Tag Archives: remote working

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

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.

Jonathan Middleburgh can be reached by email 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leadership: Agility in the Face of Fragility

I was delighted to be asked to create an article on leadership for the Law Practice Management Magazine of the American Bar Association.

My hands-on work with law firm clients has been very focused on the pandemic, remote working, and the need for extra special consideration of members of firm teams due to the strains and stresses created by the pandemic environment.

Smart people tend naturally to focus on the “efficient and effective”, however sometimes there are other management dimensions that need attention. This article explores the dimension of managing in light of pandemic-induced fragility in every firm

I am grateful to the ABA and the Law Practice Management Magazine and hope that you and your firm will benefit from this article.

Gerry Riskin specializes in counseling law firm leaders on issues relating to the evolution of the structure and management of their law firms and the architecture of competitive strategies.  He has served hundreds of law firm clients around the globe from small boutiques to mega firms including working with the largest law firms in the world.  Gerry is still a Canadian but has resided on the Caribbean Island of Anguilla, British West Indies for more than 25 years.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns that you would like to discuss with me, I would be more than happy to explore them with you.  Email me at riskin@edge-international.com or text or call me at +1 (202) 957-6717

Virtual Coffee Breaks

Reaching out to clients and colleagues while working remotely can seem awkward, especially if there is no apparent reason for doing so.  The value of connecting during this time is in preserving and enhancing relationships by showing genuine care.

The most effective way to do a “virtual coffee break” is one person (be it client or colleague) at a time.

I suggest you consider these steps:

  1. Make a list of coffee candidates NOW before this idea slips away… put a few names down… if only two or three individuals come to mind, that’s fine — it’s enough to get started… add more as they occur to you. Candidates might include clients (past and present), referral sources, colleagues (who you may not be interacting with as much as usual because you/they are working from home), as well as any other individuals who are important to you professionally.  Personal friends and family are important too but they go on a different list.
  2. Choose a person from your list. Don’t procrastinate – just do it!
  3. Text or email suggesting a 10-15-minute virtual coffee break.
  4. Your communication might be something like: “Matthew/Elizabeth, I hope you are well. It has been a while since we last spoke… I’d like to catch up over a virtual coffee if that sounds good to you. Would Wednesday at 3pm or Thursday at 11am work better for you? (Feel free to tell me if we need other options). Have a wonderful day.”
  5. Assuming an affirmative response, send a Zoom (or Microsoft Team) invitation.
  6. At the virtual coffee break, really have a beverage at hand (coffee, tea, water…).
  7. Ask how she/he is doing and be an attentive listener. Do not allow the conversation to deflect to yourself right away. Be gracious, but still persistent with caring and curiosity. Find out how your coffee break companion is REALLY doing. Also – an important note – be sure to use your judgement to not over-reach.
  8. After the call, make a note or two. You will be glad to remember details two months later when you circle back to check in again.
  9. Throw a reminder into your calendar to touch base again after what you consider to be a reasonable period of time.

This is so simple that you might just discount the idea and not do it.  That would be a mistake.

Shoot me a note if you would like to set up a virtual coffee break with me — I can show you some strong anecdotal evidence as to why these “virtual coffee breaks” are so powerful.

Gerry Riskin, B. Com, LLB, P. Admin, is an internationally recognized lawyer, author and management consultant and a founder of Edge International.

 

The Law Firm Technology Landscape Post-lockdown: Part One

Take a step back and assess the transforming role of technology in your firm with Edge International and our expert technology partners at Lights-On Consulting.

IT has borne a substantial part of the burden of getting law firms through the constant and rapid sequence of challenges faced since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. Along the way, impressive feats of reinvention have taken place in how (and where, and when) law firms work. Most participants in and observers of these changes, and certainly the team at Edge International, believe much of this reinvention is here to stay. The legal industry has had a catalytic shock to its system which has generated the amount of change we might normally expect to take years.

Because that explosion of activity, with technology at its core, has been so rapid, responsive and – at least initially – short-term focused, there has been little time to step back and examine where we now are, or to map out what should happen next. Such a fast-track sequence of big decisions and actions inevitably leave gaps, unresolved issues, training and communication shortfalls, and risks.

Now is the time, we believe, when all firms must begin to review where they have landed on the technology roadmap and what to do next to secure and the positive outcomes and deal with those open risks and issues.

Edge International Principal Chris Bull consults with legal businesses in the space between strategy, transformational change, and operational efficiency. Deploying and leveraging technology is at the heart of this practice, leading to Chris co-founding The Intuity Alliance, a group specifically focused on cutting-edge advice on legal industry IT, innovation, and LegalTech. Fellow founder Peter Owen leads Lights-On Consulting, one of the most experienced legal IT advisory firms in the market. Lights-On has just released an extensive and impressive multi-part overview of IT ‘considerations for the post-lockdown law firm’ and Peter and Chris have worked together to produce this condensed summary of some of the major points in their articles exclusively for our Edge audience. Links to the full Lights-On articles are provided at the end of this piece for readers who want to take a ‘deeper dive’ into this business-critical subject.

In this first of two parts, we look at the technology issues for management teams as they integrate the emerging new ways of working into their firms, at the same time as reopening offices and bringing all areas of the business back on stream. At the heart of those changes is a shift towards a hybrid, agile office and home worker model; whether as a medium-term measure or, for an increasing number of practices, a permanent one.  The underlying theme for all law firm leaders is the need to balance fast-tracked, short-term decisions and actions with an emphasis on medium-term recovery and resilience.

Technology and your people post-lockdown

The Covid-19 crisis and the disruption to lives and livelihoods that have followed have had a spectrum of affects upon individuals, including the people who make up every law firm. It will take a long time for employers to understand and then respond to all of those affects. Technology has had a crucial role to play in enabling people to keep working – and earning – through the crisis and will take a similarly heavy load in facilitating a return to the workplace, supporting a continuation of remote working or blend of remote and office locations (“bi-modal” operations). But intense use of technology has also created new issues and well-being concerns and addressing these will also need to be front-of-mind over the coming months and years.

A new operating model

To comply with social distancing, offices need to be sparsely populated initially and many firms throughout the world are planning for a sustained period where teams will be operating with a blend of office and home workers.  Many firms are planning for only 25% to 30% occupancy initially due to desk layout, circulation corridor and communal area issues. Alongside that, business continuity planning must contemplate a non-linear progression to the recovery and be prepared for further waves of lockdowns which may force a return to mandated home working.

Positive productivity benefits, potential real estate savings and the rapidly growing popularity of an agile working model are now beginning to feature prominently in firm’s medium to long term planning too. Even before lockdown has ended, we have already seen some firms of all sizes announce a permanent shift away from the office as a default location.

The hybrid agile, bi-modal model, enabling working across multiple locations and at any time, seems likely to emerge as the new standard for a majority of law firms. But making that highly unpredictable and constantly flexing approach to work successful in the long term is a different order of problem to the temporary burst of ‘best endeavours’ effort required to get the firm working from home at the start of lockdown. Even if that were the only priority your IT team had to support over the next year or so – which we will see it definitely is not – it would already represent a massive workload and change challenge.

Adapting your firm to the hybrid agile world

Ironically, health & safety compliance may have gone backwards in the short-term as firms dashed to ensure people could work from home, with very few home workstation assessments due to lockdown and an overwhelming volume of home workers to support. More prolonged home working in a more settled post-lockdown world will impose greater obligation to carry out regular audits and self-assessments that assure employee’s wellbeing. Check your capacity to handle this and tighten up your policies on equipment provision, as well as on compliant home working environments. Don’t forget that a bi-modal world will have impacts across a range of areas from insurance policies and electrical testing to expense policies (for items such as home utilities and telephony charges).

Consider home worker kits to prevent the need for transporting equipment to and from the office. This may only be affordable if firms turn to stocks of ‘second life’, pre-used equipment; which brings its own support issues. Consider a policy of retaining older equipment as spares or for home use.

It is critical to understand that working from home does not mean ‘resting’ and we can already see that home workers easily get burned out, “Teamed out” and “Zoomed out”! Many have gone the extra mile to deliver either internal or external service during a pressured time. You may have already recognised that, but it may be worth re-iterating your appreciation, as the return to office effort will also take its toll in terms of adapting to another set of physical and psychological changes. The main burden of communicating and managing this adaptation process falls on leadership, line managers and HR, but IT have a big role to play too and will often be on the ‘front line’ when it comes to dealing with the challenges people across the firm encounter.

