By: Max Crampton-Thomas
Over the past 30 years, Cohen Seglias has grown from a three-attorney construction-focused law firm to a firm with over 75 attorneys across eight offices offering a wide range of legal services. Managing Partner and CEO George Pallas spoke with Invest: about the firm’s focus, the construction sector during the pandemic and the availability of quality talent in the tri-state area.
What is the main focus of your firm and how has the pandemic affected your business?
Right now, we have around 75 lawyers, with 50 lawyers exclusively dedicated to construction. As one of the largest construction law firms in the country, we represent 1,200-1,300 contractors, ranging from those who record billions in sales down to the mom-and-pop operations. We deal with their issues in construction, labor and employment, real estate, commercial litigation, business transactions and federal government investigations. We have expanded quickly with offices across the country and we are continuing to look for further expansion opportunities. Some of our new growing practice areas include internal investigations and Title IX.
When COVID-19 first arrived on the scene in March, I immediately convened the board. We recognized the severity of what we were facing. We understood this would be a transformative year. We took immediate actions to avoid interruptions in servicing our clients. As a firm that focuses heavily on technology, we were able to convert 125 employees to remote working at the flip of a switch and shut down all our offices. Since a large percentage of our volume is in the construction industry, the impact was unknown for us, given that initially it was not considered essential work. We immediately implemented salary reductions across the board in response to the uncertainty. We also published weekly emails and held several Zoom town hall meetings to provide employees with metrics on the status of the firm. In early summer when construction was recognized as essential and our billings started ramping up, we immediately started repaying all staff pay cuts. I’m happy that we were able to pay everyone back and also keep all of our charitable giving commitments to organizations that need them, like Habitat for Humanity.
How have the courts adjusted to the new digital environment?
The court systems in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania essentially shut down for about four months. The criminal bar was much more affected than the civil bar. Six months into the process, courts started opening using a digital platform. That helped us because it allowed us to get back into the business of practicing law more aggressively. In Pennsylvania, they opened the courts for in-person trials in September. We had 25 people in the courtroom during our first case with everyone trying their best to socially distance and wearing masks. I am involved in a $35 million piece of litigation that will be entirely digital, alongside two other remote trials. COVID has changed the practice of law and I think some of these changes will be permanent.
What have been some of the main challenges your construction clients have faced?
With COVID, there were so many new safety protocols that needed to be in place. On a construction site, it’s very difficult to socially distance. COVID changed the way contractors had to deliver services, meaning contractors are slower and labor hours are increasing, translating to cost increases. The issue is, who will pay for the increased labor cost? This is particularly impacting contractors who bid for a contract pre-COVID and now labor hours are significantly overrunning. There are also some question marks over the future demand for office space given the success of working from home. A developer with office spaces under construction faces an uncertain future. The same applies to brick-and-mortar retail stores given the boom in e-commerce.
The supply chain was also dramatically impacted. A lot of suppliers in the construction industry are located outside the United States, and some of the countries were badly affected. Drywall, electronics and appliances were all affected dramatically. Our clients have a contract that stipulates a deadline for the work and the supply chain disruptions can impact their ability to fulfill that contract.
How is the tri-state area producing the legal talent needed by the industry?
We have some of the premier firms in the country in the tri-state area, which attracts young talent. I don’t see there being any impact at all on our ability to recruit young talent. Our firm is extremely focused on diversity and inclusion. Not only will we continue our efforts in that regard but I think this is a wake-up call for all law firms and even all industries to look at a wider talent pool than the traditional one. We need to recognize that the strength of an organization is in the varied strengths of the individuals.
What are some of your goals for the next year and what are some of the main lessons learned from 2020?
In the last 24 months, we have expanded our physical footprint in New York and Newark. In Philadelphia, we are entering new offices in February. The Wilmington and Washington, DC, offices are also expanding. Our goals for the coming years are to continue attracting attorneys who add value to the firm, as well as expanding our practice areas. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that people are recognizing the more important things in life, including family, community and helping each other. People recognize more than ever the importance of a community.