The Fog of Virus

Leading Law Firms During This Fog- 3 Key Steps

Photo by dan magatti on Unsplash

The Fog of War is a term used to describe the confusion caused by the chaos of war or battle where the intelligence gathered is always incomplete to a degree, thereby making any decisions concerning the war a bit… foggy. Law firms and other professional service firms find themselves in such a fog today- only this one caused by a virus. The outcomes are alike: confusion, incomplete information, lack of good communication, lack of spontaneity, challenges to working collaboratively, difficulty in training and mentoring younger members, and hiring and integration woes to name a few. On top of all this is not knowing when it will end. We have the hope and promise of a vaccine, by late Spring 2021, but we have a long, dark winter to get through before that hope arrives. And even when it arrives, it will not be business as usual.

How Does “Hybrid” Work for Mentoring & Training?

Not only is the path forward unclear, but if you are trying to lead during this fog, you don’t have all the usual tools available to you. Tools like good predictability, forecasting, strategic planning, training and mentoring resources. You can’t predict when you will be able to return 100% of your people to the office, and even when everyone can return, will all of them come back? In a law firm model, partners have a lot of flexibility over their schedule including where and how they work. In general, partners are allowed to operate their client work independently, not forced to follow one set of rules. Most firms function more like a mall with separate stores than one large store with multiple departments. This autonomy is the backbone, and culture, of many firms. So what happens if a partner decides that after working from home, serving client needs, and maintaining a good book of business for over a year, they do not need to return to an office environment? What impact will this have on your firm?

First of all, there is the law firm model itself to consider. As an apprenticeship model, seasoned lawyers and staff train the younger generation. This training, and mentoring, lasts for years, not months. Less experienced lawyers and staff need the experience of the seasoned people and much of this training and support cannot be outsourced or downloaded by a written curriculum supplemented with YouTube videos. A lot can be learned through well-developed materials, but there is no substitute for the training that happens when a more senior person brings the younger person along and let’s them see inside the process, contribute to the work and outcomes, while learning from their mistakes in a safe container. The younger worker is part of a team, not needing to be “first chair” at this stage of their career. They learn what they need to do, what they need to know, in order to be “first chair” some day. This applies to lawyers, legal secretaries, paralegals, administrative staff, and operational leaders. We have all benefited from the tutoring and wise wisdom of more experienced people.

If some members of your firm do not return to the office, how will this kind of mentoring happen? And are there members at your firm who are already suffering from lack of training and support? What impact will this have in 2021 and beyond? Not just the impact on the person not getting this rich training, but the impact on your firm as a business? Are you building your next workforce with the same attention to detail and modeling that was used for your current seasoned experts?

How do you Recruit and Train Next Leaders?

Leadership in a law firm model is complex. There are two kinds of leaders generally: law firm administrators whose job it is to manage the business of the firm and other members who serve as part-time leaders of a limited function while maintaining a client practice. There can be lawyers who lead operations full time and give up their practice of course, and I put these people in the law firm administrator category. I am intentionally not using titles like “lawyer” and “non-lawyer” to describe leadership roles because I despise referring to people as “non-anything” and I think the current law firm culture is much too complex to be reduced to these two titles. For the purposes of this article I will talk about members of a firm in terms of what they DO, not who they are (titles).

In the Fog of Virus, how do you convince anyone to take up a leadership role? There are voluntary leader positions and those that come with the person’s role. The Chief Operating Officer for instance, will lead certain functions at the firm. Is this person also serving as a trainer and mentor to more junior operational specialists? If so, how are they pulling this off? And what will this look like next year? Not a clear picture, I’m sure. But this is something worth investing some time and thought.

How about recruiting members who have a client practice to serve as a leader whether on a board, leading a practice group, chairing an important committee, helping your firm to hire the right talent, or participating in your firm’s strategic plan goals? How do you convince new people to volunteer for a post? And if they do agree to be a leader, how are you training and mentoring them for the role? We all know that most leaders are built, not born. The ways you have built leaders in the past may be obsolete. And if you have members working full-time remotely, how will you ensure they have the tools they need to be successful leaders?

How Will You Maintain or Change Your Culture?

Law firm cultures typically score high on competitiveness with many wanting to be more collaborative, focused more on teamwork and understanding the client’s needs and their business in deeper ways. A highly competitive culture is all about winning and keeping score. This kind of culture is highly accountable, results oriented, and leaders tend to be driven by the numbers. A more collaborative culture is one where people are the center of decision making. You hear things like “default to generous” in cultures where collaboration is dominant. Decisions are first filtered through how it will impact people: both employees and clients.

What if you need to shift your culture right now? How can you change a culture while you are in the midst of this pervasive and persistent fog? I argue that now may be the best time to focus on your culture. Everyone has already been knocked off their feet, it’s not business as usual, and there is an opportunity to harness this time of change to create the kind of culture that will move your business forward. You could see this as a window of opportunity. I know the view from the window is not exactly clear. But there is enough visibility to move forward.

This fog is going to be with us for many more months. You cannot wait until it lifts to look around and see what needs to get done. That is too late. You can act now, with reasonableness, careful attention, and solid planning for your future. But how?

3 Steps to Navigating the Fog

  1. Gather a team to develop a “fog strategy” and call it that, or name it something to imply that you are joining forces to think your way though this time of great ambiguity and uncertainty. Be realistic but do not let pessimism take hold.
  2. Build a Culture Deck. Name what is important about your culture, your DNA, and be honest about things that you want to change. You want to be more collaborative, then have you looked at your policies for how people are rewarded when they work as a team? Do you want to mentor younger members of your firm? If so, what support and acknowledgement do you give to those who mentor? What incentive is there for younger people to be mentored? Make sure punishments and barriers are removed from people doing what you want them to do. DESIGN the change you want to see.
  3. Invite everyone to join you. Create an army of volunteers who believe in what your culture deck declares, and the strategy you will use to navigate this fog. John Kotter, in his book Accelerate, says that to make innovative change, you need to enlist an army of volunteers from all over your firm who will carry the messages and implement the new plan(s). To do this requires creating something that has both HEART and MIND. Don’t forget the heart part- we all want to feel inspired, to be moved, to feel connected to something larger than ourselves. It’s harder to feel connected to our colleagues and our firm today. Absence has not necessarily made our hearts grow fonder. In many cases, out of sight has led to out of mind. It takes intention, desire, and a heart-connection to get your people not only on board, but taking action to help lead everyone out of this fog.

We know better days are ahead. As a law firm leader, take advantage of this time to pull yourself and your firm out of the daily fog by building a strategy, and a culture deck, and by sending an irresistible invitation to join these efforts. A big part of your strategy right now is to take care of your people, making sure they stay connected to one another and to the firm. I encourage you to find and share meaning right now.

SUCCESS = culture + strategy + mentoring + purpose + involvement

And as a leader, don’t forget to get the support YOU need to keep going. My next article will focus on ways you can support yourself as you lead through the fog.

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“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

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denise gaskin, ph.d.

denise gaskin, ph.d.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

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