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How to manage a remote law firm and legal team effectively

BY DAVE POSTON

While attorneys have made great strides in recent years expanding remote worker policies and capabilities, as well as having a newfound commitment toward wellness, COVID-19 forced immediate implementation upon the legal industry.

Timelines vary, but we could be in this situation for a few months or longer. An oft-heard refrain in conversations today is, “We told them for years that we could work successfully from home. I’m curious to see if we have to go back to the office when it’s all over.” In other words, for their safety or because they prefer it, attorneys and staff may demand to work remotely in the future.

Thus, now that you’ve survived the initial adjustment period, your job as a leader is to quickly determine: how do you manage a remote law firm or legal team effectively for the near and long-term?

Here are five tips to help you not only adjust, but also thrive.

  1. Stay true to your mission and values, and communicate

Shani Magosky, founder of The LeaderShift Project, global executive coach, and leadership consultant with experience managing highly-distributed workforces, notes, “Leaders need ‘north stars’ to guide them. This is a time to stay aligned with firm and company values.”

Hopefully your firm has established and written mission and values, and you already use those regularly for decision-making. Pull them out and redistribute them to your team. Just as when you bring experience, precedent and common sense to your legal counsel, bring a printed copy to all critical discussions. And if your firm or legal team doesn’t have them, make your own personal list immediately.

  1. Develop your leadership skills

Every good leader knows to live in a state of constant improvement and to surround themselves with the best people available. From a big-picture perspective, adjust to remote working to keep your law firm or legal team running, pivot on strategy for survival, and respond to challenges and opportunities along the way.

As a humble leader, commit to improving and being more empathetic every day. Be honest about your skills and limitations as a communicator. Evaluate your presentation style by phone and video, in particular, and seek ways to improve, especially when it comes to presentation skills, executive presence and the ability to communicate from afar.

No one has all the answers, immediately or otherwise. Magosky notes, “Admit and share when you don’t have an answer. Communicating that you are working through a decision is still effective communication.”

  1. Develop an internal communications manual

Magosky asks, “How do you establish safety and security when all of that is in question? Through clear and constant communication.”

In crisis planning and response, one of the most critical steps is mapping possible scenarios and audiences. If you didn’t have a crisis plan in place, it’s not too late to establish one for the next phases of the pandemic.

A law firm has many obvious audiences: attorneys, staff, clients, referral sources, colleagues, family, friends, government officials, law enforcement, etc., and, of course, prospects.

Once various audiences are identified, a matrix should be matched with communications channels and timelines, as well as variations of key messages needed for the potential scenarios you may soon need to manage. A few that we are already helping law firms and legal departments to address include expense cuts, layoffs, employee illness, death of a key partner, loss of a client, anxiety and wellness, when we can return safely to work and remote working policies and challenges.

The table of contents for our “Internal and Employee Communications Plan and Manual” contains approximately 20 forms and templates, including a risk assessment of potential consequences of the crisis, a communications team cascade with succession plan, an internal communications messaging and Q&A examples, an employee call or question form and log, spokesperson presentation skills training and guidelines, and social media protocols and policy.

Law firms have not traditionally operated like companies with employees in the field, but today those management and communications techniques directly apply. The challenge is an opportunity and the best led law firms will come out stronger.

  1. Establish and commit to specific communications channels

The complex situation at hand involves tried-and-true communications concepts and challenges related to crisis, change management, internal and employee communications, and external and public relations. Thus, it is essential that managing partners, general counsel and other top leaders show up in many ways.

For example, some teams circulate a daily briefing email. Some lead a daily video conference for all attorneys and staff. Most include science and good news, in addition to information from and about the workplace.

Your presence reassures, motivates, connects and more. Attend client meetings, practice and industry group meetings and staff meetings being held by video. Send group emails with praise. Make thank you calls.

And a note about the gossip line: Your number one job as a leader is to command and control the narrative in a way that provides security, stability and safety to the firm and those who work with you. The gossip line is riddled with fear today. Communicating frequently is the only way to ensure false narratives don’t blossom and hurt the firm or its employees.

Whatever communication channels you use, it is important to remember, as Magosky says, “Feedback is the communication currency. Leadership is a conversation. And feedback is a conversation that often goes awry. Enhancing the quality of conversation—starting with a focus on effective feedback—creates psychological safety at work which is the number one predictor of great team performance.”

You should not only expect feedback but also invite it. A rule in crisis communications is that the top company leader always speaks for the organization. A related rule is that they should be available “in the halls” for their people.

  1. Focus on client service

Once all your internal management and communications needs are realigned, apply the same conscientious review to your clients.

You need a list of your top clients now more than ever. Each client should have a client team document, which is a dashboard of your entire relationship and all the work you do for them. In addition, it should contain personal information like birthdays, children’s names, professional goals, how many times you personally connect each month and year, etc.

Each client should be contacted by phone or video to check in and see what they need from your firm, but also just person-to-person because you care. You should ask if they welcome doing calls by video as much as possible, which includes converting regular calls to video. Ask them if the firm can host social lunches by video for everyone to bring your team and theirs together as one.

Now is the perfect time to renew a client service committee or ask each practice or industry area to create such, in order to involve attorneys in a collective self-management exercise which will have critical and exciting payoffs going forward.

Finally, don’t gut your business development function because while “it is an expense,” it is a key part of your survival and pivot strategies. It’s going to be harder than ever to keep your clients and find new ones without face-to-face client relations and networking opportunities. Competition will be fierce. A clear, focused and firm-wide marketing strategy is your opportunity now. That includes being precise with expectations for your attorneys on quality service standards, client retention to-dos, and new business development requirements. You can’t design, implement, track and measure those activities without your marketing team and vendors.

Dave Poston, Esq. is chief executive officer and licensed attorney at Poston Communications. He can be reached at poston@postoncommunications.com or (404) 875-3400.

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