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March/April 2021

Managing: Balancing Short- and Long-Term Decisions in a Pandemic

Thomas C. Grella

In March 2020, gyms closed due to COVID-19, and I was forced to move my running venue to the great outdoors. When the local exclusive neighborhood where rich folks live put up signs telling nonresidents to keep off its trails, I began running at a local park that has a five-mile circuit of trails. One of the miles traverses through a crop field. Just after I started running at this location, farmworkers began to clear the crop field. As weeks passed, I watched tarps laid, stakes placed, tomato plants put into the ground and irrigation systems installed. As the summer months continued, tomatoes bloomed. Then, when it seemed the harvest was ready, nothing happened. Week after week I passed by, and by the hundreds tomatoes dropped to the ground. Then, tomatoes remaining on vines dropped with their vines. By October, thousands of tomatoes had rotted away on the ground. The seeming futile effort, and wasting product, puzzled me. As I looked for an answer, I discovered that this farm was not unique in its inability to make a profit. The reduction in demand for tomatoes due to the virus had created a decrease in price to such an extent that the owners would lose more money by paying to harvest product and driving the price down, than to just leave it on the vine to rot away.

As early as April 2020 there had been news articles about this supply and demand problem with respect to tomatoes. Apparently, some farmers simply went full speed ahead into the spring and summer without much concern for what was happening in the economy due to COVID-19 closures. It’s hard to cast too much blame on the farmers though, considering that the highest level of leadership in our nation was declaring an end to the pandemic by April.

The closures forced upon us require us to ask questions about the future of the law firm in light of a practice environment that is likely to never get back to exactly as it was before. Just like those farmers who should have considered operational changes due to supply and demand, many law firms were, and remain, faced with tough decisions related to operations. With all these questions, the organization must ask if a pandemic-related decision should be temporary or permanent. For instance, in our firm, our chief operating officer announced she was retiring just days before the shutdown. Our immediate decision was to hold off hiring a replacement. Given our commitment to not lay off anyone due to COVID-19 and to maintain nonattorney salaries, holding off on a replacement for this position was a great temporary decision. The important tasks of our COO were, however, primarily dropped on our management committee, especially its chair. For other partners, the reduction in expense was welcome—something their pocketbooks could become accustomed to. As I contemplated whether this was a long-term solution, however, I asked myself, at what cost? I realized that the questions we needed to consider should also be considered with respect to many issues and opportunities faced by law firms today.

Avoid Shortsightednes

When firms shut down, they did so to a great unknown. Obviously, never having had to deal with a pandemic, firm leaders had no idea how long the closings and restrictions would continue. What was not so obvious was the extent to which business would get accomplished. Law firms were also unaware that they might need to consider drastic cuts to both facilities and personnel due to a newly discovered ability to serve clients from the comfort of home. In the case of my firm’s COO dilemma, those short-term savings during COVID-19 were welcome; however, long term the question had to be asked whether the position was one that the firm needed filled. Partner murmurings immediately indicated that those not responsible for upper-level firm leadership and management functions questioned the need, since management functions cast upon others were being accomplished. Even so, it became clear that certain future-oriented initiatives might come to a standstill. Billing, facilities maintenance and security, and day-to-day client service administration took place; however, firm leaders (members of our executive committee) became focused on the day-to-day, and it was difficult to find time for such things as marketing strategy in a new business environment and operational innovation.

In my view, as to the issue faced, firm owners should consider that the function of the COO is focused on day-to-day operations and management. If these duties are cast upon others in leadership, there will simply not be time for the creation of culture, vision and innovation—all of which are primary leadership functions. As the day-to-day gets done, bills go out and the lights stay on, but overworked leaders need to ask themselves... for how long?

Recognize Unique Skills

Many firms, initially resistant to pandemic-related downsizing, have given in to the temptation to decrease expense by reducing head count. Good law firm leaders will, of course, regularly assess staffing needs and eliminate unnecessary positions. Sometimes, however, the temptation is to reduce expense by reducing necessary staff and heaping extra duties on top of other persons. In our firm, we decided that temporary reassignment of the COO duties to the management committee, our administrative assistant and billing specialist was a necessary short-term pandemic solution. Long term, however, the skill set of every person we have ever had as a COO has been much different than all these others whom we asked to undertake COO duties. At the same time, it is important to realize that the skills of a COO post-pandemic might be different from pre-pandemic, and still much different than those of our other lawyers and staff. Others taking on important COO duties meant that leadership and vision might suffer in the short term. Without the hiring of a new COO, certain actions will take longer to get accomplished and without as much efficiency, especially when required to be done by a busy lawyer with the duties of leadership, and the planning and execution of mission and vision for the whole organization. As these day-to-day tasks get done, those given job responsibilities to which they never agreed accomplish them when the firm is in a crunch, but law firm leaders need to ask themselves... for how long?

Spurn Selfishness

Even if firm owners are willing to forgo the type of leadership necessary to innovate and achieve mission and vision in a very uncertain future, and even if those originally given the position of leadership, as well as other staff delegated tasks typically undertaken by the COO, are willing to accept new day-to-day management responsibilities, there is an additional consideration for firm owners. Regardless whether the issue is to fill an open COO position, to cut any position presently filled or unfilled, or to cut any other expense that the firm has historically incurred, the question must be asked whether owners are simply being unfair or selfish—to those who have stepped up to get the firm through tough times, by themselves becoming comfortable with maintenance of salary through reduction of expense and not fully realizing the burdens firm leaders have undertaken. As these day-today tasks get done, paychecks continue to be issued, but firm owners need to ask . . . for how long?

Filling a vacated expensive position in difficult financial times is a tough decision to make. The challenge created by the pandemic for a firm is like whether a farmer should delay planting tomatoes, switch to corn or let the field remain overgrown with grass and weeds forever. Tough decisions are the testing ground of leadership. Leaders must therefore have long-term vision, understand the differing skill sets of professionals and understand that all decisions should be made with a firm-first mindset. 

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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