Edge International

Avoiding Law Firm Armageddon: The Sequel … Two Strikes And You’re Out

Jonathan Middleburgh

Background

I wrote previously, in an article at the start of 2020, about my – at the time – successful attempts at resolving a conflict that had threatened to blow apart a significant law firm in Latin America (all facts have been obscured for reasons of confidentiality, including the location of the law firm in question).

The background was a potentially catastrophic falling-out between the managing partner and chair of the law firm in question. The firm had grown rapidly over a period of 15 years, the managing partner having been a very junior lawyer when the firm was set up. The managing partner had become a protégée of the chair and over the years had become centrally involved with the management of the firm, culminating in her appointment as its managing partner.  The managing partner had made a series of accusations against the chair at a board meeting (detailed in the 2020 article) and the chair had made a series of counter-allegations against the managing partner, including that the managing partner’s accusations were a naked grab for power.

In the 2020 article I described the process whereby I had mediated the conflict between managing partner and chair, at first unsuccessfully and then (at the time) successfully after a light bulb moment where I saw a way to resolve the conflict by addressing some of the underlying frustrations of the managing partner relating to her workload and stress.

In the article I further described how I had managed to negotiate for the managing partner to give an apology in a form acceptable to the chair.  The chair had agreed to commit to providing support for the managing partner (to help alleviate her stress), as well as committing to continuing to work on the relationship and to the implementation of proposed reforms to the firm, both as to governance, strategy and operational efficiency.

At the date of the article (a year on from my involvement), an uneasy truce had held between chair and managing partner and it looked as though Armageddon had been averted.  One strike – but the firm was not out.

What Happened Next – Second Strike and Ultimately Armageddon

Sadly, 18 months on from my 2020 article Armageddon did in fact happen and the firm broke apart with the two key players going their separate ways and setting up their own competing firms (one built from what remained of the original firm).  A second strike – and the firm was out.

What precisely happened I don’t know – by this stage I only had very limited contact with the key players and others in the firm and had long since ceased to be formally engaged by the firm.  So I had no definitive inside track as to what was going on and what actually happened.

What I did know was that recommendations I had made at the time of my initial involvement – that I continue to be involved on a limited basis to ensure that the key players continue to work on their relationship – had not been followed.  In fact, I don’t know to what extent the players had worked on their relationship at all.  What I had heard anecdotally from other senior figures within the firm was that, after an initial significant thawing of relations, each of the key players had begun to retreat to their metaphorical corners and that relations had shifted from cordial to polite to chilly to frosty.  However even though I had heard these rumours, I had no licence to get involved and the key players had themselves led me to believe that all was well.

From what I gather from others I had got to know in the firm there came a point where frostiness shifted to flash points of tension.  The managing partner felt that the pace of change was too slow and that things would ultimately never change to the extent she felt necessary.  At some stage the chair discovered that the managing partner was having discussions with some key partners about setting up an alternative firm.  The chair effectively expelled the managing partner from the firm and litigation ensued, during the course of which the firm fell apart, with the vast bulk of lawyers choosing to go with one of the key players or the other.

Key Learnings

Law firm and other professional service firm partnerships are always potentially vulnerable.  The partnership dynamic is notoriously complex and at core relationship-based.  Trust between partners is difficult to build up and relatively easy to break.  Once broken, trust is extremely difficult to rebuild.  A successful mediation of a conflict between partners can only ever be the first stage of the rebuilding of that trust – and, as with any relationship, the key players need to continue working on the relationship.

In the case study I have outlined, I had warned at the time of my involvement that the parties would need to continue working on the relationship and in particular that they would need to rebuild trust over time.  I had warned of the potential fragility of their rapprochement.

I had recommended that I continue to be involved on a limited basis – because I knew from experience that old habits die hard.  I also knew that it would take a long time to rebuild trust and that the players would need to work intentionally on their relationship; and that it would be quite hard in practice for them to do so without some continued external facilitation and support.

A linked point here.

In the past it would have been quite difficult for me to have offered continuing, meaningful, external support.  Geographical factors – my being based in London, the law firm being in Latin America – would have made it hard to maintain a light touch involvement, other than at considerable cost to the firm.

The availability of technology – and massively increased levels of comfort with video technology in particular – represent a huge opportunity in this type of situation.  I could easily have remained involved on a very light touch basis, having regular catch-ups by video (say monthly or bi-monthly) with each of the key players and regular 3-way meetings with both, to surface and deal with any emergent issues. I am working this way at the moment with another firm where there was a managing partner / senior partner conflict, and this way of working is providing highly helpful.

So, the key takeaways are:

  • Never assume that a conflict is ‘over’ just because the key players have declared victory and that the conflict is sorted. If the points of contention were of any real significance the key relationships will thereafter sit on a fault line, with risk of future earthquakes.
  • Put in place a maintenance plan – i.e. an agreed follow-up to maintain the repairs and to monitor for problems.
  • Meet regularly (as key players) to check in with each other – and consider whether you need external support to facilitate or moderate those conversations.
  • Leverage the available technology if the relevant parties and / or the external mediator are not geographically co-located.
  • Remember that relationships between law firm partners / senior management are no different than any other relationships: difficult to build, and hard to repair once damaged.

For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44 (0) 7973 836343

Diffusing Conflict: Taming the Insensitive Partner

Jonathan Middleburgh

Setting the Scene

I have written previously about my experience in resolving conflict between senior lawyers in law firms.  My first article about conflict for the Edge Communiqué was about a dysfunctional management committee and how a relatively simple intervention helped turn things around (“Resolving Conflict: Trouble at the Top and Why it’s Sometimes Best to Part Company”).  A subsequent article was about a bust up between a Managing Partner and a Senior Partner in a large firm (“Avoiding Law Firm Armageddon – How a Major Law Firm Nearly Imploded … and How the Conflict was Resolved”).

In this article I am focusing on a different aspect of conflict among senior lawyers – and one that I am sure will be familiar to many.  This is the case of the insensitive lawyer, or the lawyer who is somewhat lacking in emotional intelligence, and who ruffles feathers or, worse, causes more serious distress to his or her colleagues.

The Archetype

Many will recognise the archetype – the lawyer who is an excellent technical specialist and highly effective at his or her craft, but who lacks certain interpersonal skills, does not know how to manage relationships effectively or is low in emotional intelligence.

My experience is that such lawyers rarely intend the consequences of their actions and sometimes struggle to make the connection between their words or behaviours and the resulting upset that is caused.  For sure there are bullies among partners in law firms – but often it is not a case of out and out bullying, more a case of crass insensitivity or poor communication.

A couple of examples of the archetype.

Example 1:  a partner in a Global Law Firm considered at the top of his technical game and highly valued by his clients.  Acknowledged by his peers as one of the Firm’s star performers in his niche field of expertise as a Banking and Finance lawyer, he was (and is) the go-to for many financial institutions.  Astute at managing external (client) relationships, this particular partner was disastrous at handling a range of internal relationships.  Junior lawyers complained of erratic behaviour, often alternating between lavish praise and extreme criticism.  A couple of junior lawyers had complained of behaviour that amounted to bullying – although they had been careful not to label the behaviour as bullying for fear of reprisals from the partner in question.

Example 2: a partner in a European Law Firm who was a highly skilled and well-respected Dispute Resolution lawyer.  Esteemed by clients for her proactive approach to dispute resolution she had ruffled feathers among several junior lawyers; a couple of exiting lawyers had blamed their departure from the firm on her managerial style. Junior lawyers complained of a brusque (sometimes rude) style in emails, insensitive remarks about their work (including put downs when giving feedback on written work) and a generally hostile, unfriendly, behavioural style.

Both of the above lawyers had been defensive to feedback from lawyer colleagues / HR.  They both complained of the quality of several of their juniors and argued that ‘incompetent’ juniors were mistaking candid constructive feedback for inappropriate feedback.

Resistance to Feedback: Breaking through the Barrier

I have highlighted a couple of examples above, but I have come across variations on the archetype in a significant number of my engagements, sometimes when I was asked to a coach the individual in question, sometimes when I was brought in as someone known to have an expertise in diffusing conflict.

Common to all of these situations is that the individual I am working with is high on IQ and low on emotional intelligence / EQ.   Emotional intelligence is classically defined as “the ability to recognise, understand and manage our own emotions and the ability to recognise, understand and manage the emotions of others” (Goleman).

Lawyers of this type are often fiercely bright intellectually but find it hard to understand the impact of their words and actions on others – or to recognise the emotional response of others as betrayed by their words, reactions or body language.  Thus, by way of example, the Banking & Finance lawyer described above found it hard to recognise that anything he said was overly harsh or offensive and hard to grasp the fact that junior lawyers found the bipolarity of lavish praise and damning criticism confusing.

HR and senior lawyer colleagues often face an impenetrable wall of resistance when dealing with this type of lawyer.  In my experience if there is to be any hope of progress it is imperative to get permission to gather 360 type feedback by way of conversations with a representative sample of the individual’s colleagues.  This consists of the external coach or consultant having detailed one-on-one conversations (anywhere from 20 minutes upwards) with a range of feedback givers who are promised confidentiality and that all feedback will be given thematically and without reference to any individual.

The 360 degree feedback does not in and of itself resolve the problem.  Oftentimes the insensitive lawyer will push back against the feedback and it requires a significant degree of skill to break down the barriers caused by resistance and the lawyer’s lack of emotional intelligence.

However the 360 degree feedback is data and, if gathered from a wide range of colleagues, including valued colleagues, hard to refute. Lawyers generally respect data.  The skill of the external consultant is to navigate his or her way through the layers of resistance so that the insensitive lawyer gradually begins to accept the data and to embrace the need to work with that data.

A typical process

In my experience, the process of resolving or diffusing conflict caused by the insensitive lawyer follows a typical arc or methodology when someone external is brought in to help:

  1. Initial Engagement: A colleague or colleagues of the insensitive lawyer approaches someone external to try to help to diffuse or resolve the conflict. Often someone from HR or a senior lawyer colleague (e.g. Head of Department, Managing Partner) reaches out to an external consultant or coach.  The external consultant or coach will discuss the situation with the internal sponsor and the range of possible outcomes (including, at the extreme, the insensitive lawyer leaving the firm – this in my experience is rare).
  2. Contracting with the insensitive lawyer: When I talk of contracting with the individual lawyer, I am not talking of a legal contract.  The formal instruction / retainer (the legal contract of engagement) is with the firm, and the firm pays for the external help.  I am talking here about the non-legal, but vitally important, contracting that takes between the external consultant or coach and the insensitive lawyer, whereby the lawyer agrees to work with that person – and whereby they agree the practical basis / terms for that work.  At this stage of contracting, it is not essential that the lawyer in question agrees that there is a problem or that they are the source of the problem.  It is however essential that they are willing to work with a third party and that they are sufficiently open-minded to allow that third party to gather 360 degree feedback (if this is part of the agreed process).  Contracting also covers the extent of confidentiality as between third party and the insensitive lawyer and the extent of report back to the paying client (the firm) – Who is the third party allowed to report back to? What is he or she allowed to report back?  Are there any other important terms that need to be agreed to regulate the relationship between lawyer and third party?
  3. Initial Rapport Building / Goal Setting: This will usually involve a session or two of getting to know the lawyer and building rapport.  The external third party agrees goals with the lawyer.  The key goal is typically to improve on the current situation in circumstances where the lawyer has received feedback that his or her behaviours /words are playing poorly with some colleagues.
  4. Psychometric testing: Where resources permit, it is usually helpful to use one or more of the better-validated personality tests with the individual lawyer.  It is not essential but the results of the psychometric tests provide helpful data points to work with, to frame part of the conversation with the lawyer.  Although the ‘data’ in question is in fact self-report data (i.e. the lawyer has provided the data by answering questions about e.g. their behaviours) there can often be a disconnect between the data and the lawyer’s self-perception, which is a fruitful topic for discussion. As I have pointed out above, lawyers tend to respond well to data – and can initially find it easier to focus on, analyse and talk about the data, than to acknowledge their shortcomings. It can be particularly helpful to use an emotional intelligence test (of which there are some excellent, well-validated, ones) in order to have a conversation about aspects of the individual’s emotional intelligence.
  5. 360 degree feedback gathering: I have commented on this above.  Typically this will involve speaking to at least 6-8 of the lawyer’s colleagues, often considerably more.
  6. Debrief and processing of 360 degree feedback: This can often be much of the meat of the engagement – not just delivering the feedback but helping the lawyer to understand and process the feedback (this includes the overcoming of resistance, discussed above) and to make connections between his or her behaviour and words (both verbal and written) and the feedback.
  7. Developing insights and translating these into sustained changed behaviours: This part of the process can overlap with the previous step.  Here the external consultant or coach is working with the lawyer to help them to understand the behaviours / actions / words that are impacting negatively on others and then working with them to change those behaviours / actions / words. This can be a difficult part of the process.  Developing insight is one thing – translating the insight into changed behaviour quite another.  Ingrained habits can be difficult to shift and replacing these habits with different habits requires sustained practice and repetition.   This can sometimes involve ongoing coaching – but it is important to ensure that the lawyer does not become dependent on coaching.

Results – A Spectrum of Success

Inevitably, not all engagements result in success.   My experience (this is entirely personal) is that roughly 10-20% of engagements are transformational for the coachee.  50-60% of engagements result in significant success and roughly 20-30% result in partial success.  It is very unusual  (10% of cases or less) that the dial is not shifted to some extent.

In the case of the Banking & Finance lawyer, it took a significant amount of time to break down the barriers of resistance.  I fortunately obtained permission to carry out a very extensive 360 degree process, so that I was able to gather feedback from a very large number of colleagues. This made it very hard for the lawyer to refute the feedback in its entirety.

It required several sessions to establish optimal rapport with the lawyer.  I eventually succeeded in breaching the barriers of resistance but there remained patches of resistance to the feedback, throughout the process. Nonetheless the lawyer did gradually recognise the impact of the key relevant behaviours and actions and we were able to identify which behaviours and actions he needed to change.

I worked with the lawyer for several further sessions to ensure that he was indeed changing those behaviours and actions and to ensure that this became a sustained change.  I was then given permission to carry out a more limited feedback gathering process, which confirmed that the change had occurred and was recognised by colleagues.

In the case of the Dispute Resolution lawyer, the outcome was less satisfactory.  My understanding at the start of the engagement was that it was agreed that there would be a gathering of 360 degree feedback as part of the process.  I had three sessions with the lawyer during which I worked at building rapport and took the lawyer through the results of a couple of psychometric tests, including an emotional intelligence test (the lawyer had insisted, and it was agreed, that the results would not be disclosed to anyone else within the firm).