IT support in the new world

Firm and IT leadership both now need to plan for extended hours of service and further waves of heightened IT demand. IT may be the first function needing to reverse furloughs and even considering additional staff in response to the new pressures they will face.

From an IT support perspective, lockdown has meant supporting multiple home working locations with different set-up, connectivity and risk factors. Homeworkers may be sharing parental and home-schooling care or responding to a range of other factors which have created very varied working patterns, including more evening and weekend working. As a result, firms are now also facing extended hours of demand on IT teams.  For IT support teams, it can feel like the job has changed from supporting one office 8am-6pm Monday-Friday to supporting 80 separate home offices 24×7.

IT teams have worked hard and fast to deliver home working but what will the next stage demands on the team be and how should leaders prepare? With a return to some form of office-based working your IT team will also be under pressure to resume some form of physical 2nd-line support; including physical visits required to re-install equipment that people have brought back into the office. We believe other issues, bringing both opportunity and risk to the firm, include:

  • Training – Can we use what has happened to transform how we train people? What doors to new digital training methods have been opened-up and what new approaches and technology will work? Certainly, with new applications and ways of working having been adopted very rapidly and at a distance, really embedding skills and consistency is now a priority. Many larger firms with centralised support models already utilise online conferencing tools to deliver training to their offices, but this approach is now ripe for adoption by smaller firms too.
  • Printing – It is sad to say that all wars advance technology and this war against a virus is doing the same. Widescale adoption of a range of digital tools and a more genuinely paperless way of working has been forced upon lawyers in 2020, including reviewing contracts on screen, e-signing and electronic workflows. If printer-less and paper-free working is possible, now does feel like the moment the legal world has to finally bite the bullet and severely restrict (or consider removing altogether – as we have heard of some firms doing whilst people are out of the office) local printing facilities in the office. Bold firms can benefit from such a change and not simply accept a return to the pre-crisis reflex tendency to print unnecessarily.
  • Conferencing Apps – whilst we might expect ‘peak Zoom’ to be behind us now (they have seen a 30-fold increase in users), the relative importance of virtual meeting and conferencing software in the legal IT mix has shifted forever. These tools are now set to be a critical component of client service, collaboration and the day-to-day reality of how teams work together. Internal IT knowledge and skills in this area, from 1st line service desk right up to strategic application management, needs to be ramped up, especially as the range of options extends and new functionality – such as automated translation and subtitling – promises to make a virtual meeting a more effective and sophisticated option to meeting face-to-face. The immediate post-lockdown period will put your IT services under an extended period of pressure yet again, with an even more complex range of demands than they faced during lockdown itself. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that law firm IT will never return to its pre-crisis shape, with a number of factors driving that permanent change:
  • High Tempo Expectation Management – your IT team has pulled out the stops under difficult circumstances and delivered in days or weeks all kinds of solutions that would normally take months. Has this now re-set expectations of IT going forward? That could be dangerous; IT may have been forced to cut corners to meet deadlines and now have to contend with delivering on the expectation of a high tempo forged during a crisis, whilst bringing back the governance standards partly foregone.
  • Super-user support – the normal support regime where the 1st port of call for basic IT advice is the “secretary next door” has been disrupted by social distancing and remote working. Consider granting those super-users the same sort of screen takeover tools that the service desk has (with appropriate security rights and training). In-team lawyer support can continue while stretched-IT resources can be reserved for the most technically difficult tasks.
  • Hot Desking – for now, flexible sharing of desks is against most governments’ recommendations and so the vanguard of firms which had implemented hot desking to maximise floor plate flexibility are having to reconfigure layouts, processes and technology to ensure that desks are only used by one individual. For those many firms looking to reduce their real estate footprint over the next year or so, this will restrict that opportunity for a period until government advice and individual confidence consider hot desking safe again.
  • Safe ‘at-desk’ support – difficulties are likely to result from hands-on IT work, where it is tough for IT support and the user to stay the 1 to 2 metres distance apart. Remote access and support will need to take more of the strain. All-in-all, it is probably unrealistic to expect physical 2nd line support to return to its pre-crisis format or extent, maybe ever. In a hybrid agile model, IT support is going to be principally remote and digital, providing a consistent offer to workers wherever they are sat on the day.
  • Incidents versus Service Requests – the service team may have spent the last 3 months focussed solely on fixing incidents. As the firm adjusts to post-lockdown working, it is important to use the data from the firm’s Service Desk to ensure IT resources are delivering the biggest bang for their buck – get IT back on the front-foot tackling the most important service requests and improvement projects, not continuing to just react to issues.  

