As I write this column, isolation at home amid the COVID-19 outbreak continues. Politics has taken hold of the crisis, as a U.S. presidential election nears. It certainly is hard to “look on the bright side” of anything. Even so, there have been great examples of leadership, service and growth, not only in the medical profession, but legal as well. Many have turned limitation into opportunity. I’ve observed so many positive examples of management and leadership over the past two months, each epitomized by the timeless wisdom of a leader who led through the darkest days of the 1940s: Winston Churchill. The first Churchillian lesson: loyalty.
“There must be some great common bond of union, like we had in 1940, to lead to that melting of hearts where sacrifice seems to be an indulgence and pain becomes a joy, and where life rises to its highest level because death has no terrors.”—Winston Churchill
The Display of Loyalty
Winston Churchill of 1940-41 was a human example of loyalty, not only to people in the United Kingdom, but to all of those in bondage throughout Europe. Looking back at recent days, I have observed many similar examples of individual loyalty. I can also think of many politicians, on both sides of the aisle, who seem to have no regard for the type of loyalty that Churchill displayed, instead using the crisis as an opportunity to be solely loyal to party, seemingly in the hope that a favorable November outcome will be the result. This column, however, is focused on our profession, and as I have observed our collective conduct and as I think back on how my own firm dealt with tough times in 2001 and 2008, I believe there are a few lessons I have learned regarding loyalty—to clients, to those who work in a firm and to the community.
It is my belief that loyalty, at its core, is more than just words; it is always revealed through action based on pure motives. There is no question that a law firm is, like other business organizations, entitled to operate with a profit motive. At the same time, as the country locked down in mid-March, I was astounded by how quickly the ABA Journal weekly newsletter reported that law firms were laying off staff and non-owner associates. In looking at the mission, values and cultural statements some of these firms publish online, I wondered how this could be. Later, that same newsletter reported that one consultant believed that many firms were not cutting staff deep enough for survival. How could a firm that states it invests in its people, or maintains a respectful or outstanding culture, so quickly dispose of valuable employees the first week after the stay-at-home order became effective? Culture is not what you say on a website but is always proved by action—by how you treat those whom you work for and those who work with you.
I have no idea if our firm will have been able to financially sustain the commitment that it made to our clients and staff at the time you are reading this. As of this writing however, because of the importance that our firm leaders and owners place on loyalty, we have: (1) agreed to provide legal services to clients we know will not be financially able to regularly pay as they have in the past, (2) become educated on the unique issues related to this pandemic so the firm could volunteer time to assist the community with obtaining legal and financial relief, and (3) committed to our staff that the firm would not reduce head count or pay, with partners agreeing to pay reductions instead. This was not the first time these types of measures have been necessary at our firm, though the last one was 11 years ago under a completely different leadership team and circumstances. We remain, however, committed to the same organizational values. I realize that these are much different, and in most ways, more challenging times, so I can only hope we will be able to keep our commitment to those relying upon our organization in so many ways.
The message about how we would treat others financially was sent early, around the time that the physical office was shut down. In this uncertain time, not knowing how long extended isolation at home would last, firm leadership understood that firm members not only have financial needs. The culture we espouse is not only that clients will receive satisfactory service and our employees a paycheck, but that we are a team—a family—and that we genuinely care for and desire to support one another. Firm leadership supported our staff through regular contact with them (holding Zoom staff meetings). Such electronic meetings, including attorneys and nonlawyer staff, were encouraged for all practice groups. Our managing partner sent no less than weekly communications to everyone in the firm, updating them on the firm’s workflow and finances (it is best to be transparent, even on the numbers), the status of planning to reopen the firm and other helpful and encouraging words of support. “Staff Appreciation Day” was not ignored, but celebrated in a Zoom staff meeting where attorneys had put together a picture and video presentation to express how much all of our staff are appreciated by the attorneys they support. As billable work began to slow, firm leadership emphasized the opportunity for our team to work together in moving strategic initiatives forward—activities planned in the past, but which took a back seat to more immediate, voluminous client work of days gone by.
The Principles of Loyalty Earned
What I have discovered through my own leadership, as well as observation of others making difficult decisions in this present time of uncertainty, is that actions taken during tough times either prove or disprove what we espouse regarding our firm’s culture and the loyalty we claim as a value. By recommending selfless and strategic action like many of the actions I describe above, I came to realize five basic principles about loyalty.
First, and foremost, to be effective it cannot be just another tactic to make others feel good about firm leadership. It must be based upon the sincere desire for the well-being of others and come from selfless, rather than selfish, motives. The people you work with will know otherwise, no matter how great a show you put on.
Second, that it is a catalyst for unity among firm leadership, members, clients and the communities served.
Third, it is at its best when it is desperately needed, and it comes at personal cost to firm leaders.
Fourth, it expresses care and concern to others who have been loyal to the firm for years—it is reciprocating.
Fifth, it sets or reinforces a desired or stated firm value, thereby creating positive culture.
The Benefits of Loyalty Earned
To conclude, though not the goal of sincere loyalty, I can attest through experience that loyalty to those you serve—both your clients and team—will result in positive effects. Here are a few:
First, firm members who feel that they are a part of a team are more likely to work hard for the firm’s success—it will be more than just their job.
Second, when times improve, team members presented with “better” financial opportunities may not depart for “greener pastures,” and the same is true for clients; loyalty has staying power.
Third, when the crisis ends, a firm that has remained loyal will have a jump start on competitors that take the different path, as they engage in time-consuming and costly hiring and training.