September 7, 2021 -- Change is the law in life. Those who only look at the past or the future are sure to miss the future. -- John F. Kennedy
Client service in Big Law was already becoming more competitive, at all levels, even before the pandemic. For those who are seeking to seize the initiative and become change agents, the pandemic has offered an opportunity to evolve and improve the way in which lawyers foster existing relationships with colleagues and clients virtually.
This article looks at the efforts that have served these authors well as cross-border colleagues over the past year and a half, the lessons learned through the process and how to benefit from integrative, sustainable change in a post-pandemic world.
In order to thrive in what is, unquestionably, a new era, law firms must create a cohesive and unifying culture. Although this seems obvious, the challenges and opportunities presented by virtualization in work life and culture have made it difficult to establish this culture. The combination of the global health crisis and social justice reform initiatives has made law firm life more open to all viewpoints and less structured. As we embrace a post-pandemic future, it is important to be deliberate about our efforts. We cannot wait for normalcy to return. We are designing a new normal.
To be able to offer the best client service, it is important to communicate with all levels of a law firm. While partners are often the face of business development activities, it is frequently a team endeavor, particularly in terms of support and preparatory work. Partners and other senior lawyers will find it difficult to rely on that support without empowering their fellow team members. This is particularly important in light of the transition to hybrid working models. This engagement is essential for junior lawyers. However, it will be necessary to recognize that the past 18 month has allowed junior associates a greater degree of autonomy.
Although the shift away from centralized command-and-control has been rapid, those companies that recognize it as permanent will be ahead of those who want to revert back to the old era. Junior associates have worked from home effectively without direct supervision, and so, going forward, they wish to feel trusted and autonomized.
The inevitable reality that not all employees will be in the office for 52 weeks each year is something firms must accept. The hybrid model will win. However, firms must also not forget that, while people will appreciate the flexibility this affords them, it can also come at a price. It may be convenient to work from home on a personal level, but it can come with professional trade-offs. Remote work can reduce mentorship opportunities, especially for those from underrepresented communities.
It is vital to use technology in this area to help people feel connected. Dechert has "coffee roulette" meetings. In these meetings, half a dozen people are chosen randomly from among four associates and two partners to chat informally about their lives and work.
The onscreen world of "Hollywood Squares", like many other aspects of COVID-19 was brought about by the sudden and inevitable arrival of many lawyers. Although many are unhappy about the speedy cultural change and the lack of professional advancements, it is clear that virtually everyone now has access and is familiar to remote conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, Teams or an equivalent. This brings new possibilities. Even in the 21st Century the new video call culture has made a small world smaller by personalization and familiarity.
When it comes to cross-border issues, lawyers in international centers like London or New York may be as effective as someone who lives in the same area. If there are significant international firms, they can also establish cohesive transcontinental teams that can address client's specific needs at any time of the day.
Whereas we used to benefit from the proximity of our local colleagues down the hall, now that videoconferencing is part of our daily routine, we habitually call on colleagues in London or Hong Kong in equal measure. Our clients are now able to benefit from a wider variety of perspectives and experience.
One aspect of developing client relationships erstwhile overlooked is the ability to work on documents together with a client through the screen share functionality on most video call platforms. This feature allows remote clients to collaborate on work products and provides tangible benefits such as faster turnaround times. This feature can be used to foster both professional and personal relationships.
This roll-up-your-sleeves shared working environment also lends itself to coordinated brainstorming with clients and colleagues that are physically distanced. Our technological enhancements, including webcams with broadcast-quality microphones and rings lights, replicate the intimacy of a traditional conference room. They provide lawyers and clients with opportunities to build a better understanding between themselves as individuals and business professionals.
One person's personal background could be a great source of talking points. These might include the view from their home or a picture that depicts their favorite sports team. A team can also benefit from an "interruption" by a child or pet at a meeting. These incidents have become so common that embarrassment and apologies have been a thing of the passé.
Many attorneys consider their annual bar conference a highlight in their professional calendar. It allows them to meet potential clients and build their personal and firm profile. For many people, dissatisfaction with the virtual substitutes has led to cancellations of almost all such conferences for a prolonged time.
The desert of despair is not the only place where there is opportunity for individuals and companies who are willing to face the challenge. We have seen first-hand the benefits of hosting remote conferences in place of similar events which used to be held in person. Virtual conferences allow participants to interact with a larger audience from a distance. The events can also be recorded and distributed more widely to those who are unable to attend in person.
When Dechert has hosted such conferences, it has given us the platform to enhance further client engagement by offering speaking opportunities to clients across the globe and to engage with their peers in the industry worldwide with the click of a button. This can be a great way to establish or cement a reputation for a lawyer or firm as a leader in their respective industries.
In a similar way, the pandemic has also resulted in significantly increased content creation, such as remote workshops, seminars, and webinars, as a way of interacting with contacts. If deployed well, this can also be a great tool to interact with existing or new clients and to continue to build a platform and reputation, especially as people are now much more willing to engage with such content. It is crucial to remember that quality should always be the priority when creating this type of content. There has been a lot of it and there has been a lot of saturation. Multitasking and zoom fatigue are real issues.
In this regard, the authors found that a focused, smaller and more thoughtful focus on topics that are of direct interest to clients during the pandemic and their expanded professional roles can be a welcome break from the hectic 24/7 work day. It is always a good idea to offer a product that provides specific value and saves time.
We have greater control over how our workdays are spent, and it is an inexorable fact that how we spend our day is how our life is lived. How will the changes made in the last 18 months translate into a post-pandemic future? With sharpened focus, sustainability and staying flexible with hybrid work policies.
We should not waste this greater freedom and flexibility to think, act and plan with increased purpose and intentionality as we work on our post-pandemic habits. It is important to practice being present in order to develop single-tasking skills amid the chaos of all the other matters.
Even though 2020 and 2021 were difficult, there are many opportunities. We now have a variety of new ways to improve our professional profiles, cultures and client service. For client service and business growth to be successful, there will have to be a healthy mix of the past and the future.
These opinions are solely those of the author. These opinions do NOT reflect those of Reuters News. Reuters News' Trust Principles require that it is independent, impartial, and free from bias. Westlaw Today is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.
Katherine A. Helm
Katherine A. Helm is a partner in Dechert LLP’s New York office. She is a regular speaker and writer about women leaders and the business of legal, both in the U.S. as well as in Europe. Helm founded the New York chapter of ChIPs, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting and advancing women in technology, law, and regulatory policy. Khelm@dechert.com can be reached. Nathan Smith is her co-author and she works closely on international discovery in a U.S. Pharmaceutical Patent litigation.
Nathan Smith is a senior associate in Dechert's London office. His practice focuses upon the international protection, development, and enforcement of intellectual properties rights. Katherine A. Helm is his co-author. Helm works closely with Katherine A. on international discovery aspects of U.S. pharmaceutical patent litigation.