Easy to overlook essentials

As offices are, even if only partially, reopened, IT teams and management have a host of tasks, large and small, to schedule and complete. Some might be easy to overlook but are, in fact, critical to get right. Here is our ‘don’t say we didn’t tell you’ list for firms to be certain they don’t overlook:

  • Re-start testing – during lockdown, with so many people working at home, there will be office equipment that has not been utilised in some time. A physical audit and test is recommended before the doors to offices are flung open again.
  • Check your supplier agreements – do your service level agreements cover support to your business if your people are working remotely or in a bi-modal set-up rather than all office-based? With remote support likely to be required for an extended period now, re-examination of commercial terms may be required. Conversely, if you are now expecting suppliers to come back and work on-site, what provisions do you and they have to put in place to ensure safety and mutual compliance with respective Covid-19 related policies?
  • Internet – examine your internet service contracts and bills and assess whether your set-up is optimal for supporting the volume of people now coming in and going out via the internet line.
  • Hack Amnesty – tech savvy lawyers will have found very innovative ways of collaborating, sharing and working remotely offline in recent months. They may have even tried the odd YouTube hack here and there to work around governance that makes remote life difficult. Face up to these grey areas head-on; you should survey your end users (and your IT staff) confidentially to find out what was good, what got in the way of working and whether they found work arounds or “hacks” to the system that you might want to adopt and share more widely.
  • The Environmental opportunity – a comment made many times in mainstream press coverage of the crisis is that some of the most important priorities which were dominating thinking and gaining momentum pre-Covid have been side-lined and are at risk of stalling. Within your own sphere of influence don’t let that be the case in terms of reducing your firm’s own carbon footprint; there are multiple ways in which technology (albeit also a primary driver of energy consumption) can help push your environmental performance to the next level, including reducing paper and energy consumption.

Thinking one step ahead: what comes after ‘what’s next’?

Over the time span of the Covid-19 crisis so far, IT capabilities have been fundamental in achieving a swift transition to remote working and maintaining client service and team working in uniquely difficult circumstances. That task, though undoubtably challenging, was unambiguous. The next phase is much less clear-cut, as lockdowns around the world ease at different paces and myriad variations on a hybrid model take hold. This feels a bit like the family vacation; the return journey may feel longer and less rewarding than the sudden adrenalin rush of the start of lockdown and those making the journey back are now tired, bored and no longer in the best of spirits.

We have tried here to provide some practical insight into how to handle the technology component of this tricky period. But we have also drawn attention to how the crisis has seeded what we believe will be permanent and significant changes to the way law firms operate.

Firstly, the emergence of a hybrid/agile operating model, with previous resistance increasingly replaced by strong support from clients and employees alike.

Secondly, the acceleration of digitisation across the firm. Your lawyers and support staff will have got used – to varying degrees of success – to getting work done both remotely and digitally. Allowing a reflex return to more conventional ways of working in your firm, even for just a few more months, risks undermining your ability to compete over the next few years. Firms reluctant to fully embrace digital working and who ramp back up their use of paper and retreat from the intensely agile model of the last few months might quickly find themselves literally years behind direct competitors in terms of efficiency, agility, client service excellence, appeal to new talent, value-for-money and, ultimately, profitability.

Those emerging trends are not without serious risks and challenges, but they also offer law firms enormous opportunity to reinvent the way they work and present themselves in a new light to existing and prospective clients and professionals. Coming soon, in the 2nd and final part of this short series, we will turn our attention to the specific digital innovations and trends we think will dominate the legal landscape over the next few years, as the implications of the crisis for the sector play out.

