On April 21, 2020 while I was putting the finishing touches on this post, the AmLaw 100 was released. As always upon release there was lots of analysis, conjecture and even some predictions about the future of the legal industry post pandemic. This post as you will read is not a prediction about the economic viability of firms, nor about the business models that will survive, but more about the cultural and human changes that are coming out of current moment and the good that I hope we can sustain.
“ You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the Facts of Life”
I’ve had the theme song to Facts of Life (one of my all-time favourite shows for dozens of reasons) running through my head for the last few weeks. Nothing has prepared any of us for what the last several weeks has brought into our lives. Like many I am scanning the TV/Newswires/Twitter stream for update real and fake news, and I have text streams and real-life conversations with various friends/colleagues all about what is changing in our daily lives – as parents, as professionals and as people. We check in with one another to see how everyone is coping with the work-from-home with our kids/partners/pets and trying to keep our heads above water as we juggle it all. As we each deal with this crisis in our own ways, the legal industry, which is not known for being quick, adaptable or accepting of change is dealing with a whole bunch of challenges too. For many firms the challenges were as basic as getting enough laptops for the whole firm – lawyers, paraprofessionals, assistants, business development practitioners, HR and so on to work from home. For other firms the stress came and is still coming as States individually declare what is, and what is not “essential” and whether law firms can stay open for business. For all firms the challenges are around keeping their people healthy and safe while still being able to access shared resources – documents, research, case files etc. The challenges are many. I have only touched on a few here to illustrate how quickly an entire industry had to literally change the way it worked. Face time (not the Apple application) was (is?) still so much at the core of the legal business and the physical offices were a point of pride for many firms. It makes my head spin to think of all the people who have been putting long hours into moving firms to a work from home model in an industry that until now rejected the notion of remote working. I don’t want to talk about the complexity, the cost and the overwhelming nature of the challenges. I would rather spend some time musing on what has changed for the positive in this very short period and how we can turn our collective energy to making those changes everlasting.
I want to applaud about how far the industry has come in such a short time. “Necessity is the mother of invention” said Plato, but in the case of Covid-19 and the legal industry, necessity is the mother of mindset and workflow change. Here are four shifts I have seen in the legal industry that I hope are not just shifts but will become Business As Usual (BAU) whenever we emerge from this period.
- Health, safety, and mental well-being are top of mind for everyone, maybe for the first time as a collective. Even before State/Provincial and city “Rest in Place” orders were made, firms and legal service providers were making sure their people were safe, not coming into the office unnecessarily and making preparations. Now that most people are at home – with all kinds of mitigating circumstances, I see many of those same firms, departments and companies instituting virtual happy hours or coffee breaks to make sure that people are connected, not just with technology but also socially. We are concerned about engagement on a whole new level. We worry that people are getting what they need to work from home but also eat, stay healthy and active and that people are not feeling too anxious. As Neil Sternthal noted in his interview with Greg Lambert on In Seclusion, keeping warmth and connectivity vibrant is critical and this is a leadership moment. Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, the industry was all abuzz about the need for mental wellness, diversity and inclusion in the legal industry. The numbers and facts were stacked against the industry in all aspects. We were over-worked, over-stressed and overly homogeneous. Today, if the virus has brought anything to light, it is that we are all the same – the virus does not care who it infects in what corners of the world, the size of their office or their role in the world or the industry. Mental health affects each and every one of us, we know our chosen industry is not an easy one, from the challenges of access to justice to the stress of Big Law hours and client pressures. We all need to work in environments that are free from any kind of discrimination, we need cultures that are inclusive, and workplaces that are flexible and nurture a healthy frame of mind. Not just now when we are working still for client service of Big Law or access to justice under unprecedented circumstances – but always. Let’s hope that this moment has provided the catalyst for taking a pause and really paying attention to mental wellness in the legal industry and that much of the new found camaraderie and community rallying for wellness and flexibility continues well beyond a return to BAU and becomes the new norm.