When it came to the 360 degree feedback exercise, the lawyer expressed considerable concern (even though, as I understood, it had been agreed that this would take place, as part of the initial discussion between myself and the firm).  The lawyer – who, as a Dispute Resolution lawyer, was very adept at tactics, including stalling tactics – raised a series of queries about the process, relating to confidentiality, the risk of her being perceived negatively, in comparison with other colleagues, as a result of 360 degree feedback being gathered relating to her and so on. The combined effect of these queries (and, I assume, the intention of raising them) was to kick the 360 degree feedback exercise into the long grass and to stall the process.  Despite a couple of attempts to revive the process, the lawyer raised sufficient objections to prevent the 360 degree feedback exercise from taking place and thereby caused the progress to stall indefinitely.  Thus, progress of any meaningful kind was frustrated.

Why do I say that the outcome was less satisfactory rather than unsatisfactory? I say this because I learned from HR that the steady stream of complaints against the lawyer had in fact stopped.  It was impossible to be sure that this was a result of the process but HR believed that the lawyer was keeping her head down and sufficiently smart to understand what she needed to do to avoid complaints – even if she had not completely committed to a change process and even though it was possible that the damaging behaviours / actions could resume once the spotlight moved away from her.

Of course, in some cases the lawyer in question is incapable of change – or so resistant to feedback that he or she is unwilling to acknowledge that there is any need to change.  This, however, in my experience, is more the rare exception than the usual case.

In this article, I have dealt with a topic that is often highly sensitive.  The issues covered need to be managed very delicately.  If you would like an informal discussion around any of the issues raised by this article, please contact me (Jonathan Middleburgh) at middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343.

The facts of some of the above case studies have been altered so as to preserve confidentiality.

Results of the 2020/2021 Edge International Global Remote Working Survey Part 1: The Data

Jonathan Middleburgh

Please enjoy the above 7 minute video overview

I am delighted to publish the results of the Edge International 2020/2021 Global Remote Working Survey.

This is the first part of a two-part review of the results. In this part I am sharing the results.  In the second part, I – together with Gerry Riskin – will be suggesting some practical conclusions that can be drawn from the results, which should inform how leaders manage remote working post-pandemic.

This part of the article consists of this summary, which sets the headline results of the survey.  The detailed results are available in a slide deck, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Key Headlines

  • The vast majority of respondents (87%) want to continue working remotely between 1 and 4 days a week post-pandemic. Only 6% want to work remotely full-time.
  • Productivity and Motivation have held up relatively well during the period of remote working caused by the pandemic.
  • For most, remote working has either had a neutral or positive impact on both physical and emotional well-being. However, for a significant minority it has had detrimental consequences.
  • Almost half of respondents report that remote working has damaged the cohesiveness of their firms.
  • For the vast majority of respondents, feelings of loyalty towards their firms have stayed about the same or increased.
  • Most report that relationships with colleagues and with clients have stayed about the same or improved; however, a significant minority report that they have deteriorated somewhat or significantly.
  • Only a small minority report less effective supervision of their work or management while working remotely.
  • A high percentage of those with childcare responsibilities report that childcare issues impact detrimentally on their ability to work effectively while working remotely.
  • A significant minority report a belief that remote working will impact negatively on their opportunities for career progression and promotion if they continue to work remotely post-pandemic.
  • A third of respondents report that their remote working environment is less comfortable, far less comfortable or uncomfortable, compared to the office; likewise, a third of respondents report that their remote working IT resources are somewhat or significantly worse than those in the office.

Background to the Survey

Like other colleagues, I was struck last year by the lack of data available to help firms with their decision-making around remote working, both as the pandemic continued and looking ahead to a time when restrictions caused by the pandemic are lifted. I was concerned that some firms were beginning to make significant decisions without robust empirical data, in particular benchmarking data.  It is for this reason that I designed the survey.

Participation in the Survey – Benchmark Data Set

An open invitation was extended in early December 2020 to firms to participate in the survey.  The survey, which consists of 24 questions (several of which contain sub-questions), takes around 20-30 minutes to complete.

927 lawyers / law firm employees completed the survey between 12th December 2020 and 12th February 2021, at which point I decided to close the survey in terms of the benchmark data set.

The benchmark data set is made up of a spread of lawyers and other law firm employees (see Q3):

  • 4% are senior management
  • 27% are partners in their firms
  • 37% are associates
  • The balance are paralegals, interns/trainees, legal secretaries and business support of which business support is 11% of the data set.

In terms of length of tenure at their firms, 11% of respondents started after the onset of the pandemic, 39% have been at their firms for less than 5 years, 21% between 5 and 10 years and 29% more than 10 years.

History of Remote Working

The survey focuses on the experience of those who have worked remotely for a significant amount of time since the pandemic began (92% of respondents; the other 8% of respondents only answered Question 1 of the survey and were then taken to the end of the survey).

Of those who have worked remotely for a significant extent since the pandemic began, only 14% had worked remotely to a significant extent pre-pandemic.  This is important, as the vast majority of respondents who completed the survey had not previously had significant experience of remote working.

Productivity and Motivation

Questions 6 to 9 focus on productivity and motivation.  In terms of productivity, perceived productivity seems to have held up relatively well while working remotely, both in the early days of remote working, and as the pandemic has continued.  For example, 81% of respondents report that they believe their productivity has either stayed the same or increased over the entire period since they started working remotely.

However – and this is an important caveat – a significant minority report that their productivity has decreased.  Over the entire period 19% of respondents report that their productivity has decreased slightly or significantly.  That said, only 3% report that their productivity has decreased significantly.  These figures can of course be tested against actual productivity figures in many firms.

In terms of motivation, this too seems to have held up reasonably well while working remotely, both during the early days of remote working, and as the pandemic has continued.  78% of respondents report that their motivation has either stayed the same or increased over the entire period since they started working remotely. 22% of respondents report a slight or significant decrease in motivation (5% significant; 17% slight).

Being an Effective Resource for the Firm

One in three respondents report that they believe that they are a more effective resource for the firm when working remotely and a further 40% report that they are ‘about the same’ in terms of being an effective resource for the firm (Q10).

However, one in five (19%) do not believe that they are a more effective resource for the firm when working remotely.  This chimes with figures on productivity and motivation and would suggest that roughly one in five employees believe that they are either slightly less effective or significantly less effective as a resource for the firm when working remotely.

Physical and Emotional Well-being

Question 11 focuses on the perceived impact of remote working on physical and emotional well-being.

58% of respondents believe that remote working has had a somewhat or significantly positive effective on their physical well-being (28% somewhat; 30% significant).  21% report remote working as having had a neutral effect on their physical well-being.  Only 2% report remote working as having had a significantly negative effect on their physical well-being. However, 18% report that it has had a somewhat negative effect on their physical well-being.

Similarly, 53% of respondents believe that remote working has had a somewhat or significantly positive effective on their emotional well-being (27% somewhat; 26% significant).  20% report remote working as having had a neutral effect on their emotional well-being.  Only 4% report remote working as having had a significantly negative effect on their emotional well-being. However, 23% report that it has had a somewhat negative effect on their emotional well-being.

These figures came as a personal surprise to me – I had not anticipated that such a high percentage would report remote working as having a positive effect on their physical and emotional well-being.  The fact that a significant minority report remote working as having had a negative effect on their physical and emotional well-being was less surprising to me.

Further data points confirming the emotional impact of remote working can be drawn from the responses to question 20. For example, 21% of respondents report that they have experienced low motivation since working remotely, 20% low mood, 16% volatility of mood and 7% depression.

Childcare Issues

A very high percentage of respondents who have children requiring childcare report that childcare issues impact detrimentally on their ability to work effectively (Q13).

Of the 30% of respondents who have children requiring childcare, 60% report that childcare issues impact detrimentally on their ability to work effectively while working remotely.  One in five of these (22%) report that childcare issues impact detrimentally to a large extent on their ability to work remotely.

Relationships with Internal Colleagues / Team Working

A number of questions explore relationships with internal colleagues and team working.

In response to Q18(A), 50% of respondents report that their relationships with internal colleagues have stayed about the same and 13% report that they have improved somewhat or significantly. However a significant minority report that these relationships have deteriorated – 27% report that they have deteriorated somewhat; 4% significantly.

In response to Q18(D), 60% of respondents report that their ability to work as part of a team has stayed about the same and 20% report that it has improved somewhat or significantly.  Here too, a significant minority report a deterioration in team working.  14% report that their ability to work as part of a team has deteriorated somewhat; 3% report that it has deteriorated significantly.

In response to Q20, 43% of respondents report that they have experienced fewer opportunities to bounce ideas off colleagues while working remotely and 42% report fewer opportunities to brainstorm with colleagues.

Relationships with Clients

Question 20 explores relationships with external clients.

Just over half of respondents (53%) report that relationship with clients have stayed about the same.  11% report that they have improved somewhat and a further 4% report that they have improved significantly.

A small (but significant) percentage (11%) report that relationships with clients have deteriorated somewhat.  Only 1% report that relationships with clients have deteriorated significantly.

Leadership actions / Management while working remotely

Question 22 explores a variety of leadership actions during remote working. A high percentage of respondents have experienced virtual team meetings (84%) and / or virtual social events helping them to stay connected with team members and colleagues (74%).  A much lower percentage report one-to-one interactions with leadership – only 36% report that leadership has held virtual one-to-ones to touch base with them individually.  That said, 69% report that leadership has demonstrated concern for their well-being.

Overall, respondents appear to be relatively satisfied with how they have been managed while working remotely. Only 10% of respondents report less effective supervision of their work while working remotely and only 8% report less effective management by their manager or supervisor (see Q20).

Preferences regarding remote working post-pandemic

The vast majority of respondents would like to spend a significant percentage of their working week working remotely, post-pandemic (see Q21). 87% of respondents would like to work remotely between 1 and 4 days a week once the pandemic is no longer the determining factor.

22% would like to work remotely 1 day a week, 26% 2 days a week, 21% 3 days a week and 18% 4 days a week.  Only 6% express a preference for full-time remote working; 7% express a preference for full-time office working.

Firm cohesiveness / Feelings of loyalty

Just over half of respondents report that remote working has had no impact on or enhanced the cohesiveness of their firms (Q23).  However, just under half report that it has somewhat or significantly decreased its cohesiveness. 40% report that it has somewhat decreased the cohesiveness of their firm; 7% report that it has significantly decreased the cohesiveness of their firm.  These figures should be of some concern for senior leadership.

The responses to question 23 are somewhat difficult to square with the responses to question 24 which explores personal feelings of loyalty asking: ‘Have your feelings of loyalty towards your firm increased or decreased since you started working remotely?’

In response to this question only 6% report that feelings of loyalty have decreased.  58% report that they have stayed about the same and 33% report that they have increased.

Other important findings

Some other findings are as follows:

  • 26% of respondents report a higher level of disruptions when working remotely than when working in the office (Q12) – however only 6% report a significantly higher level of disruptions.
  • One in three respondents report that their remote working environment (as regards space, noise, desk, chair etc.) is either less comfortable, far less comfortable or uncomfortable compared to the office (Q14).
  • One in three respondents report that their remote working IT resources are somewhat or significantly worse than those in the office (Q15) – however only 4% report that they are significantly worse.
  • The vast majority of respondents report that they spend some or all of the time they save commuting on working (Q17) – 10% report that they spend all of it working and a further 17% report that they now work even longer hours than their previous working day including their daily commute.
  • The majority of respondents report that the punctuality and running of both internal meetings and meetings with clients has stayed the same or improved while working remotely (Q18(B-C); Q18(F-G)).
  • A significant minority of respondents report that their opportunities to enhance their professional skills (e.g. through formal or informal CPD) have deteriorated somewhat or significantly while working remotely (Q18(H)). 7% report that they have deteriorated significantly.
  • A significant percentage (20%) of respondents report that they believe their opportunities for career progression and promotion are likely to deteriorate if they continue to work remotely post-pandemic (Q19).

Implications of the Survey

I, together with Gerry Riskin, will be exploring the implications of the Survey in Part 2 of this review.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the survey with me, my contact details are below. Similarly, if you would like to consider having your firm take the survey – and receive a detailed report benchmarking your firm’s results against the benchmark data set – please be in contact with me.

Resolving Conflict: Trouble at the Top and Why it’s sometimes best to part company

Jonathan Middleburgh

I have written previously (in an article in the Edge Communiqué entitled ‘Law Firm Armaggedon: How a major Law Firm nearly imploded and how the conflict was resolved’) about how the survival of law firms sometimes requires the capacity to resolve senior-level conflict. In that article I shared the story of one such conflict and how it was resolved through a long and difficult resolution process.

On that occasion conflict resolution achieved a truce between the key protagonists. In the situation described in this article the outcome was a recognition on the part of one of the key protagonists that it was best for everyone if he leave the firm.  While ostensibly a less dramatic situation, in reality this outcome was important for the continued flourishing of the firm.

My Relevant Background

I described my relevant background in my earlier article.

I am an ex-barrister (I practised at the Bar in London for 12 years), schooled primarily in an adversarial approach to dispute resolution.

Around fifteen years ago, I started to retrain as a psychologist, completing my undergraduate equivalency in psychology while still practising at the Bar. After leaving the Bar, I continued my studies and started to practise as an occupational / organisational psychologist. Over the years I have worked extensively in the field of senior-level talent development in law firms and corporate legal departments, both in the UK where I live and also in the US and internationally.

As I explained in my earlier article, given the breadth of my background, I have been involved in a variety of projects, which defy easy categorisation. Several of these projects have involved senior-level conflict resolution, which has become a significant strand of my work.

A Case Study: Trouble at the Top

Unlike my earlier case study there was no cataclysmic precipitating incident that sparked my involvement with the law firm in question. Rather I was brought in ostensibly to help the Management Committee of the law firm to work together more effectively.

The background was that the law firm was a mid-sized regional firm in the UK.  The firm had grown rapidly over the last 10 years, through a mixture of organic growth and as the result of a couple of large mergers.

The Managing Partner of the firm was half way through a second term of tenure, having been re-elected unanimously as Managing Partner prior to his second term.  He had been at the firm for over 20 years and was coming towards the end of a very successful career as a transactional lawyer.

The other members of the Management Committee were the heads of the firm’s key departments – litigation, property, corporate / commercial, banking & finance and private client – together with the firm’s finance director / COO.

My introduction to the firm was via a consultancy that had been helping the firm with the development of a new 5 year strategy and the implementation of some key organisational and technological changes.  The consultancy, in discussion with the firm’s HR Director, had identified that it might be helpful for someone to do some team development work with the firm’s Management Committee, as the Committee was not fully aligned on some key aspects of the proposed changes.

The HR Director felt that it would be helpful for the Management Committee to have a team charter and described this as the core of the necessary work when I first met with her.  I was unconvinced that this was really at the heart of the necessary work, but decided to refrain from expressing this until I was clearer about what was actually going on.

What was clear from my initial briefing, however, was that all was not well at the top of this organisation.  Although not presented as of key concern in this initial briefing, it was clear that there was a degree of conflict between members of the Management Committee. It was also clear to me that if the top team was unable to align it was highly unlikely that the planned changes would be fully effective.

