Mar. 26, 2021
Lessons learned leading a law firm through the COVID-19 pandemic
The experience of managing a law firm during the 12-plus months since California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his March 19, 2020, stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 within the state has been quite the teacher.
Julius Caesar has been credited with saying "experience is the teacher of all things." The experience of managing a law firm during the 12-plus months since California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his March 19, 2020, stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 within the state has been quite the teacher. Managing partners have surely learned something about themselves, their firms, and the practice of law. As the managing partner of a plaintiffs' law firm with more than 20 lawyers, I certainly did. I am sharing some of those lessons here with the hope they will help today's and tomorrow's managing partners navigate their firms through the next patch of rough waters they encounter (and the ones after that).
Always Keep an Eye on the Horizon
There were two kinds of law firms on March 19, 2020: those that had invested in technology and could almost instantaneously switch from traditional office-based firms to fully remote ones, and those that had a more difficult transition. The firms that made these investments, mine included, began working remotely with little trouble. The firms that did not? They endured significant disruptions to their operations and revenues.
Most law firms focus on tackling today's problems, as there is often no shortage of them. But the great firms tackle tomorrow's problems today. They keep their eyes on the horizon so they can identify trends that could affect their firms' legal practices and business models. The firms that invested in technology before COVID-19 saw what was coming over the horizon -- a need to ensure their lawyers and staff can work effectively, efficiently, and securely whenever they wanted, wherever they wanted. While I doubt a potential pandemic was the primary reason why firms made this investment, it has paid dividends because COVID-19-related office closures, much like typical disruptions such as power outages, severe weather, or simply a busy travel schedule but on a greater scale, highlighted the need for lawyers and staff to be productive no matter where in the world they might be at any second.
With plenty of opportunities and threats coming over the horizon, such as artificial intelligence, non-lawyer ownership of law firms, and further consolidation and commoditization within the legal industry, great law firms and their leaders must continue to focus their gaze on what lies ahead, and direct their energy toward harnessing those opportunities and tackling the threats.
Manage Your Firm's Finances Like an Economic Downturn Is Around the Corner
Some law firms had banner years in 2020. Some had flat revenues compared to 2019. Others barely scraped by. The law firms that fared best in 2020 didn't just maintain or increase their revenues as compared to 2019, they pored over their expenses soon after the stay-at-home order went into effect to determine where they could reduce necessary expenses and eliminate unnecessary ones. That is a recipe for financial success, even during flush times.
There are two ways law firms can primarily keep their expenses in check, no matter the economic and industry conditions. First, firms can periodically evaluate their expenses to determine what kind of value they are getting from the products or services they frequently buy and whether changes are necessary where their expectations are not being met. Second, firms can choose to only work with vendors who will be flexible and show a desire to help them ride out periods of uncertainty, even if it hurts those vendors' bottom lines. The vendors who were flexible with my firm in 2020 received my firm's continuing loyalty. Those who were not did not have their contracts renewed.
You Can Make no Better Investment than Investing in Your People
Your firm's ongoing evaluation of its expenses, however, does not mean that you should reduce all expenses at your firm. You should not deprive your colleagues of the salary, benefits, infrastructure, and culture necessary to attract them, keep them, and allow them to flourish. Your firm should always look to invest more time and money into your lawyers and staff.
The law firms that invest time and money into their lawyers and staff tend to be the ones with the strongest and most collegial cultures. As we saw beginning in March 2020 and continuing to this day, the firms with strong and collegial cultures are the ones best prepared to continue working effectively despite significant disruptions to the status quo. Many law firms like mine continued investing in their firms' culture during the pandemic by hosting virtual happy hours, game nights, and other events that attempted to replicate the in-office camaraderie that existed on March 19, 2020.
When you treat your lawyers and staff like family and when you empower them to make decisions that give them a sense of ownership of their roles at your firm, they will show their appreciation through loyalty and work ethic. Seeing how well my firm's strong and collegial culture fared during the pandemic, my partners and I will continue to invest in our lawyers and staff.
Nimbleness Is a Virtue
The past 12 months forced lawyers and their firms to rethink fundamental aspects of their operations. From remote client intakes, depositions, court hearings and trials, to more frequent communications with clients and referral sources, COVID-19 forced law firms to be nimble and adjust to a dynamic situation that presented new challenges and opportunities. The "that's the way we've always done things" argument lost much of its potency.
Without a doubt, law firms benefited from this nimbleness. Because many lawyers and firms saw the value of being nimble and reaped its rewards, I expect them to continue exploring how being nimble can increase their productivity and profitability. Firms will no longer look at nimbleness as a sign of indecision or capriciousness. Instead, they will see it as an opportunity for growth and efficiency.