Haughian and Walsh in Law360: Don’t Forget Law Firm Culture When Adapting to Remote Work

Haughian and Walsh in Law360: Don’t Forget Law Firm Culture When Adapting to Remote Work

Two of our co-founders, Heather Clauson Haughian and Grant A. Walsh, recently authored the following article for Law360, foccusing on the importance of maintaining firm culture, even as many law firms are facing unprecedented changes in how they conduct daily business.

Don’t Forget Firm Culture When Adapting To Remote Work

Law firms suddenly pivoting to remote work due to coronavirus restrictions are busy dealing with logistical challenges. But an equally pressing and perhaps more difficult task may be adjusting a long-standing brick-and-mortar culture to accommodate partners, associates and support staff working remotely for the first time.

“Culture” increasingly is an important talking point among legal recruiters and their lateral candidates. And, there are countless consultants and webinars devoted to helping firm managers develop and embrace a more appealing culture. But what does that mean?

By itself, culture refers to a firm’s unique character and personality, which are the aggregate of its collective values, traditions, interactions and attitudes. Given that workplace culture is such an essential element for a successful law firm, what happens when a global disrupter like COVID-19 turns our entire concept of the conventional workplace upside-down?

Conventional law firm culture is tied to the physical workplace.

Most law firms inherently define themselves by their physical office location. Attorneys must be present to be counted. As a result, the culture at these firms is naturally influenced by the quantity of face time that occurs. Add to that hierarchical systems that rely on in-office support staff and junior attorneys to execute many day-to-day tasks. For senior professionals and partners, this paradigm defines work culture as an in-person interaction in a centralized workplace, with attorneys trained to expect rewards like higher compensation or better advancement opportunities for their long hours at the office.

A consequence of tying advancement and earnings to face time is the significant role it plays in the legal profession’s history of being unfriendly to attorneys who want a work/life balance. Studies show that the issue is a major factor in gender inequality, particularly for female attorneys often feeling they have to choose between work or children (and involuntary placement on the “mommy track”). Their male counterparts similarly wrestle with working demanding partner-track hours in the office or spending time with their families.

Look to existing remote-work models for ideas.

When a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic renders a firm’s offices unviable for extended periods, maintaining an office-based, face-time culture for a remote workforce is much more difficult.

Nimble, innovative, transparent and patient are not words that usually come to mind when thinking about most traditional brick-and-mortar law firms. However, this is precisely what smart firms need to become. Failure to adapt will make it more difficult to successfully navigate this unprecedented shift to remote work, rejigger law firm culture and continue the collaboration that ensures the delivery of efficient, high-quality work tor clients.

Most brick-and-mortar firms have been reluctant to address remote work. Others, such as Jackson Lewis PC, were offering a work-at-home option for some professionals well before the current pandemic. And many distributed firms, including ours, have always had firmwide remote work, with all lawyers practicing from personal or home offices.

So, even as COVID-19 rapidly changes the dynamic for many conventional firms, they can look to established remote-work models to determine how best to implement these changes without sacrificing their culture.

Build stronger, flexible communication channels.

Consistent positive communication matters — at every level from the firm’s leadership to the senior partner of a client service team. It is critical to preserving a law firm’s culture, particularly now, when many people must suddenly juggle a work-at-home office, accommodate new social distancing rules, and care for children facing similar adjustment stresses as they switch to distance learning.

To solidify their teams, culture and workflow, law firms must proactively and transparently apprise attorneys and staff of swiftly changing situations and clearly identify what is expected of each attorney and staff member during remote work.

Equally important is utilizing the right technology tools to disseminate these communications, and training all staff on how to appropriately and effectively use the technologies to stay connected internally and with clients.

What are the right technology tools? Those that provide a vehicle to allow for continued virtual interaction and collaboration among attorneys and clients and do so in a secure and encrypted “environment” during remote-working sessions to prevent a breach of attorney-client privilege.

Plan, don’t scramble, to acquire appropriate technology.

Many conventional law firms have already invested smartly in technology to make their pre-COVID-19 work more secure and efficient. But there hasn’t been the same adoption of technology to support the human/social aspects of law firm culture. Until now.

