- Law firms are experiencing analogous frustrations figuring out the fix to unexpected post-COVID professional staffing issues
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: