5 ways the best leaders are adapting to our changing environment

As countries around the world continue efforts to restrict the spread of COVID-19 while simultaneously attempting to shoulder the global economy, law firm leaders are faced with unprecedented business continuity challenges. There is no universal ‘playbook’ for how to react in these circumstances, but the best leaders are adapting learnings they have accumulated from previous economic downturns and proactively looking to mitigate the fallout from current events as they unfold.

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Proactive strategies law firm leaders can take now

There are a number of actions to take now that can help a firm survive the coming financial period and, actually, better position itself for eventual economic recovery. Below, I explore five ways I have seen the strongest firm leaders take simple actions that have the most positive impacts on their business. And as former Cravath CMO Deborah Farone put it, now is the time!

 

  1. Successful leaders are keeping teams motivated

Keeping a team focused and motivated is a challenging conundrum for leaders at the best of times. Now with team members working 100% remotely (many for the first time), this becomes even more of a hurdle, especially after the novelty of the new daily routine wears off. Among the approaches by which I have seen successful leaders maintain team motivation, the following stand out:

  • Focusing on existing deliverable work: A number of matters are still ongoing, with agreed timelines and targets for client delivery that need to be met. Keeping your team focused on these helps to maintain some element of ‘business as usual,’ and gives team members tasks and activities around which they can structure their days working from home.
  • Connecting regularly as a team: For those not used to working remotely, it is all too easy to feel isolated, which in turn can lead to a decline in productivity. Having regular short remote team meetings or longer weekly sessions keeps your team connected; they ‘feed’ off each other’s energy. Where possible, video cameras should always be on for those meetings to maximise the connective benefits of the call.

This is how Gina Rubel defines leadership in the time of crisis

2. Enlightened leaders are promoting health & wellbeing

Countless studies over the years in a myriad of different industries and environments have proven the positive productivity benefits of having a happy and healthy team. High performers are usually very good at carving out time to focus on their own health and wellbeing. However, a surprising number of people are not good at making time to look after themselves. Often self-care is the thing they come to at the end of the day when they are too tired to do anything meaningful.

Enlightened leaders expressly call out time in the day for their team to focus on something that will help them personally to improve their mental or physical health. This can range from something as simple as giving team members an hour ‘gym break’ once or twice a week, to a more holistic corporate approach to wellbeing. For example, I recently heard of a firm that set up a non-billable time code for ‘Exercise/Wellbeing,’ with a policy change that supports a target number of hours being spent (and recorded) in this way each week. At Intapp, employees are able to enjoy at-home workouts of their choosing through newly granted, Classpass access.

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Different approaches will be right for different firms, and the answer is not to enforce a fitness regime on everyone. However, it has never been more important to focus on your team’s holistic health than in times like these.

3. Innovative leaders are shifting to smart Business Development

This isn’t to imply that previous BD efforts at your firm have not been particularly intelligent, but they have likely been relatively broad brush in their overall approach. In a world where clients are equally as consumed as you are in trying to establish some level of normality, standard marketing approaches are unlikely to hit their radar (and will probably only serve to annoy if they do).

Most firms should have good muscle memory from the Global Financial Crisis, and will be able to pivot to the practice areas that are more in demand during difficult economic times. Beyond this, the more innovative leaders are empowering teams to forward-think and extrapolate how events may play out over the coming months, who will be most affected (for better or worse), and how the firm may be positioned (or re-positioned) to help.

Challenge team members to think of one or two categories of client/target where the firm may be able to assist in new ways, use technology and data to curate this into an actionable list, and come together as a team to select the most promising options and plan the best approach. Initially this can be an awkward experience, but the more your team is asked to think outside of the box, the more agile they will become.

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4. Smart leaders are getting their house in order

In the coming weeks, the opportunity cost of investing time reviewing internal processes and structures will arguably never have been lower. Pain points and areas of friction that have long been on your list of issues to address should finally find their way towards the top of your to-do lists rather than constantly languishing unattended.

Savvy leaders are using this time as an opportunity to keep their teams motivated, as per point one, above. Engage with your team, get their views on the top two or three things that could be optimised that would bring the most benefit to the firm, and ask them to suggest a practical way forward. Review and determine the best options, then empower your team to action positive change. You will also be making significant strides under point two above (maintaining mental wellbeing) – people tend to be happiest when they are affecting change for the better, especially where they will benefit from it.

5. Empathetic leaders are being creative and fun

As many firms learned during the last downturn, your people (and indeed the rest of the market) will long remember the actions taken and the communication given during challenging times. Short term actions, which may seem to make economic sense in the moment, have often proven to be reputationally and financially damaging for firms in the medium to long term.

The most empathetic leaders ensure that difficult messages are given face-to-face (albeit over a video call currently) with compassion, challenging decisions are explained to the wider business in sufficient detail, and people are kept regularly up to date on developments that affect them.

Whilst being careful to never underplay the severity of the current situation, effective leaders will find creative and fun ways to interact with their teams on a more personal basis. Simple things that I have seen generate swathes of positive feedback (all of which help with points one and two above, as well), include:

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  • Remote ‘happy hours’ where colleagues can share a drink over a video call (cameras on) and catch up socially.
  • Language lessons led by someone in the firm with native skills in languages that are most relevant for where the firm conducts global business.
  • Music sessions, where different musicians across the firm come together remotely to play and others are able to watch.
  • Early morning yoga or spin bike sessions (a well-positioned iPad plus Zoom plus standard spin bike gives Peloton a run for its money) for group exercise.

Recently retired US General Stan McChrystal shared with CNN what he felt were a leaders most important duties in a time like this – number 1 is to communicate.

Again, use the combined brain power of your teams and ask them what they would like to try – you don’t have to (and won’t want to) go with every suggestion, but I would be surprised if there aren’t at least one or two gemstones in there that will help you to preserve the culture of the firm. 

Support your talent now to reap the rewards as we recover

No matter what approach you choose, the fundamental truism that we have seen time and again during such challenging times is that firms who look after their talent come out the other side in the best possible position. If historical records are to be believed, William Shakespeare wrote three of his most celebrated plays during the 1606 closure of business for the theatres in London. What wonders can your talent accomplish with more time than usual to reflect and your full support?

Explore more inspiration and resources for leaders & partners, including our latest COVID-19 law firm research findings.


5 ways the best leaders are adapting to our changing environment


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