Choice of Process

The HR Director was convinced that the implementation of a ‘team charter’ would help ameliorate behaviour of Management Committee members.  I initially tried to question why a team charter would be a panacea but it was clear to me that the HR Director was focused on the team charter and did not want to listen to other possible approaches to the situation.

Rather than continue to debate this issue with the HR Director I decided that the best approach was to agree that I would work towards the Management Committee embracing a team charter.  I suggested that I have a mix of conversations with the team members combined with a series of workshops dealing with issues emerging from the conversations.  I suggested that I speak first to the Managing Partner and that I then have meetings with the other Management Committee members. I explained that I felt that the Management Committee members might welcome some coaching and support in relation to their respective roles in the change process, in addition to my providing support to the Management Committee as a team.

First round of meetings

I met first with the Managing Partner.  He was very happy to engage with the process and acknowledged that the behaviour of the Management Committee was holding back the change process.  It emerged from the discussion that the Managing Partner felt that the head of litigation was a particularly disruptive influence on the Management Committee. He was resistant to many of the proposed changes, in particular to some of the proposed changes in technology and to more centralised resourcing.

According to the Managing Partner the head of litigation was undermining some of the work of the Management Committee and the external consultants.  He was apparently having ‘offline’ conversations with Management Committee members outside the formal Management Committee meetings, seeking to persuade them to hold out against some of the recommendations or to resile from changes that had already been discussed and agreed. The Managing Partner also suspected that he was ‘briefing’ against some of the proposed changes, i.e. telling his direct reports and possibly others that he was not in favour of the changes.

I tried to ask the Managing Partner whether he had called out this behaviour and, if not, why not – but it was clear to me that the Managing Partner was very uncomfortable discussing this and I was concerned that it would damage the relationship if I pushed him too hard on this.

The meetings that I held with the other Management Committee members confirmed that the head of litigation was a disruptive force on the Committee and highly resistant to the proposed changes.  The other Committee members all mentioned that he tended to dominate Committee meetings and that his contributions used up a disproportionate amount of the available airtime.  While it was clear that the Managing Partner was highly respected as a brilliant lawyer it was also clear that his leadership of the Management Committee was lacking and that he was, in the view of several of the other Committee members, highly averse to conflict and confrontation.

A couple of other factors emerged from these initial meetings.  First, it was clear that although the larger of the firm’s mergers had taken place several years previously it remained highly significant in terms of actual and perceived loyalties of the Committee members.  Several of the Committee members referenced the mergers and would refer to other members according to whether they were ‘original’ or ‘legacy’ i.e. whether they had been with the ‘original’ firm or one of the legacy firms with which the ‘original’ firm had merged.

It was clear to me that Committee members had retained their identities as either ‘original’ firm partners or ‘legacy’ firm partners and that those identities remained determinative of how partners were viewed by each other.  There remained a web of alliance and commonality between the ‘original’ firm partners and a similar web of alliance and commonality between the ‘legacy’ firm partners.  Each group was distrustful of the other group.

Second, it emerged that I needed to tread carefully in terms of my work with the Committee as a team.  Several of the Committee members referenced a previous disastrous engagement with an external consultant who had done some work with the team, which had backfired badly.  The consultant had held a kick off meeting without laying the groundwork by having individual meetings with the team members.  In the kick off meeting the consultant had done an exercise with the team where he encouraged the team to imagine their fellow team members as common animals (badger, beaver, lion, tiger etc.) and to explain why they identified which particular colleague with which particular animal, based on that animal’s behaviours and attributes.

The exercise had derailed in a spectacular fashion.  A couple of the team members chose to ‘zoomorphise’ their colleagues as animals which those colleagues regarded as, at best, inappropriate and, at worst, highly offensive.  Everyone maintained a polite front during the meeting but there were post-meeting recriminations, the work with the consultant was abandoned, and the exercise had clearly scarred team relationships for a while.  There was an understandable desire to avoid anything that might be a repeat of this disastrous experience.

I chose to meet the head of litigation towards the end of this first round of meetings.   He was ostensibly extremely affable and keen to emphasise that he thought the team development work was an excellent idea and that he welcome personal coaching.  However he was careful to extract several reassurances that our conversation was entirely confidential and spent a significant part of the conversation critiquing the proposed changes, emphasising the critical nature of his role to the success of the firm and explaining why, in his opinion, the litigation department was significantly different from the other departments such that his department should be excepted from several of the changes, particularly with regard to centralised resourcing.

I had been forewarned as to two of the head of litigation’s key traits – a tendency to interrupt while being asked questions and a propensity to keep on talking way beyond the scope of the question that had been asked.

The First Workshop

I decided to play it safe in the first workshop.  I thought that it was important to build rapport with the team and to have a relatively gentle workshop rather than trying to tackle anything too ambitious.

I gave the Management Committee some general feedback from the conversations that I had held with them.  I fed back with regard to the previous disastrous team development intervention and discussed with the team how that intervention had been counterproductive and caused considerable friction within the team rather than improving team relationships. I also spent some time discussing the fact that legacy relationships (i.e. relationships carried over from the ‘original’ firm and from the merger firms) still seemed to affect the dynamics of the group and there was general agreement as to this and how there was still a perception that some loyalty was owed to the legacy network of relationships.

We discussed in generic terms the key attributes of a high functioning team and the behaviours of such a team.  These were captured for later use in the team charter exercise. While everyone expressed a commitment to operating as a high functioning team there was an acceptance that it would take time and effort to shift the embedded dynamics of the team.

My approach subsequent to the First Workshop

Following this first round of meetings and the first team workshop I reflected on the approach I should adopt moving forward.

I decided to focus on the following areas in the one to one coaching conversations:

  1. Legacy relationships – It was clear to me that the head of litigation was using the loyalty created by legacy relationships to undermine the work of the Management Committee as a whole. This was unfortunate as it seemed to me that the Management Committee – with the exception of the head of litigation – was broadly aligned around the importance of the proposed changes.  So I decided, in my one to one coaching of the team members, to encourage them to focus on the importance of working together as one team and to seek out opportunities to work more collaboratively with those with whom they did not have legacy relationships.  This could be as simple as having more regular catch ups with those individuals. I also encouraged the consultants driving the change process to ensure that the internal working groups driving the change were made up of a mix of players, so that the group members did not all share legacy relationships. It transpired that several of the key working groups had key members who had strong legacy relationships and these groups were gradually mixed up as a result of my recommendations.

 

  1. Offline conversations – Much of the work of the Management Committee was being undermined by offline conversations seeded or coordinated by the head of litigation.  I decided to focus on steering the team members away from having these conversations, particularly conversations whose purpose was to undermine the proposed changes or to revisit decisions that had already been made by the Committee.  I thought that it was unlikely that the head of litigation would change his approach to a more positive one – and, assuming this supposition was correct, I believed that it was important that the other team members deprive him of the oxygen he was being given to fuel resistance to the changes.

 

  1. Stronger leadership – I thought it was important that the Managing Partner showed stronger leadership, calling out bad behaviour on the part of the head of litigation. I was not sure whether he would be prepared to do so given his aversion to confrontation.  I felt that I needed to encourage him to do so.

Subsequent developments

I had further rounds of coaching conversations with each of the team members, each round being followed by a team workshop. The bulk of each team workshop was consumed with the team discussing detailed aspects of the strategic change process (with me observing this work) and a small but significant portion of each workshop was devoted to discussing the team’s development.

I followed the approach outlined above with regard to the one to one coaching conversations, focusing on the areas outlined above in addition to providing each individual with support in relation to their roles in the larger change process.

A number of things happened as a result of the approach I adopted:

  1. Within a couple of coaching sessions the team members – with the exception of the head of litigation – increasingly realised and articulated in conversation that their interests were aligned to those of the firm as a whole rather than those of the legacy organisations. They became careful to consider whether their decision-making was based on loyalty or affiliation because of legacy relationships – and also to avoid intuitively conferring with legacy colleagues when making decisions.   Several of the team members were surprised at the extent to which they had previously been influenced unconsciously or intuitively by legacy colleagues, and less so by their ‘newer’ colleagues (even though these ‘newer’ colleagues had been their colleagues for several years).

 

  1. The number of reported offline conversations declined, in particular conversations focused on reviewing or second-guessing decisions already made by the Management Committee. Specifically legacy colleagues of the head of litigation were careful to ensure that the head of litigation did not draw them into these conversations.

 

  1. Both legacy and non-legacy colleagues of the head of litigation became more likely respectfully to call out the head of litigation at their team meetings. Whereas the head of litigation had previously been allowed disproportionate airtime at these meetings, colleagues were more likely to ask him to make way for other contributions and to point out where he was being unjustifiably negative about aspects of the proposed changes.

 

It also important to note that the Managing Partner himself did not call out any of the head of litigation’s bad behaviour.  When I raised this with him he attributed it to wanting the team to take ownership of the situation rather than imposing a solution himself – but I believed that the reality was that he was uncomfortable doing so, despite my efforts to encourage him to show clearer leadership.

In any event, within a couple of coaching sessions with the head of litigation it was clear that he was starting to feel marginalised as a result of the developments outlined above. He recognised that he was feeling increasingly isolated on the Management Committee and I encouraged him to explore with me why that was the case and what was going on.  I was able to give him some of the feedback that the Managing Partner had not given him and to explain to him objectively and respectfully my observations as to his communication style. To my surprise he took some of these observations on board and realised, at least partly, that he was responsible for his own isolation.

Decision to part company

In subsequent conversations the head of litigation discussed with me whether he was capable of adapting his communication style – and whether he wanted to do so.

He recognised that aspects of his communication style were entrenched but felt that he could modulate aspects of his style if he wanted to do so.  Indeed, he became notably more positive in a couple of team workshops and yielded the floor in those meetings to his more constructive colleagues to an extent that was noticed by the other Management Committee members.

Ultimately, though, he decided that he did not want to accept the new status quo.  The new status quo would see (from his perspective) his leadership of his department sidelined in two key ways.  He would have to agree that the technological changes would apply as much to his department as to other departments.  He would also have to agree to more centralised resourcing, such that resources from the litigation team would be available to other departments depending on patterns of work flow.

For my part I encouraged him to think through the issues around his communication style – but as he edged towards the decision to leave his role I did not try to persuade him to stay.  My view was that the team would work together much more effectively were he to leave.

I also helped him to think through the sort of environment that might play to his strengths.  He decided (rightly in my view) that this would be an environment where he could call the shots.  After exploring a variety of options he accepted an in house role heading a small team in a legal department that handled a heavy volume of litigation.

Outcome and Conclusions

As the work with the Management Team continued, the team charter itself receded in significance – as I had suspected it would from the start.  We put together and agreed a team charter but in reality the charter captured many of the behaviours that the team had already started to exhibit.  Those behaviours would not have developed without the coaching of team members and the team workshops.

As indicated above, the head of litigation parted company with the organisation to take up  another role.  This provided the opportunity to refresh the team and to bring in a new team member – the newly appointed head of litigation who possessed qualities of communication and collaboration lacking in his predecessor.

Following the departure of the head of litigation the team started to work together more effectively and became increasingly aligned with regard to the changes, most of which were implemented within a relatively short timeframe.  The firm has continued to grow, pulling ahead of some of its direct competitors.

By way of footnote the Managing Partner himself moved on within a year of my concluding the work with the team and the ‘new’ head of litigation was voted as his successor.  I can in no way claim any credit for this development – but the change in team dynamics enabled a new leader to step up and to replace a Managing Partner who himself had shown some clear deficiencies in his own leadership style.

For me, the core work illustrated that it is sometimes better to recognise that a key relationship (in this case the relationship of the head of litigation with his senior management colleagues) is not working – and therefore to part company – rather than to assume that every dysfunction can be resolved or that it is worth the time and expenditure of organisational resource to try to do so.

 

For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at Middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343

Edge Principal Jonathan Middleburgh consults on senior human capital issues and coaches senior legal talent in both law firms and legal departments. A former practicing lawyer who is also trained as an organisational psychologist, Jonathan has a wide range of experience helping law firms and legal departments to develop their senior legal talent so as to maximise business outcomes.

Global Legal Remote Working Survey

Jonathan Middleburgh

Your firm is invited to participate in a complimentary global survey studying the attitudes of your personnel regarding remote working.  The survey will be conducted by lawyer and psychologist (and Edge Principal) Jonathan Middleburgh.  Edge will provide you with an executed NDA to assure the protection of your firm’s data and privacy.

Your firm will receive a complimentary summary of its own findings as well as access to Jonathan Middleburgh’s global learnings and insights. 

If you are interested in having your firm complete the survey or simply have questions, please click here to invite  Jonathan  Middleburgh to contact you or reach out to him at any time by email:

middleburgh@edge-international.com

If your firm has already conducted an internal Remote Working Survey, share it with us (under an NDA) to get Jonathan Middleburgh’s insights and an opportunity to benchmark against other law firms globally. 

The context for this survey.

COVID-19 forced law firms almost overnight to adjust to their personnel working from home, regardless of how senior management felt about flexible working pre-pandemic.

Since early this year the majority of firms in the largest jurisdictions have found ways to transact business ‘as usual’ (or mostly ‘as usual’), with most or all of their personnel working from home.

Some firms, such as Linklaters, have already indicated that their personnel will be able to spend a significant proportion of their time working from home post-pandemic.  Others such as Reed Smith and Vinson & Elkins have indicated that working from home will continue during the pandemic, but have not yet decided what to do with their workforce post-pandemic.

Many firms are considering whether to shift to an agile working policy post-pandemic and, if so, what that policy should look like.  Others are considering whether to mandate working from home and, if so, to what extent.

With a vaccine or vaccines on the horizon, it is time for firms to look beyond the pandemic and to figure out how to configure or reconfigure its workforce.

Looking beyond COVID-19 – a deficit of data on remote working

I, like other colleagues, have been struck by the dearth of data available to help firms with their decision-making.  I have seen a couple of surveys that have reported back on results from a number of lawyers who have been part of a larger data set of employees from a number of other sectors – but these have been very small samples.  I am aware that a number of firms have been conducting their own internal engagement surveys.  But I have not come across a survey that consists of data from a range of different law firms, allowing senior management access to benchmarking data.

As an international consultancy, Edge International is in a unique position – with your help – to gather data from a broad array of firms globally.

I strongly believe that such data will help firms to make more robust and solid decisions, so that they can understand not just what is going on for their workforce but how the experience of their workforce benchmarks against the experience of personnel in other law firms.

The Survey

It is for the above reasons that I have written a Remote Working Survey targeted at law firms, hoping that a wide range of firms will ask their personnel to complete the survey, thereby creating a useful bank of data, which can guide firms in their decision-making.

The Survey, which takes no more than 10-15 minutes to complete, explores a range of psychosocial and other factors relevant to prolonged working from home.  It contains questions that will produce both quantitative and qualitative data.

The results of the Survey will hopefully shed light on a range of questions with which law firms are currently grappling.

