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Look Forward, Not Backwards, for Solutions to Associate Development and Career Advancement

Kathleen Brady, PCC

Preferred Transition Resources

Conversations around what law firm life will look like post-pandemic are beginning to take root. Currently, the focus is on how to reconfigure physical office space to satisfy health and safety protocols and evolving business needs. There are debates regarding whether it is necessary, or premature, to reduce physical footprints. Clearly, these tangible elements are important business considerations, yet, notably, discussions and debate around how to tend to the personal and emotional needs of the workforce responsible for delivering the business remain sparse.

Understanding employee’s needs first will enable organizations to better navigate newfound challenges and inform physical plant requirements. This moment in time provides a perfect opportunity to reimagine how to deliver high-quality legal services in a way that effectively serves clients while at the same time tends to the needs and preferences of attorneys and staff.

It is often said that a crisis can bring out the best in people, or the worst. Generally speaking, big law has managed the impact of the pandemic well. Last year, in the blink of an eye, firms seamlessly recalibrated every aspect of their business practices. With warp speed and laser-like precision, law firms moved their entire physical operations to virtual platforms with minimal disruptions to client services. Law firm leadership and business team professionals adjusted policies and processes to provide their workforces with the tools necessary to do their jobs effectively as well as to support their emotional well-being throughout the crisis.

Covid-19 has served as a great neutralizer for the legal industry. Suddenly, and without fanfare, the walls commonly found in law firms that denote hierarchy began to crumble with the realization that this virus touched partners and associates, legal personnel and business services alike. Through this shared experience, the need to posture status and importance gave way to our exposed vulnerabilities as people at every level of the organization struggled to cope with their new reality. We gained insight into each other’s personal lives as we caught glimpses of our colleagues and supervisors’ homes and met children and pets who wandered into meetings. We got to witness our shared humanity through our collective vulnerability. Communication improved, and compassion was displayed in ways we haven’t seen before in an industry infamous for demanding self-sacrifice in the name of client service.

It is difficult to know what the long term emotional and economic impact of the pandemic of 2020-21 will be, but one thing is certain: life is forever changed. Still, cries for the return to normalcy ring out throughout the legal industry. In a world where precedent is king, the urge to look at what has happened before is the industry’s natural default, yet that mindset is not likely to serve it well in 2021 and beyond. It is hard to make a case in favor of returning to a pre-pandemic norm that bemoaned industry-wide burnout and higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide than other professions. Perhaps the burden of proof should fall on those who want to return to old ways of doing things in this new world instead of on those who propose to seize the moment and proceed differently.

The pandemic has provided the industry with the opportunity to reinvent itself and consider what the new normal could look like. Undoubtedly, it is a complicated endeavor. How can firms be expected to design firmwide policies when different regions are recovering from Covid at different rates? How can they ensure health and safety when some people drive to work while others are forced to take public transportation? How do they design policies to accommodate people with at-risk conditions or vulnerable family members?

The viability of remote work is at the heart of the issue. More than half of all lawyers, including partners, want the option to work remotely. Historically, firms argued that productivity would be hampered by remote work; that proved not to be the case. There is general agreement that people relish the ability to wear sweatpants and slippers while negotiating multimillion-dollar deals. Many argue that it has been fairly easy to manage workflows and teams and easy enough to maintain relationships via Zoom rather than spending hours in airports to fly across the country for a 2-hour meeting. Research shows people added 3 hours of free time to their day by eliminating long commutes; and they feel liberated. The newfound time has afforded an opportunity for additional family time or personal wellness activities.

Still, it hasn’t been easy for everyone. People in small living spaces with multiple family members needing workspace and bandwidth are stressed out. Parents have it particularly hard as they are trying to meet work demands while home schooling their kids. Others who live alone feel isolated and depressed. Perhaps the most troubling are those who feel like working from home has morphed into living at work. Many can’t wait to get back to the office and look forward to the natural boundaries that commuting set between work and home.

In response to such divergent opinions, most firms are looking at hybrid remote systems. The concern is how to maintain the best of face-to-face contact with the convenience of working from home in a way that does not adversely impact mentoring and career advancement. Will those who choose to work remotely be seen as less dedicated? Only if we continue to label them as such and return to the now defunct mindset that face time is critical to advancement.

Institutions must be prepared to re-examine how they interact with each other and perform tasks in order to design workable solutions for the future. Everyone has a role to play. Firms should consider setting up task forces and establishing processes to keep a pulse on what people need to be productive, and people should feel obliged to be candid and truthful about vocalizing what they need. The key is to create safe spaces for uncomfortable conversations. Keep in mind that you cannot simply declare “this is a safe space.” You must ask people what they need to feel safe to share their points of view without fear of damaging their careers or organizational reputations. Every member of the organization’s community must trust that they are working towards the same outcome: the delivery of exceptional client service in a manner that supports the well-being of attorneys and staff.

What can employers do?

First, it is important to clarify which roles can be performed fully remote, hybrid remote and remote as needed. Ask the people in those specific positions to tell you what they need to do their jobs effectively. Be open to the possibility that they may have a workable idea beyond leadership’s vision, but also be prepared to say no if it does not satisfy business priorities. People will usually accept a decision if they feel they’ve been heard and understand the rationale behind your choice.

Next, think about how remote work will impact partners and associates, starting by reconstructing how work is done. Different stages of a deal/matter likely have different requirements. Some can easily be accomplished remotely while others may be better for the team to handle in person. Talk to your partners and associates and ask them what they want/need to be productive. Allow practice groups to explain their technology and physical space needs so that you can redesign the workplace footprint to accommodate human needs. For example, create Zoom Rooms so those working remotely are not at a participation disadvantage like they used to be when they dialed in from other offices.

Similarly, deconstruct how learning, mentoring and professional development are delivered. Understand the desired objectives and outcomes and, with input from the learners, design ways to capture the best of in-person and remote channels. There are no obvious solutions; it will require creativity, a willingness to experiment, and continuous courageous conversations about what is and is not working for all the stakeholders in order to recalibrate as needed.

Likely the biggest challenge will be addressing the underlying assumption partners may continue to hold that those who choose to work from home are less committed and productive than those who opt to come to the office. It is a false narrative easily disputed by monitoring billable hours. Perhaps the best way to address this seismic shift is to offer professional development training for partners to equip them with the skills they need to delegate and manage differently. It will require unlearning some behaviors and introducing new methods that, at the moment, are not intuitive. By showing them how, it is possible to mitigate the visceral response of “we can’t because….”

Finally develop (and honor!) policies to control blurring the boundaries between home and work. You do not have to sacrifice the well-being of your team for client service. It too is a false choice. Taking care of your human capital by allowing employees to log off at a reasonable hour and affording time for family and self-care will ensure a high level of client service. Law firms that encourage individuals to work in a way that allows them to be productive and tend to their personal needs will be the ones that thrive in this brave new world.

Things will never go back to the way they were…and that is a good thing. No one should ever want to go backwards. Recognize that even after opening offices, attitudes and needs will continue to evolve; no one is likely to get it 100% perfect right out of the gate. Yet with continued conversations and an openness to try new ways of doing things, law firms can cultivate positive changes that enable them to retain and train their workforces and remain competitive. Armed with open minds and a little bit of patience, the legal industry is likely to emerge stronger and healthier than ever before.

Kathleen Brady is the Managing Director and Head of Coaching at Preferred Transition Resources and the author of Succession Planning and Retirement Strategies for Law Firms and Lawyers, available from PLI Press. She is also a speaker at PLI’s Succession Planning and Retirement Strategies for Law Firms and Lawyers, available from PLI Programs On Demand.

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Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and official policies of Practising Law Institute.

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