The Key to Emerging from Lockdown with Reputation Intact

This blog post is written by Simon Slater, Byfield’s Non-Executive Chairman. 

On 3 June, Byfield hosted a roundtable with managing partners and CEOs of UK and international law firms to discuss the key lessons they had learned about leadership during the Covid-19 crisis. To those attending, it had become clear that the single most important leadership tool at their disposal was clear and effective internal communication. More than this, there was a need for a very personal brand of communication.

The ability of a law firm to emerge from the crisis with reputation intact is, ultimately, a function of the ability of its leaders to communicate well with their people. And in the wider legal sector, the true ramifications of this point are yet to make themselves known.

Some firms have shone with the quality of leadership they have shown. Other firms have evidently struggled to do so.

Even in the months before the crisis, issues around working practices and employee wellbeing had never had so much visibility, but Covid-19 became the ultimate communications test for employers to get right.  

In crisis PR, we often talk about an internal-born crisis being the litmus test of an organisation’s reputation. Covid-19 may be an external crisis, but the effect it has had on all law firms is profound. And the consequences of having got the leadership communications wrong during this time (or, worse still, not having communicated at all) will have correspondingly profound effects on the reputations of firms in the months and years to come. All law firm staff will remember how, in the greatest peacetime crisis of modern times, their firms acted.

By the end of our discussion with them, managing partners and CEOs had highlighted three main lessons materialising from the crisis.


Building trust is key

Trust is a pillar of internal comms and also a pillar of firm loyalty. So it’s no wonder this was the lesson law firm leaders cited first. And, naturally, there are ways to build trust just as there are ways to destroy it. To build and maintain trust, leaders need to think about the following areas:


1. Message

In times like this, there’s no place for false optimism. The last thing you should do is say: “Don’t worry, we’ll come through this,” without giving substance to the how. What people want, in the face of the unknown, is clarity, transparency and a purposeful resolve.

So, keep it real. And don’t overpromise. Communicate honestly, so that you and your staff are on the same page. “We don’t know what’s down the line. But, rest assured, we will share with you when the next phase hits us,” is a much better place to start. Leave room for the possibility of bad news, and your staff will absorb it more easily as and when the time to break bad news comes.


2. Medium and tone

How you deliver a message is as important as the message itself. It’s good to use a diversity of communications approaches in both written and virtual (face-to-face) formats. For example, some messages are better said in email so that staff can digest in their own time. Others need a more personal approach so that your speaker can convey emotion behind the decision they are announcing. In video calls and phone calls, tone is critical. Be direct, be measured, but also show humility and empathy. Above all, be authentic.


3. Consistency

Crises move quickly and leave behind a trail of devastation. Your employees know this, and, for their wellbeing, they need you to set the schema for what to expect by regularly updating them on what is happening and what you plan to do. There are almost no risks in overcommunication. But under-communication can cause serious damage.

 

Helping employees feel that they are part of your response improves buy-in

1. Give employees channels

Internal comms is a two-way channel. Real leadership is built on listening before acting.

Surveys to measure mood and morale can be an invaluable source of feedback for leaders, particularly in making decisions about working practices and wellbeing. For instance, all firms face the lingering question mark as to how and when staff should return to the office. Practical channels like surveys and more informal direct lines of communication to managing partners, CEOs and line managers are important to help employees feel they are part of the decision-making process.  


2. Celebrate and exemplify team success and accountability

One interesting development managing partners and CEOs have seen during the crisis is lawyers becoming more productive and financially accountable when working from home.

Leaders need to monitor and acknowledge positive developments such as this and take trouble to exemplify them to make good financial management a long-term habit in these uncertain times.


Keeping a finger on the pulse for opportunities is not just being forward-thinking. It’s essential

1. Drive innovation

Law firms have long been shy to adopt remote working. But, in one short fortnight at the beginning of this crisis, everything changed.

The attitude towards remote working has finally changed among partners, too, so managing partners now want to use this platform to drive innovation. It goes without saying that this is long overdue and the appetite for more innovation is extant in firms. Many younger lawyers want to see more adaptability in their firms in an industry empowered by tech and agile working.

This moment is not just an opportunity for law firms to innovate for the benefit of their clients. As they emerge from the daze of a start gun they weren’t expecting, firms must also wake up to the new level playing field they are now on.

And for good reason. This experience has taught law firms the hard way that they (and their competitors) can make big decisions and act upon them fast. This has implications for the way they make decisions, too. There doesn’t always need to be 100 per cent consensus on any given issue. Rather than wait for partnership-wide agreement, managing partners can be democratic and decisive to make progress as they respond to the key challenges presented by the crisis, potential recession, Brexit and increasing automation.


2. Be strategic with overheads

All the while, law firms’ new capability to operate with all staff working remotely makes a clear case for them being able to be more efficient in their use of physical space. The cost of space is a long-term issue of which all firms are well aware. How far (and how quickly) will such expenditure shift towards technology to enable innovation?


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Law firm managing partners and CEOs have faced, and will continue to face, myriad leadership challenges in the wake of Covid-19 and its consequences. But nothing ranks more highly than the importance of effective internal communication in making sure that firms make it through with reputation intact.

The everyday actions and communication of those actions (values and behaviour) are what ultimately build a firm’s culture. Through Covid-19, many managing partners and CEOs have seen their firms under pulsar pressure radiate impressive displays of teamwork of which they’ll no doubt be proud. The big question now is how those firms can continue to harness that energy for the challenges that lie ahead, post-lockdown.

This is an issue to which we will return at our next roundtable. If you wish to enquire about participation, please contact Gus Sellitto.