Thoroughly Examining Lessons from the Coronavirus Crisis Operating Model

This is my fifth post about law firms in the Coronavirus Crisis.

In an earlier post, I suggested law firms pursue three ideas to navigate this crisis: Lead, Manage, and Learn.  This week I address the third idea.

There is a lot to learn

Two months into the crisis, most law firm leaders are well into the process of anticipating what the future holds, and getting ready for it.  Of course, no one actually knows what lies ahead, but we have increasing clues, and a growing understanding that the future will be different: a “new normal.” 

I have spoken directly to a large number of law firm leaders in the last few weeks about the impact of the crisis on their firms, and how they are managing and leading through it.  I am encouraged by how thoughtful they are being about the entire range of issues, including, specifically, the health and well-being of their people.  

Most law firm leaders are confident that demand will eventually return to robust levels. I think they are right.  The challenge will be staking out a strategy to continue to win at least as great a share of that demand as the firm did before the crisis.

Most law firm leaders also realize that the new normal will be even more competitive than before.  As they rebound from the financial impact of the crisis, clients will be more exacting in their standards, expecting greater value for each dollar they spend on legal services.  And the competitors, including ALSP’s and in-house solutions, as well as other law firms, will provide clients worthy alternatives to consider.   

I believe the most important change in the new normal will be in the way the law firms will operate and do their work. 

Two months ago law firms were suddenly forced radically to change their working model.  As one leader said, “it was as if someone had pulled the fire alarm and everyone left the building.”  By and large, remote working–and the changes firms made to accommodate it–have worked better than might have been expected.  

Lessons learned from operating in these unexpected ways have the capacity to shape an improved new normal.  Accordingly, it is imperative that law firms take stock.  How did it go?  What can we learn?  How can we apply what we learn to make our own new normal the best that it can be?  Firms should approach the process with the same intensity they would apply to studying what they need to know for a client matter.

Here are three questions law firms should thoroughly examine:

How Did Your People Perform and Feel?

The behaviors, perspectives, and ideas of your people, as they experience changed working models, make up one of your most valuable resources for learning from the crisis.  Take stock of how they are doing, what they are thinking, and, very importantly, how they are feeling.

Observe.  Pay attention to how they are working.  Are they productive, achieving plans and timetables, collaborating with colleagues, meeting deadlines, and otherwise performing in the way the firm needs them to do?  Are they exceeding expectations in some ways?  Disappointing in others?  And how do the elements of the changed model appear to be influencing performance?

My sense is that  people are performing at or above expectation.  They are exhibiting a will to get their jobs done,  communication technology is working well, and, if anything, they are connecting with each other better than they did in the traditional setting.  

Listen.  Listen to the perceptions and attitudes of our people about their experience.  It will come up naturally in conversation, but you should ask them directly as well.  They are living this new reality day by day.  They experience the frustrations and the successes.  They can compare real time how much easier or harder it is to do something.  How their efficiency is impacted.   Ask them.  Listen.  

While you are at it,  ask for their opinions for making things work better.  Not only getting through the crisis, but for the long term.  From their perspective on the playing field, they will have ideas that aren’t visible to those observing from a distance.

Gauge Personal Reactions.  As vital as anything is probing their satisfaction with working in the new environment.  Are they happier working from home?  How have the changes affected how rewarded they feel about their roles?

My sense is that, while  people miss social interaction, and are challenged by the sudden need to manage/balance kids and other realities of home life with work, many, if not most,  prefer the flexibility and lack of commute that WFH affords.  Ask them.  Listen.

What Do You Really Miss?

Many traditional ways of doing things are not  possible during the crisis.  Now is the time to assess which of those traditional practices you really want to continue when the crisis subsides.  

The most obvious issue is facilities.  Do you really want to continue with a model in which you rent thousands of square feet of very expensive space to house personnel who could do their work remotely?  Before turning to designing your firm’s new normal, take stock of the extent to which you need your people to be in the office: Who? When? How regularly?

What about firmwide in-person meetings?  For example, most firms bring all partners together at least annually.  That was simple when firms had one office, but as firms expanded it became more difficult and way more expensive.  It would have been unthinkable to stop having firmwide in-person partner meetings before the crisis.  But now that firms have done without one in 2020, is it really worth the time and expense?  What are the objectives for such a meeting?  Is there a better way to address them? 

There are countless other, less sensitive, expensive, time-consuming meetings that have become routine.  Firms should take stock of which ones are warranted, and if there isn’t a better way.

These examples are the tip of the iceberg.  As you examine all the traditional methods that were put on hold during the crisis,  which do you really miss?  Which can be done better another way or simply done without?

What New Processes Worked as Well or Better During the Crisis?

The second question naturally leads to the third: which of the crisis-driven, interim approaches worked better than the traditional model?  

The starting place here, of course, is the fact that remote working has proceeded very well for most firms.  All concerned adapted virtually overnight.  Most functions performed at least as well as ever in the new environment.

In some cases it appears to have worked better: examples of greater productivity, more collaboration, more effective leadership and oversight of projects, more efficient time recording and billing, and others, abound.  

Each firm should do its own assessment.  What worked better?  And why?  We know that modern tools permit legal service to be delivered better, faster, and more cost effectively than traditional methods.  Operating in the Pandemic Crisis mode has demonstrated that in granular ways.  Pinning down the specifics of those examples will be invaluable in designing a new normal..  

Learning Is not a Passive Process

There is so much to learn from this historic experience.  Before it happened we knew that nearly every dimension of legal service could be accomplished in a better way.  Between inadequate incentives, resistance to change, and the security of the “tried and true,” progress has been painfully slow.

Tragic as the Coronavirus Crisis has been, it has pushed law firms out of their old comfort zone. Necessity has a new child.  Let’s learn from her.