May 01, 2021 The Management Issue

Managing Relationships and Operations in the New Normal

Four attorneys offer their insights into how legal relationships and operations will proceed after the pandemic.

Dave S. Christensen
We reached out to a group of attorneys to give us their predictions on how legal operations and relationships will evolve in a post-pandemic world.

We reached out to a group of attorneys to give us their predictions on how legal operations and relationships will evolve in a post-pandemic world.

via Mike_Kiev / iStock / Getty Images+

The pandemic altered our work and personal lives in numerous ways. In anticipation that a vaccine will be broadly available by the middle of 2021, we reached out to a group of experienced corporate and private prac­tice attorneys to give us their predictions on how legal operations and relationships will evolve in the post-pandemic world.

Our panel included two in-house counsel: Dorothy Hammett, chief legal officer of Ensign-Bickford Industries, and Thomas Mauch, vice president and intel­lectual property counsel of ConvaTec Group. We also included two attorneys in private practice: Thomas Grella, share­holder at McGuire, Wood & Bissette, and Michael Cantor, co-managing partner of Cantor Colburn LLP.

Law Practice: Traditionally, attor­ney-client relationships tended to be based on personal relationships. How do you see these relationships proceed­ing in the future?

Dorothy Hammett: I think the atmo­sphere of online meetings will continue even post-pandemic. We have found ways to maintain relationships, and the online format distills the subject matter to that which supports progressing the client’s work. I think it will be important for law firms to continue to reach out to clients with events such as webinars and panel discussions on subjects of current interest.

Thomas Grella: Although I believe that relationship is more easily created through in-person meetings, it is not the only means. As David Maister, one of the most prolific professional services con­sultants of all time, indicated in his book Managing the Professional Service Firm, understanding client wants and needs comes from listening to them. It is my belief we may never go back to in-person meetings for some clients, and for some we may have to have a hybrid approach.

For other clients, perhaps those who are older in age, we should not assume they are ready to shift to a new normal and will want some semblance of a traditional relationship.

Michael Cantor: While there has cer­tainly been a global recognition as to the virtues of video meetings, based on my conversations with colleagues around the world, there is still a real need for in-per­son meetings to develop and maintain long-standing professional relationships. In-person meetings will be an important part of client relationships, although the number of those meetings will proba­bly decrease and be replaced by virtual meetings.

Thomas Mauch: In my mind, personal relationships will continue to drive attor­ney-client relationships post pandemic. With many legal issues, the risk and lia­bility on the client side requires complete faith in the legal representation. Without that personal connection, it becomes dif­ficult to have faith in the work that will be done during the engagement. Decisions regarding legal representation create a reputation risk with the company’s busi­nesspeople. As a result, in-house counsel are much more likely to select a firm they know or a firm whose reputation pre­cedes it.

LP: Virtual conferences have replaced in-person conferences in 2020 and early 2021. Do you expect conference attendance to return to pre-pandemic activity, and how will that impact the relationship development aspect that conferences traditionally provided?

Hammett: I think there will be a blend of online and in-person conferences. The legal community will gravitate to which topics lend themselves to online format and those that are more enriching with the in-person experi­ence. In-person conferences will still be important for law firm clients to be able to share experiences and best prac­tices, or where the subject matters raise multipronged legal issues.

Grella: I do expect that some conferences will return, but certainly not all. Those which are purely educational in nature (for the general attendee) will likely be moved to an online format. Post-pandemic, I believe there will be a push by some to return to some semblance of the old normal. If participation in edu­cational learning conferences has been a huge source of client development for any attorney, they will need to learn how to do it over Zoom, as well as in person. The changes of this past year are here to stay in this area in my opinion; the whole question is merely to what extent.

Cantor: Actually, I believe that lawyers and clients are “chomping at the bit” to start going to conferences again. I believe that there has been universal disappoint­ment in virtual conferences, particularly when it comes to client development. In a virtual conference, it is almost impossi­ble to have the easy, unforced discussions that normally take place over coffee or just waiting in line. Sometimes the best new client contacts occur through chance when you sit next to someone or take part in a conference activity. This cannot happen in a videoconference. People love to be with other people, especially those who share their profession and interests.

Mauch: Outside of people presenting at a conference, I can’t think of a time where I met an attorney at a conference and hired them or their firm. If I watch someone present virtually, and I am impressed by them, I will reach out to learn more. The people I’m most interested in meeting at a conference are other in-house counsel. If I have a need for an attorney, I’m most interested in the experience of my peers. This extends beyond attorney selection but also includes best practices as well. This all seems to be lost in a virtual conference world. Accordingly, I think conference attendance will approach pre-pandemic levels. 

LP: The pandemic has caused many companies and firms to realize how much money is spent on travel. How do you expect this to impact legal opera­tions going forward?

Hammett: I think the analysis of whether a meeting can be held remotely will (and should) remain the first question asked even after the pandemic. We have all become very adept at working from home and accomplishing projects remotely. Engineering and operational travel will likely lead the way, with the need for criti­cal site visits, customer, product and engi­neering interactions.

