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remote working

COVID-19: People-Focused Guidance for Lawyers and Leaders

March 2020
By David Pierce

Axiom got into the remote working business before there really was one. For 20 years we’ve been learning, honing, and sharing the things that make remote workforces work well. All the obvious guidance out there is right (e.g., communication should be frequent and clear, goals should be aligned, and phone and technology set-ups have got to work).

But I think everybody knows all that, so I won’t write about it here. 

Instead, I’m going to offer some practical and people-focused guidance in a moment where the personal and professional lives of lawyers are being upended. This applies to leaders in law firms, in-house departments, lawyers who are clients, lawyers who are serving those clients, and the broader universe of allied legal and compliance professionals supporting businesses, no matter where they are.   

  1. Transparency: Set expectations that are human and real about what it means to work from home right now. Like most other lawyers, I take great pains on conference calls to shield participants from any hint of noise or distraction in my space. I’ve seen many lawyers find that kind of shielding far more stressful than the thing they’re trying to shield their colleagues from. Dogs bark, kids cry, teenagers yell, and spouses and partners don’t always know you’re on a call. Landlines, if you still have one, ring. Let’s agree as a profession that these distractions are going to be pronounced right now with schools closed and offices shut down, and let’s establish that no one needs to hide those things today. Be upfront about interruptions that might send signals of distraction, but aren’t actual ones. If you do need some amount of flexibility in certain moments, windows, or whole days, call that out. If you’re a leader, you doing that will make your team feel comfortable doing it, too. That’s obvious advice for people with leadership experience, but not every leader in legal has years of actual leading under their belts.
  2. Empathy: Be attuned to the disruption impacting your team in this moment, and be vocal about it with the people you’re trusted to lead. Many firms have published great guidance for external and internal clients on a litany of COVID-focused challenges and threats, but have yet to make that sort of out-loud statement about the impact to their own employees. Have you acknowledged the uncertainty and doubt they might be facing but are hesitant to vocalize? The projection of steadiness in stormy seas is a foundational lawyer trait. Look for people who are masking the impact on their lives and reach them in a way that works. A lawyer who feels supported and connected is far more effective and productive than one who doesn’t. They go above and beyond, again and again. The data and our own experience over thousands of attorney engagements bear that out.

  3. Connectivity: Ensure that your people feel and keep a true connection to your firm or company mission, and even more importantly, to each other. It’s a myth that constant physical proximity is correlative to connectedness. There are companies and teams where physical presence is required, like product organizations that move at lightning speed and require real-time interaction and physical inspection. But I think that we’re about to discover that in moments where physical presence isn’t possible, connection can flourish. Even in the current climate, remote work enables autonomy, and autonomy is directly linked to job satisfaction and a feeling of connection. Good technology obviously helps. Videoconference software is so technically strong these days it can feel indistinguishable from magic, and collaboration tools like Slack and Skype are everywhere. Basic versions of these things are often not expensive, and sometimes they’re built into technology packages most larger companies already have.

Time will tell if virus-triggered changes to the way we work will last, and whether what happens next will bring a more sustained change in attitudes towards remote work. Either way, I think it’s important to note that what makes people good at - and satisfied with - their jobs will never really change. Do they feel supported? Do they feel connected? Do they have the skills and tools they need to do their work? 

In my ten years at Axiom, I’ve seen thousands of remote engagements where the answers are resoundingly yes. 

For more actionable advice and help navigating these uncertain times, check out David's article 3 Ways Leaders Can Improve Remote Work for Lawyers in Law 360 and download our checklist for lawyers and legal departments to manage COVID-focused risk.

Posted by David Pierce