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Contributed by John Da Grosa Smith, SMITH Legal Consulting LLC
It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention, but in this instance necessity—social distancing—is the mother of change and a revolution of legal practice. The new normal for lawyers will be changing their way of thinking from walking into tall buildings with suits and briefcases to effectively leading remote teams to deliver sophisticated legal services.
Law firms that find their voice in this arena will differentiate themselves as market leaders by developing and implementing effective processes and best practices to remotely manage and catalyze talent to perform at the highest of levels. The advent of this approach has the potential to create more inspired legal work and a better quality of life.
Social distancing has created an urgent need for law firms to adapt to what other industries have done for years: work remotely. While some lawyers may work outside the office from time-to-time, the notion that individual members of entire departments and litigation teams are isolated is something quite different.
A law firm should develop processes and best practices to effectively manage their teams. One of the fundamental differences for a remote workforce is a lack of structure that's necessarily a part of coming to and working from the office. The mere act of waking up at a set time, getting dressed in work attire, commuting to work, and being in an office setting creates a formality that's difficult to suddenly be without.
A law firm should implement processes and best practices to address this lack of structure and to provide a degree of formality and certainty to the remote workday. Likewise, the elimination of socialization can lead to isolation, decreased morale, and a host of other maladies. Firms should address this truth head on by developing ways to intentionally create opportunities for “normal” social interactions within the virtual workday and encourage its people to take advantage of offered virtual therapy sessions to assist with adjustment.
So much of what lawyers do requires ingenuity, creativity, and collaboration. It's therefore essential that firms create best practices for practice group leaders to use to inspire their team and recreate those moments in a remote environment.
The smart use of selected technology is an important part of designing the remote legal workplace. This includes apps that enable time entry, document scanning, auto-signatures, and document editing on mobile devices. Most importantly such technology empowers team members and affords them freedom to perform their work with maximum flexibility.
In sum, it is crucial for firms to develop concrete processes and best practices to remotely manage their legal teams. If done correctly, this exercise will set the foundation not just for this time of social distancing, but for the new norm of legal practice.
Law practice will never be the same. And this is a great thing. For years other professional service industries have enabled and empowered its people to perform in ways that are different than showing up to a conventional office space. This approach values that people are individuals and that the same approach does not speak to or inspire everyone all of the time.
For example, as far back as the early 2000s, Accenture, one of the world's largest consulting companies with hundreds of thousands of employees, used the concept of hoteling. Simply put: a professional could contact the concierge and reserve an office, study room, or conference room in any office, in any city, at any time. Armed with laptops and all of the tools of working remotely within a global community, people were given the flexibility to select what environment worked best for them on a given day.
This makes sense. Like Accenture consultants, law firms sell the thoughts and ideas that are generated in the minds of their lawyers. Law firms do not require factories, machinery, assembly lines, warehouses, and trucks like manufacturing businesses do. Yet law firms have reflexively spent massive sums on physical office space rather than creating an overall environment that maximizes the potential of its workforce.
Social distancing will show law firms that they can deliver inspired, effective, and timely legal services without all of its attorneys regularly being present in traditional office space. This revelation disrupts the way law firms think about how to provide legal services and should challenge them to innovate.
One could envision a situation in which a law firm has limited, beautifully appointed Class A office space for client meetings, conference rooms, and varied work environments (e.g., offices, study rooms, casual rooms) that can be reserved by its professionals. The smaller footprint for this space accounts for the reality that not everyone will be there at the same time and therefore enables the law firm to maximize its use while massively reducing overhead.
That same law firm would then have Class B or Class C space strategically designed in a way to enable support professionals to work in a practical and efficient environment. This approach recognizes that lawyers can remotely manage support teams and that the work those support teams provide could be better accomplished in a specially designed setting rather than forcing them to function in the front office that is designed for a different purpose.
A change like this would create a more positive environment for lawyers and all of the people who support the providing of legal services. It would reduce overall overhead expenses while targeting spending to create the optimal work environments, and enable law firms to compete for talent by differentiating themselves in the way they provide legal services and being flexible in how their lawyers work.
Social distancing has forced people to immediately change their way of life. While it has been challenging, it is inspiring to see the ingenuity of businesses and people alike in responding to this moment.
If the world can change, law firms can change. And it will be a change for the better.
A sanctuary is a place of refuge or safety. For lawyers, a sanctuary for one, could be chaos for another. One lawyer may be inspired by the commotion of a busy coffee shop while drafting a creative brief, but favor the peace of the mountains amidst developing an argument to distinguish a complex body of case law. This is to say that each lawyer is an individual and that their own personal sanctuary may change on any given day.
Social distancing teaches law firms that grafting a one-size-fits-all environment on its workforce is not necessary to effectively perform. With this lesson comes the opportunity for law firms to take a step back, consider the needs of its workforce, and innovate to develop various sanctuaries or “high performance environments” to enable its people to reach their full potential.
The first step for a law firm to do this is to speak to their varied workforce and ask what environments inspire them to best perform. The answers may be surprising. It could be that law firms find out that they're spending too much money on things that do not matter, while completely neglecting things that do.
The practice of law is a privilege. It doesn't mean it is easy. Lawyers notoriously work long hours and have a high degree of stress, health problems, and substance abuse. There's no reason that it needs to be this way. And treating the symptoms never addresses the root cause. As a profession, by empowering lawyers to work from their own safe, calm place has the potential to inspire more creative legal work and dramatically improve their overall quality of life.
Social distancing disrupts the business model for the practice of law. And with this disruption comes opportunity: the opportunity to empower lawyers to choose their own sanctuary from which to create inspired legal work and offer them a better quality of life with more personal freedom.
Change shakes your windows. Change rattles your walls. For the legal profession is changing. And that's a really good thing.