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Law Firm Resilience in a Crisis: Part Two – Operational Resilience

by Yarman Vachha, Leon Sacks and Chris Bull

“Law Firm Resilience in a Crisis” series

In our paper of April 6, 2020, we introduced this series which is aimed at identifying and addressing topics that are at the top of the agenda for legal leaders during the current crisis. That paper was focused on Financial Resilience. In this paper we turn our focus to Operational Resilience.

Operational Resilience

Operational Resilience Priorities

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.

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.

This article was written by the following Edge International principals:

Yarman J. Vachha is based in Singapore with four decades of experience in the professional services industry globally. He has run global legal business across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He is a subject-matter expert in improving profitability, operations, remuneration structures and governance within law firms.

Leon Sacks is a trusted international executive of 30 years’ experience, noted for growing revenues and managing transformation projects for professional service firms in the management consulting and legal industries. He has worked extensively in Latin America and is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish.

Chris Bull is a strategy, operations and change consultant who has established himself as one of the leading advisors to legal businesses in the dynamic and innovative UK market, as well as working in the US and internationally. He has built a reputation as a legal market pioneer and innovator, having worked for all four of the Big Four accounting/consulting firms, been one of the first partner-level chief operating officers at a law firm and overseen some of the largest global legal process outsourcing deals at ALSP Integreon.

Storytelling Is an Effective Communication Strategy

“Storytelling” may seem an odd word choice for a profession like law, which focuses on very academic-oriented activities like drafting contracts, legislative provisions, proposing a regulation, writing a will, researching case laws, etc.

However, the increasing competition faced at home and abroad demands that lawyers make efforts to guide their teams to surpass expectations and discover new approaches, in order to stand out from the crowd.

Lawyers may think of themselves as legal scholars, as professionals, as persons having a gravitas of sorts; hence, they may prefer presenting facts and figures as opposed to telling stories. However, “thought leadership” is a unique differentiator. Lawyers need to create compelling content to engage their stakeholders. Storytelling is an excellent way to achieve this.

Of course, a story is not merely made up of character, nor is it a recitation of facts: there has to be a storyline. Facts and figures are more amenable to being absorbed and recorded by computers. People hardly remember them unless they are effectively emotionalized and embedded in a story.

Decision-making involves persuasion, and persuasion requires emotions. Emotions require less effort than logic… hence decisions based on emotion are made more quickly than those based on logic. In court rooms, lawyers often build narratives naturally, weaving the chronology of events and acts in the form of a story to generate emotional responses and create a ground for empathy. This is true even in corporate practices. Clients are more interested to know how our solutions have impacted other clients than how we did it. The impact is very emotional, and can be best described in the form of a story.

Storytelling is an important strategy for growth. Through the use of storytelling, lawyers can foster the emotional connections that create a sense of meaning for the contributions made by them and their stakeholders.

Lawyers Have Stories to Tell

Newsletters are an important tool for client engagement and expressing thought leadership. Generally most newsletters sent out by lawyers and firms share articles on a topical issue, and report developments at the firm level. To capitalize on the strength of storytelling, they may also share case studies that relate how legal issues were impacting clients, how the problems were resolved, and how the solutions improved the client’s situation.

While creating client collaterals, marketing content or blogs, lawyers can focus on the issue while also making their points more relevant, easier to understand and more interesting by creating dialogues, scenes, and characters as are found in movies / ads. This way audience re-call value becomes much higher.

Firms /lawyers can also talk about their pro-bono/CSR initiatives using success stories of real social heroes… and how it moved them to be part of these initiatives. Even failure stories generate emotions for the firm and enhance the image of the firm as a socially responsible entity.

In today’s age of “word-of-mouth” marketing, client testimonials are also stories and, when effectively weaved and shared, can be of great value to firms and lawyers.

Creating the Story

For a story to be liked it has to be real and people should somehow relate to the values the story imparts.

Organisations – such as law firms – can also use stories to help their employees and clients understand the vision and purpose they want to create for themselves. Today, clients are more inclined to want to know what an organization does and why it matters, and how this will make a difference. The best way to communicate this message is not through flow charts or diagrams, but through the use of stories that evoke imagery of where the organisations have been, and where they want to go next.

There are numerous examples of how organisations have benefited by sharing stories about their contributions and how they have impacted not only the economy but society at large. In this way, they have been perceived as trusted and responsible organisations and have thereby been able to attract more commitment and respect from their stakeholders.

What Makes a Good Story?

The best structure, elements, techniques and characters completely depends on your audience. The same story can be presented in different ways to persuade different people to do a particular thing, or not do something, or to make a certain decision.

In order to be a good storyteller, one needs to listen to stories. There are many stories out there. Every individual has a story and, therefore, lawyers must ask for their stories – of course, within the limitations of professional conduct and related to issues they are facing. For instance, instead of asking “What happened?” one can ask why it went wrong, how matters got to this point.

As a strategy this could be the biggest differentiator, as every story can have a unique perspective and therefore can relay messages in a desired manner to the target audience. A strategically aligned story can not only help stakeholders visualize the change the lawyer, firm or organization intends to bring, but also can also solidify support and can make stakeholders comfortable about future outcomes and results.

To conclude, storytelling is a powerful tool, and a story with a well-crafted narrative does amplify whatever one wants to communicate.

Edge International Principal Bithika Anand advises on India-specific growth and business initiatives. She is an honorary consultant to the Society of Indian Law Firms (SILF), where she works with the organisation and its members advising and assisting in complying with best-industry practices. She co-wrote this article with Vivek Das, Vice President, Strategic Communications & Client Relationships at Legal League Consulting.