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July 01, 2021 July/August 2021

Managing: Is Back to Normal the New Normal?

Thomas C. Grella

As of this writing, it is about one year since our law firm went into COVID-19 lockdown on Friday, March 13, 2020. The necessary isolation has been difficult. At the same time, taking a look back, there are a few positive changes that have been made in my life, as well as my law practice—some of which were probably commonly experienced by practicing lawyers and some quite unique. In my own law practice, from a straight “numbers” standpoint regarding client work, 2020 was one of the most productive years I have had. Even given positive production, however, several nonlaw practice aspects of my life have been enhanced. First, I have spent more time with my wife, and our relationship has strengthened. Second, one aspect of that relationship has been our commitment to maintain a very regular and quite rigid exercise routine together. Third, without all the travel of prior days, I have used the weekends to strongly develop my cooking abilities, particularly Italian cuisine.

It is now 20 years since September 11. I’ve been thinking about that event and the aftermath, especially as COVID- 19 (at least as of this writing) seems to be a lessening threat. One apparent truth I learned from 9/11 is that when a present danger fades, those under the threat tend to retreat to their old ways, and with time, forget the pain and hardship endured. I wonder if this will be true again, and if the few positives mentioned above will give way to reinstatement of past routines and conduct. This reminded me of a quote by author C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain:

My own experience is something like this. I am progressing along the path of life … absorbed in a merry meeting with my friends for the morrow or a bit of work that tickles my vanity today, a holiday or a new book, when suddenly a stab of abdominal pain that threatens serious disease, or a headline in the newspapers that threatens us all with destruction, sends this whole pack of cards tumbling down. At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. … But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys: I am even anxious, God forgive me, to banish from my mind the only thing that supported me under the threat because it is now associated with the misery of those few days … and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over—I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness.

One certainty of my own future is the uncertainty of whether I will have the discipline to maintain the life enhancements experienced, and resist a few time-wasting practices I shed, this past year. Before we just reacquire our old 2019 norms, I wonder if a little introspection might be in order. In an effort to not blindly morph back into our past existence—as we arguably did 20 years ago—perhaps asking ourselves the following might help as we each move our lives and law practices forward into the “new normal” that we have all heard so much about.

What Have I Learned From This Experience About Life and Practice?

As I think back on this most difficult year, and as I have talked to other leaders in the law practice management field, there seem to be a few general principles that will outlive the end of COVID as a crisis. My own agreement with these results from observing others, as well as my personal experiences as a practicing attorney working primarily from home for a year. See if you agree:

  • Responsiveness is more important than ever. As marketing has become more difficult due to a loss of physical contact, client retention has become critical and is only achieved through excellent service coupled with outstanding communication and responsiveness.
  • Innovation must be a part of firm and practice group leadership, practice area diversification and individual practice delivery systems. Those who were not ready for the significant change in early 2020 found excellent delivery and client satisfaction difficult to maintain. Similarly, those whose practices were focused in one specific practice area that was negatively affected by the pandemic suffered greatly.
  • Physical location of service delivery is not critical; however proximate physical presence with your team will be key to successful growing firms in the future. If you want your firm or practice to thrive, the question must be asked how long Zoom-only collaboration and contact will be sufficient.
  • We can do more with less. I wrote about this in a recent column regarding law firm budgeting. As to individual practice, we might need more or enhanced tools at our disposal, but long-term productivity can increase by eliminating what has, through this experience, been identified as unnecessary waste or outdated and archaic systems of practice.

What Have I Learned About Myself, What Should I Retain, and What Should I Reject?

Accepting the above principles but wondering about the one year of altered existence we’ve just experienced, positive change in productivity and quality service to clients might not only have resulted from innovations in delivery and communication, but also from expulsion of toxic practices, behaviors and relationships from life or law practice. Before blindly jumping back into the ways of old that so many seemingly do when a crisis subsides, perhaps we should consider whether some things eliminated need to remain gone. Consider these introspective inquiries:

  • Prior to the pandemic, are there people whom you can identify as consuming large portions of your time, perhaps producing negative or unproductive emotional responses? Are these relationships that should continue to be limited to foster life satisfaction and work productivity?
  • Given the type of crisis we have just endured, were there past thoughts and attitudes that influenced your life and are now seemingly less important? Specifically related to law practice, these thoughts could relate to attitudes regarding balancing one’s tendency toward perfection against a client’s need for timeliness; or a modified view about those who work at your firm as a team instead of the typical and traditional two-tier hierarchy of lawyers at the top and everyone else as subordinate. Before drifting back to the ways of old, if specific unproductive thoughts and attitudes can be consciously identified, they can also be purposely rejected as outdated and toxic, and replaced with more beneficial thoughts and ideas conducive to future growth.
  • Are there behaviors or practices adopted during the pandemic that need to cease? For a year we have collectively been scared to have physical contact with anyone other than the small family unit within our homes. These physical limitations and isolation may have positively led to an increasing of work effort, helping the firm refine and achieve strategy, and fostering aspects of personal life-work balance. At the same time, for some, this isolation may have led to less positive binge habits that might need to be shed, whether found on the internet, through on-demand viewing or in a bottle.

Ridding yourself of toxic relationships, thoughts and practices can only be accomplished with specific intent and personal discipline. Considering the words of C.S. Lewis, now would be a great time to examine the way we have managed our intertwined life and practice over the last year and ask these few hard questions. Consciously inquiring of ourselves now gives us the opportunity, if needed, to reject and replace or to accept but, most importantly, to seriously consider and not forget.

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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