For example:

  • are motivation levels holding up as remote working continues?
  • are significant numbers of personnel suffering from well-being issues as a result of prolonged remote working?
  • do younger personnel in law firms feel that they have the support and supervision they require while remote working, or are they feeling isolated?
  • are some personnel having to work in environments that are not fit for purpose, or perhaps even unsafe?

I believe as firm leaders you will find the answers to these and many other questions highly illuminating.

Like many, I have my own hypotheses in relation to many of the issues relating to remote working.  But with such a significant shift in working practices I believe that law firms should be making their decisions on the basis of data rather than hunch or anecdotal evidence.  Lazy assumptions based on insufficient data could prove costly in the long run.

It is for this reason that I would strongly encourage you and your firm to participate in the survey.  There is no cost to participate and if your firm participates I will provide senior management with a short complimentary report summarizing the results for your firm.

If your firm has already conducted its own internal research (by way of survey) or otherwise, I will be happy to review that data and where appropriate integrate it into the pool of data being gathered via this survey; I will also be happy to provide you with my comments on that data, reviewed against the data from this survey.

Your firm is invited to participate in a complimentary global survey studying the attitudes of your personnel regarding remote working.  The survey will be conducted by lawyer and psychologist (and Edge Principal) Jonathan Middleburgh.  Edge will provide you with an executed NDA to assure the protection of your firm’s data and privacy.

Your firm will receive a complimentary summary of its own findings as well as access to Jonathan Middleburgh’s global learnings and insights. 

If you are interested in having your firm complete the survey or simply have questions, please click here to invite  Jonathan  Middleburgh to contact you or reach out to him at any time by email:

middleburgh@edge-international.com

If your firm has already conducted an internal Remote Working Survey, share it with us (under an NDA) to get Jonathan Middleburgh’s insights and an opportunity to benchmark against other law firms globally.

How to Keep a New – and Prized – Client

Jonathan Middleburgh

Getting the relationship right with a new client can often be difficult.  The difficulty of getting it right is accentuated with a major new client, with a large team of lawyers working with multiple stakeholders on the client-side, often layered through the client’s internal hierarchy.

This short article explores a tried and tested way to increase the likelihood of a smooth-running client relationship – through a facilitated ‘Norming’ Workshop, aimed at getting the relationship going on the right footing, or at strengthening an existing relationship.

In 2009, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (Freshfields) was appointed as the official law firm for the London 2012 Olympics, having won the role in a tender process organised by the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG).  The firm provided an agreed quantum of services for free as part of a sponsorship agreement.  Several Freshfields lawyers were provided on secondment to LOCOG and in addition Freshfields provided legal advice as an external counsel to LOCOG’s specialised team of lawyers.

This was an important and high profile piece of work and both Freshfields and LOCOG were anxious to get the relationship right.  Early on in the relationship, LOCOG’s General Counsel decided with the Freshfields’ relationship partner to bring the two teams of lawyers together in a workshop facilitated by external consultants (of which I was one), so as to give the relationship the best chance of functioning at an optimal level.

It is well-established that new teams – including groups brought together as ‘one’ team – go through a staged process often described as forming, storming, norming and performing.  Not all teams make it to the third or fourth stages of this process. Some get stuck in ‘storming’ mode, i.e. dysfunctionality. This is obviously disastrous for optimal working outcomes.

Another challenge of bringing two groups together is the risk of those groups operating as silos – when this is the case each group operates as an autonomous silo or bubble and members of the other group are viewed as ‘out’ group members rather than members of the ‘in’ group or team.   This is similarly poor for optimal working outcomes.

Why a facilitated ‘Norming’ Workshop?

The main advantages to your firm are:

  • Each group gets to know each other from the start of the relationship. Or if the relationship is already underway, the two groups get to know each other better.
  • The workshop can be used to create a better understanding of respective personalities and working styles. For example a simple exercise can be done profiling the styles of group members and a basic mapping of communication preferences and working styles can be developed.
  • Any particular preferences (likes or dislikes) can be worked through before the relationship gets going – or, if the relationship is underway, likes or dislikes can be surfaced and discussed. Do team members prefer to communicate primarily by email? At what point do they prefer verbal communication, either face-to-face or by video or phone?  How does the client like to receive advice?  – short bullet points, lengthier advice with a short summary etc.
  • If the relationship has already been running for a while, are there any particular bugbears? Is either side doing something that bothers the other side?  This can apply either way – the law firm can be doing something that annoys the client or vice-versa.  It is better that bugbears are named and dealt with than allowed to fester.
  • The workshop is also an opportunity for those at different layers in the law firm and client hierarchies to get to know each other. These informal links can prove invaluable in nurturing a truly strong relationship between law firm and client.

In the case of the Freshfields / LOCOG engagement, it was particularly important to get the relationship right, with the looming deadline of the 2012 Olympic Games – and very limited room to correct if anything went wrong along the way.

Some additional – and less obvious – advantages:

  • Offering a ‘Norming’ Workshop or introductory session can be a real differentiator that adds value to the law firm pitch when trying to win a mandate or panel appointment as part of a competitive tendering process. A new relationship usually kicks off without this type of process, which from experience is valuable to, and valued by, the client.
  • The ‘Norming’ Workshop is an opportunity for the law firm to learn additional ways in which it can add value to the client and thereby improve the relationship. The pitch meeting might have provided a glimpse into additional ways to add value, but a facilitated session provides a fuller opportunity to get to know the client better, in a constructive, facilitated, environment.

Getting the ‘Norming’ Workshop right requires careful planning and coordination between the law firm and its client:

  • The external consultant will be able to guide the law firm – usually the relevant relationship partner – as to how to position the proposed ‘Norming’ Workshop in the most positive and constructive way.
  • It is also important that the workshop is positioned constructively internally within the law firm – some members of the team may be concerned that the workshop will expose them or – if the relationship is already underway – surface negative feedback and in fact undermine the relationship. With the right internal positioning these concerns can easily be allayed.
  • It is important to establish good dialogue between key representatives from the law firm and the client so that the design of the workshop meets the respective needs of each side. For example in a recent ‘Norming Workshop’ the law firm proposed a session around personality profiling but the external client (a government department) felt that it was too early in the relationship to do this and that the exercise might backfire.  The client wanted to spend more of the workshop on wellbeing issues, as a gentler way to launch the relationship.  Feedback from key stakeholders post-workshop was that this was received well by each of the respective teams.
  • The design of the workshop may need to go through several iterations. Some issues to consider are:
    • Length of workshop – half a day or longer? Is this a deep dive or a very gentle introduction of the respective teams to each other
    • Content of workshop – substantive content? Team profiling / individual profiling?  Balance between large group ‘plenary’ discussion, ‘learning’, discussion in small groups, discussion in pairs.
    • Speakers? – is it helpful to have input from an external speaker, e.g. someone who is an inspirational role model? At a recent workshop the law firm wanted to profile its commitment to diversity and brought in a para-athlete sponsored by the firm who was able to talk about overcoming adversity, resilience and the importance of maintaining focus on challenging goals.

The key to all of the above is to assemble a small working team to plan the workshop – this should consist of the external consultant or consultants and key stakeholders from both law firm and client (usually no more than one or two from each).

For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at Middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343

Law Firm Resilience in a Crisis: Practical Guidance for Action (A Four-Part Series)

Chris Bull, Jonathan Middleburgh, Leon Sacks and Yarman J. Vachha

Introduction

It hasn’t taken long for the statement that “We live in unprecedented times” to become a universal cliché – Covid-19 and the resulting financial crisis is impacting all businesses far and wide and it will certainly get worse before it gets better.

As consultants who work in the legal industry, located in multiple countries and continents and already building up a stock of real-life, often hands-on, experience of this uniquely challenging period, the Edge International team have an opportunity to observe, compare and consolidate what we see across the legal world.

Our “Law Firm Resilience in a Crisis” series of papers is the output of that process. For four weeks in April and May, 2020, we identified a number of topics that were at the top of the crisis agenda for legal leaders and we reported on these one by one. Due to their popularity, and for the convenience of our readers, we have now gathered these four articles together into one report. Part I focuses on Financial Resilience, Part II on Operational Resilience, Part III on Commercial and Client Resilience, and Part IV on People Resilience.

Edge International colleagues have also kicked-off a companion thread on “Remote Working” in the legal industry, and we will regularly cross-refer between these streams.

PART I. Financial Resilience

Financial Resilience in Context

Financial actions, even in the midst of such a fast-moving and impossible-to-predict crisis, should not be taken in isolation. There is a serious risk that apparently obvious corrective action on the financial dimension can have damaging consequences in other areas of the business, undermining confidence or the firm’s ability to compete or recover. Financial decisions need to be made more quickly than perhaps at any previous time in your firm’s history, but they need to be made in context and in line with a clear strategy and direction.

The need of the hour is strong and decisive leadership. Leaders need a “laser-like focus” on the direction they wish to set, and a clear strategy to navigate these troubled waters. The current situation is akin to being at war and leaders need to assemble a small group of experts that can provide strong direction and respond very rapidly to developing events and emerging information. In the current environment, the law firm cannot be run by consensus as it would in normal circumstances.

The key is not to panic, be resilient and rest assured in the knowledge that we can get through this. When we emerge from these troubled times the world will be different, generating new opportunities – many of which we cannot foresee at the moment. Whilst it may not seem to be the right time to be thinking about the future, the actions taken during this period will determine your future. So be Bold!

Business Continuity Planning

A word about business continuity planning. We will return to this topic in upcoming papers, but it has been a massive focus for many of you over recent weeks, and it would be wrong to dive into any discussion of resilience without addressing a few points on business continuity.

Many firms have probably thought about creating a business continuity plan (BCP), or reviewing and testing a dusty old BCP, in the recent past and have put it off in the “too difficult” box. Well, guess what? It’s here now and unfortunately many businesses are ill-prepared for the crisis we are enduring. If there is a lesson that can be learned from this unfortunate situation it is that a good, up-to-date BCP is like your most fundamental insurance policy and a must in all businesses.

Once the crisis is over, and before the next one emerges (and there will be a next one), we would urge you all to get the necessary expert advice and put in place a BCP suitable for your firm. As importantly, now is not the time to neatly pack away your BCP, thinking that it is only there for dealing with an immediate, very short-term and short-lived moment of crisis. A good BCP will help guide you through the next three to six months; your business continuity will be tested and could be permanently damaged as we move forward into the next stage of the crisis.

If there are three BCP learnings that we can take away from what we have seen already, we would highlight the following – each of which has a financial implication:

  • All-round IT robustness, especially Internet connectivity, accessibility and bandwidth (in all your home and remote working locations and not just in your offices), is key to legal businesses in the 2020s.
  • Laptops and remote working access on other devices for all staff is the new norm. The cost of this is far less than the cost of the disruption to your business. The best-managed firms had it in place already, the next best were able to roll it out quickly; but many others are still struggling to get the whole firm connected and working as well as they did in the office.
  • The job now is to develop, enhance and fix the bugs in that hastily assembled remote connectivity; that will continue to exercise minds and stimulate innovative responses through April, May and into the summer. Without going crazy buying every remote working tool you ever heard of, this effort will rightly be a spending priority amidst a period of cost-cutting.

Financial Resilience Priorities

At this time, firms have to refocus their financial objectives and priorities. Resilience is the key. Pulling the firm through the immediate lock-down, economic crash and wildly fluctuating uncertainty is the first financial resilience goal. Reshaping the firm’s financials for the recession that has already begun is the second goal. Preparing the firm to recover as quickly as possible and thrive as conditions begin to improve is the third. These goals are achieved through:

  • Protecting cashflows
  • Managing costs
  • Coordinating financial strategy with staff, clients and banks
  • Building confidence and morale
  • Looking for opportunity and embracing change; restructuring the business for the recovery, whenever it comes, and for the post-crisis future

We outline below some very basic steps in building financial resilience in these times.

Monitor Cashflow Daily

  • “Cash is King” – This saying is true at all times, but especially in our current situation.
  • Establish what your existing cash balances are.
  • Create a detailed daily cash report to monitor the movements of cash in and out of your cheque and savings accounts. Don’t forget to include credit and debit cards.
  • Add to the daily cash report all known inflows and outflows of cash on a weekly basis for the next four to eight weeks. Install a clearly communicated policy of ‘no surprises’ and insist that the central finance team is aware of all potential outgoings.
  • This gives you a picture of your immediate cash needs for the very short-term future, particularly direct outlays (e.g., rent, partner draws, wages, supplies, etc.).
  • All discretionary costs should be frozen until you can assess the situation and decide the costs are relevant to the current situation in your jurisdiction.
  • The daily cash report does not need to be perfect, It is just a document to assist you in managing cash – with a wide-ranging diagnosis of the health of the cash in the business.

Bill, Accelerate Cash Collection and Accounts Receivable

  • Professionals are generally reluctant to talk with their clients about fees, billing and collections. In times like these it is much more difficult.
  • Now is not time to be shy. The survival and health of your business is based on the amount of cash you collect and the speed with which you collect it, so pick up the phone and ask for amounts due to you to be paid. A phone call is far more powerful than an email; it is “personal”, you can empathise with the client and strike a deal with them.
  • Invoice for everything that you can bill for. Remember, your bills today are the source of cash flow in a few weeks’ time. If you don’t invoice, you cannot attempt to collect in a few weeks.
  • You may consider doing deals in terms of discounts or instalment payments, or defer part of the outstanding fees; indeed, these steps may be essential to achieve any cash collection from some clients in financial difficulty. The key right now is to maximise your cash.
  • On future deals, if you can get paid partially upfront you should consider this. When taking on new work, insist that already outstanding bills are paid before you begin work.

