Law firm leadership post-pandemic – a huge opportunity

Guest post by Lynne Burdon, who recently retired from Bolt Burdon and Bolt Burdon Kemp, where she was managing partner for over 30 years.

Burdon: Attracting good staff may be the single most important competitive advantage of successful firms

Managing a law firm will never be the same again. The best firms have always allowed lawyers a great deal of flexibility in when and where they work but until Covid hit, and home working was compulsory, most lawyers spent most of their working week in the office.

Having your people under the same roof most of the time makes leadership so much easier. It is easy for groups to book time in a meeting room, and it is this face-to-face time tackling difficult issues together that allows people to get to know each other and thus build trust.

Meetings create the opportunity to encourage people to really say what they think and to learn to listen to others – two essential skills for leaders. It is very clear to all which individuals are really engaged in the meeting and so leaders can learn who may have future management potential.

When everyone is in the office, it is easy also for leaders to do a bit of ‘managing by walking about’ – chatting to folk at their desks and letting them know that you have noticed what they are up to and offering some words of praise or direction.

Out of formal work hours, staff working in the office will often go out for lunch together or go to the pub on the way home. This is important time for getting to know each other.

Covid has proved that working from home all the time is perfectly possible – indeed, many firms have reported very profitable years – possibly due to less travelling time and less time spent socialising, marketing and training.

Many lawyers have now not been near the office for over a year. Firms that demand a return to 9am to 5pm (or more likely 9am to 9pm) at least five days a week will be perceived as old-fashioned and unreasonable. They may find it hard to recruit the staff they need.

Being able to attract good staff may be the single most important competitive advantage of successful firms.

Leaders must not underestimate the challenge ahead. Firms who built a strong culture prior to lockdown have been able to trade on that for the last year. But staff change, and unless much work is done to integrate new staff into the culture and to reinforce old friendships, the firm will suffer.

The challenge for leaders is to accelerate this bonding process so that work relationships can thrive once again.

My advice is that, as soon as it is safe for groups to get together face-to-face, leaders contrive for this to be done in as many ways as possible. Find any excuse to get groups together, not just those who normally work together but selections of individuals who don’t normally meet.

Create projects that bring a difficult challenge to a group, such as developing a new area of work or raising a challenging sum of money for a charity. Schedule away days to look at the firm’s future plans, or to consider new partner promotions – anything to get people together engaged in healthy discussion. That is how trust is built.

It is certainly possible with a good facilitator to accelerate the process of getting to know each other at a much deeper level than can ever be achieved in the pub.

The more senior the people are in the group, the more challenging the process can be. As people show vulnerability, maybe by describing things that were challenging for them as a child or things they regret, others begin to feel they know them – and thus they can decide to like and trust them.

Knowing, liking and trusting are essential for any group of colleagues who need to work together on client projects.

Where several lawyers in the firm work for the same client, this trust is essential for proper sharing of client information and thus giving best advice. It is even more important for the top management team.

It is critical for the most senior leaders to take part in these activities. Leadership must always be done by example and in any meeting the most senior person must share first – that will set the level of vulnerability that is expected from the others.

There is, right now, a huge opportunity for good leaders to differentiate their firms with proactive culture building, and to create competitive advantage by getting all staff re-engaged in the firm’s plans – the mission and vison.

This will create a great place to work and thus make it easier to attract and retain the best people.

And best of all – it is fun!

Lynne Burdon now is a coach and consultant to law firm leaders

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