By Susan Smith Blakely • April 23, 2020•Careers, Firms and the Private Sector
Law firm leaders come in all shapes, sizes, skin colors and backgrounds. They are both male and female, young and old. Some are effective, and some are not. And the differences in their effectiveness as leaders are especially apparent during a challenging time like a pandemic, which changes all the traditional rules in a very traditional profession. Like wheat and chaff, like milk and cream. Only the best rise to the top --- or, at least, that is the way it should work.
So, what can effective leaders learn from a pandemic. It is an odd question, but it needs to be asked. It is easy to be an effective leader during good times --- and much more challenging to be an effective leader during bad times. But that does not mean that there is not a lot of wisdom to be gleaned during challenging times. The lessons that law firm leaders take from the way business is being done at this time may determine the true value of their organizations for years to come.
Here is some of what we can learn from the days of COVID-19:
The debate over the value of telecommuting/working from home is no longer worthy of much discussion. Law firms will be almost as productive during this challenging time as before and after, especially the large ones. Measuring this new-found knowledge against the cost of bricks and mortar offices and lost time during long commutes will be the new debate.
- "Face time" will never be as revered as it was in the past. Technology has eclipsed the necessity of the face-to-face practice model to an impressive degree and has brought about the best substitutes we ever could have imagined. And those innovations are too valuable to be cast aside for a return to old methods of practice.
- The team approach is being recognized for its true value. Bringing the team together on conference calls and Zoom meetings is being necessitated by a scattered and isolated workforce and the need to keep the team informed and together in these uncertain times. And it is working very well. Inquiries about the individual challenges team members are experiencing have become common place, and team members are sharing their personal situations. The impersonal nature of the law firm is being replaced with heart and humanity, which has been hiding for too long, and which will result in cultures of caring and more satisfying workplaces.
- The connections between law firms and their communities are front and center at this time. The needs of the community infuse our conversations and encourage our charity. We miss what we no longer have in terms of the services and the service providers we took for granted, and that reality should invigorate and expand our pro bonopractices as we understand the reality of our new world order.
So, what changes can law firm leaders make in policies and programs to meet these new realities? How can they take advantage of the wisdom of these challenging times?
The answer lies in the cultures that law firms create --- positive cultures versus negative cultures, caring cultures versus toxic cultures. The choice is up to the leaders, and here are a few ways that law firm leaders can end up on the right side of the values challenge:
- Demonstrate support for the worker not just for the work. Too often the emphasis is on the client and the work. The spotlight rarely shines on the worker -- especially at the associate level --- and that is a mistake. Through this crisis, we are getting a truer picture of how life impacts work. Now life overlays work more than ever, and young lawyers are meeting the challenges. They are caring for small children and elderly family members at the same time that they are meeting work deadlines, participating in Zoom meetings, and keeping up with administrative tasks. This does not happen easily, and they need to know that leadership understands that and appreciates it. Leaders should acknowledge the effort in a phone call or an e-mail. Ask how employees are managing and what the greatest challenges are. Anxiety, social isolation, and financial concerns are at levels that are very difficult for most people, and that should be acknowledged. Let them see the empathy and the personal touch that is within you. That kind of outreach REALLY matters.
- Create positive law firm cultures. The culture of a law firm is everything. It drives work satisfaction, the quality of the work product, and retention decisions. Who is on your team matters to achieving positive results. Change hiring policies to make sure that the people you add to the team can be counted on to benefit the team. Don't hire lawyers full of hubris, who care little for others and will destroy the esprit de corps. Put the emphasis on team players, and reward the entire team. How you treat employees is critical to success in business. The soft skills of positive communication are key to good employee relations. Don't verbally abuse those who report to you, and don't create false deadlines just to flex management muscles. Don't isolate and ignore colleagues so that they feel on the fringe of the team. Be inclusive. Seek out conversations. Encourage confidence.
- Embrace kindness and compassion. Choose it. Embrace it. Live it.
Be informed by these challenging times. Learn from them. Remember them. Start now to develop the positive values you need to accompany your organization into the future, and include them in your succession plans. It is a win-win --- for those at all levels of your workforce. And that is a worthy goal.
Susan Smith Blakely is the Founder of LegalPerspectives LLC and an award-winning, nationally-recognized author, speaker and consultant on issues related to young women lawyers, young women law students and young women interested in careers in the law. She is author of Best Friends at the Bar: What Women Need to Know about a Career in the Law (Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers 2009), and Best Friends at the Bar: The New Balance for Today's Woman Lawyer (Wolters Kluwer Law & Business 2012), which addresses the work-life struggle for women lawyers and includes twelve profiles of women who have successfully transitioned from one practice setting to another. Her third book in the series, Best Friends at the Bar: Top-Down Leadership for Women Lawyers, focuses on the responsibilities of law firm leaders and was released by Wolters Kluwer Law & Business in 2015.
Ms. Blakely’s new book for ALL young lawyers, What Millennial Lawyers Want: A Bridge from the Past to the Future of Law Practice, will be released by Wolters Kluwer/Aspen Publishers in the summer of 2018.
Ms. Blakely frequently speaks at colleges and universities, law schools, law firms and law organizations, and she has been featured in media including Corporate Counsel Magazine, the ABA Journal, the LA Daily Journal, National Jurist, Washington Examiner Newspaper, Forbes Woman, Women Lawyers Journal (NAWL), DC Spotlight, Lawyerist.com, Daily Muse, Lawyer and Statesman, Law.com, Georgetown Law Magazine, Legal Toolkit Podcast, and Huffington Post Business. Ms. Blakely also is a frequent guest speaker and panelist at conferences on women's issues in business and the law profession, and she has been a featured speaker at the US Department of Justice, Civil Division. She is the recipient of the Ms. JD 2015 "Sharing Her Passion Award" and the Lawyer Monthly “Women in Law Award 2016” for her work on behalf of women in the law.
Ms. Blakely graduated from the University of Wisconsin with distinction and from Georgetown University Law Center where she was a teaching fellow. She is a member of the CoachSource global network of leadership coaches and is certified as a career coach for the Indiana University Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Development and Executive Coaching Academy. For more information, please visit www.bestfriendsatthebar.com.