That said, firms should not rush headlong to invest in complicated, state-of-the-art platform-as-a-service vehicles that offer tools for collaboration unless they can roll out those tools to employees effectively and in a manner that facilitates use and securely protects the information shared.

Equally important is ensuring everyone in the firm knows how to use the technology properly and efficiently. Attorneys and staff who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the firm’s remote-work technology will be unproductive at best, leading to a culture of disconnectedness. At worst, they may use the firm’s systems (or even outside cloud or conferencing services) in ways that result in the unencrypted and unsecured transmission of attorney-client-protected information that puts the entire firm in jeopardy.

Embrace video conferencing.

This is an especially critical time for law firms to use all of the tools at their disposal to promote and facilitate a culture of social interaction, support and compassion, particularly given the current physical isolation and uncertain future we are all face.

Law firm management must keep people connected and engaged — to maintain work/client relationships and to promote general well-being. Many firms already do this via collaboration tools like Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Slack and Zoom. Attorneys and staff are encouraged to use these one-click tools to instantly connect with each other and with clients via video chat sessions. These video connections deliver essential face-to-face human contact and interaction.

Some firms also mandate that all group meetings employ these same collaboration tools — whether practice group meetings or meetings with large client work groups or even the entire firm. When web cameras are turned on, attorneys, clients and staff can see each other, gauge otherwise invisible reactions (smiles, frowns, sidebars) and interact with the same facility they would in person.

Age is no barrier to tech-driven collaboration.

Even some old dogs are learning new tricks, discovering functionality in their existing platforms they never knew they had.

Many firms have remote access to their document management systems using programs like DMSforLegal by Epona, iManage, NetDocuments and Worldox GX4, enabling them to centrally maintain their work product. These firms are now finding some of these platforms, like Microsoft SharePoint, actually enable them to collaborate with other members of their firm and even clients to revise and edit documents live in real-time.

In tandem with video chat technologies, these tools make it possible for geographically dispersed attorneys, staff and clients around the globe to review, comment and revise documents, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets, etc., in real-time. Productivity, collaboration and connectivity are enhanced — oftentimes by merely making a few changes to their existing platforms to enable such tools.

Build a remote water cooler.

Another idea is to replace the water cooler or office kitchen with a consistently available video chatroom, open to all members and/or staff. Our firm has also added an optional, daily video town hall lunch meeting where any of our attorneys may drop in to connect with other attendees for however long they want. Consider continuing these morale-building forums even after the pandemic passes.

But for now, these video meetups provide attorneys with an informal outlet to share (or sometimes vent) about home-schooling their children, alternative fitness routines, or favorite binge-worthy shows on Netflix. We recommend keeping discussions informal. Discuss client or firm matters in other meetings. Our town hall lunch meeting participation levels have been remarkably high, confirming that in this age of quarantine, we all yearn for personal connections, even more so when in-person lunches with clients and colleagues are not an option.

Brick-and-mortar firms that now find themselves working remotely in the cloud should take a page from what many historically distributed law firms are doing: Take the water cooler concept a step further.

Some firms now run joint video workout sessions like yoga, boot camp and even meditation sessions using the same collaboration tools that they use for work. Others schedule virtual coffees or happy hours combined with a watch party to mix business with pleasure. Our firm’s tax team organized a watch party of “The Laundromat” and discussed all the tax shelters and offshore company structures raised in the movie.

A notable town hall group not specific to a single law firm is Peloton Law Moms. This Facebook group centered around the popular exercise bike meets regularly to attend live classes via streaming video. Participants cheer one another on and form practice or firmwide “racing” teams through this and other groups — all for a sense of inclusion in a real community regardless of COVID-19 lockdown. Some participate with their clients.

Law firms that support and encourage these kinds of connections will do well post-pandemic in terms of client, attorney and staff retention.

COVID-19 is reinventing collaboration.

When culture is focused almost exclusively on face time in a physical office, attorneys become accustomed to working with the same group or team, seldom branching out to others within the firm. But in virtual workplaces, everyone becomes a collaborator. A simple click of the mouse is all that is needed to initiate a secure video call. Greater collaboration can be achieved not only among lawyers who work in the same city but also between those who may be in geographic markets thousands of miles apart.

