7 Keys To Keeping Your Firm Inclusive In The Coronavirus Era

By Yusuf Zakir
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Law360 (March 17, 2020, 3:33 PM EDT) --
Yusuf Zakir
We are in uncharted territory. Law firms, like most other professional services organizations, are confronting a new reality. For the first time, many law firms are quickly adopting remote working policies in order to allow their employees to remain safe while still committing to a high level of client service. We seek to maintain excellent service — which we will — while managing our organizations in entirely new ways.

In this challenging and unusual time, it is crucially important that law firms remain steadfast about fostering diversity, equity and inclusion. In fact, it is precisely during times like these when we must double down on our commitment.

When we are required to socially distance ourselves, reduce human connection and refrain from participation in institutions that we took for granted, such as workplaces, schools and places of worship, we feel isolated. When we combine isolation with the anxiety caused by a global panic, we can feel truly alone and frightened.

Law firms can help mitigate this cycle of isolation, fear and panic by remaining intentional in their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Here are seven principles that law firms can commit to during this time. Many of these principles are applicable during normal course of business. But as we adopt a new reality of how we work, we need to be especially intentional about our commitment.

First, ensure equitable distribution of information. Information is capital. By equitably sharing information, you reduce uncertainty and bolster morale. We are generally used to sharing information in a casual manner — we might swap some information in the hallways or pop in to someone's office to quickly chat. But we can continue to share in different ways.

We can start with simple strategies, such as keeping team members copied on emails or inviting them to participate as passive listeners on calls (even if it is not possible for the listener to bill for that time!). By proactively inviting and encouraging access to information and being intentional about sharing it — even if it takes us a little more time to do so — we help our team feel valued because we are sharing something of value with them.

Second, set clear and achievable expectations. We do better when we understand what is expected of us and when those expectations can actually be met. However, we generally tend to be casual about setting expectations. We may not give it a lot of thought initially, and rely on check-ins to reset and reframe expectations.

However, in isolation, a lack of clear and achievable expectations can create a great deal of anxiety. We can reduce this anxiety by being clear and thoughtful. As Brené Brown says, it is important to "paint" what "done" looks like to us.

Third, actively maintain relationships. Generally, we build and strengthen our relationships through in-person contact. As that is not an option in the short term, we need to ensure that we are being proactive in maintaining relationships.

Again, we can start in simple ways, by checking in on how our team members are doing — and specifically, how they are doing, and not how their work is doing. Especially during times like these, we want to know that we are cared for and that someone is concerned about us. By checking in, you show you care.

Fourth, continue to coach, mentor and sponsor. We often rely on in-person contact to engage in these activities. But we can provide these forms of support virtually and remotely. We can continue to serve as a resource to our team and to intentionally invest in their success. We can continue to advocate for our team and create access to opportunities. We need to proactively connect the dots, especially now when the dots can be harder to see.

Fifth, show gratitude. Not only is expressing gratitude good for us, but it creates a more cohesive team. When people are solitarily plugging away, they can feel like a replaceable cog in the machine. We need to remind our team how thankful we are for their support and service, particularly during this time of high anxiety when their attention could reasonably be directed elsewhere.

We should be specific in that expression of gratitude, by thanking our team members for their efforts on particular projects. By expressing gratitude, we demonstrate our appreciation and communicate how much we value our teams.

Sixth, use technology. We are fortunate to be dealing with this crisis at a time when the world is uniquely connected. We can have high quality face-to-face conversations with people across the world. We can still foster human connection, without being in person. While technology has its downsides (like the challenge of disconnecting), we can use it to our advantage in situations like this. Control the technology; don't let it control you.

And last, spotlight shared goals. Within your teams and on your particular matters, you have specific short- and long-term goals. Under normal circumstances, we may get bogged down with the grind of work and lose sight of those goals. We are even more prone to this when we are dealing with competing priorities and stress. By refocusing on the things that drive us, our teams, and our organizations, we can reaffirm our purpose and stay motivated.

We will make it through this challenging time. But we will come out better on the other side if we remain intentional in our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Yusuf Z. Zakir is director of diversity and inclusion at Holland & Knight LLP.

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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