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Lexis+ AI
Nicola Jones

Barrister, Athena Professional

Quotation Marks
The double impact of covid-19 and digital transformation has opened a gap between what people do and what machines can do

2021: ready for reinvention?

2021: ready for reinvention?


Reinvention is possible with a sense of purpose, emotional intelligence and practical skills, says Nicola Jones

This year will be the year in which the ability to pivot, adapt and reinvent ourselves will cease to be a pandemic-induced necessity and become the norm for those in the legal sector.  

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that 44 per cent of white-collar workers now work remotely on a permanent basis.  

In the four months to October 2020, twenty large law firms cut staff numbers.  More redundancies will follow.  

Change is now a constant and it would be a mistake to get ready merely to ride out a recession.  

In 2021, we will start to see the impact of massive global upheaval in the labour market.   

The double impact of covid-19 and digital transformation has opened a gap between what people do and what machines can do.  

The WEF estimates that by 2025, 85m jobs will have been lost in the shift from human to machine working; and that 97m new jobs may emerge – but it will not be an instant transition.

‘Re-skilling’ and reimagining the way we work is inevitable.

Human capital will still be essential; the change will be in how and when people are deployed.  

Cutting jobs and battening down the hatches will only go so far. 

Reducing headcount without investing in change risks firms doing the same things they’ve always done, with fewer people.  

The challenge for everyone will be to stay engaged with change on a personal and professional level.  

It is a tough message coming hard on the heels of the first shock of the pandemic.  

In my experience, three things make reinvention possible: a sense of purpose; emotional intelligence; and practical skills.

Clarity of purpose has become a business imperative because change does not wait for strategy.  

In uncertain and dynamic times, the lode star of human effort is intention.  

The energy and dynamism of startups is partly due to the fact they are relatively unencumbered by structures and overheads.  

Agile young businesses often enjoy a singularity of purpose which defines what they do and drives how and why they work. 

In contrast, historically professional service firms have tended to promote people to managerial and leadership roles based on technical expertise, or even time served.  

Often, promotions have been made without preparation or development support.  

Broadly speaking, that approach has been adequate to date, but the gaps and tensions it creates have become increasingly obvious during the pandemic.

Expecting people to muddle through their responsibilities as leaders and managers was possible in ‘normal’ times, when there was plenty of work and plenty of people to do it.  

However, when that work needs to be done more efficiently by fewer people at a time of continued economic crisis, the system and the people within it become strained.  

The layers of pressure are many, such as the pandemic, remote working, changing client needs and the imperative to cut costs and continue to deliver value.  

Emotional intelligence is proving to be essential as we endure the ongoing social and economic shockwaves created by the pandemic, including the acceleration of digital transformation. 

In particular, the strength of relationships and the ability to provide support remotely, whether as a supervisor or colleague, have been tested.  

Self-awareness is no longer something to be passed off with an awkward joke about sitting cross-legged in a circle – it’s the foundation of effective leadership.

Navigating this gap between 20th century models of work and emerging ways of working requires the ability to deploy so-called soft skills.  

In my experience, established professional people struggle with these skills more than any technical element of expertise.  

The changing working environment demands nothing short of a radical assessment of personal and professional capacity and there is nothing ‘soft’ about that.

Intelligent and sensitive support can be helpful. 

One thing which will emerge as crucial is the value of diverse expertise and experience; ‘sameness’ will not deliver.  

We need to redefine what essential professional practice skills look like if we are to reinvent the way legal services are delivered and maintain the rule of law.  

This year, the challenge will be to remain resourceful and creative in the face of pressure, so that we can reimagine the future, personally and professionally. 

Having a shared intention, emotional intelligence and professional practice skills may make the difference between surviving in the short term and setting the business up for longer-term success.  

Nicola Jones is managing director of Athena Professional

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