January 01, 2021 The TECHSHOW Issue

Changing Tech and Managing Change: Pandemic Agility and Empathy

Surviving 2020 required combinations of co-worker empathy and technology that make remote work as efficient as being in the office.

John D. Bowers
Survival and a slightly less productive year is good enough, right? Wrong. In truth, the empathetic, agile lawyer has thrived.

Survival and a slightly less productive year is good enough, right? Wrong. In truth, the empathetic, agile lawyer has thrived.

via Pogonici / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Of the very few law practices that recognized the COVID-19 pandemic as a real business interruption threat early on, not one could have been fully prepared for the remote revolution that followed.

It is nothing short of miraculous that many law practices continue operation, given the legal industry’s well-publicized aging workforce combined with the pandemic’s overnight transition to remote working conditions. Financial support through the CARES Act has enabled these fighters to navigate choppy seas and many are still pulling through. Survival and a slightly less productive year is good enough, right?

Wrong. In truth, the empathetic, agile lawyer has thrived. Pre-pandemic clients loved them for their responsiveness and foresight while the tidal wave of global infection resolved the members of their practice to follow them over the precipice and into the unknown. These administrative teams had carefully constructed tech infrastructures to surmount an unknown disaster, systemized response plans and ironed out mobile access bugs long before March of 2020. Nearly a year later, they are awash in new business they could never have dreamed of and unsolicited talent banging down their doors.

There is no question that 2020’s pace of change was at least uncomfortable. However, fundamentally capable change managers deftly rallied their troops armed with both proven and newfangled technology, their weapons of choice. Thus, law practices of all sizes require a steady hand now more than ever. Could it be that we, as leaders of extraordinary change, suit up for precisely such times?

Sharpening Soft Skills

Surviving BigLaw firms have struggled mightily for many years to manage change, build teams and intentionally effect a consistent culture throughout the organization. Solo lawyers and small firms (collectively SmallerLaw) often juggle administrative duties along with top-shelf legal services. The “soft skills” of team building, transparent communication and cultural empathy fall by the wayside, frequently trumped by client emergencies among other billable work.

However, law practices that fail to intentionally engage employees with J.D.s and those without eventually pay dearly for their negligence: Supporting lawyers and nonlawyers alike are simply disengaged from the work, the team and inevitably the clients. According to a 2017 Gallup employee engagement survey, highly engaged business units are 17 percent more productive, have lower turnover and are 21 percent more profitable.

Avoid the temptation to remake your team’s culture and fruitfully engage employees in a matter of weeks; remember that this work, unlike some legal work, is a marathon and not a sprint. In 2020, remaining employees finished the job likely with excellence and certainly under unexpected and tremendously difficult conditions. Play QuizBreaker and plan virtual happy hours. No matter what mode you choose, celebrate this unity as a team and demonstrate proper recognition that reflects your culture. Make space for new fears and challenges: Your team members are now likely working more remotely than ever before, possibly while balancing children who are schooling remotely.

To keep employees grounded, develop informal open lines of communication using Microsoft Teams or free apps, like Slack and Trello, to support individual and group conversations. Share vacation pics or home office videos on Canva or Vidstitch. Maintain scheduled contact with practice and industry teams, staff, clients and prospects using videoconferencing tools discussed later. Providing regular updates on your practice’s financial performance and the state of the firm yields reassuring transparency for employees during uncertain times, which will combat disruptive paranoia and maintain productivity.

Don’t forget to set the tech aside and have a heart. Some of your employees have greater health concerns than others. Your senior employees may lack the ability or willingness, or both, to adapt to new technologies. Personalities dictate totally different reactions to the same external force. Unmediated stress will devastate star performers as well as those suffering alone. Encourage your employees to talk about fears and concerns, both at home and at work, without judgment. Allow them to then address worries and take action. Listen and do not provide unrequested solutions. Empathy is what caring people do for each other and lays the foundation for long-term engagement.

Abbreviating Technology Deltas

2020 was a remote revolution. Gone were the days of tech committees pontificating on conspiracy theories and running decisions through firm-constructed bureaucracy gauntlets. Decisions were made on the fly in order to solve measurable client needs and, in some cases, keep the lights on.

Some practices eased painfully, remorsefully, into the abyss as technicians propped up dated systems held together by duct tape and shoelaces. Particularly during March, clients, vendors and lawyers apologized heartily and learned a new meaning of flexibility. Even the best-prepared practices plowed into remote conditions filled with yet undiscovered potholes. Some lawyers had disaster-specific and normal-course-of-business remote applications at the ready while agile lawyers created windows and adapted to more technology in two weeks than they had in the previous two years.

Very few of the suddenly critical applications were new inventions, but the remote revolution reinforced dependence on each technology. You may not currently use all of the following apps but Pandora’s box is open with no hope of ever closing: It’s never too late to try your hand with any of these technologies.

Videoconferencing

We’ve all enjoyed the Brady Bunch memes that emerged as everyone, from children to adults, discovered videoconferencing on Zoom for the first time. GoToMeeting, Microsoft Teams and many others were already edging for a share of the market, but Cisco’s Webex was doing it when Zoom was merely the sound the Batmobile made. You may dismiss Zoom for not being the earliest videoconferencing option, but its accessibility and pricing structure literally revolutionized all pre-existing videoconferencing options. Now the battle is on with constant innovation of hosting and webinar features, among many other improvements.

The advent of one technology often means the death of another. Does videoconferencing spell the bitter end for independent conference calling services? In short: undoubtedly. While conference calling services won’t go away immediately, tech companies that own and operate independent services are treating them as the redheaded stepchild since videoconferencing companies have nearly subsumed the whole shebang. Ask your accounting person for the latest teleconferencing invoice: Just because you don’t use it doesn’t mean you aren’t paying for it. While it may be wise to keep conference calling services as a backup, working with conference calling companies will soon be like locating a Blockbuster video in the phonebook.

Phone System

Unless you’re still tied to the fixed landline, a phone system is the technology supporting that handset thing you pick up off your desk, talk into and listen to. Still can’t picture it? Think of the unnecessarily large paperweight with buttons that sometimes rings and was on your desk when you arrived for your first day. Today’s VoIP phone system comes with a plethora of features and options that largely went ignored until we weren’t in the office to hear the phone ring. Check with your phone system provider to see what new and fancy features you pay for but don’t use. At the very least, seamless phone forwarding, cell calling and email integration have made work a little easier for life in the home office.

Screen Sharing

Tied in very tightly with videoconferencing, screen sharing applications have also enjoyed a renaissance with lawyers and clients working collaboratively from a distance. Each of your videoconferencing options should include screen shares, and many VoIP phone systems offer screen sharing capabilities on their native or web application.

Much like printing out a document, walking down the hall and handing it to someone for review and comment, sending attachments for redlining has become archaic. Collaboratively editing documents electronically stored in a document management system for version control seems like an obvious standard operating procedure, whether corporate office towers are open or not.

Emergency Communication

Much has been written on disaster recovery and emergency communication plans, both topics of grave importance that deserve their own article. By virtue of multiple office locations, BigLaw ironed the kinks out of emergency communication systems years ago. Office-based emergency response systems like SimpliSafe or Community Response Systems might include phone, text and email blasts. Until March of 2020, however, SmallerLaw might still have depended on phone chains and sending all-firm emails, each of which is outmoded even if maintained perfectly. Notification solutions that are not part of an in-office emergency system like SimpleTexting, Capterra and EZ Texting offer great cost alternatives. When the point is to efficiently communicate with all your people quickly, it doesn’t matter what the development purpose of technology is as long as it is secure.

Collections

In the 21st century, how could managing accounts receivable possibly be considered a technology issue? 2020 proved its legitimacy—just ask law practice controllers praying for that fat check to roll in from a major client. To be clear, no one is whining about speed of collections; in 2020 it was often the hope of collecting at all. Regardless, electronic payment systems for credit card acceptance and e-checks through solutions, like LawPay, LexCharge and ClientPay, kept the tap on for prepared lawyers and suddenly were worth the time to set up for the agile practices.

Electronic Billing

Remote working introduced a new paranoia: The flow of snail mail to clients and to your office from clients was less than inevitable. Few could prove it but there were many true believers. Working from home did push those on the electronic billing fence off and forced many skeptical lawyers all the way to the other side. The beauty was lack of choice: Billers simply weren’t in the office to print bills and stuff envelopes. Regardless, there is no question that remitting bills as email attachments combined with electronic payments meant a more continuous flow of revenue.

Scanning Documents

When offices closed, access to the photocopier and high-speed scanner became impossible, or at least inconvenient. Agile lawyers became amateur photographers armed with their mobile devices to scan documents into PDFs and image files, share with contacts and maintain remote productivity. Adobe Scan and Microsoft’s Office Lens are excellent platform-agnostic apps capable of scanning multiple pages into attachments. For iOS devices, Apple’s Notes app is preloaded on your iPhone with a handy scan feature when you select the camera button.

Data Security

A whole slew of unemployed people combined with remote workers dependent on electronic communication led to a surprising resurgence of data security attempts, from much clearer English in phishing emails to sophisticated ransomware campaigns. In short, weakest links in the security systems’ end users at practices of all sizes were repeatedly assaulted. If a practice spends billions on data security but won’t confront users with solid training, then testing, then training, then testing . . . the billions are wasted.

Remote lawyers also contended with data security lockouts of their own making. Whether through BitLocker lockouts following Microsoft updates or power outages in locked buildings, password expirations that disabled remote access and server maintenance requiring boots on the ground, we learned to scale data security standards to be agnostic of geography.

Imagining the size and scope of client information temporarily saved on home PCs is dizzying. To all guilty lawyers, please spend a Saturday (and Sunday if needed) to correct these ethical missteps. Enough said.

Permanence

Will you require your team to adopt these remote changes as enhancements for the long haul or allow them to simply hit the reset button as soon as they walk back into the office? Many late technological improvements will yield productivity efficiencies for years to come. There is nothing more painful for leaders than to witness intentional ignorance within a team. As such, leaders must insist on a permanent transition to these improvements, even to the point of removing the old technology.

The alternative is bleak: Backsliding into pre-COVID-19 operating procedures will return your practice to the days of kicking the proverbial technology can down the road, the subtly numb but deeply comforting status quo where lazy managers resolve that functional mediocrity is good enough.

John D. Bowers

COO

John D. Bowers is the chief operating officer at Patterson Intellectual Property Law, PC in Nashville, Tennessee. He also serves as executive director of the Tennessee Intellectual Property Law Association, the treasurer of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Association of Legal Administrators, board chair of Clearview Children’s Center and is a former editor-in-chief of Law Practice and continues to serve on its editorial board. JDB@iplawgroup.com

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