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July/August 2019


Preparing Firms for Difficult Times

Thomas C. Grella

This past week I found out the difference between the words “preventive” and “diagnostic.” The difference is about $1,750, the full amount of my health insurance deductible. For the fourth time in 13 years, I had the “pleasure” of preparing for, and submitting to, a colonoscopy. Fourteen years ago I had some concerns and had a colonoscopy before I reached 50. Several precancerous polyps were removed at that time. As a consequence each follow-up exam of my colon is diagnostic, not preventive. Preventive is free (i.e., included under my health insurance coverage); diagnostic is not.

As I recuperated on the day of this exam, awaiting another biopsy report—they’d removed some tissue thought to be a polyp, but it turned out it was not—I considered how, like our bodies, law firms and law practices need to be prepared for the unknown, applying both preventive and diagnostic fundamentals. They contemporaneously need to be both proactive and in a good position to be reactive when difficult circumstances simply cannot be prevented.


Doctors have been telling us for years that we can prevent certain medical conditions if we adopt healthy habits. In the same manner we can avoid many difficult situations and unwanted consequences in law practice by adopting healthy habits in our firms. In my experience of law firm leadership, I have found that there are three main principles that are crucial to a greater likelihood of success in preventing difficulties and disaster: redundancy, reliability and responsibility.


About 20 years ago, when I was still relatively early in my leadership of the firm, I decided to take my wife to Hilton Head, South Carolina, for a long Valentine’s Day weekend. It was during this weekend when a very important computer server crashed for four days, which seemed like an eternity. I now, not so affectionately, refer to this four-day period as the firm’s Valentine’s Day Massacre. I learned from that experience that all of our systems, technological or not, need built-in redundancy. Regarding technology, we simply cannot afford to put all our eggs into one solution basket.

Practically speaking, this has led to our implementation of such technologies as NetDocuments (which has all files housed in two remote server locations) and Office 365. We also have implemented the use of two separate internet service providers. In the event that one crashes, or simply slows in performance, the other kicks in automatically. On the human side, a law firm simply cannot afford to have only one person who oversees and understands important functions such as technology or the time and billing functions of the firm.


Redundancy will not succeed if the firm ends up relying on systems that do not perform adequately. Prevention means that all systems are kept up to date and are tested on a regular basis. Regarding technology, it means not only computer hardware and software used to produce work product but cybersecurity systems as well. Regarding firm and office operations, consider all facilities systems, such as building safety and security. On the human side, it means that training procedures are in place to regularly assure that no critical function is left solely to a single person.


Having in place tested redundant systems will only succeed in prevention if those responsible for operating and protecting those systems take their responsibility seriously and are held accountable for how they perform these important duties. It is therefore important that firms not only have performance reviews for lawyers regarding financial and hourly goals but that every position within the firm be understood as one of importance and that the firm regularly reviews the performance of all team members.


In all walks of life, though the “ounce of prevention” is undertaken, from time to time conditions arise that simply cannot be prevented. In the medical world it seems that genetics predispose many to certain conditions that run in their families. Though most calamities can be avoided, in the world of law firms and legal practices there will be situations beyond the reach of preventive measures, such as weather-related disasters and economic downturns. Consequences might be limited, minimized or prevented, but the circumstances are likely beyond control. I have learned over the years that for a firm to be prepared means that those responsible for leadership need to have a plan, follow protocols and procedures, and lead with positivity.


As a lawyer who serves businesses, I have occasionally helped in the drafting of emergency action plans for organizations. It seems that many businesses have undertaken some planning related to decision making and communication when it comes to commonly experienced climate-related emergencies. I wonder, however, if they consider in their planning less commonly experienced threatening situations related to the technological, physical or economic.

Obviously there is some overlap with preventive measures the firm might consider. For our firm we’ve considered the things that we can respond to on our own and those we know we will need help with. For instance, we can generally address weather-related emergencies that are likely to be experienced in our unique mountain location. Further, by coming to a realization that organizational success hinges upon effective leadership, we have committed to the training and development of our team in the areas of leadership, strategic planning and identifying trends in the profession. We believe this will help us in times of external economic uncertainty. The firm has realized, however, that we need significant help when it comes to technology. We have an in-house expert who is backed up by a local outside vendor; however, after much research we decided that the firm also needed, for all of our technology systems, the additional protection and security that an online disaster recovery service provides.


My observation is that most strategic plans are drafted, adopted and end up sitting on a shelf, or residing on a website, never to be referred to again. Emergency action plans are often treated similarly. A law firm should not waste valuable time creating a plan unless the protocols and procedures are adopted, committed to and followed in times of need. This requires regular team reinforcement and training on protocols and procedures as well as a public commitment by firm leaders.


In times of difficulty and uncertainty, when unexpected disaster strikes, the full law firm team needs positivity. Leaders provide this by being prepared to reinforce the firm’s mission and vision to team members while understanding that emergencies will often change activity in the short term. At such times leaders must display a positive attitude about the long term while being flexible with short-term goals and tactics. Finally, they must communicate—and overcommunicate—to everyone in the firm, making sure that team members are not left in the dark (which is the place where they conjure up worst-case scenarios) as to the present or the future.


As a point of personal privilege, I would take this opportunity to stress to every reader my belief in the importance of both healthy habits, and regular screening, as it regards your colon. Had I not responded to the signs that manifested in my 40s, I might have been confronting a cancerous or other very serious condition a few years later. Similarly, every law firm and legal practice should have a plan of action that prevents unfavorable business and practice conditions, and also quickly and appropriately responds to, and takes effective action, when they occur despite preventive efforts. 

Thomas C. Grella

Thomas C. Grella is a writer and speaker on practice management topics and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Division. He practices law with McGuire, Wood & Bissette, PA in Asheville, North Carolina, and is a former managing partner, having served in that position for 12 years. [email protected]

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