When the unexpected becomes the expected
Chris Marston, LawNet CEO, explains why we shouldn’t stick to the status quo in our practice
If the past two years have taught us anything, it is we should expect the unexpected, repeatedly. Looking ahead, even if covid-19 finally slips into the background, life will never return to the way it was before. We are shaping a dynamic, proactive future, not creating a new, static ‘normal’.
We must focus on tackling the economic, healthcare and educational disruption of the pandemic, but after the seismic shifts across so much of our lives, any new stability is bound to be influenced by that – and cannot be a simple ‘recovery’ of what came before.
Things have changed forever, and to be successful in this new world, future-focused firms must be agile and adaptive.
Key to this is the way we work, with predictions being we are unlikely to see a return to in-person office working for everyone. Around half of UK organisations surveyed by PWC expect to reduce the size of their real estate portfolio, and around one third of those are looking to reduce their physical footprint by more than 30 per cent, driven by companies adopting hybrid, or blended, working arrangements.
Feedback from our membership confirms this shift. As a member organisation, it is vital that we understand the issues facing the SME law firms that comprise our mutually-owned network. We need to tailor our services and support to match, and we regularly conduct formal research across a range of issues, such as financial performance, technology and customer experience, through to training and development. We also draw in a wide range of anecdotal feedback from our regular forum discussions. All the evidence shows that hybrid working is a top priority for our network member firms, with 88 per cent saying that it formed part of their strategy when surveyed during the third quarter of 2021, at which point their office occupancy rates ranged from 5 per cent through to 70 per cent.
Making the move to more agile ways of working may seem a logical outcome for those looking to build on positive experiences, such as those reported around tech adoption to enable remote working. Our members told us how technological change swiftly become ‘how’ not ‘when’ from the early days of the pandemic. One firm highlighted how smoothly they moved to use Microsoft Teams for both internal and external meetings, adopting remote ID certification and electronic signing platforms, and finding that even those people who had previously worked almost exclusively on paper were positive about electronic adoption. As a result, that firm is saving on resources while reducing environmental impact, and, crucially, giving staff and clients greater choice and flexibility - an outcome we see echoed across the sector.
Different practice groups may have contrasting attitudes and client expectations. Remote working might be good for a personal injury team, reviewing medical reports and psychological assessments, whereas a conveyancing teams might prefer office-based working, with so much of their work being paper-based.
One size doesn’t fit all
Whatever the benefits, however, firms can no longer assume one size fits all. Two years of the pandemic have changed employee expectations, and any insistence that teams must be home or office based is likely to meet resistance.
This plays into the increasing emphasis on employee self-determination and overall wellbeing, surely a key component of any progressive firm’s strategy. Staff will express their preferences in a way that was probably unimaginable even a decade ago, and for remote working to be successful, it must be flexible, responsive and involve everyone, while maintaining structure and accountability.
It’s important too, that the office is a dynamic environment with an energy that attracts people to come to work and stimulates them while they are there, whether for a once-weekly, in-person team briefing or daily attendance. It must also address the potentially isolating effect of remote working. As one of our members describes: “You can’t underestimate the sheer joy people felt when they came together again for the first time: there was a real glee in being with colleagues that we must harness and appreciate, so as not to isolate people.”
And with staff recruitment and retention a top priority this year – it featured as one of the biggest challenges identified by our member firms in our annual financial benchmarking research – offering a great place to work can be a deciding factor in helping to attract and retain talent.
So, while hybrid working may be logical, particularly when viewed in terms of preparedness for any further potential lockdowns, it may not be easy for firms, demanding strong leadership, employee and client trust, and the right cultural foundation.
A successful firm relies on a culture built on empathy for staff and clients, as well as strong financial performance: one that truly values people and clients, listens to everyone, and works to develop exceptional potential in its people and the offering to clients.
Firms must tackle the myriad aspects which combine to create a great working culture, which is no mean task and has been high on our agenda of support to members for some years. We have hosted internationally-renowned speakers at our conferences and invited experts to contribute to our round-table forum discussions and our training sessions, exploring issues like client-centricity, employee wellbeing and how they affect financial outcomes. The pandemic lent a new urgency to tackling these issues, and we have seen our members sharing the lessons and chewing them over in their group discussions, all of which helped to provide material for our recent White Paper.
As a partner at one of our network members reported: “Our priorities have to be to keep the firm culture alive and well and to ensure that everyone is looked after to the maximum.” To achieve that, they have held a few firm-wide culture ‘jams’, where everyone got involved in looking at the firm’s culture and how they could contribute to it. Avoiding a top-down approach to involve staff in this way can be vital in helping employees feel confident and committed to new ways of working.
This helps build trust, which is a key component of making hybrid working successful, ensuring managers trust team members to work remotely, and creating a bond between staff who may have never met in person. A leader from one of our member firms confirms this, saying: “One challenge has been to overcome deep-seated views that people in the office are working harder than people working from home, even though all of the data indicates that is not the case.”
This reflects the sector’s long-standing attitude towards presenteeism, where it can seem more important to be visible at a desk, than to be (more) productive but out of sight, although thankfully that attitude is on the wane. A parallel problem has arisen, however, of being ‘always on’, with staff worried that they must always be responsive, whether during working hours or not.
Firms must embrace an outcome-based mindset, where hours worked and structure is secondary to actual productivity. This directly challenges the sector’s continuing reliance on time-based recording, which can be a significant hurdle for many.
Resetting the culture and getting the message across becomes increasingly important when you consider there is research showing 47 per cent of Europeans regularly purchase from brands that align with their personal values. This is particularly important when factoring in the impact of millennials and Gen Z attitudes in the workplace and in the customer base.
It is important to avoid falling into the trap of criticising younger people for doing things differently, while holding on to traditional values and strategies.
The 20-something Gen Zs are not afraid to speak out and are far less likely to accept the status quo. A survey by Management Today showed around 25 per cent of managers criticised this group as having the ‘wrong’ attitude to work. But if Gen Z helps break habits such as long working hours and rigid hierarchies, it’s hard to see how this is ‘wrong’.
Gen Z employees are also more likely to job-hop, according to Ryan Roslansky, chief executive of LinkedIn, and less likely to stay with a firm long-term. Our own internal research shows that firms consistently rate succession planning as one of their top five concerns, with younger lawyers less interested in linear paths through a firm to partnership, often valuing an interesting job or work-life balance over status.
One approach we have pioneered with members, which may help to create a sense of investment in their firm’s future among younger lawyers, is to instil an understanding of the factors that contribute to a law firm succeeding as a business and the role that individuals can play. Our Business 101 course helps them to see how they fit and where they can make impact, with the outcomes often very revealing for both the individual and the firm.
One of our member firms commented that exploring the financial model of a firm gave their junior lawyers a deeper understanding of how long it took their firm to generate a return on them, and an appreciation of how that shaped their firm’s expectations of them. Showing staff how they could contribute to the firm in other ways, such as initiating a community initiative or mentoring others in their team, can also deliver business benefits, as well as helping staff develop new skills.
Feedback from our firms emphasises the importance of creating opportunities and recognising contributions so that people feel valued. Career structures and competency frameworks have an important role to play as well. Aligned with honest and open discussions about capabilities and expectations, a well-designed set of career paths, supported by clear and unambiguous competency requirements, can help lawyers and functional staff to have a clear view of future opportunities. Some lawyers make great leaders; others are better – and happier – as high-performing exemplar practitioners. Some functional team members make great leaders too, and we see plenty of evidence that operational leaders with expertise in areas such as finance, marketing and HR can provide different and invaluable perspectives.
Be open to experimentation
Recognising the impact of hybrid working on every aspect of the firm, from its culture to human connection and individual development, may seem daunting, but taking a pilot scheme approach can help to identify issues and fine-tune a model that works for the business, staff and clients. Lawyers can have a tendency towards perfectionism, but there is no need to get it right first time, with attendant delay. These are uncharted waters, and we have to expect a learning curve: we have seen our member firms experimenting with pilots, supported by assessments of the effects upon client satisfaction, productivity and staff wellbeing.
That’s important when you consider that predictions for 2022 from global market researchers Forrester suggest that one-third of first attempts simply won’t work. They say that situation is most likely where leaders continue to design meetings, job roles, and promotion opportunities around face-to-face experiences, and then blame hybrid working rather than the approach. They also predict that some companies which insist on a fully in-office model will experience huge attrition rates among staff who just won’t accept it after two years of remote working.
One thing we can be certain of is the future will keep surprising us. It is bound to be different to what we envisaged back in the simpler times of 2019, and it may be entirely beyond our imagination, as our society continues to experience fast-paced technological and attitudinal changes.
We might not be able to see what lies ahead, but the choices we make now will provide the foundation for how well our firms adapt to that uncertain future.
Chris Marston is CEO of LawNet, the mutually-owned, collaborative network of progressive firms in the UK and Ireland: lawnet.co.uk