Reassessing Law Firm Operations Leadership for a Post-Pandemic World

Posted on October 27, 2020 by Simmons I. Patrick, Jr.


As the country plans for how to re-open for business, law firm leaders are wrestling with innumerable issues related to the impending post-Coronavirus world.  Firms have seen their pre-pandemic business strategies upturned, closed offices, shifted to working remotely, altered or cancelled summer associate programs, delayed incoming first year associate start dates, cut compensation (at least temporarily), and terminated or furloughed attorneys and staff.  Firm leaders have been forced to make significant business, financial, practice, people, technology and other decisions at a faster pace and with a far-greater sense of urgency than their customary practice. Decisions simply had to be made without prolonged analysis or gaining wide-spread consensus.

Now, as firms seek to emerge from the crisis, they must decide –

  • how best to sequence re-opening offices,
  • which attorneys and staff can safely return to the office or must continue to work remotely,
  • which business processes changed in response to the pandemic should continue, be modified or revert to their pre-pandemic iteration,
  • how to address weaknesses in practice management or functional operations exposed by the crisis,
  • how their business strategy and other coordinating strategies (technology, marketing and business development, recruiting and professional development, etc.) will be reconstructed and recast in order to achieve revised client service expectations and revenue and profitability targets for the short and longer term, and
  • how best to engage with clients moving forward.

While all firms have been dealing with the unprecedented challenges and unpredictability of the current situation, the crisis has underscored the need for strong, forward-thinking leadership.  However, for some firms the crisis may have exposed critical leadership weaknesses in some functional positions.  Some leaders who were passable during “peace-time” may have been disappointing under-performers in “war-time” and are not likely to be the top-level leaders needed for the post-Covid world.

During the crisis, functional leaders have been stress-tested with regard to their –

  • Strategic thinking – how well they carefully and deliberately assessed the changing business environment across the firm and their area of responsibility, and set new goals, plans and ideas in response;
  • Decision-making – how well they anticipated or properly read the impact of the crisis without over-reacting or failing to act when needed; how well they dealt with unfamiliarity, unpredictability and uncertainty;
  • Communication – how well they managed expectations by communicating effectively and consistently and by anticipating questions and concerns of clients, partners, associates and staff; and
  • Team leadership – how willingly they collaborated or empowered others with decision-making or analytical responsibility in order to speed decision-making and develop needed solutions.

Leaders have also been tested with regard to their emotional intelligence (EQ), which is more critical than ever in this demanding environment.  Firms must have leaders with a high EQ (i.e., the ability to identify and manage their own emotions and the emotions of others) who can keep remote team members energized, inspired and engaged. 

A leader’s EQ during the pandemic can be gauged by assessing how their emotions impacted their decision-making, whether they focused only upon themselves versus their team or the firm as a whole, and their authenticity and transparency in communicating with team members.  It can also be seen in the empathy shown regarding the personal impact of the crisis on attorneys, staff and their families, and their acknowledgement and appreciation of the efforts of others.

During the pandemic, firms have been quick to adjust their business strategies and adopt new objectives, but may have been too busy or reluctant to address leadership deficiencies while faced with so many other urgent priorities.  The failure to assess and address any leadership issues can leave firms operating without the type of leaders who can be catalysts for any changes needed during or following this crisis.  This can significantly increase the likelihood that the firm will not be able to execute its redefined business strategy or achieve its objectives.  Finally, it can result in missed opportunities for growth, innovation and business process improvements, creation of a competitive disadvantage, and worst case, the firm’s loss of control over its own destiny.

Consequently, as firms continue to revise their business strategies, they should consider whether or not the current leaders have the skills, critical competencies and EQ needed in each functional area to align with and execute the new strategy. They should recognize that the crisis has also resulted in changes in business processes, greater reliance on technology and streamlined decision-making that may also compel or enable redefining some functional roles. 

One silver lining from this crisis has been firms’ realization that more work, particularly functional roles, can be effectively managed virtually with geographically dispersed teams.  This greatly expands the available pool for functional leadership talent geographically by lessening the need for a new leader to relocate to one of the firms’ physical offices.

Bottom line:  During the crisis, firms should not overlook the need to reassess the performance of their functional leaders, particularly in the context of the firm’s revised business strategy and changing work environment.  Where necessary, firms must top-grade their leadership teams to ensure they have high performing leaders to successfully emerge and thrive following this crisis.

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Simmons I. Patrick Jr. (Pat) is an executive search consultant with Forsyth Search Partners, LLC, where his search practice focuses on securing senior administrative leaders for law and other professional service firms. He is a former practicing employee benefits attorney and HR consultant with major firms where he held key account management and business development roles. Contact Pat at ppatrick@forsyth-partners.com or 404 372 1436.

 


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