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Covid-19 – culture wars for UK and US law firms?

Waiter carrying coffee

How much do you value your people?

The old saying goes that you should dump a partner who is ‘rude to the waiter but nice to you.’ Which begs the question, what message does it send to your employees and clients, your lawyers and your targets if you think it’s okay to treat your business professionals as second-class citizens?

This point arose in relation to business professionals in an interesting exchange this morning on law firms’ Covid-19 plans with Gina Passarella, the editor-in-chief of American Lawyer and Richard W Smith, a leading Australian business development director.

A background on remote working in law firms

Gina’s tweet below prompted our debate:

Gina and her team have done a great job of reporting on firms using or testing their remote working systems over recent days. As have the UK legal industry titles – see this piece from today’s The Lawyer, for example. That level of transparency is essential for our industry.

The UK firms – or those with a major UK element – seem to have good business continuity plans in place, and many of the top 100 firms have tested them over recent days. Some firms have asked people to come in and work on alternate days or weeks. Some have banned intra-office travel and plan to close all offices except on a skeleton staff for a single day or more.

But the question arose as to whether or not US firms were ready to do this from two perspectives: technology and culturally.

Are law firms technologically ready to work remotely?

Technologically, of course, it should be perfectly possible to have all your people work remotely. Prior, one-off incidents have been well handled and I have been part of comms teams at both US and UK teams in times of snow, bomb threats, floods, deaths, activist threats and a whole load more. It wasn’t always easy going, but we learned from each challenge, and our systems improved each time. But consistently, over all those challenges, technology enabled us to keep our people, clients and communities informed and the wheels turning. 

So not having the technology in place to – pretty much – conduct business as usual is at best shortsighted and, at worst, negligent.

And, making it look easy, as ever, is Quinn Emanuel. Their move in 2015 looks prescient in having all its lawyers relocate for a week to work in a location of their choice: (https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/quinn_emanuel_announces_work_from_anywhere_program)

It shows that it’s technologically possible and maybe even that it should be done to foster better teams.

Are law firms culturally ready to work remotely?

Culturally, however, many firms are going to be challenged by Covid-19.

Firms who have long supported agile working seem to be taking many of the challenges in their stride, conducting much of their business as usual. I’ve worked with smaller firms over recent days that simply sent one email asking people not to come into the office nor see clients face to face. They’ve also backed it up with open, social media delivered messages to the same effect. Their leaders owned the issue and communicated about it in a timely fashion. That’s how well-prepared they are. Face to face meetings are rescheduled on Zoom instead, but work gets done. Maybe some BD and coffees get slated for a later date, but in a digital-first age, it’s possible to keep on marketing and developing business online.

But the question that really bugged me in our exchange this morning was whether or not this remote working would apply to “secretaries”.

A cultural point of difference between US and UK firms?

I’ve worked at both UK and US firms and it’s frankly astounding that the idea of “us and them” keeps resurfacing even in 2020. If you’re bothered, then look for the debates on Twitter and LinkedIn on the use of the phrase ‘non-lawyer’.

In my experience of several UK firms, everyone at the firm is part of the team and is treated as an equal in both small and large ways. Not always, not everywhere, but predominantly. Outliers get reminded that we are all professionals.

Certainly, when it comes to something as life-threatening as ‘should the lawyers get to work at home during a pandemic but the secretaries work in the office?’ the answer at a UK firm will, in my experience, be consistent for all the people who work at the firm.

But at US firms? Not so much, in my experience. It’s changing, but maybe Covid-19 is the moment when it changes forever: that business professionals are valued in the US firms as highly as they are in the UK firms.

The Quinn remote working initiative mentioned above related to associates – not business professionals. Would the same move involve business professionals now? That’s for Quinn to say. They have, of course, already closed their NY office last week due to a partner contracting Covid-19.

Adapting your policies in light of Covid-19

If you have a set of stated values, these should be demonstrable in how you approach your comms in relation to your people, your clients and your work today and over the coming weeks.

There are some big questions in play here and it’s worth thinking about them as you finalise your approach:

  • Does our approach demonstrate our culture?
  • How will this resonate with our people?
  • What do clients expect of us? (NB not ‘What do we think clients expect of us?’)
  • What are our clients doing in relation to their people?
  • How will this communication land with our target clients? Are they more likely to get a sense of who we are after reading our approach?
  • How will this land with our potential recruits?

 

After all, nobody wants to date the person who’s rude to the waiter.

Si