The workplace culture at many law firms is collegial if a little traditional. While lawyers are known to like offices with doors (link to article about office design), the traditions of walking down the hall to have a conversation with a colleague or picking up the phone to talk with another expert in the area of practice to share insight and experience is commonplace. Firms big and small are built around the value of lawyers sharing common resources and space to serve clients.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused lots of law firms to reimagine the law office. Many lawyers are working remotely as offices have been closed or have significant limits on the number of people that can use them at one time. Law firms have had to grapple with how to maintain firm culture while operating from home offices.
When offices first shut down, took quick action enabling lawyers and support staff set up to work remotely. While lawyers have had the tools necessary to work remotely for a long time, law firms have long shunned the idea of remote work, instead putting a high value on in person “face time”. The shift to working from home was stressful due to all of the elements of the pandemic, but also because of how different a virtual practice is from law firm norms.
During this snap transition to virtual practice, law firm clients were facing myriad crises demanding attorney attention. In many ways, the focus on client service while managing the transition cut through what might otherwise might have been a long slow transition. Firms pulled together with a focus on client service. Technology played a large role, but so too did a change in how firm culture looked. Walking down the hall to talk to a colleague because a phone call or virtual meeting. Work could happen when it was needed, woven into other daily life events. The focus on client service was unifying and pushed rapid change.
Collaboration & Information Sharing
A fundamental part of the practice of law is learning and sharing information. This is a large reason for why lawyers put such an emphasis on “face time” and physical presence. The pandemic has caused lawyer to find new ways to collaborate.
One of the biggest areas of information sharing is the “what are you seeing” conversations. These conversations might happen during a chat with your office neighbor or a coffee outside the courthouse. This informal information sharing can still happen, but it is difficult in this time of social distance. Technology has a large role to play in helping lawyers identify what is happening in the legal industry. Virtual meetings have gained adoption as more people have gotten comfortable with that format. Data analysis has taken on a new role, too. Digging into internal data at law firms and using tools to do so across areas of practice have provided lawyers true insight into client demands and trends. Tools like Accurate Legal Billing (ALB) provide dashboards and a detailed look at what work the firm is doing. This data can be used to chart a course for client and for the firm’s business strategy. Firms can reorient personnel to support new, growing practice areas, especially as some areas of practice have ground to a halt due to court closures or client financial worries. Sharing this information within a law firm can be a kind of “what are you seeing” conversation, opening up new opportunities for collaboration within firms.
Practicing during a pandemic has presented new challenges for every lawyer. Client demands shifted practically overnight and niche areas of practice were called to the forefront. Every lawyer has been asked to learn new skills or dust-off skills from past economic downturns. The virtual environment has proven to be conducive to e-learning. While law firms may be traditional and have a “stay the course” mentality, the pandemic has caused lots of the old rules to become obsolete. Lawyers are being asked to “getting smart” quickly. Firms are smart to use insight into what practices are doing derived from internal timekeeping data and then move attorney resources to support those practice areas.
The practice of law has a well-earned staid reputation and rarely is accused of over-sharing information. In a virtual law firm and during this pandemic generally, communication is a key component of maintaining firm culture. Law firm personnel, dealing with a multitude of issues at home and while working crave clear, consistent communication. The quirky celebration of office holidays or the start of the local sports team’s season that might bring the firm together for community building are not the same in the virtual world. The uncertainty around office reopening plans and the financial health of the firm worry everyone. A smart communication plan built for the specific firm’s culture can help ease people’s minds and keep culture alive, even if in a different form.
The reimagined law firm has many more locations and new challenges, but many fundamental elements remain the same. Finding new ways to collaborate and communication and developing new skills are part of this virtual law firm. Retaining key elements of the law firm’s culture take more thought, but are more important than ever before. The lessons learned in the intense early days of the pandemic where firm attorneys and staff banded together to help clients can be applied to maintaining culture and building the virtual firm for now and for what the ”new normal” will bring in the weeks and months to come as the pandemic plays out.