Manage Your Costs

  • This may seem a very obvious statement, but costs should not be cut indiscriminately – there should be a strategy in place.
  • Direct costs such as rent and staff costs cannot be cut easily, but there should be a strategy for this – perhaps a rental reduction agreed with, or deferment from, the landlord. Consider re-negotiating a new long-term lease with the landlord. Consider also cutting or deferring staff salaries and partner draws. This will focus the mind of partners that cash is vital and will put more urgency behind the cash collection effort.
  • Freeze hiring. Use redeployment and share underutilized resources between teams and departments to address gaps.
  • Consider the “Pyramid cut” if job cuts or furloughs are required. Look at your organisation structure as a pyramid, so when you shrink the organisation you cut a portion of each level equally; e.g., the business to shrink by 20% top to bottom. If the leverage in your pyramid is not competitive, consider adjusting it at this time. It is no use just cutting trainees and support staff as this will not be effective and the cost saved may not be significant enough. Remember that business will come back in time, and in the short term you will be scrapping for as big a share of a shrinking market as possible, so be strategic in what you cut by keeping an eye to the future.
  • Now is the time to seriously consider addressing your non-performing businesses lines, lawyers, support staff and part-timers that do not add to the business in this crisis. Areas and roles that you were struggling to entirely justify pre-crisis cannot be ‘carried’ through this period without damaging your firm. This needs to be done strategically with an eye to what business may come back at the end of this critical period.
  • It is important that the people that are retained are paid fairly as you need to maintain morale, especially when people are isolated and working remotely.
  • Variable and discretionary costs should be assessed and anything which is not required (i.e. “nice to have”) should be frozen or cut. Identify your biggest suppliers and have a conversation with each one about reductions in service or cost or deferred payment terms.
  • Close your premises if you are not using them, paying close attention to ensuring that running costs do not continue. If you have upcoming real estate lease breaks, this may be the time to decide to cut your square footage. Most law firms are already sitting on office space that is poorly utilized – especially those still working in cellular layout – and every prediction about the world post-2020 suggests there will be a dramatically reduced need for as much white-collar office space. Make your move now if you can.
  • Do not cut your business development costs drastically; this is a mistake made by many organisations, as it’s an easy target. This category is distinct from general firm marketing and brand promotion, the “business as usual” activity which will not cut through in this climate. The investment in BD should be very focused and tailored on specific topics which are on top of clients’ minds currently, and on the practice areas where there is the best chance of winning new business and improving market share. Most importantly, all non-digital BD and marketing spend (e.g., events, face-to-face networking, travel) can, of course, be frozen in the short to medium term.

Build Your Cash Reserves & Credit Lines

  • Building a cash reserve is now more important than ever. In an ideal situation, you should have sufficient cash in the bank to survive four to six months based on your reduced cost structures.
  • If you are entering this uniquely challenging period with low or no cash reserves, your focus should be on managing your finances to maintain your cash position, and not to allow bank debt to spiral. Your target is to avoid cumulative months of net negative cashflow, and plan to achieve net positive flows as fast as you can when there are signs of improvement. This may be the time to consider partner capital calls in order to address a structural imbalance between borrowing and equity.
  • Remember that you may need to build redundancy costs into your estimations. In general, most significant cost reduction actions will have a lag time before cash outgoings reduce (examples are notice periods and dilapidations on real estate).
  • Speak to your banks and get a credit line (revolving overdraft/credit facility); if you can, avoid term loans that you have to service every month, as this creates cashflow pressure.
  • Many governments are providing support to businesses and employees, especially to SMEs; tap into these as much as you can, especially where employee-support packages allow you to furlough but retain staff on payroll and governments are supporting low-interest bank lending.
  • Once you secure the credit line/government aid, use these as the principal sources of cash as the interest on this financing is cheap. Keep any actual cash reserves as intact as possible as your reserve fund for when you have no further credit sources to turn to.

Forecast & Budget

  • Reassess your budget for the year by doing a rigorous profit and cash forecast. This should be reassessed monthly until the end of the year.
  • Be clear with staff about 2020 financial year targets: in a period of extreme uncertainty and with gaps appearing in your fee-earning resources, now is not the time to be rigidly insisting that personal or team targets, set in a different world, are met. How do you re-set realistic, achievable objectives? Be seen to support the achievement of the best possible performance, not trying to drive it from ‘the top’.
  • The budget for the following financial year should be prepared with an eye to recovery.
  • Ensure managers and partners understand that all expenditure budgets are effectively ‘unbudgeted spend’ and require additional, just-in-time review and approval. Prioritize spending requests rigorously and request clear return on investment and payback period assessments. This is the time to put some extra priority on actions that will bring in work or improve cashflow in the short term.

Six Takeaways

  • Don’t panic: You can get through this. The legal industry, and your firm, has faced major crises and recessionary periods before, and will again.
  • React logically with a strategy. Do not “knee jerk” or “react emotionally”
  • Lead from the front: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
  • Plan for the future. The way we do business currently will not be the way of the future. Invest in technology and ensure you build financial resilience in the business for the future. Rethink the shape and scale of each of your practice areas, sectors and geographical locations: the next few years will not look like the last few years.
  • Invest in and have a robust IT infrastructure and BCP for future crises. The future of legal practice was already digital and that future is now here; eliminate paper, wet signatures and actions that rely solely on face-to-face interaction.
  • Most importantly focus on how you can service your clients through this difficult time and how your actions help you to retain or gain a well-earned “seat at the table” as their trusted advisor.

PART II. Operational Resilience

While the financial impact of a crisis is what immediately grabs the attention, operational adjustments are essential for business continuity and to compete in the new market reality. By “operations,” we mean the organization and support of the workforce to serve internal and external client needs effectively.

Operational Resilience Priorities

The top priority is to ensure that workflows and business processes are not interrupted. Where disruption cannot be avoided, leadership needs to adapt previous processes rapidly and definitively to meet the challenge; we have recently seen this in practice in firms which moved quickly to an entirely virtual and digital operating model.

The second priority is to provide the means and resources to operate efficiently during the crisis. The ranking of executive-agenda issues and items of expenditure will almost certainly need to shift for the duration of the crisis and possibly beyond.

Considering how operations should be restructured to serve the market post-crisis, and planning the investments necessary, is the third goal. These are key to sustained operational resilience.

The goals are achieved through:

  • Effective and proactive leadership and streamlined decision-making processes
  • Supporting mechanisms for people
  • Robust communications – more regular, transparent
  • Adapting infrastructure and allocation of resources
  • Embracing change with a positive attitude

We elaborate below on five actions that can enable achievement of these goals.

  • Crisis Management Team
    • Put in place a process for strong and decisive leadership that can set priorities for the organization and take calculated decisions based on information available.
    • Assemble a multidisciplinary team of experts (e.g., from Finance, Technology, Operations, Human Resources, Communications) that “meet” more regularly and both provide strong direction and respond very rapidly to developing events and emerging information (the “Crisis Management Team” or “Response Team”).
    • Unlike normal circumstances, it is not possible to gather all facts to make a pondered decision in a crisis. The uncertainties do not allow this to occur in an adequate time frame. Certain risks are inevitable to avoid the greater risk of inaction.
    • It is incumbent on senior leadership to break from a decision-making model based around iterative consultation and reporting and delegate authority for an accelerated response where appropriate.
  • Supporting Mechanisms
    • The safety of your people, both physically and psychologically, is not just a moral responsibility but a key to maintaining stability and productivity. Furthermore, people need assistance and tools to be able to adapt to new realities.
    • Provide guidance in a simple straightforward format as to how people can maintain their well-being and continue to perform their functions, especially working remotely and connecting virtually with clients. Issue a list of “go to” people for different subject areas, with their contact details.
    • Establish an on-line information hub, or resource centre, including FAQs. This is a repository for the orientation, resources and materials (e.g., “how to” and “what to” questions) that people may consult at any time. These FAQs must be regularly updated to respond to the changing nature of the crisis and how it is being managed.
    • Engage with clients to understand their concerns, how they may be supported and how the firm is capacitated to continue serving them during the crisis. (We will comment more on client relationships in Part 3 of this series.)
    • Support the best possible performance that can be expected of professionals in the changed scenario (may vary significantly by practice group) and do not insist on pre-crisis goals that may no longer be attainable (e.g., billable hours, fee targets); doing so will always undermine leadership’s credibility amongst professionals. Also, provide orientation on how best to use any “down time” (e.g., on-line training, updating precedents, reconnecting with previous clients and contacts, etc).
  • Communications
    • Communication is leadership’s strongest tool to build confidence and morale and, as a result, assure collaboration across the organization and with clients and other stakeholders.
    • Create a plan and stick with it. Communications need to be frequent and consistent, and must address questions and concerns of the audience. Transparency and setting the right tone are key to effective communications; after all, the objective is not only to inform but also to calm fears, generate confidence and sustain morale.
  • Staffing Needs
    • Redeploy and make the best use of talent. While rightsizing may be necessary, and we indicated in Part One how cutting of staff needs to be strategic, do not over-prune so that you prejudice the ability to gear up post-crisis. Look for the opportunity to reallocate staff from a practice area with depleted business to one that is busier.
    • Similar to reviewing practice-area loads, evaluate geographic spread (where appropriate) and how offices and groups might best share resources or work on a more integrated basis.
    • Consider the overall legal staffing mix and opportunities to delegate aggressively to maintain productivity while, of course, assuring that service quality will not suffer.
    • Take advantage of the crisis to rethink support-staff needs. This is not only a question of quantities and types/level of experience but also an opportunity to present challenges to promising talent.
  • Infrastructure and Supply Chain
    • Take the necessary steps (which will depend on the level of preparedness) to enable fluent remote working capability, empowering the technology experts to engage with outside vendors for the essential, appropriate solutions (devices, internet connectivity, collaborative platforms).
    • While moving quickly to assure business continuity, there should be enough oversight to determine that key risks such as security of data, business interruption through loss of internet connectivity and compliance with data privacy requirements are managed. This could well entail obtaining a second opinion on the capability of systems and applications to be adopted.
    • Develop practical training sessions and resources to enable the use of new technologies and educate all users. Now is the time to focus on providing assistance and tools and not just on procedural matters.
    • Engage with suppliers and determine how best to modify service delivery and service terms. Remember that these entities are facing their own challenges and will be keen to either maintain business or promote opportunities.
    • Apart from technology service providers, pay attention to logistics (e.g., physical delivery of documents and materials to a more distributed population, travel arrangements) and consider outsourcing options, even if interim, to eliminate bottlenecks.

The Bottom Line

During a crisis period, do utilize the power of the “team” and coherent engagement with all stakeholders (workforce, clients, suppliers). Do not expect the processes, priorities, performance metrics or governance solutions that worked just weeks before, pre-crisis, to see you through this new normal; be agile and prepared to adapt very rapidly across your business.

Whilst responding smartly to the immediate demands of the crisis, never lose sight of your – now altered – roadmap; ensure you consider how to restructure and invest for tomorrow.

PART III. Commercial and Client Resilience

As the three Edge International authors of this paper are based in Europe, Asia and the Americas respectively, we aim to synthesise our experience and observations of different legal markets that are also at slightly different points in the evolving Covid-19 crisis. As with the previous papers, we wanted to foreground practical actions that law firm leaders can use in their firms. In this case we have posed and responded to ten core questions many firms are asking themselves as they grapple with a uniquely challenging crisis; we want the paper to serve as a quick self-assessment checklist. Our ten questions fall under three themes: client relationships, business development in a digital and virtual world, and commercial strategies.

Resilience and Client Relationships

  1. How are you supporting your clients?
    This will be one of multiple places where you read someone preach the message that, in times like these, you have to put clients first. But what does that mean in a practical sense? In our view, the critical challenge is that clients need to see how you are supporting them through what will be as tough a period – probably tougher – for many of them as it will be for you. The future loyalty of your clients as the economy recovers will be dependent on how you behaved during the crisis. That involves investigating and understanding the biggest issues and concerns your client has, and tailoring your communications, offers of assistance, updates and terms and conditions to those issues and concerns. They should be specific for your largest, most important clients and as tailored as you can make them to groups of clients in sectors, regions, etc. Your support might include some leeway on pricing, billing or collections, although that should obviously be carefully considered in the light of your own financial position.
  2. Are you getting through to your clients?
    The latest Covid-19 crisis has yielded a barrage of the kind of broadcasting updates and generic statements from a range of companies that we have become used to around any economic or legislative event (including, early on, a stream of bland reassurances that it was ‘business as usual at Firm X’) – except on an even bigger scale. This blizzard of ‘noise’ on social media and coming into Inboxes is impossible to navigate or consume. Your clients want, based on your insight gained from (1) above, personalized, tailored and value-adding communications. Calls are great and many clients are much easier to get hold of right now. Emails or messages should stand out, and personalization (i.e., coming from a name they know, not a corporate or marketing mailbox) is key to getting that done.
  3. Which services and practices are you promoting?
    For almost all firms, there needs to be a rapid re-prioritizing of which practice areas and services should be marketed and highlighted to clients. Within the space of a month, the markets have flipped; in many cases, that has meant a sudden drop in corporate and real estate transactions, a boom in interest in labour and restructuring law, a refocus onto different clauses in commercial contracts, and a spike in wills and estates work. The exact pattern differs between jurisdictions and firms. At the same time, corporate legal departments will be trying to keep their own teams busy, and restricting further the flow of certain types of work out to external counsel. The overall rule holds true, though: firms need to pivot to ensure clients are presented with the firm’s credentials in areas they may not have used in the past. Client-relationship partners will often need to communicate the services of practice areas they don’t work in and know less about. Cross-firm collaboration at this point is critical.

Resilient Business Development in a Digital and Virtual World

  1. Have you rewritten your marketing and business development plan?
    If not, you need to to so, and quickly. Much of the activity you had planned – events, networking, secondments, training programs – has been blown out of the water by lockdown. It will probably take a long time for this kind of ‘business as usual,’ in-person marketing to regain its full effectiveness, assuming it ever does. For many firms, you will be looking to cut costs for a period and marketing will be in your sights. However, cut too far and you risk competitors getting close to your clients and your firm becoming invisible at a critical time. We recommend that you review and rewrite the plan you had, probably reducing overall spending but re-prioritizing ruthlessly. Ensure those practices that are most buoyant in this economy get profile and are highly visible online and in your communications. Rank higher the investments of time and money that can provide a faster payback period and short-term return on investment. In particular, ensure that your digital impact is really effective – at a time when the only way for prospects and clients to stay informed is digital, you have to be at the top of your game.
  2. What are your partners and lawyers doing with their time?
    OK, in a crisis situation many senior lawyers will be very busy; their particular practice area may be booming, they may be covering for furloughed colleagues, they may be asked to step up as part of your emergency team. In the Covid-19 lockdown, most lawyers, however, are working from home and have reduced levels of new work, no travel time eating into their day and no in-person networking duties. We talked about personalized, regular contact with clients above, and that is where a chunk of this available time should be redeployed: video calls, ‘virtual coffees’ (or drinks, later in the day – we have seen some nice Zoom ‘home bar’ backgrounds!), quick check-in messages on social media. In addition, this is the time to fully engage your senior lawyers, some of whom haven’t really embraced or become comfortable online before now, in posting and sharing their insights on social platforms and in articles. Quality and tone are important; do ensure you have enough marketing resources to edit, coordinate and help promote these efforts.
  3. Is your digital delivery of client services good enough?
    For most firms in the current crisis digital delivery of legal services to clients will, by now, be in place and working. A few months back many law firms would not have responded ‘Yes’ if asked whether their interaction with clients was almost entirely digital but, right now (including via Zoom, Teams, WhatsApp et al), almost all would. However, clients will not be tolerant for lots of glitchy, taped-together digital processes; in their dealings with other professionals and service providers they will be exposed to some very slick models indeed. Soon, they will expect you to be just as good. And this is one thing extremely unlikely to revert when we return from lockdown – streamlined, painless, reliable and ideally paperless legal services will be a badge of a quality law firm. So, we suggest you continue to evolve and develop your digital services over the coming months. Do not assume you should scrape through to the time when you can get back to everyone in an office with piles of paper and clients happy to travel distances to come and visit.
  4. How does a new client find you?
    This is critical for private client work, but still a big factor for B2B services; in a world which is now even more reliant on internet searches, social media and online directories and recommendations, you need to be very certain how visible your firm is in these media. Does your online presence and Google ranking do justice to the quality and expertise of each of your practices – most especially those which you need to drive the firm’s performance over the next year? If not, this needs fixing; many firms will acknowledge that they haven’t paid as much attention to their search engine optimization (SEO), pay per click (PPC) and social media performance as they could have until now.