Grella: It is not just travel or CLE that is a concern. What we have learned from COVID is that the whole traditional law firm budget needs to be subject to anal­ysis. Law firms need to examine where and how they spend and the value of those dollars to the bottom line. Travel, CLE, staffing levels, technology costs associated with work from home, facili­ties costs and perhaps downsizing due to increased work from home (and hoteling for firms with many who prefer to work from home, but come into the office occa­sionally) all need to be up for discussion.

Cantor: I do think that law firms and clients will be more selective in which conferences or meetings to attend and who to send. Virtual meetings using videoconferencing have clearly been shown to work well; and while in-person meeting may still be preferred for many lesser-important meetings, a virtual con­ference is more than adequate. I also think that many future meetings will consist of some team members traveling in person to a particular meeting while others on that team will attend virtually.

Mauch: I think all businesses will now ask whether travel is necessary or whether the objectives of the travel can be accomplished in other ways. Technology has advanced in ways that allow objectives that previously required travel to be accomplished through virtual meetings. However, I do think that the pandemic has also emphasized in some ways the importance of face-to-face contact. We’ve all had Zoom meetings with family that are less satis­fying than a holiday meal or going out to dinner. So I do think travel will be reduced but not eliminated. 

LP: Do you anticipate or have plans for a full return to your office? 

Hammett: Our company thrives on col­laboration and team-based approaches to problem solving. We will first and foremost follow applicable requirements for reintegration, but we anticipate a hybrid approach to continue into the future.

Grella: Our office already opened back up for lawyers and all staff on July 1, 2020. While we are open for our own lawyers and staff, on a voluntary basis, having clients in the office is difficult. Prior to opening back up, every firm member was fully operational remotely from home. We have a list of questions about COVID-19 that must be answered by each member of the firm, on a daily basis, before they can enter. We already have a hybrid system, and for me person­ally, I had already become a road warrior as it regards the practice of law, so our new system has given the manner in which I practice (from anywhere and at any time, instead of an accepted in-office range of hours) a greater acceptance.

Cantor: Our firm has been almost com­pletely remote since March, and we have (surprisingly) found out that working remotely has not resulted in any prob­lems with respect to work product, effi­ciency or anything else. We know that there are a number of attorneys and staff who wish to remain remote after the pan­demic. We intend to find a hybrid model that includes working remotely, full-time working in an office and the ability to do some of both. In this way, we can keep our employees happy and over time save money on office space as we will be able to decrease our office footprint in our five U.S. offices.

Mauch: We still do not have plans for a return to the office. For the time being, a majority of our employees will continue to work from home. However, we antic­ipate that many employees will return to the office. In certain groups, such as R&D, we anticipate almost all employees return­ing, with very few working from home. In other areas, we may see more of a hybrid model. Our CEO strongly believes in the face-to-face relationship in the office. 

LP: Technology has certainly enabled continuity of operations this year. Do you have any expectations for your firms/clients on future technology implementation?

Hammett: Through pre-pandemic plan­ning, our company was ready to embrace work from home with upgraded IT soft­ware and bandwidth. We’ve learned a number of tools in Microsoft Teams, such as Whiteboard, to continue our collaboration remotely. We will continue to evaluate products that enhance team-based activities. We expect our firms to be making similar evaluations and use of videoconferencing.

Grella: All firms are being forced to increase technology spending. Reduction in other budget areas will make this pos­sible. Law firms will now expect members to be fully up to speed on remote technol­ogy. As to lawyers, I think firms will likely expect lawyers to perform many of the tasks they previously handed off to others as somehow beneath their importance. If we want to continue to develop and serve clients, it is not our place to have expec­tations of clients when it comes to imple­mentation of technology. The firm of the present and future will need to find ways to meet each client where they are and communicate with them in the manner they desire.

Cantor: While we have always placed a premium on office technology, the pan­demic has highlighted that we have no choice but to continue to invest in systems that allow for increased automation, remote work and improved communica­tions. While in the past, new technology used to be a “nice to have,” going forward, it is now a “must,” and our yearly budget must include substantial and continuous investments in office technology.

Mauch: I think the pandemic has forced companies to evaluate certain technol­ogy that they previously wouldn’t have heavily invested in, and the technology’s use during the pandemic has proven out the usefulness of that technology. Going forward, I also think certain “nontech­nical” people now understand the pos­sibilities presented by technology and are more willing and able to adapt to and embrace it. I anticipate a continued investment in money-saving technology with an expectation that the cream of certain technological segments will rise to the top. 

Dave S. Christensen

Partner

Dave S. Christensen is a partner at Cantor Colburn LLP in Hartford, Connecticut, and is the chair of the firm’s Additive Manufacturing Practice Group. He is a member of the editorial board of Law Practice. dchristensen@cantorcolburn.com

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