Law Firm Articles

COVID-19: Asking the Right Questions

The saying goes “hindsight is 20/20.” Well for me, most days that is a stretch in either direction, even with glasses on. Recently, I’ve thought about what surprised me the most from March 1 to March 31. What signals did I miss? What questions should I have been asking? That worries me the most each night and literally keeps me awake – I am not sure if I am asking the right questions.

Last summer I presented a webinar on preparing for an economic contraction sometime in 2020 or 2021. That seemed likely to me – it was in my field of vision.  But still, as events began to unfold in early 2020, I did not connect the dots, nor appreciate the magnitude and speed of COVID-19 until March. I was not asking the right questions in January as reports of a serious virus in the Wuhan area of China publicly surfaced. Of course, it would have been helpful if our government had been forthcoming in November when it was first briefed on the serious situation in China. But setting that aside, plenty of public signals and information were available before I began to absorb and process its meaning.

Because we get deluged with information 24/7, it becomes difficult to see a bigger picture or identify an important clue.

Having missed those signals, I now focus on absorbing as much insight as possible from respected economists, scientists and public health experts to better understand the range of possibilities and timing this virus may subject us to. I also look to other experts’ assessments and the rigor of their analyses regarding this evolving situation. I believe it is important to look at the situation from many angles. The more I ask and read, the more flexible, agile and long-term my thinking becomes. This is not to undersell what must be asked, answered and accomplished each day and in the coming weeks; but this is not a quick one-and-done event with limited repercussions.

We are all scrambling to assess how to operate our businesses, serve our clients and navigate in a world dominated by a virus. Following are some resources that I’ve found particularly valuable as I think through what has happened so far and what might come next.

McKinsey & Company provides thought provoking research-based papers. Their insights help educate and provide context. They have assembled and continually add to a collection of materials on COVID-19.

Morningstar is another research-based organization that provides an investor’s vantage point based on rigorous methodology.

Warren Buffett – One of the questions I often come back to is, what is Warren Buffett thinking and doing? He has a masterful sense for long-term value and the discipline and patience to execute on it well. His letters to shareholders are legendary. His responses to questions for his first remote Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in May encompassed optimism for the long-term, concern about structural barriers for some businesses as well as commentary for these times.

Bill Gates – Another resource that is particularly well-placed and immersed in the intersection of public health and business is Bill Gates. The Global Health Division of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is a leader in tackling the problems of infectious disease. His March 2015 TED Talk on readiness for the next outbreak is almost prescient.  He also participated in a much longer interview on TED this March focused on COVID-19.

Dr. Anthony Fauci is one of the country’s leading experts on infectious disease and has served as Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984. He is a clear, plain spoken guide to what we know, what we don’t know and what we should expect, and updates his assessments as more data and science is available. Walter Cronkite was at one time the most trusted man in America. Today, Dr. Fauci is likely the most trusted medical professional in America.

Along with big picture, strategic thinking, we also need practical, specific resources for short-term tactical management.  Two recent sources seem particularly useful right now:

Recovery Readiness: A How to Guide for Reopening Your Workplace (Version 1.0) – This 34-page manual from Cushman and Wakefield will greatly assist any firm or organization that is trying to re-open its workplace.  It is likely to be updated as more is learned.

Stanford Law School COVID-19 Memo Database – This online resource helps manage the deluge of available COVID-19 information and advice published since March. The database currently includes over 5,000 memoranda generated by leading U.S. law firms, the four major audit firms, and a leading insurance broker on the legal, business, and operational challenges arising from the current crisis.  Users of this free searchable service speak highly of it and it will likely be refined somewhat as it matures.