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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

What about your associates and staff?

Most of us have been working from home for five weeks now. While some EU countries contemplate to take the first cautious steps out of corona-virus lock-down, most of us will still be confined to working from home for weeks to come. As the lock-downs started law firms spent most of their energy in making the transition from working at the office to working from home. From an IT perspective this fundamental change has mostly been an incredible success. You might want to officially thank your IT team for that.

In the second and third week, we adapted to working from home and spirits were still high. The now ubiquitous video calls were kind of fun and often offered a sneaky insight in your teammates' and colleagues' private lives. We could see how their interior looks, their pets and sometimes witnessed their family lives. Some teams have organized virtual after-work drinks. Many were still convinced that all this would not last long and that we would all be back to the office pretty soon.

From week four onward, that attitude has started to change. Over Easter, the Financial Times reported that “lawyers’ mental health is taking a hit as a result of the corona-virus pandemic, with studies finding partners and associates feeling stressed and isolated.”

Sadly, to most partners this has gone largely unnoticed. Feeling stressed or depressed is hardly the thing you would share as a young lawyer/partner during the regular team calls with your partner. The legal world is still a ‘macho’ world with little or no room for the ‘weak’.

The big social experiment of forced working from home in isolation, could go terribly wrong for some.

How much do you actually know about your associates and staff?

Under normal conditions we all live our two separate lives: we each have a professional life and a private life. Typically, the two are almost entirely separated and we know very little about the private situation of most of our colleagues. As this holds largely true on the immediate team level, it certainly holds true on the firm level. Under normal conditions, this is how things are supposed to be and it works just fine. When today, due to permanently working from home, the two have merged, it may become an issue.

On the most basic level, law firm leadership and the partners should be aware of who the associates/staff are that have young children. These colleagues will now be forced to spend time on home schooling and providing some distraction for their kids. As a manager you have to take this into account, and it could be unreasonable to still expect the same level of availability and output. So, question number one is: do you know exactly (on a firm level) who has young children to attend to (or an elderly relative with fragile health for that matter)?

Second thing you might want to know is whether or not both parents are working from home, as this might lead to having them to share resources. Can both do a video call at the same time?

Maybe, as a law firm, you might like to know what is the occupation of your associate’s or staff-member’s life partner? Working from home it might be difficult to keep telephone conversations, video calls or computer screens entirely private and confidential.

Other members of the same household could overhear conversations or see documents on screen. All this would under normal conditions be an absolute no-go. Why would law firms be more lax now?

I am by no means suggestion a surveillance state where big brother in the form of firm is watching all the time. I am just suggesting that there are good arguments for leadership and partners to have more situational awareness regarding associates and staff.

MP must communicate with your associates and staff!

Two weeks ago, when we were in the third week of the crisis, We published an article on ‘partners panicking’. Today we are two more weeks down the line and many law firm leaders have set-up structured and data supported communication with the partner group. Having fact- based briefings on cash-flow, current production and projected production, will give the partners a feeling of a certain amount of control. Communication between the leadership and the partners is now reasonably up and running.

But the flow of information is not equally distributed within the firm. Many associates and staff are totally in the dark on how their firm (employer) is really doing an what the future might look like?

For assistants and secretaries, working from home has turned out to be a problem from day one and many are sitting almost idle. Some firms have already furloughed some of their assistants. No wonder assistants (and catering, receptionists, cleaners, mailroom, library, etc.) are worrying if they will still have a job tomorrow. Staff that is able to work from home such as finance, HR, BD and marketing, may worry slightly less about their job, but may worry about the future of the firm.

Also associates have reasons to be worried. They have always had billable hour targets that they are expected to meet. Do they still have to meet these targets while working from home? We see associates are working less efficient and taking more time for the same task than under normal office work conditions. This could be because they are more often disturbed or distracted while working from home. It could also be spreading the work thin in order to avoid being the first in the team having to admit that maybe there is not enough work. What if their practice group or the partner they work for sees a downturn in work? Will some associates get fired? Associates are afraid and uncertain about their future. Legal headhunters report a significant decline in spontaneous candidates. Like rabbits caught in the lights, when struck with fear lawyers do not move.

In times of crisis it is more important than ever that law firm leadership communicates openly and frequently with everyone in the firm and not only with the partner group.

Do not use a ‘cascade’ communications strategy in today’s situation, where the leadership communicates with the partner and the partners are expected to communicate with their team. Partners are not known for being great communicators and you will end up with as many messages as there are partners. In times of crisis we all like our country’s leaders to be visible and communicate. It is no different at law firms: managing partners should be visible (and audible) and communicate once a week with the whole firm. Communication should be unambiguous and concise. Do not use formal language, show empathy and be honest. Handled right, this crisis a great opportunity to create strong bonds and lasting loyalty. Handled wrong…

We are here to help

TGO Consulting is there to help you navigate the crisis. We are currently writing a book on this topic that will be finished by end April. This book will be made available for free to all our clients. We will also continue to publish weekly articles on topics that are most relevant to you right now.

Our experience with law firms in China gives us a two-month head start in knowing what best to do. There will however remain many important unknowns and things can change really fast. This is where our unparalleled creativity has proven to be extremely valuable. We have a proven track-record to find effective solutions faster and better than anyone else. In the meantime, our TGO Consulting Research Team keeps to monitor the state of the economy literally 24/7 to ensure that our approach always remains fact-based.

Please do not hesitate to contact us to find out how we could help your firm navigate these challenging times.


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