 

Further Reading: the full Lights-On papers summarised in this article are available to read on the Lights-On Consulting website:

https://www.lights-on.com/news/return-to-the-office-law-firm-people-and-workplaces

https://www.lights-on.com/news/return-to-the-office-law-firm-it-service

 

This article was written by:

Chris Bull is an Edge International Principal and 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. Chris is one of the three founding Directors of The Intuity Alliance. Europe: chris@edge-international.com

Peter Owen, our guest author, is the Founding Director of Lights-On Consulting with over 30 years’ experience in IT. In addition to leading the Lights-On team, Peter provides high-level consultancy around future technology aspirations to many legal and professional services firms. As part of this, he regularly mentors legal IT Directors and CIOs. Peter is a founding Director of LITIG, a non-profit organisation designed to support senior professionals involved in all aspects of the implementation, use and support of Legal IT, a long-standing member of judging panels for Legal Tech awards and one of three founding members of The Intuity Alliance. Before setting up Lights-On in 2005, Peter was the Global IT Director for Eversheds for 10 years and held management and operational positions in DuPont in the energy and pharmaceuticals sectors. peter.owen@lights-on.com

Thanks also to Lights-On consultant Stephen Brown for his great contributions to this piece.

 

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

by Yarman Vachha, Leon Sacks, Chris Bull and Jonathan Middleburgh

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. Asking the right questions in your regular one-to-ones with team nembers

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 counselling or other external support?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. ‘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?
  1. 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.

These articles were written by the following Edge International principals:

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. Europe: chris@edge-international.com

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. Asia: yarman@edge-international.com

Leon Sacks, based in Miami and focused on the Americas, 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. Americas: leon@edge-international.com

Jonathan Middleburgh, guest author for the fourth article in the series, is a London based consultant to the legal services industry and a subject matter expert and highly valued adviser to legal businesses on people and human capital issues, both in the UK, Europe and internationally. A former Barrister, and also qualified as an occupational psychologist, Jonathan coaches senior lawyers particularly around behavioural change issues, helps senior level teams function more effectively and is frequently retained to resolve senior level internal conflict. Europe: middleburgh@edge-international.com

Clients and Partners – Social Distancing and the Circle of Trust

The building of rapport and trust is difficult enough in a benign environment but has become much more challenging in an era of lockdown and social distancing. At the best of times, law firms are low-trust environments – as some years ago, a commentator described them. Of course, we have to trust our partners, especially when it comes to professionalism, ethics, and matters of integrity, but lawyers tend to leave their personal feelings at home and erect around themselves boundaries of autonomy and detachment. This is often evidenced by closed office doors, and a stand-offish aura.

This sort of detachment can also spill over into client relationships. The much-vaunted “trusted adviser” status assumes a level of rapport, closeness and concord that lawyers can find difficult to achieve, especially as they have had the need for objectivity drilled into them from an early age. Put another way, there are huge emotional barriers in the way, both of allowing other people into our inner circles of trust and of us entering theirs. This is true as much with internal relationships as external ones, and has become even more difficult in times of lockdown where some professionals have relished being left alone to carry on with their work uninterrupted by any form of human contact.

Even where the professional longs to develop closer relationships with clients, both remote working and the advent of greater commoditisation through technology create obstacles. This was true before lockdown – where, after winning a new client, the initial excitement of getting to know the client often seemed to run out and internal energy resources quickly depleted, especially in the face of client push-back against a greater degree of friendliness. The same is true in developing closer colleague relationships. Breaking through these barriers to achieve greater rapport, closeness and trust can be a bit like a marathon runner “hitting the wall”. This is often the case when trying for trusted adviser status in client relationships.

There are three tools we can put in place that allow us to break though the wall and gain (or regain) close and more trusting relationships both with our colleagues and our clients even despite social distancing and periods of remote working. These are the three “Es” of Equilibrium, Energy and – possibly most important of all – the sadly overlooked value of Empathy.

