Law firms need leadership to thrive. This was true prior to the world shutting down. It is more critical now than ever. In the weeks leading up to the shut down and the following weeks of isolation, my law firm, made up of 12 very different people, experienced a collective identity crisis.
The firms’ technology platform was set up to work well remotely. We had been cloud-based and paperless for years. We needed to make slight tweaks to processing mail and gathering signatures, but the practical aspects of running the firm from home, was the easy part. The real challenge was addressing the collective mental health and focus of the firm.
We are a collection of individuals all with our own level of risk tolerance, medical backgrounds, and general disposition toward optimism, pragmatism, or anxiety ridden dooms day predictions. People were anxious about the future of family law. Anxious as to whether the impending economic recession would render our prices too high or our growth plans too aggressive. They were anxious about getting sick, or their families getting sick, the possibility of losing a parent or not being able to travel to loved ones if they were to catch coronavirus. They were anxious about losing their jobs.
Our structure provides weekly meetings and quarterly retreats. These are the times when the twelve of us get together to address issues, check in on our performance, and communicate about key issues and future plans of the firm. We share information about judge rulings and celebrate individual wins. These meetings are the most critical aspect of having the firm operate as a cohesive unit and not a group of individuals all practicing under the same roof, or er… corporate structure. It’s been an adjustment to take these meetings virtual so that instead of breaking bread together we are instead some version of Brady Bunch talking heads.
In the beginning of April, it was time for our quarterly retreat. This is a half day meeting to reflect on the previous quarter, tackle large issues, and plan the following quarter. I get information about employee engagement, how each person is doing personally, how they feel about what’s working and not working within the firm, and it’s my opportunity to communicate and re-communicate a vision. This is the time for leadership, and not just from the owner. You will see leadership displayed from attorneys and staff. You will see people take on ownership of problems and solutions. You will build loyalty and culture and you will reduce turnover. Yes, this is time you are not billing clients, you are doing something much more important. You are investing in your future.
At our last retreat, anxiety was high. I thought long and hard before delivering a modified vision addressing the elephants in the room. I addressed what our plan had been and how and why it was changing to address the shut down and impending economic recession. I explained how we would thrive through the recession and continue to grow by changing strategies on target marketing and by improving the quality of our legal services. I explained there would be no layoffs and how we could collectively ensure that everyone kept their jobs. This leadership strategy spreads the collective responsibility for achieving the vision. Each person knows what is expected of them to contribute to the overall success or failure of the firm. They left the meeting with some of their most significant fears calmed and addressed. They were given purpose, tasks and practical things they could do to regain a sense of control within the world where everything had changed. Every single person experienced a sense of relief from the retreat as we found a way to support one another through shared purpose.
Each meeting concludes with a “rate the meeting” section, one through ten. Since moving virtual, the collective weekly scores had been falling. Last week, near the end of our last Friday meeting, and something felt off. People were quieter and more withdrawn than usual. I added a question: How is everyone doing? Mentally and emotionally? 1-10? It took a minute and then people started opening up. They communicated what they were struggling with. They shared their feelings of isolation, frustration, and cabin fever. They shared the challenge of trying to teach their children, feed their families, stay safe and healthy at home and not go crazy. It was cathartic. You could feel collective relief through voicing and sharing their struggles. Then it was time to rate the meeting and the Brady Bunch talking heads rattled off a host of 10s. Billie Tarascio