Building law firms back better post pandemic

The prospect of soon being able to embrace family and friends reminds me of the teenager who bought a book on eBay entitled ‘How to Hug’ and was galled to discover it was Volume 6 of Encyclopedia Britannica. That poor teenager could easily have been me. I once ordered The Wallis Family Global Directory via an advert in my dad’s Reader’s Digest magazine to find even my own family wasn’t in it.

‘Building Back Better’ is fast becoming the world’s slogan - from budget decisions to bovine emissions. But the term is far from a new one. In fact, it’s been in disaster recovery parlance for decades. Perhaps not surprisingly, the collective shock and loss associated with a major catastrophe somehow seeds a desire in everyone not just to return to normal but to pursue a better normal.

With its customary stiff upper lip, the UK legal sector has weathered the pandemic storm amazingly well. Who would have thought that December 2020 would be reported as the highest billing month ever for the UK legal sector? But my guess is the numbers disguise growing tensions within many law firms, who are now adjusting to living with increased borrowings, pips that have been fully squeezed, and exhausted management and employees. And, for some at least, evaporating markets.

As we emerge like silky moles from our protective burrows, blinking in the sunlight, is it too early to draw any conclusions from our lockdown experience and, if so, what lessons have we learned that might help us build our law firms back better? It probably is too early, but here are some initial lessons that law firm leader friends have shared with us.

Lesson One - We will never take our clients for granted ever again. Ironically, lockdown has given us more time than ever to spend with clients, demonstrating just how much we value them and want to support them through difficult times - even if it has been on a fuzzy Zoom call interrupted by home deliveries and toddlers in nappies. The pandemic has taught us that this is the best marketing investment a law firm can make.

Lesson Two - We will never forget how our people rose to the challenge. Like many others providing essential services, those providing legal services have responded heroically to being forced to stay at home with barely any notice, create a fully functioning working environment in the spare room, and keep the plates of justice and commerce twirling for a year or more. If Sid James were still alive, Carry On Advising would be head-to-head with the new Bond film by now, at a cinema near you.

Lesson Three - We will never forget that without work on the desk, there is no need for a desk. I have been involved in marketing legal services for nearly 40 years now, as a lawyer and in various management roles, and in that time very little has changed - apart from the invention of the internet, websites, email campaigns, advertising, social media, and artificial intelligence, I suppose. Lockdown has given us all a much-needed jolt to fundamentally reassess our market proposition. It has taught us we need to ensure our services are relevant and needed by our target audience, to find new and compelling ways of communicating our unique selling points, to price our services so that our clients get value for money and we make some profit, and to have colleagues with the skills and attitude to back up our promises. Oh, and to have enough clients willing and able to pay our bills.

Lesson Four - Geography is no bar to growth. The sector’s enforced transition from face-to-face communication to digital communication has opened our collective eyes to a new world of opportunity. Whether it is where clients live and work or where staff live and work, we have learned that, with the right due diligence, culture, supervision, technology and broadband speed, the potential marketplace for work and workers can now grow exponentially. Jurisdiction permitting, of course.

Lesson Five - Cyber risk must be a standing management agenda item. Remote working has heightened the risk of allowing gremlins into our systems. It has taught us that, however careful we are, our management teams must remain on red alert and ensure our teams are properly trained, our outsourced IT contracts are properly negotiated and our insurance cover is properly placed.

Lesson Six - Premises are part asset and part albatross. There cannot be a law firm in the land that hasn’t had at least one discussion about this labyrinthine issue. Lockdown has taught us to expect the unexpected and build as much flexibility into our office facilities as possible. And perhaps to reconfigure them so they are environments our people actually look forward to working in.

Lesson Seven - Staff welfare is every law firm’s number one business priority. This may be a truism, but the pandemic has reminded us of the direct and inextricable correlation between personal wellbeing and business performance.

Lesson Eight - Leadership is having the body of a swan and the feet of a duck. Humility and humanity go a long way in a business leader, as does the occasional hint of vulnerability. But the last twelve months or so have shown that the defining quality in a business leader is the ability to set out a credible direction of travel, to inspire confidence when the going gets tough, and to create an environment where everyone can give of their best. Never since the financial meltdown of the late noughties has this been more important than it is right now.

So, as Nat King Cole once said, there may be trouble ahead, but while there's moonlight
and music and love and romance, let's face the music and dance.

Nigel Wallis