Commercial Strategies for Resilience

  1. Do you have the commercial data you need to make quick decisions in a crisis?
    This is a major area of research and development for us at Edge International, and we believe there is a case for most firms reviewing and overhauling their production of management information (MI) without the catalyst of a crisis. But a crisis certainly exacerbates this issue, especially one where we have such high levels of uncertainty, a very sudden stalling in key markets and the breakdown of in-person collaboration and supervision. Providing real-time information feeds to partners, team and department leaders and leadership are incredibly important, but also structured and packaged MI on a weekly, rather than the conventional monthly, frequency could be critical. We emphasized the need to track cash metrics obsessively in our first paper, but equally important is the tracking of pipeline and new activity: weekly trend reports that show how proposals/quotations, new matters and time recorded are progressing are critical to providing the firm with the lead indicators it needs to plan its next steps.
  2. Do you need to provide free or discounted advice?
    This is too big a question to answer in one paragraph of a short paper, but it is one that would definitely make the ‘Top 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions’ from law firm partners right now. Many existing clients and potential new clients have short, urgent questions in the current crisis; typically, these are about providing latest updates on government crisis support or on one legal issue, and sometimes they involve a bit of interpretation. Clients are often cash-strapped, laying off staff and cutting costs. So there is understandable pressure on lawyers to provide a quick piece of free-of-charge advice. This is easiest to justify in the case of loyal, ongoing clients who are continuing to provide instructions – it is a statement of support from the firm in return. For new clients, it could help lure in more substantive new work, but we encourage firms to find ways to link the provision of this initial advice beyond simple information updates to some commitment by the client. This could be in the form of a new advisory retainer service that will run through for a fixed period, with some initial free or discounted hours.
  3. Should you ask for money upfront for new work?
    Some readers will respond by saying ‘we already do’ and where you have managed to embed this practice universally, well done! For most firms, such requests are harder to achieve but we do believe it is a sensible practice to apply wherever you can in a crisis and recessionary period, where many clients face an uncertain immediate future and firms themselves need to manage their cash positions with great care. For existing clients, do ask them to pay outstanding invoices before you begin a new piece of work. And where you feel it is necessary to offer debtors deferrals or instalments of their outstanding invoices, do ensure you link this action specifically to your support for clients during this difficult period.

    Our final checklist point brings us neatly back to the first question: How do you demonstrate that you are all about supporting your clients through this crisis? That is the right point to wrap up Part 3 of the series.

PART IV. People Resilience

In Part IV, we look at “People Resilience” a) during lockdown, b) during transition out of the current crisis and c) during the ‘new normal’ – i.e., what will make for a resilient workforce post-crisis.

A) Resilience During Lockdown

Firms are now several weeks into lockdown and many countries are looking at easing restrictions or have already started to ease restrictions. While lockdown is still in place, we would recommend that firms focus on the following:

  1. Staying close to your people
    There is a danger that employees will start to feel isolated as the lockdown continues. This applies equally to lawyers and to support staff. We are seeing some law firms keeping very close to their workforce so that their people feel highly supported during lockdown. Other law firms are not doing enough. Staying close to your people means checking in with them regularly; line managers should be checking in with their reports at least once a week. Contact should be maintained with furloughed staff, as well as with those working through the lockdown.
  2. Working to keep up team morale
    The novelty of working from home is wearing thin, or wearing off, for many. It becomes harder to keep up team spirit the longer lockdown drags on. Some law firms are finding novel ways to keep up team spirit – virtual team drinks, virtual team coffee breaks, team or office quizzes, competitions, dress-up days, bake-offs etc. Regular scheduled team meetings and touch points are also crucial, to keep up morale as well as to establish a credible source of information in a period of rumours and “fake news.”
  3. Asking the right questions in your regular one-to-ones with team members
    In a normal operating environment, prior to the current crisis, much interaction will have taken place with your team members on a casual or impromptu basis. As this is now not possible it is more important than ever to have regular scheduled one-on-one meetings with your team members. Whilst it is inevitable that the focus of these meetings be on work matters, make sure that you additionally use your regular one to ones to find out what is going on with team members on a personal front. Team members face a range of challenges during lockdown: lockdown and isolation can be anxiety provoking; there are challenges around childcare and the difficulty of working parents home-schooling their children or otherwise looking after young children; people are experiencing the loss of loved ones or the passing of extended family, friends or acquaintances. Ask open questions to find out what is impacting your workforce, listen to what is going on and be supportive.

    Some things to listen out for:

    • Is the team member living on his or her own? Does he or she seem isolated?

    • Are you sensing that the team member is having difficulty coping?

    • Does the team member have some other vulnerability that you should know about?

    • Is the team member juggling childcare duties with a partner? If so, are both working and having to split childcare? Does the team member’s workload need to be altered to take account of this?

    • Is the team member a single parent who has full responsibility for home schooling or otherwise looking after a child or children? Does he / she have any support?

    • Has the team member experienced a bereavement? Have they lost close family or friends?

    • Does the team member have elderly parents who are in isolation? Are they local or at a distance? Does the team member have other vulnerable dependents?

    • Is the home-working environment and equipment suitable; is it helping, or hindering, your team member?

    Depending on the response to some of these questions, think about what additional support the firm might be able to give. Is it appropriate to offer to involve HR? Is that a necessity? Does your firm offer external counseling or other external support?
  4. Remember that the support you show now will be remembered later.
    This is a time to build loyalty – and equally a time your workforce will remember if you don’t show support. Few people are likely to be looking to move firms during the crisis but failing to show support now may well be reflected in attrition figures post-crisis.

B) Resilience During Transition

The transition out of lockdown will probably last for months. It is simply too early to accurately predict the duration or phasing, which will vary from country to country, and perhaps from region to region within a country.

Some firms may well take their eye off the ball during transition when it comes to staying close to their workforce. There will be a temptation to focus on the operational aspects of the transition and to ramp up business development to the exclusion or partial exclusion of focusing on your workforce.

Our recommendation is that law firms continue to do everything we’ve suggested above during the transition out of lockdown. Additionally, it is important to remember that any transition can be deeply unsettling, so keep a particular eye out for any dip in performance from any of your employees or for any of your employees who seem to be struggling to cope.

Firms will have to take a clear stance on what a responsible employer should be expecting and encouraging as lockdown gradually eases. Health authorities and governments are likely to continue to stress that where work can be done from home it should be, and we expect that white-collar industries such as legal services fall into this category. Law firms need to examine how best they demonstrate their responsibility for employees, clients and communities. It is possible that society will regard the firms who continue home working for an extended period as the most agile and well-managed corporate citizens.

For the many firms who have had to take decisive action on staff costs in response to the first phase of the crisis – including furloughs, pay cuts, reduced working weeks – unwinding these actions as the lockdown eases and government support is withdrawn is going to be one of the most difficult and risky management challenges of recent years. If the economy and workloads continue to be depressed, potentially long after lockdown ends, reversing these actions will be hard to justify financially. At the same time, there will be intense pressure to get people back to work. Redundancies and hard financial decisions are inevitably going to follow in some cases and steering firms through these choppy waters is a subject we will return to soon.

It is also our view that the workforce is at a point where its craving some good news and some direction as to what the firm will look like when the lockdown has ended – this gives some hope to the employees and something to look forward to. Psychologically it is the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”. It is key that management exudes positive messages about the future through its communications. We would re-iterate that the old adage of “communication, communication, communication” is vital at this time.

C) Resilience Post-Lockdown – What Is Going to Be the “New Normal”?

We have no doubt that in the short/medium term there will not be a full return to pre-crisis ‘normal’. Most law firm employees have experienced working from home full time for several months and have seen how it can be both effective and productive. Those firms that have previously resisted flexible working will find it much harder or impossible to do so, post crisis. It is inevitable, in our view, that the pre-crisis ‘normal’ will be replaced by a ‘new normal’ and that seems to be the assumption of many firms that we are speaking to.

As indicated above, we are firmly of the view that those firms that rapidly figure out and communicate a new working model will gain a competitive advantage in terms of attraction of talent and retention of talent.

Here are some provisional thoughts about what ‘new normal’ might look like:

  1. Work from Home (WFH) Is Here to Stay, to a Greater or Lesser Extent
    The genie is out of the bottle on home working. It will be hard to deny a reasonable measure of flexible working for those that request it post-crisis. Not everyone will want to work from home, but some undoubtedly will, and this will be hard to resist.

    We very much doubt that most firms will suddenly move to a predominantly home-working model. As pointed out above, the novelty of working from home is already wearing off for many employees. Human beings are social animals and require social contact to a greater or lesser extent. We think it is likely that a variety of agile working models will evolve, with working from home one or two days per week becoming common practice.
  2. Some employees will want to work mostly from home.
    The savvy employer might be wise to accommodate some employees who want to work primarily from home. Some of the best lawyers might have individual reasons for working from a remote location – e.g., having a partner who has a job that ties them to that location. Those firms that are able to accommodate such employees, including new home-worker hires, will be more attractive employers and therefore better able to build a resilient workforce.
  3. The Green Agenda favours less office-based working.
    There is an obvious environmental argument in favour of having more of your workforce spending a greater percentage of its time working from home. An environmentally aware workforce is likely to be attracted to an employer that allows people to spend a significant percentage of its time working at home, avoiding excessive commuting and reducing the high energy costs of surplus office accommodation.
  4. Video communications will need to become more professional.
    Video meetings are likely to become increasingly the norm – at least for significant interactions. The new normal will seamlessly incorporate virtual/remote meeting attendees alongside in-person attendees. Firms have for many years spent large amounts of money upgrading their offices to look highly professional – and similarly spent large amounts of money on branding, websites, etc. It seems inevitable that video communication will become more professionalised – and that the days of employees presenting themselves to clients at a wonky angle in front of their kids’ nursery school art are probably numbered. We would suggest that law firms might need to invest in ensuring their employees have super-fast and reliable broadband at home, that they speak to clients using a green screen with firm-branded background, and that they are trained in how to conduct multi-party video meetings effectively.
  5. Flexible resourcing will continue to develop alongside flexible working.
    One of the harshest business lessons of the 2020 crisis has been the dramatic speed at which some legal practice areas have stalled, leaving firms with an almost immediate mismatch between workload and resources/costs. Economic conditions suggest this disparity is now settling in for a long stay.

    Firms have, in some jurisdictions, been able to turn to government support to furlough staff in the short-term. Others have reached for cuts in pay and drawings, reduced working weeks and, sadly, lay-offs to deal with the rapid threat to profitability.

    In an era of contract-attorney companies, alternative legal-service providers, fee-sharing freelance-lawyer models and the gig economy, this cliff-edge experience is leading firms to reconsider a resourcing model that is so reliant on permanent, full-time employed staff, located in expensive city-center offices. We have heard most of the Big Four accountants announce their strategic switch to a more flexible resourcing model in recent years, able to cope much better with swings in demand and economic shock (or opportunity). Law firms now need to start to develop plans for similar changes.
  6. ‘New Normal’ law firms will rethink how they occupy and configure office space.
    There will inevitably be pressure, not least from the CFO or COO, to reduce office space. Such pressure will be unsurprising when offices are currently empty, and there is only a very gradual return to office working as we transition out of lockdown, and yet law firms are continuing to function and to service their clients.

    Retaining a resilient workforce in ‘new normal’ will require some smart thinking about the best configuration of office space. For sure, there is likely to be movement towards more open plan and unallocated (hot-desking) workspaces in firms that have previously resisted open plan working. But designing the ‘new normal’ office will require some serious thought about:

    • how much total office space is required for your workforce?
    • how much breakout space is required and in what configuration?
    • how do you configure your office, including all meeting rooms, if video communication becomes the norm in terms of client communication?
  7. Firms that forget that humans need physical interaction will lose out.
    Some firms that we speak to are talking about conducting future partner meetings entirely remotely. Firms that have offices spread internationally are talking about the end of international travel. We would caution against attempting or expecting an extreme swing to entirely electronic communication. Humans are wired for physical interaction and video interaction is not the same as in-person chemistry, in particular when meeting people for the first time and developing a relationship. We believe that firms that rely purely on electronic communication will fare less well than firms that strike a balance between electronic and physical communication. In other contexts (e.g., interactions between world leaders) there have been vivid examples of how much can be achieved when people meet face to face. Law firms, in our view, will abandon physical interaction and connectivity at their peril.

Key Takeaways

  • Regular contact with your teams and individual team members is key and this should be cascaded through the entire organization
  • Psychological / professional support for employees who need assistance should be readily available
  • Management should communicate clearly on a regular basis
  • Management should be drawing up plans for the ‘new normal’ so that they can put these in motion once the governments ease restrictions
  • Consider how the new WFH plans will impact winning and transacting assignments from clients

Note: All four of the articles in this series can be found individually at https://www.edge.ai/category/articles/crisis-management-business-continuity-planning/. We will return to the subject of resilience in the context of crisis again over the coming months. In the meantime, the Edge International team would love to hear your comments and are ready to field questions about any aspect of assuring law firm resilience in times of crisis.

Law Firm Resilience in a Crisis: Part Four – People Resilience

Chris Bull, Jonathan Middleburgh, Leon Sacks and Yarman J. Vachha

The “Law Firm Resilience in a Crisis” series

Previous papers in this series have focused on Financial Resilience, Operational Resilience and Client and Commercial Resilience. In this paper we turn our focus to People Resilience. We look at People Resilience during lockdown, during transition out of the current crisis and finally we look at ‘new normal’ – i.e., what will make for a resilient workforce post-crisis.