- Agile and Quick(er) Decision Making – We’ve often heard that laws firms are slow to change. But within 6 weeks, law firms no longer look like they did two months ago. Who knew a law firm could take quick and decisive action? I’ve always believed it was possible, we would see glimmers of it here and there but nowhere as consistently as we have in the past month. We have seen many different reactions from firms, as each firm culture and client needs are unique, but most firms have acted quickly in the context of this pandemic and demonstrated that they can make quick decisions and act on those decisions too. This is good. Necessity is the mother of invention and decision; and while not all decisions need to be made quickly, I think it says a lot about the way firms will make big decisions in the future as well now that there is a precedent in place, it is easy to refer back and act the same way a second and third time until habits change. Firms have learned to be agile, to make decisions in the moment for the moment with an eye on the long term post Covid-19 recovery, but they are being responsive now, today to their clients, their partners and their staff. That’s a huge win for everyone. [For an insightful look at what recovery may look like and how decisions may be made, check out Law Vision’s Covid-19 Recovery Playbook.]
- FaceTime is what you really need. Or MSTeams, or WhatsApp, Zoom, iMessage, Skype, whatever software you are using to communicate and work remotely today should be the primary communications tool of offices in the future. Law firms and buyers of legal services are all in this together right now. We are all working remotely and it’s ok. Work had changed, but work is still getting done. There are two trends I hope remain once we are back to business as usual in this context. Remote work that allows people to balance work and life (see diversity and inclusion comments above) is the way of the future. Work anywhere, is still work; we are still productive but the measurement and KPI has flipped from time to output. I hope the industry learns to move beyond in the office face time and the long-term adoption of online collaboration tools continues beyond the pandemic. Problem solving is about getting to the right answers effectively, quickly, considering all perspectives and data inputs and problem solving is about the value of the results, not the time it took to get there. Maybe we can finally stop equating face time with productivity. To achieve this level of productivity, we need to embrace not just in talk but also in walk -the digital transformation – in the biggest, greatest possible way. This situation we find ourselves in, where people need to collaborate, work online and practice from anywhere (with all kinds of easy distractions) really highlights the need to reduce paper. I am a writer, and still take notes all day everyday. In an AriKaplan #virtuallunch I recently attended someone commented that we should think of paper as a scratch pad, where we formulate ideas and scope out plans but the real work has to happen digitally. I like that and while print publications, like paper will not go away, now more than ever we need to make content available in all formats so people can consume where they are rather than having to go to the content. Mobility, digital transformation and online collaboration necessitate the vision of a central repository for all software, easily accessible on any device – the interoperable Utopian ideal of end to end workflows for the legal industry is coming closer to fruition every day.
- Vulnerability. The practice of law is predicated on facts, on rules, on anticipated outcomes and mitigating risk. All of which has been replaced today by uncertainty and lack of clarity. No one has all the answers, and there is no precedent to study, no past cases to refer to and no previous outcomes to uphold. If we were to anthropomorphize the legal industry it would be a strong A-type character, bold and aggressive, properly sophisticated and highly valuing success with a formidable aesthetic. All of which could no doubt explain the stress and difficulty around mental well-being in the industry which I already discussed. Now, in the midst of this pandemic the legal industry is like every other industry. For the first time in my 20 years in the field, we can’t say legal is impacted differently. The challenges are the same – get people home and keep them safe while still maintaining client service as a productive business. The legal industry is vulnerable and that’s an image, a self-perception, a definition the industry has not donned before. But vulnerability is not a bad thing. In fact, vulnerability can be the birthplace of something new and fantastic. Vulnerability is defined as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” Dr. Brené Brown, renown for her work on the topic including several books and viral status Ted Talks says that “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.” These are all the things the legal industry needs to embrace, to grow and to continue to use as strengths when it emerges into a new business as usual.
Somehow we will all get through this and the legal industry will be in a better place (eventually). Of this I have faith, I have already started to see the changes in just a few short weeks. I know it will take hard work, determination, change, grit, more hard work and vulnerability. But in the end those are just the Facts Of Life.