Face to Face: David Bell and the ALPS Corp. preparing for post-pandemic shakeup

Thirty years after being established, the ALPS Corp. has grown to become one of the largest insurers of lawyer’s malpractice in the country.

With more than 70 employees, the firm conducts business in 47 states, operating from its headquarters in downtown Missoula. But despite its stature in the legal world, it didn’t escape the nuances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company and much of the industry was deemed an essential business from the outset.

“All at once we moved to a work-from-home model for all but a small, core group of individuals who stayed in the office,” said David Bell, president and CEO of the ALPS Corp. “Like so many businesses, I was very proud of everyone to convert with almost no notice to a work-from-home scenario. It’s been very effective, and we’ve been operating at near full proficiency.”

Gov. Steve Bullock lifted the state’s stay-at-home order in early May with phased plans to reopen the economy. But it wasn’t until this week that ALPS began bringing its employees back to the office.

Bell said the company is doing so in waves, with the first group of employees returning this week. A new group will follow every Monday through June, when the office should be fully staffed, barring any unforeseen setback and a handful of individuals.

“When we hit June 15, the only remaining people are those who fall into the vulnerable category,” said Bell. “There’s a question over when that population will be able to return.”

While the impacts of the shutdown and the economic ruin that has resulted remain unclear, economists predict a slow recovery. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana predicts it could take as long as two years.

ALPS hasn’t been forced to downsize, though its plans for growth are temporarily on hold.

“When the economy basically comes to a standstill, growth ambitions go along with it,” said Bell. “We clearly have seen the effect of that. We clearly have had our growth ambitions significantly blunted in this time period.”

But the nature of the legal world could lead to uptick in business, and ALPS is already preparing for what’s likely to come. If the past is any indication, recessions and the years that follow generally result in what Bell described as a significant spike in claims.

“We’ve been preparing for that,” he said. “We anticipate that as transactions fail, as businesses fail and marriages fail, and all of the other activities that are traditionally and tragically part of a recession, professional service advisors like attorneys get sucked into those problems. We’re preparing for the hurricane.”