People Resilience

Resilience during Lockdown

Firms are now several weeks into lockdown and many countries are looking at easing restrictions or have already started to ease restrictions. While lockdown is still in place, we would recommend that firms focus on the following:

  1. Staying close to your people
    There is a danger that employees will start to feel isolated as the lockdown continues. This applies equally to lawyers and to support staff. We are seeing some law firms keeping very close to their workforce so that their people feel highly supported during lockdown. Other law firms are not doing enough. Staying close to your people means checking in with them regularly; line managers should be checking in with their reports at least once a week. Contact should be maintained with furloughed staff, as well as with those working through the lockdown.
  2. Working on keeping up team morale
    The novelty of working from home is wearing thin, or wearing off, for many. It becomes harder to keep up team spirit the longer lockdown drags on. Some law firms are finding novel ways to keep up team spirit – virtual team drinks, virtual team coffee breaks, team or office quizzes, competitions, dress-up days, bake-offs etc. Regular scheduled team meetings and touch points are also crucial, to keep up morale as well as to establish a credible source of information in a period of rumours and “fake news.”
  3. Asking the right questions in your regular one-to-ones with team members
    In a normal operating environment, prior to the current crisis, much interaction will have taken place with your team members on a casual or impromptu basis. As this is now not possible it is more important than ever to have regular scheduled one-on-one meetings with your team members. Whilst it is inevitable that the focus of these meetings be on work matters, make sure that you additionally use your regular one to ones to find out what is going on with team members on a personal front. Team members face a range of challenges during lockdown: lockdown and isolation can be anxiety provoking; there are challenges around childcare and the difficulty of working parents home-schooling their children or otherwise looking after young children; people are experiencing the loss of loved ones or the passing of extended family, friends or acquaintances. Ask open questions to find out what is impacting your workforce, listen to what is going on and be supportive.

    Some things to listen out for:
    • Is the team member living on his or her own? Does he or she seem isolated?
    • Are you sensing that the team member is having difficulty coping?
    • Does the team member have some other vulnerability that you should know about?
    • Is the team member juggling childcare duties with a partner? If so, are both working and having to split childcare? Does the team member’s workload need to be altered to take account of this?
    • Is the team member a single parent who has full responsibility for home schooling or otherwise looking after a child or children? Does he / she have any support?
    • Has the team member experienced a bereavement? Have they lost close family or friends?
    • Does the team member have elderly parents who are in isolation? Are they local or at a distance? Does the team member have other vulnerable dependents?
    • Is the home-working environment and equipment suitable; is it helping, or hindering, your team member?

      Depending on the response to some of these questions, think about what additional support the firm might be able to give. Is it appropriate to offer to involve HR? Is that a necessity? Does your firm offer external counseling or other external support?
  4. Remembering that the support you show now will be remembered later
    This is a time to build loyalty – and equally a time your workforce will remember if you don’t show support. Few people are likely to be looking to move firms during the crisis but failing to show support now may well be reflected in attrition figures post-crisis.

Resilience during Transition

The transition out of lockdown will probably last for months. It is simply too early to accurately predict the duration or phasing, which will vary from country to country, and perhaps from region to region within a country.

Some firms may well take their eye off the ball during transition when it comes to staying close to their workforce. There will be a temptation to focus on the operational aspects of the transition and to ramp up business development to the exclusion or partial exclusion of focusing on your workforce.

Our recommendation is that law firms continue to do everything we’ve suggested above during the transition out of lockdown. Additionally, it is important to remember that any transition can be deeply unsettling, so keep a particular eye out for any dip in performance from any of your employees or for any of your employees who seem to be struggling to cope.

Firms will have to take a clear stance on what a responsible employer should be expecting and encouraging as lockdown gradually eases. Health authorities and governments are likely to continue to stress that where work can be done from home it should be, and we expect that white-collar industries such as legal services fall into this category. Law firms need to examine how best they demonstrate their responsibility for employees, clients and communities. It is possible that society will regard the firms who continue home working for an extended period as the most agile and well-managed corporate citizens.

For the many firms who have had to take decisive action on staff costs in response to the first phase of the crisis – including furloughs, pay cuts, reduced working weeks – unwinding these actions as the lockdown eases and government support is withdrawn is going to be one of the most difficult and risky management challenges of recent years. If the economy and workloads continue to be depressed, potentially long after lockdown ends, reversing these actions will be hard to justify financially. At the same time, there will be intense pressure to get people back to work. Redundancies and hard financial decisions are inevitably going to follow in some cases and steering firms through these choppy waters is a subject we will return to soon.

It is also our view that the workforce is at a point where its craving some good news and some direction as to what the firm will look like when the lockdown has ended – this gives some hope to the employees and something to look forward to. Psychologically it is the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel”. It is key that management exudes positive messages about the future through its communications. We would re-iterate that the old adage of “communication, communication, communication” is vital at this time.

Resilience post lockdown – what’s going to be the ‘new normal’?

We have no doubt that in the short/medium term there will not be a full return to pre-crisis ‘normal’. Most law firm employees have experienced working from home full time for several months and have seen how it can be both effective and productive. Those firms that have previously resisted flexible working will find it much harder or impossible to do so, post crisis. It is inevitable, in our view, that the pre-crisis ‘normal’ will be replaced by a ‘new normal’ and that seems to be the assumption of many firms that we are speaking to.

As indicated above, we are firmly of the view that those firms that rapidly figure out and communicate a new working model will gain a competitive advantage in terms of attraction of talent and retention of talent.

Here are some provisional thoughts about what ‘new normal’ might look like:

  1. WFH is here to stay, to a great or less extent
    The genie is out of the bottle on home working. It will be hard to deny a reasonable measure of flexible working for those that request it post-crisis. Not everyone will want to work from home, but some undoubtedly will, and this will be hard to resist.

    We very much doubt that most firms will suddenly move to a predominantly home-working model. As pointed out above, the novelty of working from home is already wearing off for many employees. Human beings are social animals and require social contact to a greater or lesser extent. We think it is likely that a variety of agile working models will evolve, with working from home one or two days per week becoming common practice.
  2. Some employees will want to work mostly from home
    The savvy employer might be wise to accommodate some employees who want to work primarily from home. Some of the best lawyers might have individual reasons for working from a remote location – e.g., having a partner who has a job that ties them to that location. Those firms that are able to accommodate such employees, including new home-worker hires, will be more attractive employers and therefore better able to build a resilient workforce.
  3. The green agenda favours less office-based working
    There is an obvious environmental argument in favour of having more of your workforce spending a greater percentage of its time working from home. An environmentally aware workforce is likely to be attracted to an employer that allows people to spend a significant percentage of its time working at home, avoiding excessive commuting and reducing the high energy costs of surplus office accommodation.
  4. Video communications will need to become more professional
    Video meetings are likely to become increasingly the norm – at least for significant interactions. The new normal will seamlessly incorporate virtual/remote meeting attendees alongside in-person attendees. Firms have for many years spent large amounts of money upgrading their offices to look highly professional – and similarly spent large amounts of money on branding, websites, etc. It seems inevitable that video communication will become more professionalised – and that the days of employees presenting themselves to clients at a wonky angle in front of their kids’ nursery school art are probably numbered. We would suggest that law firms might need to invest in ensuring their employees have super-fast and reliable broadband at home, that they speak to clients using a green screen with firm-branded background, and that they are trained in how to conduct multi-party video meetings effectively.
  5. Flexible resourcing will continue to develop alongside flexible working
    One of the harshest business lessons of the 2020 crisis has been the dramatic speed at which some legal practice areas have stalled, leaving firms with an almost immediate mismatch between workload and resources/costs. Economic conditions suggest this disparity is now settling in for a long stay.

    Firms have, in some jurisdictions, been able to turn to government support to furlough staff in the short-term. Others have reached for cuts in pay and drawings, reduced working weeks and, sadly, lay-offs to deal with the rapid threat to profitability.

    In an era of contract-attorney companies, alternative legal-service providers, fee-sharing freelance-lawyer models and the gig economy, this cliff-edge experience is leading firms to reconsider a resourcing model that is so reliant on permanent, full-time employed staff, located in expensive city-center offices. We have heard most of the Big Four accountants announce their strategic switch to a more flexible resourcing model in recent years, able to cope much better with swings in demand and economic shock (or opportunity). Law firms now need to start to develop plans for similar changes.
  6. ‘New normal’ law firms will rethink how they occupy and configure office space
    There will inevitably be pressure, not least from the CFO or COO, to reduce office space. Such pressure will be unsurprising when offices are currently empty, and there is only a very gradual return to office working as we transition out of lockdown, and yet law firms are continuing to function and to service their clients.

    Retaining a resilient workforce in ‘new normal’ will require some smart thinking about the best configuration of office space. For sure, there is likely to be movement towards more open plan and unallocated (hot-desking) workspaces in firms that have previously resisted open plan working. But designing the ‘new normal’ office will require some serious thought about:
    • how much total office space is required for your workforce?
    • how much breakout space is required and in what configuration?
    • how do you configure your office, including all meeting rooms, if video communication becomes the norm in terms of client communication?
  7. Firms that forget that humans need physical interaction will lose out
    Some firms that we speak to are talking about conducting future partner meetings entirely remotely. Firms that have offices spread internationally are talking about the end of international travel. We would caution against attempting or expecting an extreme swing to entirely electronic communication. Humans are wired for physical interaction and video interaction is not the same as in-person chemistry, in particular when meeting people for the first time and developing a relationship. We believe that firms that rely purely on electronic communication will fare less well than firms that strike a balance between electronic and physical communication. In other contexts (e.g., interactions between world leaders) there have been vivid examples of how much can be achieved when people meet face to face. Law firms, in our view, will abandon physical interaction and connectivity at their peril.

Key Takeaways

  • Regular contact with your teams and individual team members is key and this should be cascaded through the entire organization
  • Psychological / professional support for employees who need assistance should be readily available
  • Management should communicate clearly on a regular basis
  • Management should be drawing up plans for the ‘new normal’ so that they can put these in motion once the governments ease restrictions
  • Consider how the new WFH plans will impact winning and transacting assignments from clients

This is the fourth in our series of perspectives on law firm resilience in times of crisis, all published within the last month. The three previous articles are still very recent and relevant to law firm leaders and can be found at https://www.edge.ai/category/articles/crisis-management-business-continuity-planning/ . The Edge International team would love to hear your comments and are ready to field questions about the people perspective or any of aspect of assuring law firm resilience in times of crisis. Our contact details are below. We will return to the subject of resilience in the context of crisis again over the coming months.

Avoiding Law-Firm Armageddon: How a Major Law Firm Nearly Imploded… and How the Conflict Was Resolved

Jonathan Middleburgh

The survival of today’s law firm sometimes requires the capacity to resolve senior-level conflict. Occasionally that conflict mushrooms and threatens to tear the firm apart.

This is the story of one such conflict, and how I managed to facilitate its resolution through a long and difficult mediation.

My Relevant Background

As a former dispute resolution lawyer (I practised as a Barrister in London for 12 years), I know and understand conflict well. As a Barrister – and as a litigator in the Common Law Anglo-American tradition – I was primarily schooled in an adversarial approach to dispute resolution.

Although I trained as a mediator while still at the Bar, I never actively practised as a mediator. The court cases I fought were adversarial battles. Note that I use the verb ‘fought’ and the noun ‘battle’. That’s an accurate way of describing an English court case. It is a highly adversarial process. And although I was familiar with the concept of ‘alternative dispute resolution’ (ADR), my practice as a Barrister was a traditional adversarial one.

Fifteen years ago, I started to retrain as a psychologist, completing my undergraduate equivalence in psychology while still practising at the Bar. When I left the Bar, I continued my studies and started to practise as an occupational / organisational psychologist. Over the years I have worked extensively in the field of senior-level talent development in law firms and corporate legal departments, both in the UK where I live and also in the US and internationally.

Given the breadth of my background, I have been involved in a number of projects which defy easy categorisation. It was only recently that I realised that senior-level conflict resolution in law firms had become a significant strand of my work.

A Case Study: Chair and Managing Partner Go ‘Nuclear’

The conflict I am describing here was between the chair and managing partner of a major law firm in Latin America, the exact location of which I am deliberately withholding to respect the privacy of the firm.

The firm had grown rapidly over a period of 15 years. The managing partner had been a very junior lawyer when the firm was set up. She had become a protégée of the chair and over the years had become centrally involved with the management of the firm, culminating in her appointment as its managing partner.

At a key board meeting that had been convened to discuss certain strategic and operational initiatives being planned in the firm, a row blew up between the chair and the managing partner. The managing partner made a series of accusations against the chair, including that he had lied by claiming to be the source of several recent significant client instructions when in fact the managing partner said that she had been the source. She made further allegations that the chair had charged certain expenses to the firm when these were either personal expenses or extravagances not properly chargeable. Finally, the managing partner alleged that the chair had behaved inappropriately in front of certain key clients. The chair denied all of these allegations and made certain counteraccusations. He contended that the managing partner was trying to position herself as an alternative to the chair, lying about the source of the client instructions and making a naked grab for power. The chair was also highly critical of the management style of the managing partner, which he maintained was both divisive and destructive within what was otherwise a generally supportive culture.

The managing partner and the chair had heard of me through work I had done with another firm in their network. They arranged for me to visit their firm within two weeks of the precipitating incident, as it became clear that the continuation of the firm itself was at risk if the dispute were not resolved.

Choosing an Appropriate Process

I arrived knowing only the bare bones of the conflict. I was under the impression that the conflict had erupted out of a clear blue sky at the board meeting. I knew that the standoff had unsettled the other board members, who were extremely worried about the situation and what it meant for the future of the firm.

The first thing I had to decide was what sort of conflict resolution process to choose. I felt that I was charting a course with very limited data as to the obstacles that lay ahead, as I didn’t know the parties and had a very narrow idea of what the conflict was really about.

I decided to follow a very simple process, initially conducting separate fact-finding meetings with the chair and the managing partner. I felt that if there were to be any chance of resolving the conflict, I would have to see each of the key players separately and only bring them together when I felt comfortable that a ‘plenary’ meeting of the three of us would yield a resolution of the conflict.

The Early Meetings

I held three rounds of very lengthy meetings with each of the chair and the managing partner. These were very long meetings, each lasting several hours; they were also rambling and hard to structure. For the most part I felt that the best policy was just to sit and listen. The chair and the managing partner both wanted to air their individual grievances with the other, and any attempt by me to put boundaries around the airing of these grievances was forcefully rebuffed.

It was apparent from the first round of meetings that the chair and the managing partner each had their own ‘founding myth’ as to the genesis of the firm, and their own narrative around the reasons underpinning the firm’s growth and success. The two narratives diverged significantly and were, in many details, irreconcilable; it seemed to me that they resembled the different founding myths that exist when two peoples disagree about something as fundamental as their rights to territory – think Northern Ireland (Nationalists vs. Republicans), Israel / Palestine or Kashmir (India vs. Pakistan). There were also personality differences which made their approaches fundamentally different.

As is sometimes the case with territorial disputes, both the chair and the managing partner wanted me to adjudicate as to the veracity of their respective versions. I knew that I could not be lured down that path, which would not resolve anything. Even if a third party were to opine as to the veracity of the versions, it was clear that the ‘losing’ party would not respect the judgment – and with a narrative going back 15 years it would be extremely hard to get to the ‘truth’ of the respective versions.

So while I needed to listen to each of the narratives, as a mediator I could not agree to adjudicate between them – nor could I accede to the parties’ requests to litigate their dispute by bringing in witnesses or reading supposedly relevant documents. I had to push back on these various requests even though I knew that this was frustrating for each of the parties – and that it might cause them to doubt my ability or competence to resolve the conflict. It was important for me to adhere to my role as mediator, rather than adjudicator.

