how do we have a Zoom meeting where I’m not the only person talking, because then I just feel like I’m talking at a screen and I’m not really having a conversation with any one.
We have new security training and things like that in place so, continuing to push that, making sure people are doing what they need to be doing, possibly looking at even getting the staff webcams, I mean, I hadn’t thought about that initially just because so many of them weren’t here, but now it’s like, well maybe they need them. So just things like that- ‘Cause when we purchased our new equipment, it’s like, nobody’s doing that. Why would I need that? Now I’m like, oh my gosh, everybody’s doing it, so.
Well the needs when you first envisioned that order is very different than they needed.
Oh Yeah and I think, without COVID things would just be the way that they were. So it’s forced things and not necessarily for bad change, but for change.
Absolutely, absolutely. And then are there other things that you were thinking about either for the direction of the firm or as you look to next year? You mentioned this year is really about trying to get everybody comfortable again and re-engage, do you have thoughts about what’s what’s gonna happen in the next year that you need to think about or worry about? Or is that something that you’ll tackle a little bit later this year?
I think I’ll probably tackle that later this year. It’s been kind of like, I think it was all just sort of been in this crisis mode for so many months that it’s really hard to stop and go, now I can actually plan and I haven’t been able to stop and think, how do I plan? ‘Cause it’s just been like, this is the next thing. And this is the next thing in this crisis mode.
I was gonna say I mean, you’ve been planning, but it’s like, planning for the next month, and then-
It’s been hard to look long-term at this point and go, I need to X or it’s just kind of been like, I don’t even know what X is right now .
Sure. Well, I can imagine, I imagine that the past month has been really about trying to get the office back, ready to be back open.
And thinking about things like having necessary equipment available or making sure that everything’s working or that desk space is comfortable.
And just the cleaning and different things like that where it’s like I need to have this service come in and I need to take care of these things and how are we gonna continue to clean things? And yeah, it’s just, and that’s kind of where I feel like it’s still this crisis mode. It’s kind of hard to think long term right now.
So I imagine during this past, the past year and a half, you’ve relied a lot on some of your friends and colleagues at in the regional ALA chapter, is that a fair statement?
Oh yeah, yeah. I mean, I miss seeing them all person-to-person, but there’ve been so many things that we’ve done with just like, coffee break meetings, which have all been virtual different round table things, again, all virtual, but it’s just, it’s so nice to have that as a resource to like, here’s what I’m thinking, here’s what this firm is thinking because so much of it was just there’s not like a set, you must open your office at this time, you must do this at this time that, it was just so nice to be able to like help, what is everybody doing? And to not feel like, okay, I’m the first one or I’ve got to like go this alone and see how it works. So, yeah, that’s just been invaluable during this.
I think especially as administrators, the being able to brainstorm with someone else, that they’re not limited to the ideas that you can come in your own head, that you can talk to some other folks here, you hear what’s working maybe riff off of them and find the right solution for you rather than feeling like all of that pressure is solely in your shoulder.
Yeah and just it starting from scratch. ‘Cause you can read these public health orders you’d be like, what does that mean? What am I supposed to do? So even, I mean, we even had some members that worked for the City and County of Denver and they were able to get a hold of a public health official just to answer some of our questions and things like that ’cause we’re all struggling and I’m thinking, we’re all fairly intelligent, but if we’re struggling, I have to assume everybody’s struggling.
No, I think that’s absolutely true. I, there, things were changing so rapidly. I remember you and I talking, a couple of months ago and we were talking about in person and you were saying, oh, I don’t think that’s gonna happen until the fall and then the vaccine really accelerated after that conversation. And now you’re opening next week.
And I think every moment every week, every month, it’s been a complete difference from where we were just a bit ago. So, speaking about the ALA chapter now, can you talk a little bit about your current role in the ALA ?
Yeah, this year for 2021, 2022 business or I guess calendar year, board year, I’m the President-Elect, I’m also the Chair then of the Business Partner Committee. So I get to work with all of our business partners, I’ll be planning our expo and conference that our chapter does on an annual basis. So that’s kind of the bulk of it, that’s the bulk of what I’ve got going on.
Sure. Have you taken on other roles before, Sarah? What else have you done?
I have been on the board a lot of times I’ve been on education and chaired that committee, I’ve chaired the Professional Development Committee. I’ve served as the secretary, last year I was the vice president for the chapter, so yeah, it’s been a long time, but I find it really rewarding. It’s, someplace else where I feel like my expertise gets to shine, so that’s great.
Sure. Do you have a favorite role of all the ones that you’ve taken?
I really liked the education, that’s a big thing for me. I hold two certifications, so-That’s been something I’ve always been really passionate about in the chapter and so I enjoyed that role a lot.
No, I can appreciate that for sure. Every role as I’m sure you would tell us, every role has its place and is critical to the workings of making everything work and really maximizing the community but I think we all have affinities. So Sarah, are you gonna be in the, are you gonna be in Austin later this year?
I’m gonna be in Austin, I’m really excited to be able to go out and see people and do things in person and get those last credits that I need ’cause I looked at one of my certifications and went ooh, I have been trying to do some stuff online and catch up, but just having everything canceled within a year and then just constantly trying to just keep up with what was happening locally, I’m a little behind on my certifications .
Like I said, I’m sure you’re not the only one, there’s been a lot to keep on top of the –
Yeah, ’cause I think a lot of it you go, I’m gonna get like 10 or 12 hours here and 10 or 12 hours there and then it’s like, oh, I didn’t get those.
And they need to be made up still…