January/February 2021

Managing

Law Firm Traditions: Victims of 2020?

Thomas C. Grella

Recent events have made me think about the value of traditions—those we hold dear in families, those which we are losing due to the effects of the national crises and those that are seemingly compelled on us by organizations or society.

Once a year, my wife’s maternal extended family drives from miles away (eight hours for us) to see each other for two hours and share a meal. I’ve only been once—it’s a long drive to eat mutton. Even with COVID-19 on the rise this summer, the family refused to let the tradition die, or even change. I wonder if they wore masks.

I think the best example of the dangers of tradition is portrayed in a short story first published in The New Yorker in 1948 called “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. It is about a small town with an annual tradition. The place could be any small town in the United States. The people are made to seem ordinary, common, God-fearing folk, excited to be celebrating their annual tradition—a lottery in which every resident is required to participate. At the end of the story we find out that the winner receives the reward of having the people of the town abandon all reason, and with mob cruelty stone the winner to death. There are several themes presented, but one that cries out is that the nature of traditions is that after they are deeply embedded, members of a group tend to blindly follow without giving any thought to their lasting value, fairness or consequences.

As our present crises have continued, our profession has looked at some long-held traditions. This is true in litigation and the court system, as lawyers work from home, and attend hearings and conduct depositions by Zoom. Even the U.S. Supreme Court is altering some of its long-standing traditions: arguments by telephone, live broadcasts and changes to traditional order and decorum. In the area of law firm management and leadership, times are no different, and leaders would be wise to consider areas where traditions need critical analysis.

Rewards and Expectations

It seems that some law firms were more prepared than others for the unexpected. Certainly, some areas of practice were hit more negatively than others. As with any other crisis, such as in 2008, some practice areas were strengthened by greater demand. The culture of many firms—mine included—is that during such times, practitioners in areas negatively impacted are not penalized. The law firm, as a team that offers a wide range of legal services, does not penalize those whom we ask to work in areas that have been hit negatively by a down economy.

At the same time, it has become clear that some lawyers have been coasting through a good economy, keeping their heads in the sand when it comes to progressive changes in technology and business development. These folks found it most difficult to work from home; innovate as it regards delivery; or adapt to serving clients without a physical office, direct physical contact and only indirect use of support staff.

Leaders are now in the position of having to answer questions about how firm members are treated when it comes to expectations and rewards affected by the 2020 crisis:

  1. Will the firm support its dinosaur members? How?
  2. What changes to compensation and reward systems will have to take place to retain talent that has, through their readiness or ability to quickly adapt, kept the firm afloat during a very long crisis?

Physical Location

On a recent ABA Mastermind Series program planning call with two lawyer leaders, the topic of office reopening came up. Two of us had already started the process; however, the third stated that his firm had closed in March, and he was not sure if they would ever reopen. Through August, he had only returned to the physical office twice. In my own town, I have heard of office-based businesses putting their buildings on the market for sale, deciding that the first six months of COVID-19 proved they can fully operate without a building facility.

In law firms that have reopened, inconvenient systems of ensuring that the virus will not spread throughout the physical plant make folks wonder whether working from home, though not conducive to building relationships, promotes greater productivity. Those who lead law firms need to answer a few important queries about traditional practice location:

  1. To what extent will physical presence at a centrally located office be necessary or required? If expected, will exceptions be allowed, and what standard will be used to determine if they apply?
  2. Even if the firm determines that a return to use of the physical location is necessary, to what extent will that location be available for traditional client or community meetings, or will it be only available for use by employed members and staff?

Budget

When COVID-19 shut down law offices, all U.S. state licensing bodies that have mandatory CLE requirements responded. Two years ago, the ABA began work on a new value proposition to its membership. This included not only both simplifying and reducing dues to an overwhelming majority of members, but creating a growing and improved online CLE center where more than 600 (as of this writing) widely accredited online CLE webinars and on-demand programs are offered to members for free. I took this crisis as a challenge to reduce the CLE line item in our firm budget. I decided to take all my remaining 2020 CLE from the ABA online, and for free. As I looked back at our original firm CLE budget for 2020, it is astounding the costs we allowed for on-site CLE registration, travel and hotel. This is simply one example of a COVID-19 reduced budget item.

As leaders consider future expenses, some questions will need answering regarding traditional budgeting:

  1. Will the firm continue to allow a budget for travel expenses when most CLE can be accomplished online?
  2. Understanding that the firm is likely to expect increased expense in the area of technology and innovation to meet changes thrust upon us, and which continue to evolve, in what areas of the traditional firm budget should the firm be able to reduce expense as unnecessary or unreasonable?
  3. Depending on how you answered the questions about physical office space above, will one of your most expensive line items—support staff—need to be reduced?

Culture

All written above assumes that we are never going back to the way it was—probably a reasonable assumption. At the same time, if your firm is like mine, we kind of liked the progress made over the last 10 years developing desired culture and exciting new traditions. A huge part was created through personal interaction, both at the office and socially outside of work, some of which I have mentioned in prior Managing columns. Leaders of law firms should be able to answer at least one of the following questions:

  1. If you were pleased with your firm culture, or perhaps advances you have made toward desired culture prior to March 2020, what steps will you now take to preserve or maintain the progress your firm had achieved, given changes to personal interaction and connectedness?
  2. If firm culture prior to March 2020 was not desirable, to what extent can the ongoing crisis, or the changes in its wake (such as changes to personal interaction and communication), be an opportunity to pursue a new desired culture?

Though it’s likely that the consequences of your firm’s traditions are not as cruel and drastic as that portrayed in “The Lottery,” our present times provide an opportunity for firms to ask some critical questions about how traditional business operations fit into an uncertain future. I encourage you to do so.

Thomas C. Grella

Attorney

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. tgrella@mwblawyers.com

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