  1. Equilibrium: Changing our ways and approaches can be tricky and requires a consistent rebalancing effort in order to maintain or recover our equilibrium. Homeostasis refers to the ability of a firm and the individuals within it to achieve optimal states of equilibrium by rebalancing internal and external turbulences in whatever ways are possible. The current coronavirus crisis makes attaining a steady state of homeostasis a vital imperative. Like living systems, organisations in normal times experience gradual, incremental types of change as they grow, mature or decline. Impacting on this, however, are the more disruptive changes that technology and new business models have brought to the legal services sector that need the organisation to reorient and adapt to achieve some measure of equilibrium. Additionally, coronavirus has or will introduce environmental changes so great that they are beyond the limits within which the usual homeostatic mechanisms can easily cope. To face this, the organisation as a system has to transform itself into another form that is more suitable to the new environment. Coronavirus gives firms the opportunity (and requirement) to implement homeostatic changes including working at home, the adoption of new technological resources and the redesign of business processes. It is clear that change that is necessary is the need to flex social and relational attitudes and conduct to adapt to more remote and more technological ways of working, whilst at the same time enabling the development of rapport and trust with far less face-to-face interaction. What is more, members of all professional service firms are finding they have to adapt and change behaviours as well, in order to maintain their own equilibrium. There are huge benefits to this.
    • Firms are finding that some meetings work better through live streaming, as opposed to travelling some distance to attend face to face.
    • Technologically inept professionals are having to learn to harness technology.
    • Video calls are proving much more effective than voice calls and email and give the opportunity to build rapport.
    • Junior professionals are relishing the trust placed in them as they are given more responsibility to arrange their working day and adopt self-discipline to enable better home working.
    • Face-to-face interactions (albeit socially distanced) are becoming better valued as restrictions are eased.
  2. Energy: Most lawyers and professionals are highly goal oriented and can easily become discouraged if their efforts fail to achieve quick results, or can become bored if they are required to carry out tasks that do not seem to be outcome-oriented. Some activities can even be hastily discarded on the basis that they are a waste of time. Hence, overtures of friendship or rapport-building to clients or colleagues can quickly run out of steam if they meet initial resistance. The importance of building or maintaining relationships can be ignored during times of remote working. Like the runner hitting the proverbial wall, the adaptive and fit professional needs persistence and oxygen to win through, rather than give up or turn to more immediately satisfying goal-related efforts. It is a challenge to stay connected with clients and colleagues from a distant setting, and an even greater challenge to improve relationships and break into their circle of trust. Here the old marketing “seven times seven” motto (that a message has to be repeated seven times in seven different ways) holds true for developing relationships as much as for winning new clients. Taking relationships for granted is never a good idea. The truth is that relationships – like fitness – atrophy over time unless renewal efforts are made. It takes energy to maintain the commitment to clients and colleagues. More importantly, remote video-conferencing meetings are proving to be extremely taxing. Most meetings even on a one-to-open basis run out of energy after a much shorter time than meetings in the flesh, and so the need to build reserves of resilience and vigour – like training to be an athlete – requires time and effort.
  3. Empathy can be defined as understanding how another person feels, fuelled by a curiosity to find out what it is like to be the other. It can foster the ability to understand what it is like to be your client or partner and to align with their agenda and their feelings. But it does require work in getting to know your client or colleague at a deeper level, including what type of personality they are, how they react to change and turbulence, what their typical anxieties and worries might be, what drives or motivates them and what makes them sad, depressed or angry. In short, it requires the professional to stand in the shoes of his colleague or client and to get to grips with how they see the world in very different ways than how the professional sees the world. The surprising news is that empathy can be developed remotely, as the predominant skill in building empathy is careful and active listening and this can almost as easily be done by video call as by meeting face to face. It has to be remembered that honest and open communication is an act of the will, not of personality. Sometimes the greatest difficulty is making an effort to listen to the other person and to detect what they might be feeling. This degree of empathy requires hard work and a conscious decision to show an interest. After all, communication is always hard work and although a face-to-face video meeting is better than no meeting at all, nevertheless the full range of perceptive skills, the reading of body language, the fullness of eye contact and the ability to read subtle clues to gauge levels of interest and engagement become much more challenging.

If we knew that the world would normalise within weeks, it might be possible to put relationship-building on hold, but there is a growing sense that communications in the business world have changed for good. Doing nothing to develop and maintain relationships is not an option. Social distancing and remotely conducted relationship building are not easy but these three tools fit together to bring about a better solution than complete inactivity. Furthermore, the absence of travel time and the reduction in prosaic and circular meetings gives lawyers and other professionals more time – albeit remotely – to connect and reconnect. A new equilibrium or homeostasis can be achieved to build relationships through empathy with people in respect of whom professionals have either lost contact or where the association has reached only an outer circle of mutual affinity that is far outside the ideal circle of trust.

