By Emily Morrow
Karen “Toast“ Conger (toastchanges.com), is an Auckland-based consultant and futurist specialising in individual and organisational change. Recently she said “The COVID-19 pandemic represents only the first of many existential challenges humanity may face in the near term. The known unknowns are so significant that they make typical ‘future proofing’ (that is, preparing now for what we think might happen in the future), virtually worthless. Instead, individuals and organisations need to develop ‘change resiliency’, the primary characteristics of which are self-awareness, flexibility, persistence and creativity.”
With this in mind, I recently interviewed lawyers in a cross-section of New Zealand law firms about their COVID-19 lockdown experiences. I asked the interviewees:
- How was your firm’s experience during lockdown? What worked well and not so well?
- What lessons did your firm learn from the experience that it is likely to integrate strategically into its operations?
Here’s what they told me, put in the context of Toast’s comments about developing “change resiliency” during a time of exponential change. Their answers give some clues about what lawyers and law firms may need to do to move beyond future-proofing to change resiliency.
Reflections about the Lockdown experience
Interviewees mentioned the following common themes about their lockdown experiences and what served them well:
Technology was key (both hardware and software), although printers proved to be less essential than scanners. Many used mobile phone scanning apps. Several firms found that their server capacity was the limiting factor in working remotely, requiring last-minute, stressful IT expert assistance.
Firms that had previously invested considerable financial and other resources to enhance IT and technology really benefited from doing so. As one GM said, “There were no downsides to this.”
Almost all of the firms received wage subsidy benefits. Some partners voluntarily reduced their earnings and a few firms cut everyone’s pay by approximately 20%. However, none of the firms made anyone redundant.
Generally it was easier for partners and seniors to work remotely than for juniors who needed more mentoring and supervision – which was difficult to provide remotely.
The firms all moved rapidly from their offices to working remotely, but some had to scramble more than others. Those firms in which everyone already had identical technology beforehand transitioned more smoothly.
All interviewees reported that revenue decreased in April and May but was beginning to increase during Level 2.
Everyone stated that, assuming there was work to do, employees were very productive and were, in fact often more productive than they had been in the office. This occurred despite a lack of daily oversight and supervision.
Some lawyers struggled to maintain a sustainable work/life balance because there was no bright line between work and home and their tendency to work compulsively.
All firms adopted a paperless or paper lite work style, had regularly scheduled remote social gatherings, and used Zoom as a communication platform. These approaches worked quite well. Work moved easily in a low paper environment and employees felt relatively engaged with each other and the firm, although this was beginning to wear thin by the end of Level 3.
Some firms had very productive business development ‘listening sessions’ with clients and other key constituents on a non-billable basis. These lawyers finally had the time to listen to their clients, who greatly appreciated the attention.
After returning to the office, most firms are actively soliciting employee input about remote work style preferences. Some firms are taking a very flexible approach, whereas others are utilising a more structured and scheduled approach.
Some firms are considering reducing the footprint of their office space, expecting that they will need less space if employees are regularly working remotely. However, they are taking a wait-and-see approach on this.
The key Lockdown lessons: From future-proofing to change resiliency
If the primary characteristics of change-resilient people and organisations are self-awareness, flexibility, persistence and creativity in the face of the known unknowns, what should lawyers and law firms learn from the COVID-19 experience? Here are some suggestions from the interviewees with whom I spoke.
Technology and IT really matter: However, you have to invest intelligently in them before you need them. Firms that had previously equipped/encouraged their employees to work remotely and had strong IT support (either internal or external), did better financially, psychologically, culturally and otherwise. To achieve optimal remote work/life balance and collegiality, a firm will need excellent technological interfaces.
Presenteeism in the office is on the way out: It’s the connection, not the visibility and physical presence in the office that will most correlate with professional success. The historical anxiety of needing to be physically present in the office for long hours (to demonstrate one’s commitment to the law) never made sense and it makes even less sense now. Lawyers can be highly effective and productive working remotely without reducing their professional advancement opportunities. In fact, there could be an inverse correlation between long hours in the office and professional advancement.
Trusting people to do great work with less supervision works better than micromanagement: This reflects a significant attitudinal change and realisation that people often actually work harder when they work remotely (and unsupervised), than when they are in the office being actively supervised.
Going paperless or paper lite is essential and not just a good idea to implement when it might be convenient: As one interviewee said, “It’s amazing how quickly impediments to change disappear when you’re standing at the edge of a cliff with a knife at your back.”
Communication is more important than ever in a remote work environment and is culture dependent: Ultimately, the ability to have excellent communication is dependant on a firm’s culture. Firms with high trust, high communication cultures will do much better than those with high anxiety, low trust cultures. Culture matters, like IT and technology, more than ever in a remote environment.
Soft skills matter, particularly in terms of communication and being able to hold each other accountable: Coaching and mentoring around such skills are helpful and will become more important in an environment where some employees are regularly working remotely.
Geography is increasingly irrelevant: Firms that are able to expand either a specialist or general practice without geographical limitations will do best. Clients are now more receptive than ever to obtaining high-quality legal services regardless of geography.
Physically gathering in an office on a regular basis is part of developing and maintaining an optimal culture: The kind of culture that will add greatest value is one is based on the characteristics of high resilience organisations and regular physical presence reinforces that.
Firms with the best culture, management and governance will thrive during times of exponential change: Firms with inadequate or outdated governance, management and/or leadership, will struggle to survive.
“Returning to normal” is a myth: As one of the interviewees very accurately stated: “I suspect that the vast majority of law firms expect to return to ‘normal’ after this experience, but I don’t expect that at all. Great leaps backward to how things used to be won’t last very long. There are fundamental changes to be made in terms of being more client and employee centric, flexible and creative”. Another interviewee noted “Many lawyers who have spent their professional careers feeling that they were not adequately present for their families can now see a way to manage work/life balance and rethink that for better mental and physical well-being”. There’s no going back now and closing Pandora’s box.
Firms that combine optimal IT and technology, a high trust culture and excellent soft skills/communication will achieve change resilience. You can’t have one without the others. Technology/IT and culture/soft skills are on opposite ends of the same spectrum. The most successful firms will be the ones that weave the entire spectrum together into an enduring whole.
Emily Morrow provides consulting services for lawyers, barristers, in-house counsel, law firms and barristers’ chambers, with a focus on non-technical skills that correlate with professional success www.emilymorrow.com.
Karen "Toast" Conger