LP: First, could each of you briefly describe the desired culture you are leading your firm toward post-COVID, and whether you believe you have succeeded in realizing this culture?
Rockoff: I have continued to lead the firm toward a culture of service—for our clients, our community and one another. We have adapted to new ways to serve clients and the community but are still working toward the service to one another.
Susser: Siskind Susser has always had the feel of a “family business” and many members of our staff have been with the firm for a long time. Post-COVID, we are working on maintaining this feeling and building on it as most of us are back in the office. In addition, we are fully dedicated to making sure 100 percent of our efforts support the needs of our clients to work, reunite with their families and find safety in the United States. This united effort creates a wonderful bond and firm culture.
Young: Both pre-COVID and post-COVID, I have always felt that my main responsibility as managing partner is to make the firm a place everyone enjoys coming to work each day. Although COVID created challenges, it also created opportunities. Many partners now realize that working remotely and flex scheduling are doable. It has improved the working conditions for many in our firm.
Schpak: Our 25-attorney firm has always been tight-knit and team-oriented. Our emphasis post-COVID has been on creating opportunities for members of the team to connect and strengthen relationships. I do believe that we’re succeeding in these efforts, and we are always working on it.
LP: What are the biggest obstacles or challenges that you have experienced in achieving desired culture coming out of COVID?
Susser: During COVID, we discovered that managing remote paralegals was very doable for us and gave us the opportunity to hire experienced business immigration paralegals. Our challenge now is making sure those remote paralegals experience the culture of the firm and appreciate the “community” of Siskind Susser.
Young: When COVID hit, we were set up for everyone to be able to work remotely. For a few, they have struggled to return to the office, both physically and mentally. Also, although most of our partners are comfortable with working remotely and flex scheduling, we have a few holdouts who are not.
Rockoff: We have historically had a very in-the-office–focused culture. Our employees who were employed with us pre-COVID very quickly went back to that culture. Our employees hired post-COVID do not necessarily value our in-the-office-culture the same way and this has created tensions among employees.
Schpak: There will always be challenges when operating a business. We try our best to listen and understand the needs of our team members, but of course there are times that an employee’s needs and the firms desired culture vary. For instance, we have had a couple employees transition out because they wanted to work remotely more than our firm is able to accommodate. In the end, it was for the best, as culture is a priority, and these former team members were able to find other opportunities that better suited their ideals.
LP: To what extent is your firm allowing hybrid work, whether lawyer or other professional staff, and do you believe that remote work has caused problems in achieving desired firm culture?
Rockoff: Our attorneys have never had in-the-office requirements although our culture has been one focused in the office. Since COVID we have allowed legal assistants several work from home days each year in addition to paid time off (PTO). Some of our attorneys disfavor staff working from home, while others do not have as much of a problem with it. The quality of work from home work from staff also varies greatly, which causes tensions between staff as well as with attorneys.
Young: Remote work has improved our firm culture. It has allowed many in our office to deal with last-minute illness or childcare issues. It also allows many to work from the comfort of their homes, without making the necessary dreaded drive to work each day. The problems are associated with partners who have not acclimated; this has created some animosity among team members. It has also created some issues with our younger associates who spend a great deal of time away from the office and must be reminded that some partners expect them to be in the office and may delegate work to them if they are not.
Schpak: We expect all attorneys and staff to work in the office at least four days a week unless they have a medical condition or other extenuating circumstances. Because we are so focused on in-office work, we have thankfully been able to avoid the culture problems that sometimes come with a virtual or hybrid approach.
Susser: We are allowing a hybrid work schedule for our attorneys and most of our staff. Early on, many chose to return to the office full-time as soon as that was an option. And with a couple exceptions, everyone else is working at least three days a week in the office. Our willingness to accommodate individuals’ family needs has enhanced our firm culture—not hurt it.
LP: Are there differing views on hybrid work within your law firm based on any specific practice demographic? For instance, is it more likely that the demand for hybrid work will come from the younger versus older generation, lawyers versus other professional staff, practitioners who work mostly alone versus those who work mostly in teams, etc.
Young: Absolutely! Just last week, we had a very candid discussion about this topic. Many of our younger partners work remotely and have allowed members of their team to do the same. Many of our teams within the office have acclimated without any problems. Flex scheduling has done wonders for those with families. Many of our older partners have the same eight-to-fivementality. I must remind them that they run the serious risk of losing their long-term assistants.
