Lessons from lockdown
by Helen Hamilton-Shaw, Member Engagement & Strategy Director, LawNet
Originally published in Modern Law, October 2020
Fast-paced change demands resilience and adaptability from law firms
There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media which says, “So in retrospect, in 2015, not a single person got the answer right to the question "Where do you see yourself 5 years from now?"
This year has been a stark reminder that none of us has a crystal ball and that adaptability, resilience and being comfortable with change are skills we all need.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic the world was an unpredictable and uncertain place. Speakers at the LawNet conference for years have been warning of the challenges of operating in a VUCA world – an acronym drawn from the army to highlight situations which are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. So, we were all aware of the importance of developing critical skills to be ready to face any challenge that might arise. Yet the scale of the unfolding coronavirus crisis and ensuing pace of change was something none of us was really prepared for. There was no Harvard Business Review playbook on the best way to respond to a global pandemic. We were plunged into a crisis management situation like none before, and we all had to adapt at speed.
One of the first things we did at LawNet was to instigate regular online discussion sessions for the leaders of our 70-strong network of mid-sized law firms. These calls gave members much needed peer support and the time and space to discuss the challenges they were facing and to sound out solutions. With several guest attendees drawn from the bank of law firm advisors and consultants we work with; the ensuing sessions provided high-level learning and strategic direction for our network.
Over the last few months these calls have provided an insight into how law firms are adapting to the change that’s going on and some real learning that will stay with us long after this crisis is over.
Change can be fast
It seems to be a commonly held view that change is always difficult and slow, but what we saw from our members was that when the circumstances demand, change can be very fast indeed. This can bring challenges in itself.
One of the first things we saw across our member firms was increasing adoption of technology, as previous barriers to change melted away. From an early stage, firms were reporting that the crisis had accelerated change programmes, often with an IT focus, and many managing partners and IT directors delivered their five-year strategic plans in a fortnight. Suddenly agile working, paperless projects and video conferencing became ‘how’, instead of ‘not yet’. We’ve also seen increasing take up of our partnerships with leading edge tech-based service solutions such as Perfect Portal, Link App, Settify and Legl by member firms keen to improve efficiency, communication tools and client service.
But ticking the box for change is only the beginning, as leaders and staff must be on board and feeling confident if they are to successfully navigate the new way of doing things. Research from the fields of neuroscience and human psychology support business management thinking about the importance of personal and organisational mindsets in coping with change. Dr Brian Marien is an expert in this area and has presented at the annual LawNet conference in recent years, where we bring members together with world-leading experts and thought leaders.
Marien describes how a trait known as “tolerance of ambiguity” (TA), is an indicator for how well people cope with change and uncertainty. TA is largely determined by our perception of events. If we view change as something threatening, our response may be to become anxious or freeze up; negatively impacting our ability to respond. Alternatively, if we see change as something positive and an opportunity for growth and development, we will be better able to respond quickly and adapt to our changing circumstances. Research has shown that organisations with high TA leaders perform better financially than those with low TA leaders and it is important that managers help staff at all levels to respond in a positive way to the change.
Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their people as they grappled with seemingly never-ending uncertainty and change was a key focus for the leaders in our firms and will remain so long after this crisis is over.
Flexibility is key
Uptake in technology adoption wasn’t the only change being felt across the profession. We observed a wider cultural change taking place too. Whilst agile working and flexibility have been talked about for years, for the most part take-up across the profession had been minimal. Yet suddenly virtually everyone was working from home overnight. This required a complete shift in thinking, and we saw trust levels between leaders and employees improve as productivity levels held up. Leaders on our calls reported that even those with more traditional views in their firms were talking positively about the benefits of flexibility.
A recent report from academics at Cardiff and Southampton Universities suggests that this trend may be here to stay. The dramatic increase in homeworking triggered by lockdown saw nearly 43% of employees working from home at its peak. Subsequently their research found that almost 90% of those employees would like to continue working from home in some capacity in the future, with almost half expressing a desire to work at home often or all of the time. This research chimes with the comments shared across our network. The great working from home experiment has proved more successful than many thought it would and there is much more openness from firms to building flexibility into working patterns going forward.
Many of the expert commentators who joined our calls were clear that firms who don’t offer flexibility in the future run the risk of being left behind. It’s important to remember flexibility can be about space as well as time. So, it’s not just about offering a choice about where people want to work but also when. The traditional 9-5 model may not suit everyone and being more flexible can open doors to new recruits as well as enabling firms to broaden the service they offer to clients.
Communication and the importance of being human
Great communication has always been high up on the list of attributes for successful leaders and this was never truer than during the last few months. Our leaders were focused on maintaining a sense of being “one firm” despite the challenges of teams working remotely and furloughing, as well as ensuring supervision, training and risk management processes remained effective. The adoption of new technologies played a part in enabling this but at its essence communication is about making a human connection.
As the lines between home and work blurred, we uncovered more insights about people’s individual circumstances and family lives. Our people were juggling multifaceted pressures of work, finance, health, family, childcare and home schooling and that required a deeper level of support and understanding. For firms committed to building loyalty and deep engagement it was an opportunity to cement those relationships.
In client relationships too, the human touch rose in importance. Many of our firms went back to basics, launching client contact programmes that saw fee earners calling all clients and referrers to check in and make sure everyone was ok. Showing the human side of business and building authentic relationships, founded on trust and altruism, was at the heart of that approach.
It was widely reported that brands that people will remember positively after this is all over will be those that stepped up and supported their people, key workers and local communities. But any such activities must be authentic and not empty gestures.
Be future focused
Leadership experts have long counselled the importance of building change-ready organisations capable of continually evolving and adapting. Strategic change is a never-ending cycle of reflection, evolution and development. This was a key topic for many of our group discussions with our leaders thinking beyond the current situation and focused on embedding the learning and changes that would be relevant for the next five years rather than just the next five months.
We saw change right across the network with firms fine-tuning all aspects of their operations from focused cash collection processes to centralised file opening and closing, call handling and other working practices. Marginal gains in numerous areas were impacting productivity with positive results.
More strategic issues such as the future of the office, changing client needs and ongoing technology developments were the source of lengthy debate. But the prime challenge in all these discussions was how to make sure the changes made were long lasting. There was a fear expressed by many of our leaders that it would be all too easy for people to go back to old ways of working and habits once they return to their offices, and how that would be a wasted opportunity. Harnessing that impetus for continued development and embedding it in the culture of our firms, has the potential to drive future success.
Social philosopher Eric Hoffer once observed “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”.
No one could have predicted what 2020 would bring and many may now be focused on contingency planning and trying to anticipate what seismic change may affect them in future. But rather than looking for a crystal ball, a more useful lesson to take away is the importance of continually changing, learning and adapting. Adaptability builds resilience, and these are key attributes we need to future-proof our organisations.
 Marien, Dr B. The Imitation Game (2017) The HR Director, November 2017, Pure Strategic Media Ltd, Cromhall, Glos, Pages 48-49
 Auster, E; Wylie, K and Valente, M. Strategic Organizational Change: Building Change Capabilities in Your Organization (2005) Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire