Pandemic Presents Teamwork Test For Law Firms

By Manar Morales
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Law360 (May 14, 2020, 5:26 PM EDT) --
Manar Morales
Manar Morales
A successful team is made up of individuals who perform their responsibilities, support each other, and possess the flexibility to pivot and meet the needs of their coworkers.

While law firms have always functioned in teams, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified this equation and exponentially increased the need for cohesive teamwork at all levels. In order to ensure smooth operations during remote work and navigate the uncertain road ahead, each team member needs to commit to his or her unique role, intensify support for colleagues, and support the idea of flexible flexibility.

The Role of Chairs and Partners

During this pandemic (and beyond), leadership plays a critical role in setting the tone and navigating the course. All staff and attorneys are dealing with heightened stress and anxiety, and in many cases, increased caregiver responsibilities and isolation. Firm leadership should take this opportunity to demonstrate gratitude, empathy and commitment to their teams by:  

Sustaining Morale

It's particularly important for chairs and partners to relay optimism and empathy while remaining realistic during this pivotal time. To sustain employee morale and engagement during remote work, firm leaders should continuously send messages that reinforce the notion of "we're in this together" to reassure employees and combat feelings of isolation and anxiety.  

Demonstrating Humanity

Firm leaders need to demonstrate their humanity by acknowledging their feelings of being overwhelmed and anxious. Chairs and partners should take the time at the beginning of virtual meetings to check in with colleagues and share a personal story of life at home. We're all dealing with the challenge of blending our personal and professional lives, and leadership should set the tone of empathy and understanding.

Increasing Communication

It's up to law firm leaders to increase communication with team members through regular virtual team meetings, emails, or simply a quick call or text to check in. Leaders need to know where everyone stands and identify individual needs.

It's also helpful for partners to establish a system where team members can provide regular written updates regarding ongoing matters so everyone is on the same page. Since many employees have family obligations that make it difficult to work during normal business hours, partners should clearly communicate their availability and encourage team members to do the same.

Setting Realistic Expectations

I recently heard about an associate who was running to her car each time she got a call from a partner because that was the only quiet place in her house. Partners should make it clear that they understand this is an unprecedented situation and babies may cry and dogs may bark during calls.

While partners may expect immediate responses from their staff and associates, expectations regarding deadlines and workflow need to be temporarily redefined. The reality is with all the obstacles we're facing right now, (school and day care closures coupled with increased stress and illness) this crisis-related telecommuting is very different from everyday telecommuting.

Providing Support Where Needed

Finally, it's the responsibility of firm leadership to ensure all team members have the resources and training they need to be successful while working from home. For example, some firms are providing financial stipends to purchase additional technology to set up a fully equipped home office.

The Role of D&I and Talent Professionals

There's no doubt that some of the most critical roles on the team are played by the diversity and inclusions and talent professionals — now more than ever.  They have a deep understanding of remote work matters and applicable human resources benefits. These professionals are in a unique position to assist leadership with the creation, revision and implementation of support systems that are essential to the success and viability of the firm during and after the crisis by:

Keeping Their Fingers on the Pulse of the Firm

Through affinity groups, human resources systems and employee opinion research, D&I and talent professionals have their fingers on the pulse of the firm; they have a distinct perspective which allows them to understand the experiences of all firm employees. During the pandemic, these professionals should check in with each employee to identify needs and quickly resolve any issues. They can also conduct pulse polls and short surveys to gauge employee satisfaction and morale.

Ensuring the Firm's Continued Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion

Team leaders may assume an employee who is a parent is unavailable and automatically assign work to a nonparent employee. D&I and talent professionals need to educate partners on the importance of identifying these "blind spots," avoiding unconscious bias, and maintaining their valuable diverse teams. If they don't already exist, online systems should be created to track work allocation. It's critical for law firms to maintain the valuable growth in diversity and inclusion they have built over recent years.

Providing Necessary Training

All team members will benefit from training and guidance during the pandemic. Even if a firm had an existing remote-work policy in place, webinars on transitioning to COVID-19 remote work and management, balancing caregiving with professional responsibilities, crisis management, interrupting bias, and mindset and grit are valuable trainings for any firm right now.  D&I and talent professionals should review existing memberships, employee assistance programs, and resources and provide additional webinars as necessary.

Offering Mental Health Services

It's important to remember all firm employees will be directly and indirectly affected by the pandemic. During a recent virtual roundtable, a D&I professional at a major law firm noted that her firm will be offering all employees bereavement support as well as mental health services for anxiety and depression. This crisis will remain with employees for many months to come. Mental health support, counseling and coaching will be essential for the ongoing success of the firm.

Recalibrating the Firm Post-Pandemic

D&I and talent professionals will play a critical role in recalibrating the firm and helping employees reacclimate themselves to regular functions at the office once the pandemic has subsided. These professionals can help recognize and rectify employee challenges, track workload allocation, and develop future remote-working guidance. These are the key professionals that will lead the firm's efforts in identifying lessons learned and revamping old policies to better fit the new normal.

The Role of Associates and Staff

As we face the uncertainty of the coming months, every member of the law firm team needs to do his or her best to stay positive and pitch in where needed by:

Maintaining a Positive Mindset

Everyone in the firm can find gratitude in even the smallest bright spots. Ultimately, it's this gratitude that will help individuals weather this period and is critical to remote working success. We may not be able to control what's going on around us, but we can control our mindset and outlook.

Creating a Routine and Identifying a Space

Staff and associates need to create a routine and identify blocks of time when it's most efficient to work (i.e., early in the morning, late at night, or when the kids are doing online schoolwork). All team members need to communicate these preferences and any changes in time frames with their coworkers. With remote work, it's critical to find a quiet space to work to maintain optimal focus and productivity.

Communicating Proactively

While in-person meetings are restricted, virtual and written communication should be prioritized and increased. It's still important to remain visible and communicate interest in projects and assignments. Associates and staff should be proactive in outreach to supervisors and colleagues throughout the week. Additionally, all team members should communicate their availability and provide email updates on projects.

Maintaining Self-Care and Seeking Out Support

Both mental and physical self-care is so important especially while sheltering in place. Everyone should be committed to taking a walk or engaging in physical activity, eating well, and reaching out to friends regularly.

Additionally, associates and staff members should seek out support from talent professionals for training or mental health support.  Employee resource groups, affinity groups, mentors and sponsors, and talent professionals are excellent sources of support. Don't forget to provide and solicit feedback from partners and colleagues to address any team challenges during this unique and difficult time.

Focusing on Being Flexible

It's up to all of us to come together, be flexible, and do our best. While we advise partners and chairs to be flexible in terms of response time, workload and deadlines, associates and staff need to be prepared to step in and help out where needed.

Now's the time for all members of the law firm team to rise to the challenge and do their part in maintaining business continuity and client services. Everyone will eventually be able to return to the physical office. It's up to organizations to evolve during this time and adapt to a new normal.

Even when stay-at-home orders are lifted, some employees may choose to work from home, and remote-working policies will be even more essential to the successful functioning of the firm. Firms need to be agile and continuously adapt to the needs of their employees and clients in the coming months.

In retrospect, it will be the firms that provided empathy, flexibility and inclusivity to all employees during the crisis that will resurface stronger than ever. It will be the teams that worked together in support of one another that will be even more effective. And it will be the individuals who stayed positive and pivoted where necessary who will gain the most.

Is your firm up to the teamwork challenge?

Manar Morales is the president and CEO at the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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