Susser: Yes, the first people to return to the office voluntarily in 2020 were the those that live alone and value the camaraderie of the office. Our office atmosphere is generally thought to be informal and friendly. Our support staff has willingly returned, some full-time and some hybrid. The attorneys needed a bit more pushing to get back into the office as they found they could be just as productive from home. To date and contrary to what I hear from colleagues at other firms, I have not found it necessary to mandate strict rules about hybrid schedules.
LP: It has been said that relationship results from proximity, and organizational effectiveness is the result of people feeling connected and engaged with not only the organization, but also each other. What tactics have you successfully implemented in creating relationships without physical proximity?
Rockoff: During COVID we continued to have staff meetings remotely and even had our holiday party remotely to great success. However, given our strong office culture I do not believe we have made any significant strides in offering culture for those working remotely, in part because so few do.
Young: We require each of our practice groups to continue their in-person team meetings. Face-to-face engagement is important and allows the building of relationships. We are also constantly reminding our associates that their biggest clients are the partners who funnel them work. This includes a reminder that out of sight many times means out of mind. For many older partners, they are going to prioritize assigning work to those present in the office. If you cannot be in the office, figure out a way to maintain that working relationship with the partners who are funneling the work, through daily calls or emails.
Schpak: We host a lot of lunch meetings and events, end-of-day happy hours and client events, and we include everyone at our firm in each just about all of them. It’s also common that one attorney will invite others to join them when they’re planning to go to a community or bar association event. Between welcome lunches, baby showers, firm and bar association events, we create a lot of different ways and opportunities for people to connect.
Susser: Fully remote employees are new to the firm, and we’ve tried a variety of things to make our remote staff feel like part of the greater team. We use Microsoft Teams to speak with them face-to-face on a daily basis. Beginning in 2022, we offered to fly anyone that wanted to come to Memphis for our annual law firm family picnic or our Thanksgiving potluck. We had almost 100 percent participation and everyone is excited about coming again this year.
LP: In the past, many smaller firms just assumed everyone had a general knowledge about most everything that went on within the firm, even if they didn’t. Are you at all concerned about the flow of information to those who no longer have daily, or at least regular, physical proximity to the firm team, and how are you dealing with that?
Susser: We have a Teams firm-wide chat that is ongoing daily. We use this forum to call out different team members’ successes, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and highlight government policies that impact our clients. Through these robust discussions, I think everyone feels equally represented and part of the team. We also have a marvelous HR professional who conducts regular check-ins with all our staff, remote and local, to make sure our efforts are effective and to get feedback on what we could do better.
Young: This is a major concern for me. Prior to COVID, we had regular staff/team and lawyer meetings. This created a great deal of transparency. Much of this has seem impacted by COVID. For those working remotely, they do not seem to prioritize these meetings. One way to address this issue is to know their remote and hybrid schedules and schedule the meetings accordingly. We recently conducted small group staff meetings, which allowed us to talk openly about important issues. These will be repeated and allow for the flow of important information.
Rockoff: We have always struggled with keeping attorneys informed of firm happenings in and out of the office. This year we have started sending out emails with bulleted summaries of our management meetings to partners, which have been well received.
Schpak: We have found that we need to be more deliberate about ensuring that news and updates make it all the way around the office. Whereas we used to be able to rely on all-attorney or all-staff meetings to communicate these updates, we now pair those with one-on-one updates, communicate through multiple channels (for example, email and in-person meetings) and repeat ourselves a bit more often to ensure no one feels like they have been left out of the loop.
LP: Finally, are there any other practical tidbits of advice you might give to our readers who are dealing with the issue of leading post-COVID related to hybrid work?
Rockoff: As mentioned, we have struggled with the variability in the quality of work from those working remotely. I think this issue is twofold. First, because we only allow staff a certain number of work-from-home days each year they are using them more like PTO days and are using them in situations when they probably should not be working because they are otherwise distracted. And secondly, they use them so rarely that they have not developed work-from-home protocols to make sure they are efficient. This has created more of an attitude among attorneys that staff shouldn’t work from home, when perhaps if we allowed it more the work from home would improve. Open dialogue with staff regarding work-from-home challenges and solutions is the key to success. If the attorneys just say “that doesn’t work” because of limited interactions, we may lose good staff members who can have more flexibility elsewhere. Instead, we need to be willing to have difficult conversations with staff about what isn’t working and how to find solutions.
Schpak: I encourage employers to define and respect boundaries. One of the biggest drawbacks of hybrid and virtual work arrangements is less clarity around when the workday starts and ends, and when an employee is available for a conversation or meeting. By being specific about core work hours, you create clear expectations regarding when employees are expected to be available and responsive, while also providing healthy boundaries that allow employees to enjoy their time away from work.