May 14, 2020

What can law firm leaders learn from a pandemic?

Effective leadership is essential to well-functioning organizations, and it is vital to the success of law firms. Strong leadership is a key component of what law firm clients focus on, and entry-level lawyers rely on it.

Our educations prepared us to lead, and we are capable of the promise of exceptional leadership. We should be delivering on that promise.

That never has been truer than it is today during the age of COVID-19 and the challenges associated with keeping law firms functioning well during a pandemic. This is the moment to demonstrate leadership, and the opportunity should not be wasted.

Law firm leaders come in all shapes, sizes, skin colors and backgrounds. They are both male and female, young and old. And the differences in their effectiveness as leaders can become especially apparent during a challenging time like that of the current pandemic, which changes all the traditional rules in a very traditional profession. It is like wheat and chaff, like milk and cream. Only the best rise to the top—or they should.

What can effective law firm leaders learn from a pandemic? It may seem like an odd proposition, but we must recognize that most challenges present opportunities to positively shape the future. The coronavirus challenge is no different. The lessons law firms take from the way business is being done at this time may determine the true value of the organization for years to come.

Learning from COVID-19

The telecommuting debate is over. The value of remote working conditions is being proved, and law firms—especially the large ones—will be almost as productive during these challenging times as they were before and will be after. Management has a newfound acceptance and respect for working remotely, and measuring this knowledge against the cost of brick-and-mortar offices and lost time during long commutes will be the new debate.

The “face time” myth is exposed. The combination of isolation and available technology has contributed to exposing the myth. Face time will never be as revered as it was in the past when the benefits of gathering together at the proverbial water cooler or in the lunchroom were not advantaged by technologies such as Skype, Zoom, Teams and WebEx. Expanded experiences with those technologies during the pandemic will prove too valuable to be cast aside for a return to outdated practices.

The necessity of business travel will be challenged. Technology will have eclipsed the necessity for face-to-face practice models to such a degree that it also will impact business travel. Travel to meet clients, review documents and conduct depositions is not only hard on the physical well-being of lawyers and time away from families, but it also is extremely expensive. When all the travel expenses are added up, it is a huge reimbursement burden for clients.

As we see the expanded use of virtual meetings, virtual depositions and even virtual hearings during this pandemic threat, there will be opportunities to reduce expenses for clients, and at the same time, reduce stressful wear and tear on our workforces. Lawyers also will have opportunities to explore adaptations of the new technologies to meet client development needs.

Cost savings have the potential to grow service access. As the costs of legal services go down, those services may be available to a wider population. Although this would seem to have a disparate impact on large defense firms, it also may present practice opportunities through the increased volume of cases and alternative dispute resolution processes.

The team approach is being recognized for its true value. Bringing the team together on conference calls and virtual meetings is being necessitated by a scattered and isolated workforce and a need to keep the team feel engaged in these uncertain times. And anecdotal information indicates that it is working very well. Inquiries about the individual challenges team members are experiencing have become commonplace, and team members are sharing the impact of their personal situations.

The impersonal nature of the law firm, where lawyers pass each other in hallways without recognition or acknowledgment, is being replaced with heart and humanity—which has been hiding for too long, and which will result in cultures of caring and more satisfying workplaces.

What have become “women’s issues” will now be recognized as issues affecting all the workforce. Remote working conditions, reduction of the necessity for excessive business travel, and the ability to fully contribute as team players without physical presence has been legitimized and are being seen as desired by men and women alike.

As a result, a broader and nongender-specific desire for accommodations related to work-life balance and childcare responsibilities should no longer impede the advancement of women lawyers as it has in the past. Senior roles for women lawyers should increase in numbers, and hopefully, women no longer will be regarded as wanting “easier styles of practice” than their male colleagues. And law firm leaders should respond to that game change.

The connections between law firms and their communities will become increasingly important. The needs of the community infuse our conversations and encourage our charity. We miss what we no longer have in terms of the services and the service providers we took for granted, and that recognition should invigorate and expand our pro bono practices as we understand the reality of our new world order.

These are the new realities, and law firm leaders must ask themselves whether they have gained the requisite wisdom and perspective from these new realities to become effective or even more effective leaders.

The right side of the values challenge

Demonstrate support for the worker, not just for the work. Too often, the emphasis is on the client and the work. The spotlight rarely shines on the worker—especially at the associate level—and that is a mistake. Through this crisis, we are seeing how life impacts work.

Now life overlays work more than ever, and young lawyers are meeting the challenges. They are caring for small children and other family members at the same time that they are meeting work deadlines, attending Zoom meetings and keeping up with administrative tasks. This does not happen easily, and they need to know leadership understands that, demonstrated through leaders acknowledging these efforts in phone calls and emails.

Anxiety, social isolation and financial concerns vary widely, and those challenges should be acknowledged. Let junior lawyers and other colleagues who are longing for connectivity and human interaction see your empathy and the personal touch you are capable of contributing at times of stress. For some of you, that will mean escaping your comfort zones and require you to allow your true characters to rise from the ashes of this pandemic.

Abandon ignorance, avoidance and apathy; create a legion of followers of positive traits and behaviors. For too long, law firms have been satisfied with a style of leadership that has been sorely lacking—a style of leadership and management that does not value human emotions and responses, and has resulted in too many young lawyers deciding that they do not want to be used and bullied for sport.

As a result, many of these young lawyers leave law firms, and sometimes, the profession. It is not that they cannot do the job. It is that doing the job is just not worth the sacrifice of personal and professional dignity.

Understand that effective leadership begins at the top and trickles down, and they must be willing to train future leaders. Effective leaders must lead by example and be good mentors and excellent role models. They must take the requisite time away from billable hours and client development to assume those leadership responsibilities, and they must embrace the importance of the work.

Improve the annual or semiannual associate review process. Make review and feedback opportunities more frequent. Be transparent about skill deficiencies and growth opportunities and include specific performance goals. Assign effective mentors and create a process for follow-up conversations to help young lawyers maximize on feedback and enhance their careers.

Embrace the new technologies. Do it for all of the reasons stated above, and in recognition that Generations Y and Z—the talent that will take you into the future—expect it of you.

What will you do?

Law firm leaders, you can do better and you must do better. You must be informed by these challenging times and learn from them how to value human resources. You must remember these lessons and start now to develop the positive values you want to accompany your workforces into the future.

Senior lawyers, will you get in the game? Will you become part of the solution? Will you make a leadership plan and embrace your responsibilities for its success?

Junior lawyers who want and need effective leadership, will you ask for it? Will you make a case for why leadership training it is good for you and also good for the firm? Will you focus on the future and contributing to a positive law firm experience?

Forget the past. It’s over. The time to step up is now. The pandemic can teach you the lessons you need to learn about the future you should want to have.

Susan Smith Blakely

Law Career Counselor

Susan Smith Blakely is a former partner, law career counselor and author of the Best Friends at the Bar book series for female lawyers. Her most recent book is What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice.

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