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Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Managing: Is a Frustrating Do-It-Yourself Fix to Staffing Woes in Your Future?

Thomas C Grella


  • Law firms are experiencing analogous frustrations figuring out the fix to unexpected post-COVID professional staffing issues
Managing: Is a Frustrating Do-It-Yourself Fix to Staffing Woes in Your Future?
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Warranty service provided by commercial vendors isn’t what it used to be. In prior columns I’ve mentioned my COVID-19 lockdown running routine that included an almost-daily run through the trails of a local public park. All went well with the plan until harsh western North Carolina winter weather hit in early 2021. Though for the most part we weathered the storms by running in the elements, Elaine and I decided to purchase a commercial grade treadmill, which arrived in mid-winter 2021. It was of a brand and model that is better than most found in fitness centers, equipped with a large video monitor and virtual professional trainers who lead one to the healthy life of their dreams (or so they say). The cost was excessive but COVID had taken away our monthly fee to the gym, so we decided to splurge, given the promise of long-term health from our expensive decision. I purchased a four-year warranty.

Less than two years into ownership, right after an intense virtual run through Romania, it happened—the video monitor went black and would not reset. Attempting all troubleshooting to no avail, I called the vendor. The warranty person tried her best to get the monitor back in service, but finally agreed that the company should send a new monitor. I asked if they would also send someone to remove the defective part and replace it with the new one. She stated: “No, it’s four bolts, you can handle it yourself.” Technically, this was true (the “four bolts” part, that is), however, she did not mention that there were about 36 screws that would possibly need to be removed (and I literally had to guess which ones), as well as other parts involved, and that the whole top of the machine would need deconstruction and then reconstruction. Further aggravating matters was the fact that the part was “backordered,” meaning that the treadmill would be out of commission for several months (for which we had already paid for the virtual training program). 

When the part finally arrived, the challenge began. It was not minutes, or the represented hour, but hours within days over more than a week to complete. The paper manuals and standard online tutorials were close to worthless. As extensive deconstruction commenced, and through the reconstruction, I often found myself doing my best Joe Biden impression, yelling, “Come on, man!” (when I found I had to retrace my steps) and “What malarkey!” (at the obviously deficient paper manual). Finally, with a bit of online research, I discovered an iPhone application called BILT and all seemed well with the world, except that even the computer lady on that application left out one or two steps, causing additional time and frustration.

As of this writing, the treadmill is operational and I am now once again running (at present, virtually through Vietnam). Considering my experience, it occurred to me that perhaps law firms are experiencing analogous frustrations figuring out the fix to unexpected post-COVID professional staffing issues that have recently arisen. Our broken equipment, the law firm itself, is not the well-oiled machine it was before COVID (and in most cases was during shutdown), even if it is still operational. A major problem is that we cannot understand why our past fixes (our prior “warranty” systems) no longer work. For one, though we have now-extensive experience with virtual work and have heard terms such as the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting,” we never thought this might lead to the consequence of an inability to hire and retain talent in the “old normal” manner. Further, though there has been much written on “licensed” talent post- COVID, there has been very little prognostication (and advice) about the potential impacts on the possible inability to employ and keep those in positions we formerly considered “lower level” or even “expendable” administration (and which we are finding are pretty “essential” and not “expendable” to our desired way of life and practice).

We have also assumed we had a firm handle on employee experience. After having our members become comfortable with producing both direct legal work and support services virtually for over a year, we convinced ourselves that a positive experience is as it was before and is simply about giving firm members a sense of agency, identity and belonging at the office.

As I considered my treadmill experience and my woefully inadequate preparation for the ordeal (believing that the payment of $245 up front would make the experience seamless), I considered that perhaps those who lead and manage law practices and firms need to rethink our readiness to handle the staffing issues we may continue to experience at all levels. Given extensive demand by professional workers to work from home, perhaps it’s time to reconsider the move toward a more inviting workplace (i.e., making the physical office environment more inviting and desirable). Perhaps it is not all about creating an office with coffee bars and nap rooms, but more about instilling a greater (but limited, based on the desired culture) location autonomy. My recommendations are that law firm leaders consider:

  1. Whether they should scrap archaic strategic planning and come up with strategy and planning processes and procedures that are continual and focused, not only on the broad mission and vision but primarily on the values and culture that firm owners desire for the organization. Most good leaders have a desire to meet the needs of followers as part of the desired culture, and strategic thinking is the place to start.
  2. That with a commitment to strategy, all job descriptions should be reconsidered and perhaps rewritten. Each position not only needs to be described in terms of full or part time but whether physical in-office presence is necessary or required, with the understanding that both remote and hybrid need to be controlled and monitored so they do not become part time (unless that is what leaders desire, of course). Further, effective planning and strategy needs to include consideration that some positions may not be fillable with qualified personnel in the future. Alternate means of getting work tasks completed— those historically performed by employed persons—may need to be strategized.
  3. That law firms, committed to both reconsideration of job descriptions and consideration that some positions permit either full-time remote or hybrid work, create effective “trust but verify” monitoring systems. Big business has done it, as have some large law firms—for example, virtual clock in/out, computer usage tracking, monitoring of nonessential computer usage, etc.
  4. That law firms are business organizations made of teams, meaning that all jobs are important, and that in times of difficult hiring environments, every member must pitch in. On occasion this might mean that licensed lawyers who profess to be leaders (and servants at that) need to share in those administrative tasks that in the past may have been seen as beneath them.
  5. That the “old normal” might not work anymore. There really isn’t a “new normal” yet (regardless of the fact, the term is overused throughout society). Just as I found in my experience with the treadmill, what is required is personal resilience and a willingness to ask for help (in my case, from an iPhone application). I’ve written many times about the importance of mentorship and coaching in leadership. In my own leadership throughout the years, this wasn’t just one person but many, each with different expertise to offer. To conclude, even if you glean nothing else of value from this column, I can offer the following valuable advice: First, get the warranty if you buy a treadmill (the part is extremely expensive, regardless of the lack of service), and second, if you must fix anything yourself, check out the BILT application.