It is fair to say that by the end of these three rounds of meetings the process felt very ‘stuck’ and that I was scratching my head as to what might unlock that ‘stuckness’. I was struggling to get either of the parties away from their own narrative, much less to focus on what needed to happen in order to resolve the conflict and get them working together more functionally.

Working from Intuition: A Light-Bulb Moment

During the first three meetings, I had found the managing partner to be at times difficult, at times aggressive. She was self-centred and seemed to lack the ability to introspect or reflect.

The fourth meeting with the managing partner rapidly turned into a re-run of the first three. She reverted to the issues that we had by now covered three times, and she was clearly frustrated at my reluctance to affirm her version of events at the expense of the chair’s narrative.

Frustration turned to aggression and then to rudeness as the meeting entered its second hour. The managing partner vocalised her frustration by saying that the process was going nowhere, and then she became aggressive.

At that point I decided to call out the behaviour. I intuitively felt that I needed to do so firmly and to meet fire with fire. So rather than pushing back gently I did so firmly and in a way that I knew would make the managing partner deeply uncomfortable. I myself sensed that there was at least a fifty-fifty chance that my push-back might derail the process; but equally sensed that unless I did something that would really shake things up there was no way through the current stalemate.

The managing partner responded to my volley of fire by exploding with anger. She made it clear that she was furious with me and that she felt that I had completely overstepped the mark. I responded by letting her know that I was not going to be bullied and that if push came to shove, I was reconciled to packing my bags and returning to London. This was a risky strategy for me as it could have affected my profile in that continent.

However, I sensed that I needed to hold firm. The managing partner was used to bullying weaker personalities into submission and I felt that she needed to experience the effect of strong resistance to her behaviour.

My intuition was well-founded. The managing partner vented for about ten to fifteen minutes and then began to pull back from the brink of calling time on the process. I called a break to give her a bit more time to cool off and to buy some time for me to reflect as to next steps.

During the break I reflected on what was really going on. I focused on the fact that the managing partner was clearly under a huge amount of stress and suddenly realized that this stress was almost certainly a very basic component of her attitude towards the chair. Simply put, the complaints and anger against the chair were a displacement, i.e. a distraction from and a projection of the managing partner’s anger onto the chair. In other words, the conflict wasn’t really about the presenting complaints – it was really about the managing partner’s anger that she was having to shoulder so much responsibility (from her perspective) for the running of and development of the firm, and that she was, as a result, so stressed.

After this ‘light-bulb moment’ I was able to refocus my efforts. During the break the managing partner had calmed down and I was able to pivot the conversation to what was going on in the firm and the stress that the managing partner was under. The managing partner started to acknowledge her levels of stress and also acknowledged that she felt resentment towards the chair in relation to those levels of stress.

I was able to build on this light-bulb moment and start to focus the managing partner on how we might support her in addressing the underlying issue of her workload – and what therefore really needed to happen to resolve the conflict.

Resolution of the Conflict – What Happened

By the end of this fourth meeting with the managing partner, we had reached the point where she was prepared to make a conditional apology to the chair for the allegations that she had made, and to withdraw those allegations. I was a bit worried about the conditionality of the apology: I was pretty sure that the chair wouldn’t accept anything less than an unconditional one, and that the apology would have to be made not only to the chair but also repeated to the other board members.

I also spent quite a bit of time in the meeting discussing what needed to happen to reduce the managing partner’s stress levels. The steps that needed to be taken would not require much support or buy-in from the chair – but they would require the chair to renew his commitment to his relationship with the managing partner, and to agree to certain reforms which were at that time being planned within the firm. Those planned reforms are beyond the scope of this article but related both to governance, strategy and in particular operational efficiency.

I then met with the chair. As envisaged, the sticking point for the chair was any conditionality attaching to the managing partner’s apology. He understood that the managing partner was and had been under a considerable amount of stress, and was happy to renew his commitment to the proposed reforms. However, he did not regard that stress as justifying the outburst, and he was only willing to move beyond the outburst if he received an unconditional apology and believed the apology to be genuine.

I gradually persuaded the chair to back off from calling time on the relationship and to focus instead on the willingness of the managing partner to recommit to the relationship. I worked on a form of apology that would be acceptable to the senior partner and also enable both parties to save face, and I received his agreement to the wording.

I then had one final meeting with the managing partner at which she agreed to the wording. Although not delighted by the form of wording, by this point she was keen to put the conflict to bed and to move on. We had got to the root cause of the conflict in my view – the managing partner’s underlying stress and her feeling that the chair was unsupportive – and both had recognized that this was in fact the underlying cause, and that it needed to be addressed.

By now it was around 11 p.m. on day four of our discussions. I hastily arranged for all of us to meet together – myself, the managing partner and the chair. Over some food and drinks, the managing partner and the chair shook hands with one another and agreed to let bygones be bygones.

Aftermath

One year on, the somewhat uneasy truce has held. Managing partner and chair stepped back from the brink and have continued to work together, much to my relief and to the relief of their senior colleagues. In truth, I had wondered whether the truce would hold, and I am delighted that it has done so. – although I do understand that some of the underlying behaviours have not changed (for example, the managing partner still has a tendency to sweat the small stuff, and the chair is not always as supportive as he could be).

This was a particularly long and fraught mediation. In total it took me four days, working 18 hours per day, to broker this truce.

Could the same result have been achieved more rapidly and with the same durable result with the use of another strategy? I honestly don’t know … and I am unsure what, if anything, I would do differently if faced with the same situation again.

The Significance of This Exercise – Conclusions

Whilst the details of this particular case study are important, the significance of the exercise is that it threw into sharp relief the tendencies of ambitious and driven lawyers to use the brute force of their personalities, status and value as revenue generators, to drive their individual agendas. Whether this is a result of innate personality traits or learned behaviour is the question most psychologists grapple with, but my experience has led me to conclude that there is usually a trigger at some point – the common thread being the tendency of the strongest lawyers to lean on and overplay certain behaviours in order to succeed. In most cases, this is not destructive. That strength to fight is what makes the best adversarial lawyers who pitch into battle on behalf of their clients. Where it becomes counter-productive is when the person is taking on a leadership role and fighting their colleagues.

I have discussed this with a number of colleagues who specialize in the field and their conclusions are similar. The best lawyers do not always make the best leaders. Why that is the case is a subject for another day, but the fact remains that it is often a thankless and sometimes impossible task to draw together a large number of intelligent and ambitious lawyers, working towards a common goal, at the same time as satisfying their individual aspirations. It requires personality traits and skills to achieve these goals and managing partners are not selected on the basis of those skills or personality traits. Rather, they often struggle to cope, utilizing management skills that they usually acquired as a practicing lawyer rather than a professional manager.

The value of the type of intervention described above is to try and identify the trigger for the underlying destructive behaviours – and to work on changing learned behaviours, which are often deeply entrenched.

For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at Middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343

Coaching and Return on Investment

Jonathan Middleburgh

While executive coaching has become popular in many law firms and corporate law departments, one of the reasons often given by senior management and HR for not taking advantage of this approach – or using it only to a limited extent – is the difficulty of measuring return on investment (ROI).

In reality, there is a relatively robust methodology to measure the ROI of coaching. As with other complex, multi-factor situations, it is important to be careful with the measure and to avoid a definitive attribution of success to one factor when multiple factors are at play. But coupled with other data, measurement of ROI can help build a powerful business case for the use of executive coaching.

Measuring Effectiveness of Coaching and ROI

After 20-plus years of published research, the methodology for measuring the ROI on coaching has become increasingly respectable.

Kirkpatrick (1977) proposed a now widely accepted four-level taxonomy for the evaluation of training programmes, which is regularly used to evaluate learning and development (L&D) interventions and has often been used to evaluate coaching programmes.

When applied to coaching, the four Kirkpatrick levels (see e.g. Phillips & Phillips, 2005) are:

  • Reactions of the participant and the coach to the coaching engagement;
  • Learning from the coaching engagement (new knowledge, skills and understandings);
  • Behavioural changes as a result of coaching; and
  • Business-impact measures (e.g. productivity, quality, costs, time, client satisfaction, job satisfaction).

To the Kirkpatrick taxonomy, Dr Jack Phillips, a well-known expert in ROI methodology, added a fifth level: calculation of ROI.

The formula for calculating ROI involves subtracting the costs of coaching from the estimated value of the outcomes of coaching, and expressing this as a percentage ([estimated coaching benefits – costs of coaching / costs of coaching] x 100%).

Grant (2012) points out that there has been a broad range of ROI figures for coaching, with published estimates in various studies ranging from 221% to 545% to 788%, and a commonly reported ROI of 700% (for a typical study see McGovern et al. [2001]).

Inevitably, ROI will vary from coaching assignment to coaching assignment. The point is that there is a respectable source of evidence suggesting that ‘effective’ coaching offers a good return on investment, perhaps of up to 500%, maybe even more.

I put the word ‘effective’ in inverted commas deliberately, as the quality of the coaching and the choice of coach will obviously play a key role in determining the effectiveness of the coaching and hence ROI. I return to this point below.

Certainly in the law firm context, it should be relatively easy to generate a prima facie business case for coaching given, for example, salary costs and the differences in billing levels / work generation between a high-performing, productive, senior associate or partner.

A Note of Caution

Figures around ROI are often – and rightly – treated with scepticism because of the propensity of some practitioners to cite ROI figures as if they were holy writ. As always, the devil is in the detail and it is important to sound a note of caution before bandying around such figures.

A number of points are relevant in this context.

First, while asserting that a range of studies suggest a healthy ROI for coaching, it is important to be clear that not only is there a wide fluctuation in these figures, but also that several academics have questioned the rigour of these studies and some of the assumptions behind the calculations (see e.g. De Meuse et al. [2009]; also Grant [2012]). For example, the calculations sometimes ignore indirect costs of coaching; coachees often use a broad brush in assessing the monetary benefits of coaching; and it is often difficult to separate the effect of coaching from other factors (e.g. economic climate; chance) in order to establish that the coaching itself has caused the assumed or claimed positive results.

That said, and with some clear and honest caveats, it is reasonable in my view to assert that a range of evidence suggests that coaching can result in a healthy ROI.

Second, the figures from the ROI studies are at best an indication of possible ROI. To establish the actual ROI of a coaching intervention requires: (a) a clearly designed methodology for the capturing of the data that is needed to calculate ROI; (b) a commitment from both coach, coachee and the law firm or other organisation commissioning the coaching to gather and capture that data; and (c) the methodical capturing of that data during and at the end of the coaching process.

In practice, the law firm might not want to incur the costs associated with the design and implementation of a methodology. Capturing the data requires both coach and coachee to spend time during the coaching process gathering that data – for example the coachee might need to fill out a questionnaire rating the efficacy and benefits of the coaching process, and the coach might want to spend time gathering 360-type data towards the end of the coaching process. The more rigorous the evaluation, the more potentially costly. The organisation might feel that the costs associated with rigour outweigh the benefits of rigour of approach.

Third, as pointed out by Grant (2012), ROI might or might not be the right measure of success or failure. For sure, the key objective of the coaching might be to drive immediate financial results. However, often the goals of coaching are more diffuse – for example, they might concern managing client relationships more effectively or developing a more nuanced approach when communicating with peers or subordinates, rather than to increase profitability in the short term.

In the case of these latter goals, achievement of the goals will almost certainly be good for the business of the law firm. Greater effectiveness at managing client relationships, for example, will almost certainly increase client retention and ‘stickiness’ of client relationships. But this will not necessarily translate into causally identifiable financial results; indeed an overemphasis on ROI might be counterproductive to certain desired behaviours, such as building long-term client relationships, and more likely to encourage the chasing of short-term financial wins.

In these circumstances, the more appropriate approach to evaluating the effectiveness of the coaching might be a different measure or measures, such as focusing on tracking changes in the targeted behaviours – via repeat 360-degree feedback, for example.

A Practical Approach

A suggested approach to evaluating coaching is as follows:

  1. Decide how much time and resource you want to invest in evaluating coaching – e.g., how important is it for senior management / the business to understand the ROI of coaching? Do you need to discuss this internally?
  2. Think carefully about the purpose of evaluating coaching. What is the imperative? Is it one of more of the following: (a) to build a business case internally for coaching; (b) to assess the effectiveness of the coach or coaches you are using; (c) to assess impact on the individual coachee; (d) to demonstrate actual ROI of the coaching intervention or programme; (e) to understand common themes across a number of coaching interventions / to highlight systemic issues that might need to be addressed.
  3. If the imperative is to build a business case for coaching internally, there is a wide range of available, respectable data as to the ‘typical’ ROI of coaching. This data can be presented internally, with the caveats set out above.
  4. You can strengthen the business case by using other available internal data, e.g. retention rates, costs of losing key talent (recruitment costs, onboarding costs, estimated opportunity costs, etc.).
  5. If the purpose of the evaluation is to assess the effectiveness of the coach and / or impact on the coachee, an evaluation might, for example, be one or more of: (a) pre- and post-coaching questionnaire; (b) formal or informal debrief with the coachee; (c) pre- and post- coaching 360 feedback
  6. If the purpose of the evaluation is to demonstrate ROI, the evaluation will need to cover the following areas: (a) direct costs of coaching; (b) indirect costs of coaching (e.g., estimated loss of revenue, if any, due to coach being tied up with coaching sessions); (c) estimated financial benefits of coaching.
  7. One way to estimate the financial benefits of coaching is to have the coachee fill out a questionnaire which gets the coachee to think about financial wins as a result of the coaching (e.g., increased productivity, new clients won, increased instructions from existing clients, etc.).
  8. Identifying the estimated financial benefits of coaching requires careful thought and design. For example, a good questionnaire might ask the coachee the following questions: Did the particular financial win result from the coaching alone or from a mix of factors? If from a mix of factors, what percentage of the win is attributable to the coaching? Expressed as a percentage, how confident are you as to the accuracy of your figures?
  9. Coupled with the questionnaire, you will need to design a defensible formula to turn the outputs of the questionnaire into an estimated financial benefit.

Conclusion

Lack of evidence of ROI and the difficulty of measuring ROI are often cited as reasons why law firms and corporate law departments do not use coaching.

Insofar as there is a need to generate a business case to justify the commissioning of coaching there is plenty of evidence available to suggest that effective coaching generates a decent level of ROI. That evidence needs to be contextualised, as suggested above.

Once an organisation decides to use coaching, it is right and proper that coaching engagements are evaluated; indeed, such evaluation will generate confidence as to the efficacy of the coaching, inform decisions about levels of investment in coaching and potentially help the organisation to determine if certain coaches are less effective than others.

Using ROI as the key metric for evaluation is not necessarily the right decision, for the reasons discussed above. The correct approach to evaluation requires careful consideration as to the objectives of the coaching and how best to measure these in a way that will provide meaningful, robust and useful data for the organisation.

For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at Middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343