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February 16, 2023 BEST OF ABA SECTIONS

Simple Steps: Skills for Post-Pandemic Leadership

Allison C. Johs

The aftermath of the pandemic has resulted in significant changes, not only in how lawyers work but also in how leaders are perceived and how employees respond to them. As a result, to continue to be effective, law firm leaders need to adapt their methods if they want to attract and retain top talent.

Communication. Law firm leaders will need to find new ways to engage employees and find out what they need to feel supported doing their jobs. The increasingly divided political atmosphere in the United States is causing many to be even more reluctant than usual to voice their opinions or be open with others about their views. Law firm leaders will need to work hard to confirm that all employees know they are safe to express their opinions; leaders will need to provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard and to ensure that employees treat one another with respect, regardless of whether they agree or disagree. When confronting potentially volatile issues, defining areas where there is agreement first may help the conversation run more smoothly when moving on to more controversial topics or areas of disagreement.

Law firm leaders will also need to be more transparent than ever with employees. When legal professionals are working in a hybrid or remote environment, it is more difficult for them to pick up on small changes or nuances that they might observe if they were working in a brick-and-mortar office. Don’t let employees find out what is happening in the firm from outside sources, and don’t leave important communication for email, where it can be easily overlooked or misinterpreted. Be proactive in communicating with all employees about both opportunities and challenges facing the firm.

“Management by walking around” is an excellent strategy for law firm leaders to employ—it’s an informal way to gauge how things are going and what employees are working on, as well as to get a feel for their level of satisfaction in a nonintrusive way. But management by walking around works only when leaders and their employees are working from the same physical location. With remote and hybrid work arrangements, law firm leaders need new ways to stay engaged with their employees. Some alternatives might include holding recurring meetings of the management team with employees; regularly obtaining feedback from all employees, both formally and informally; holding peer or practice group meetings without the presence of management to brainstorm ideas and solve problems, with one individual designated to report ideas back to management; and providing support for charity or community involvement to foster a sense of purpose and belonging.

Creative compensation. Attracting and retaining good employees goes beyond just compensation. The pandemic has created a shift in how, when, and where people want to work. The lockdowns and transition to remote work caused many workers, including those in the legal field, to reevaluate, and it has led to “the Great Resignation,” with many workers deciding to leave their jobs to strike out on their own or to choose an entirely new career path.

Law firm leaders who want to attract and retain talent must be more attuned than ever to the needs of their employees and be willing to be flexible and creative in creating a work culture that works for their employees rather than forcing employees into the old ways of how the firm used to operate. Instead of merely telling employees what benefits the firm offers or how employees need to work, law firm leaders have to be willing to listen to what employees value in the workplace and offer them options that meet their needs.

Since the pandemic, more legal professionals are demanding remote or hybrid work arrangements and are willing to leave their current jobs to get them if their firm won’t accommodate them. They are seeking more work-life balance and benefits that go beyond salary compensation. Having worked from home, eliminated their commute, and had more time to spend with their families, they are unwilling to give up those opportunities. Law firms that want to retain these individuals need leaders who are aware of these needs and are willing to find ways to accommodate them. It may also mean offering more robust benefits packages or allowing employees to choose benefits packages that work for them.

These benefits packages might include aspects such as providing well-being programs, offering gym memberships or online workout subscription stipends, and providing nutrition programs and education. Instead of focusing on traditional compensation packages, ask employees what they think constitutes a great place to work and endeavor to provide it. But don’t just offer these benefits; integrate these initiatives into the firm culture. When younger lawyers do not see more established lawyers or partners taking part, they may think that the firm doesn’t actually value these perks or activities, and they may not be inclined to take advantage of them.

Collaboration. Rather than taking a top-down approach to running their firms, successful post-pandemic leaders will take a collaborative approach to leadership, seeking input and opinions from all sectors of the organization. When making decisions about the firm, think first about how these changes will affect the firm’s employees.

Today’s legal professionals want to feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. Help them to understand how their role in the firm is an important one and focus on the firm’s purpose in helping clients. Instead of treating employees as subordinates, treat them as partners or collaborators—each with a role to play and strengths to be cultivated—who can help reach the firm’s shared vision.

Modern legal professionals want clearer career expectations. They want transparency about the path to promotion or partnership within the firm. What skills and experience are required? How can those skills and experience be acquired? What steps need to be taken to get to the next level? How can the firm help them take those steps? What training programs and support for business development and personal growth can the firm provide? Show your employees that the firm is willing to invest in them.

Prioritize professional development, and help employees set and achieve personal development goals. Offer coaching, mentorship programs, or training to help individuals in the firm progress in their individual careers. These programs can provide regular support, a sounding board, or career advice and show employees that the firm is willing to invest in them. They can also help combat the isolation that can occur with remote or hybrid work arrangements.

ABA LAW PRACTICE DIVISION

This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 14 of Law Practice, November/December 2022 (48:6).

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Allison C. Johs

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Allison C. Johs is the president of Legal Ease Consulting, Inc.