Legal employers can't go back to normal

After the pandemic disruption, workers now expect firms to invest in, empower, and encourage them

Legal employers can't go back to normal
Fernando Garcia

I recently published an article entitled “Working from home is a career killer for lawyers.” I intended to initiate a conversation about the effect of working from home on legal careers by advancing a somewhat unpopular position that I think has substantial merit. It worked. Readers expressed strong opinions on both extremes of the debate. But, like everything in life, many gray areas also exist. WFH may work well in some legal workplaces but not in others. Some lawyers may succeed within such a model, while others (if not most) will not.
Nevertheless, we can all agree that the practice of law has changed and will continue to do so. The pandemic just accelerated this change. But how can a legal employer succeed in a “new” AC (after-COVID) work environment? Here are a few thoughts:

More than ever, legal employers must provide flexibility and respect differences. Some employees may immediately want to return to a workplace where colleagues shake hands, go to coffee together, and share a table at lunch. Others will remain guarded and may prefer to maintain social distance while at work. Some may prefer WFH a few days per week.

Now, more than ever, employers must set clear goals and benchmarks about milestones and work expectations while remaining flexible as to different ways of achieving these objectives and supporting the interests of the individuals within the team. Focus on and leverage the capabilities and differences of individuals and create the environment within which people can perform at their best. This approach requires regular assessments and constructive feedback, finding that sweet spot for each employee.

The pandemic also taught us that legal employers must invest in the legal tech tools that employees need to be successful, such as contract management systems, electronic signatures, collaboration spaces, etc. Many of these investments were already happening before COVID, but the legal profession implemented them at a glacial pace. The pandemic lit a match under these initiatives.

A great employer empowers employees. Employers should continuously canvass their employees to see what tools can be made available to employees to help them work more effectively and efficiently. Employers should create pilot groups to try out different tools and see which work and which don’t. Allowing these groups to select and implement legal tools in the workplace is an excellent opportunity to get feedback and buy-in, and gain efficiency. These will also help prepare you and the team for future unforeseen events or challenges.

I have often written about the importance of becoming a “T-shaped lawyer.” These are lawyers who possess legal skills but also have the capability to grasp and work with concepts from various other disciplines such as IT, finance, HR, business, etc. I also developed the “+ shaped lawyer” model, advocating for the often-neglected soft skills. This approach encourages lawyers to value diversity and work effectively within such teams, understand their unconscious bias, act more empathetically, elevate their levels of EQ and learn how to work well within multidisciplinary teams (which will include members who are not lawyers). Legal employers can support employees by investing time and resources in supporting this development.

In this AC work environment, we must encourage lawyers to develop these “non-legal” skill sets through training, becoming mentors and receiving mentorship, encouraging networking, hosting workshops, and creating job rotation opportunities (outside of the field of law). Employees should be encouraged and possibly supported financially in taking courses, seminars, and workshops in disciplines that are not directly “legal.” Initiatives to promote the development of people and teams will result in better teamwork and capabilities, and a happier and more engaged legal team.

Employees are empowered and given the tools they need to succeed by creating a corporate culture that encourages flexibility. Legal employers will benefit from greater retention and involvement, and a commitment from employees to be part of the team and to work toward mutually beneficial objectives by investing in their development as T or + shaped lawyers.

The old saying goes that a “spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.” Likewise, legal employers must accept change and create a working environment that invests in, empowers, and encourages employees to succeed as professionals and members of a legal or multidisciplinary team.

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