Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about the tendency to want to slip back into old pre-COVID ways of life and what some of our barriers to change might be (here and here). In fact, Law.com recently posted an article about “As COVID Fears Ease, Remote Work Is Slowly Losing Popularity,” [subscription may be required], in which they said,
The number of law firm leaders, attorneys and staff who expect to work from home frequently dropped significantly between 2020 and 2021, according to the The 2021 National Legal Sector Benchmark Survey Results published by Cushman & Wakefield in conjunction with ALM Intelligence and Law.com.
Roughly 70% of respondents, which include 336 firm leaders, attorneys and staff from various law firms, said that they expect to regularly work remotely when asked in the second quarter of last year. Asked again earlier this year, just half responded the same way.”
I can hear some of you saying, “okay, so what? Why does it really matter if we go back to our pre-COVID way of working? Wasn’t that working for most of us?”
For one, as the article points out,
The findings align with concerns from many about whether the industry’s affinity for remote work will recede once state and local restrictions are fully lifted, putting at risk the gains made by women and other attorneys and staff who stand to benefit from the flexibility.”
Yes, we know that the pandemic adversely affected women at all levels of work, and the legal industry was no different. But if we adequately supported women and other attorneys and professionals who benefit from flexible working (and we weren’t trying to work from home in a pandemic), imagine how effective and efficient the profession could be?
Remember again that the legal profession overall (with some exceptions) had one of its most successful financial years in 2020…in a pandemic. That being the case, we have to consider that flexibility has some bearing on that outcome. Imagine how that flexibility might impact the bottom line if we didn’t also have the stress and restrictions of a pandemic to go along with it.
The profession continues to discuss a war for talent, and yet, as this article points out (and we all know this is going to be true), “[R]espondents expect associates to be in the office more frequently than partners. The majority of partners are anticipated to come in one to three days a week while associates are expected to come in at least two days, an unsurprising dynamic given the need to train associates in person.” However, associates will likely fall into the category of people who will WANT that greater flexibility and are going to look for firms that will give it to them. How do we balance this out?
The most telling quote from this article is the following:
‘So what’s interesting is the cream rises to the top, the best people and the hardest workers will come in,’ Sharon Meit Abrahams, a legal development consultant who works with Big Law partners and associates, told Law.com earlier this month. ‘The rest of you, who don’t come in, we’ll hold it against you because you aren’t as dedicated.'”
I’m going to point out there that from my perspective, this isn’t an accurate description – it’s not necessarily the best people and hardest workers who show up (and that’s coming from someone who pretty much always shows up, though I’m also very efficient at my job). It’s important to keep in mind that people who are ABLE to show up and be in the office are the ones who will be there. That doesn’t mean that the ones who don’t are less dedicated. They may have reasons that prevent them from being present, which doesn’t speak to their level of dedication – illness, disability, parenthood, taking care of parents or relatives. Given the world that we live in, I think it’s clear to say that we can’t equate a lack of dedication with an inability to be present, which makes it essential that for a profession where it IS possible to allow for flexibility, it’s past time that we do so if we really want to have the most talented individuals in our ranks.
So how do we really make change? How do we push back against the naysayers, and more insidiously, those who don’t come right out against change, but hold these outdated views that it doesn’t work?
Let’s look at some tips from one of my favorite leadership books, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization. I am naturally drawn to any book that helps me to identify ways to better engage my lawyers in the relationships that drive their business, so this was a perfect fit and a smart read. There’s a lot to it, so I’ll encourage you to read the entire book and I won’t dive too deeply into it, but there are two key principles I’d like to touch on for what will help bring about effective change in your firm.
Finding a Noble Cause
One of the things that the authors talk about is the idea of finding a “noble cause.” This is the state that you want to bring about in your organization or firm through your action, and it must be bigger than what any one person can do alone – it’s the “thing” that everyone can get excited and fired up about, so that regardless of how challenging change it, or when inevitable failures or roadblocks come up, you have this uniting cause that pushes you forward.
To get at this idea, you bring your “tribe” together and ask them – what is their highest aspiration for the tribe? And keep asking them “in service of what?” until you drill down to what you’ve identified as your noble cause. There are four questions you dig into along with this:
- What’s working well?
- What’s not working?
- What can we do to make the things that aren’t working work?
- Is there anything else?
This is clearly some uncomfortable work – and this is where the “how to” comes in for the Stockdale Paradox (see also the Stockdale Paradox and its Pandemic Relevance). If we’re serious about taking a look at the “brutal facts of reality,” then we need to dig deep and look at these things for our firms and organizations.
And yes, the idea of “tribes” and “noble causes” might sound a little bit silly to some of you. But consider for a moment the idea that you are building something bigger and stronger than just yourself with your firm. How do you unite with your colleagues in service of a common ideal? If you think that you’re already there, are you sure? Is it at least worth a check in with your partners, associates, and other professionals to ensure that you’re all working towards a common goal that you’re all enthusiastic about? It doesn’t have to be all pom-poms and fireworks when you come into the office in the morning, but how about some quiet satisfaction that you’re in the right place, doing the right things, hand in hand with the right people? I know that’s what I want more of.
Right now, this is a hard thing – we’re all worn down after eighteen months in a pandemic. There are still a lot of unknowns. Many countries or individual cities are still battling outbreaks and new lockdowns. This is NOT easy.
Which is even MORE reason for your firm to come together around a noble cause – we saw firms do this beautifully in the beginning of quarantines. This idea of “we can do this, and we can do this together.” We saw departments pitch in to work hard and support clients who were utterly panicked about their businesses, and lawyers whose practices had slowed way down jump into other areas to help out. We saw IT departments become heroes as their whole firms went virtual almost overnight. We saw managing partners reach out to junior associates and really want to know how they were doing day to day, and all of us got to know each other’s families and home lives a bit better. We were all working towards this cause of saving our firms and our organizations, battling back this pandemic together.
It’s really hard when it keeps slogging on for months and years, but in many ways, that’s still our noble cause. Your firm may have another one to get behind as well – give some thought to what else may give you and your colleagues those same types of feelings to get behind – how else are you in this together?
Once we have our noble cause (and it’s different for each firm/organization), what next?
Ask the Tough Questions
The authors of Tribal Leadership tell us that we have to ask ourselves some more tough questions – and while this may seem intimidating, remind yourself that you’ve already asked yourself many hard questions over the last 18 months, so it can’t get too much worse.
- What do we want? What is the outcome? What is the present state of success that is going to morph into an even bigger victory over time? This is really about goals, and you may have to think critically about exactly what those goals mean and look like – not in general terms, but in specific ones. When discussing what you believe these mean, don’t be afraid to talk about what you really want. You may be surprised to find out that what sounds like a “reach” goal for you is exactly what your colleagues are willing to work towards as well.
- What do we have? What are our assets? What do we have a knack for doing better than anyone else – and this is a really tough question that is hiding as an easy one. It sounds like a brochure question, right? What’s our specialty?! But this is where we’re required to be rigorously honest – what do we really do better than anyone else? This isn’t about where one of your strongest rainmakers sits, or what the new lateral hire you just invested in practices – it’s about the true, key practices, service offerings, industry expertise, etc. that your firm offers. Bear in mind that to get at this information, you may have to ask outside stakeholders how they view this.Then, the tribe must answer “yes” to three critical questions. First up: (1) Do we have enough assets to accomplish the outcomes from the first point? This is another question where rigorous honesty comes in, because our tendency is to want to say yes. But we may get stuck here if it’s a no, and a no is okay to start with. If it’s a no, look at how we build our assets, including writing down all behaviors that will build the assets that are needed – these can be physical (office space), they can be people, they can be whatever you deem them to be (education, etc.). [As a note here, this question takes time – you likely won’t be able to accomplish this in an afternoon meeting, if you’re going to be as rigorous as you need to be. Don’t try to take shortcuts by just crossing this off like a checkbox.]
- What should we do to accomplish the outcomes? From the first two questions, you know what you want, and what you have (and it’s critical, says the authors, to have everything you need before you move onto this step). Now, you want to write down what the members of your tribe will do to be successful. This is what they WILL do, not what they are already doing – so, unfortunately, my habit of writing things down on a list that I’m already doing, so that I can cross them off, will not come in handy. This is also where the next two critical questions come in:
- (2) Do we have enough assets for these behaviors? What assets do we have that we haven’t identified yet? Is there a faster, cheaper way to get this done? This may be a place where innovation pops up – is there a technological or human solution that you can be using to do things differently than the way you’ve done them before? How can you be more efficient and effective? You may surprise yourself by realizing that some of the things you started to do during the pandemic are more efficient than pre-pandemic. And some things may NOT be. But it’s important to think critically about each piece and evaluate it objectively.
- These are some really hard questions, and I would anticipate that some firms would get hung up here (if not earlier). That’s why I think it’s critical to begin with considering the idea that people may be your barriers to change, understanding the various ways that they approach it, and how you can build consensus within your firms/organizations. If you’re a bit of a pragmatist, like I am, you want to wipe the slate clean overnight and start fresh with big sweeping changes. This can sound great, and be entirely impractical in practice. The greatest lesson I learned when I started in legal was that any big idea I had was going to take at least two years to happen, and I was going to have to filter it through to a few other people so that they either championed it or believed they had come up with it. Change in legal takes time and requires monumental amounts of patience. If you understand that, you can be successful. Yes, even though we did manage to move everyone to remote working in about two weeks because of a pandemic, getting everyone truly used to the idea of hybrid working is going to take real-time in practice.
- (3) Will these behaviors accomplish our outcomes? This is also a deceptively easy question because it seems that of course, the answer would be yes. But again, we have to look critically at the behaviors being suggested, the motives behind them, and whether or not they will really contribute to the overall goals and outcomes. And sometimes, when the answer is no, there will be some challenging follow-up that is required by leaders, which will ultimately make your firm successful but may cause some sleepless nights in the short term. This is why it’s essential to start with the noble cause FIRST so that you return again and again to that idea every time you falter when needing to make difficult decisions.
Much of the above hinges on a critical factor, and that’s having the right people in place – as we have previously mentioned, some will self-select out over time. Your tribe will be small to begin and will grow over time. Your noble cause will help you to recruit the right people as you need to grow and will show you who may no longer serve your needs. But there will (may) be a lot of growing pains.