The result is a more robust culture of communication that benefits the entire firm. Clients benefit as well because connected attorneys are more likely to right-source a matter by assembling service teams with the most qualified attorneys regardless of their geographies.

Rethink face time-based compensation and advancement cultures.

Behind closed doors and in compensation committee meetings, the largest influencer of law firm culture (if we are honest) is compensation — the engine that drives law firm partnerships. Therefore, money, and how it is distributed, has a direct correlation to how a firm’s attorneys collaborate and interact.

With the sudden shift in the economic forecast and the inability to rely on conventional in-office face time as a performance barometer, law firm leaders should begin to consider how to retool their compensation systems to benefit from this new paradigm. Given the recent headlines reporting law firm salary cuts and layoffs, there’s no time like the present to think outside the box.

Historically, law firm management believed that formula-based compensation policies would be more divisive, creating silos and breeding more internal competition than the current “point plus compensation” review system. In some firm cultures, that may still be true. But that is not the case for all formulas and all firms. Straightforward, transparent compensation policies can accomplish the opposite if executed properly.

The new compensation policy is “math plus transparency.”

The compensation structure case studies of distributed law firms like Culhane Meadows offer useful insight into how more transparent, math-based compensation systems can help attorneys flourish, particularly in the current remote workplace. These firms have shown that, appropriately managed, a transparent math-based compensation formula can improve culture by incentivizing cross-selling and collaboration between lawyers working across many locations.

Law firm compensation systems should support collaboration, not undermine it. When formula-based policies are communicated clearly, attorneys know exactly how much they will earn from each hour billed, whether they are the originator or serving in a support role for another attorney’s client. These structures are merit-based and neutral — blind to gender, race, religion, orientation, etc. There is no need to keep engagements close to the vest to make a practice look larger to impress the firm’s compensation committee.

When subjectivity is eliminated in partnership decisions, so is the glass ceiling. The key, in the end, is that firms can use the current market disruption to truly foster a culture of financial transparency.

This is an opportunity for long-term cultural benefits for the legal profession.

The legal profession has the chance to come out of this crisis with an invigorated culture that affords greater flexibility in work hours and location — if law firms choose to embrace the benefits of remote work now and in the future.

If firms can recognize that attorneys who, in this moment, can fulfill their professional obligations from a home office, where spouses, partners or children also work remotely, imagine how efficient they will be when things return to the status quo and the house is empty once again. Will it matter whether the work is executed in an office between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. or at home between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.? In the real world, clients don’t care when we do the work, so long as we complete it well and on time.

COVID-19 is heartbreaking and frightening. But it offers law firms an unparalleled opportunity to reexamine long-held traditions and assess how, and if, they still work for today’s legal professionals. Firms that decline to embrace the benefits of remote work may discover some of their attorneys less willing to abandon their newfound flexibility.

The foregoing content is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Federal, state, and local laws can change rapidly and, therefore, this content may become obsolete or outdated. Please consult with an attorney of your choice to ensure you obtain the most current and accurate counsel about your particular situation.

Heather Clauson Haughian and Grant A. Walsh are two of the co-founders and managing partners at cloud-based law firm Culhane Meadows PLLC.

About Culhane MeadowsBig Law for the New Economy®
The largest woman-owned national full-service business law firm in the U.S., Culhane Meadows fields over 70 partners in ten major markets across the country. Uniquely structured, the firm’s Disruptive Law® business model gives attorneys greater work-life flexibility while delivering outstanding, partner-level legal services to major corporations and emerging companies across industry sectors more efficiently and cost-effectively than conventional law firms. Clients enjoy exceptional and highly-efficient legal services provided exclusively by partner-level attorneys with significant experience and training from large law firms or in-house legal departments of respected corporations. U.S. News & World Report has named Culhane Meadows among the country’s “Best Law Firms” in its 2014 through 2020 rankings and many of the firm’s partners are regularly recognized in Chambers, Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers and Martindale-Hubbell Peer Reviews.

The foregoing content is for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Federal, state, and local laws can change rapidly and, therefore, this content may become obsolete or outdated. Please consult with an attorney of your choice to ensure you obtain the most current and accurate counsel about your particular situation.