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

by Jonathan Middleburgh, Chris Bull, Yarman Vachha and Leon Sacks

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.

  1. 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.”

  1. 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 counselling or other external support?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?
  1. 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.

This article was written by the following Edge International principals:

Jonathan Middleburgh, our guest author for this fourth article in the resilience series, is a London based consultant to the legal services industry and a subject matter expert and highly valued adviser to legal businesses on people and human capital issues, both in the UK, Europe and internationally. A former Barrister, and also qualified as an occupational psychologist, Jonathan coaches senior lawyers particularly around behavioural change issues, helps senior level teams function more effectively and is frequently retained to resolve senior level internal conflict. Europe: middleburgh@edge-international.com

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. Europe: chris@edge-international.com

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. Asia: yarman@edge-international.com

Leon Sacks based in Miami and focused on the Americas, 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. Americas: leon@edge-international.com

Client Remote Working Outreach — Managing Partner Checklist

Managing Partners: Capitalize on your firm’s opportunity to enhance your outreach program to clients.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT

The extremely fragile state of mind of your clients makes this essential for three reasons:

  • It’s the right thing to do. You will help them.
  • The unique opportunity is NOW, when client needs are intense.
  • Your firm’s relationships with your clients will be forever enhanced.

MY RESEARCH – HANDS-ON EXPERIENCE

In my research with individual attorneys and client firms I have learned that:

  • Many attorneys have been reaching out to at least some clients.
  • Some have done an effective job of showing care and concern.
  • Others have been a bit mechanical and missed the opportunity to show caring.
  • Those participating in the outreach can learn a lot from each other by sharing experiences.

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR ATTORNEYS

(test your attorneys’ client-awareness)

How are your clients doing right now?

What are their situations?

  • Living alone or with a significant other?
  • Kids?
  • Pets?
  • Do they have at-risk friends or relatives?
  • Is any family member or friend sick?

What are they doing to stay sane professionally or personally?

  • Virtual Happy Hours?
  • Virtual lunches?
  • Virtual coffee?
  • Other?

How are they coping with working from home (WFH)?

  • Regular work hours/routine?
  • Sleep – OK, or not so much?
  • Stress – how bad is it and what are they doing to reduce it?

Note: Attorneys who cannot answer these questions are not really in touch with their clients right now.

“What benefits would accrue to you or your practice group by showing you care about your clients?” (In a facilitated discussion, record these benefits.)

HOW DO YOU DO THE OUTREACH?

Have each attorney list some client contacts and referral sources, active or otherwise.

Ask your attorneys to invite several clients a day to communicate.

  • Attorneys should suggest video.
  • They should explain why they’d like to use video.
  • Feedback from others suggests most people prefer video.
  • As a precaution, they should allow clients a choice (phone).

Attorneys should be trained to ask open-ended big picture questions, like

  • How are you doing? (Make it clear that you really want to know.)
  • Are there any surprises – things you did not expect WFH?
  • What’s the hardest part about WFH?
  • What’s the best part of WFH?
  • Do you need anything? How can I help?

Encourage your attorneys to:

  • Probe (dig deeper): “What’s that like?”
  • Avoid leading questions, like “It’s not so bad, right?”
  • Use empathy in your answers: “That must be pretty difficult.”

DO NOT SELL

The outreach is about showing care, concern and empathy. If you are perceived to be looking for more work you will have reduced your credibility to ZERO.

TRACKING THE OUTREACH

  • Ask attorneys to list those to whom they have reached out.
  • Ask attorneys tell you about how each client reacted.
  • Publicize the anecdotes in your team meetings.
  • Give the attorneys who do this well some recognition. Ask them to detail in a team meeting.

CONCLUSION

Your outreach is a condition precedent to maintaining or enhancing client relationships.

The door to this opportunity is wide open – walk through it.

Do a good job, not a perfect job. (Don’t be the perfectionist who missed the opportunity.)

MAY I HELP YOU? If you would like to have an informal discussion about this topic, please let me know and I’ll set up a video meeting with you (no fee).

I INVITE YOUR FEEDBACK: I would be interested to know your thoughts on your outreach to clients or any other matter relating to law firms and their management – during crises or at any other time. Reach me via email.