Chief ExecutiveLawNet Limited
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If annual appraisals or engagement surveys were stopped during lockdown and haven’t been missed, then look for new ways of doing things

Eight steps to resilience in 2021: Being human

Eight steps to resilience in 2021: Being human

In the second of a two-part feature, Chris Marston says being more human is key in the pursuit of greater resilience 

Law firm leaders are being driven into new territory by covid-19. This means they must prioritise their understanding and responsiveness to the human aspects of individual, team and organisational behaviour if they are to develop top-to-bottom resilience. 

That’s the message from a range of experts that LawNet asked to guide its members through the fast-moving, volatile environment we’re experiencing.

They emphasised the importance of achieving a balanced approach between this vital human element and the organisational, structural issues of running a firm, if we are to develop the resilience needed to navigate the unknown that lies ahead. 

In the first article, I started by reviewing the experts’ ideas around building that robust organisational structure.

This month, my focus is on the human element of the leadership equation, looking at the latest thinking on supporting a culture within the firm that truly values people and clients, listens to everyone and works to develop exceptional potential in our people and our offering to clients. 

It also draws on the input of firm leaders from across the LawNet membership, who have taken part in our regular online leadership discussions during the pandemic.

This forum enabled members to share and discuss issues between themselves, as well as with a range of specialists who joined the sessions as the pandemic unfolded.

At the turn of last year, we asked our leaders’ forum to reflect on their experiences and consider the future in light of the expert guidance we collated.

This was drawn from those specialists who support our firms regularly during the year, as well as some of the internationally renowned speakers from previous LawNet conferences.

Much of the debate centred around the challenge of handling the impact of long-term uncertainty and constant change with people, with mental health and wellbeing mentioned by many.

Another regular comment was the difficulty in maintaining motivation, particularly with a tired team facing short dark days without a traditional Christmas or next summer’s holiday planning to look forward to. 

Everyone agreed that being more human to support resilience was key, so let’s drill down at how that may shape up. 


When it comes to how we lead, manage and engage with our people, Lucy Adams (a director of human resources for the BBC during a challenging period of significant upheaval at the corporation) says we need to be more human in managing our human resources:

Creating a better normal – The crisis offers an incredible opportunity to rethink the old ways and embrace an approach that is more in tune with our people. The past few months have shown the value of leaders being more approachable, such as informal Zoom calls in place of formal employee communications; or demonstrating trust in people to maintain productivity when working from home. 

Stamping out bureaucracy – Adams suggests part of this better normal should include stamping out unnecessary processes and other stumbling blocks. If annual appraisals or engagement surveys were stopped during lockdown and haven’t been missed, then look for new ways of doing things. It will save time and money, while reducing frustrations.  

Do the right thing – Much has been said and written about how individuals and organisations have behaved during the pandemic, and this applies to us all. Thinking about doing the right thing, even in the toughest situations such as managing redundancies, can help sustain positive relationships with employees and clients. Doing the right thing demands we be transparent, show we care, and above all, treat people as humans. Professional services leadership consultant Andrew Hedley echoes this in the context of the behaviour of leaders themselves, saying that people look to leaders in times like this, creating an opportunity to demonstrate habits and forge cultures that we wish to become the norm. 

The role of authenticity in leadership is important too. Showing that you are human and experiencing the same feelings can make interactions more meaningful when supporting your people. Encouraging staff to find positivity in the small things, along with regular messages of encouragement, can support this.

For Cat MacLean, partner with Edinburgh firm MBM Commercial, leading with the right behaviours was quickly identified as essential in the early days of the pandemic.

She explains: “It became clear that our staff needed us to be firm and decisive – but equally to be positive, enthusiastic and forward thinking. 

“The best thing that ever happened to us was that early on in the pandemic, we had a firm-wide Zoom meeting led by the senior partner, in which he said that we were a team, that we were all in this together, and that we would get through this together. He got quite emotional delivering his address and it was extremely moving. 

“It marked a turning point for us. Staff understood and trusted that we would lead them through, and they felt that we were all on the same side.”


Being prepared to role model how to square up to risk and openly invite everyone to talk about how they think and feel (whether clients, employees or partners) is the starting point for building an empathetic and responsive environment. 

Hold on to a positive mindset – Having the right attitude, says Robert Camp, strategic innovation consultant and former chief executive of employee-owned firm Stephens Scown, is a serious differentiator and essential if leaders are to navigate this challenging period. Overcoming traditional caution by adopting a positive mindset and being brave in facing up to risk is needed. Leaders who demonstrate this approach will find their people are watching and learning, taking their cues in envisioning a bright future ahead. 

Focus on what’s working – It’s the best possible time to ditch the vanity projects, and anything else that wasn’t working before or after covid-19 hit. Instead, review the changes forced by the pandemic to see what’s had a positive impact on your team and the client experience and look at ways to expand on that. Camp’s approach resonates with Ashtons Legal’s CEO Ed O’Rourke, who says: “Holding on to the good things we have been forced to adopt, and persuading people not to revert to their comfort zones is one of my top three leadership issues for 2021.” 

Empathise with everyone – Also firmly in Camp’s sights is seeking out the inner perspective, asking staff and clients how they are feeling. He suggests that equipping staff to ask after their client’s concerns and to respond in an empathetic way will go a long way in such challenging and uncertain times. A small acknowledgement by WhatsApp for new business is not an alternative to a formal letter of instruction, but likely to carry a higher value in personal terms. 

This understanding of the need for human contact and context is reflected in comments by Alisa Willows, managing partner at LawNet firm Wolferstans, around looking at how to transition towards long-term home working.

She says: “We recognise we are likely to be in a state of transition moving forward, with employees initially keen to reconnect in person to see colleagues and clients face to face, when we can safely do so.”  

O’Rourke reflects on supporting and motivating staff through long-term home working: “Good managers have become more leader-oriented; they are the ones who have been more mindful of those not physically present in front of them; they have been proactive, encouraging and positive.

Taking the initiative and leading the way was so important when many were feeling uncertain and fearful. 

“The pandemic brought a recognition that working from home did not lead to a massive drop in productivity, but if we do not get a grip on how to manage, supervise and motivate in a remote fashion then that dip may still be on the horizon.

"Junior staff have suffered most from the uncertainty and anxiety caused by not being able to ask a colleague a simple question across the desk.”

Taking this theme of empathy to delve deeper into the feelings, emotions and minds of our people is the priority for two of our recent keynote speakers at LawNet conferences.

Author and consultant Amy Brann is a neuroscientist and founder of Synaptic Potential, through which she works with companies including Warner Brothers, Twinings and the NHS; while Dr Brian Marien is a medic, academic, psychologist and business consultant who works with clients such as Google, Shell, IBM, Grant Thornton, Clifford Chance and Ernst and Young.


Knowledge is power – For Brann, we need to foster high performing neural environments if we are to maximise performance of our brains. The first step is to employ management training to raise awareness of how brains actually work and how this knowledge can be harnessed to enable people to perform at their best. 

Forming good digital habits – Remote working has brought a range of challenges and opportunities and, for many organisations, tech is being allowed to drive behaviours. Allowing emails to be the priority, or being available for continual interaction on Teams, will prevent people from undertaking immersive work – which is where the good ideas and quality work originate. 


Supporting the pillars of wellbeing – Most firms now recognise the importance of staff wellbeing, and understand that it involves much more than initiatives such as fruit bowls or mindfulness sessions (valuable though those are). Wellbeing plays a critical role in achieving high performance outcomes, which makes it vital that the evidence-based pillars are in place to ensure people are working in ways that support this, according to Brann. This is endorsed by Dr Marien, whose focus is on improving psychological wellbeing, resilience and performance through cognitive-behavioural methods. 

Build psychological resilience – Another important focus for Dr Marien is understanding how our brains respond in protracted periods of challenge and uncertainty, and that firms recognise and address the psychological impact of the pandemic. Our psychological wellbeing impacts on every aspect of our lives and exerts a powerful influence over our cognitive function, energy, motivation and physical health. If we are to build greater psychological resilience, we all need to recognise the ‘risk’ and ‘protect’ factors for our psychological health, what they are and why they matter. 

Finally, for any leader looking to work through the ideas offered by our panel of experts in pursuit of greater resilience in the year ahead, it’s worth bearing in mind the advice from coach and people developer Chris Sweetman.

He urges us to recognise resilience as a dynamic state, not a tough-minded act. Instead, leaders need to recognise that it is a state open to all; and they should take action to build their own resilience, making them better placed to engage and support the development of resilience in their people and the organisation itself.  

Chris Marston is chief executive at LawNet 

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