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Lawyers, Culture and COVID-19

Howlett Brown explores ways that legal employers can support and empower their employees during lockdown and beyond.

Many businesses are in crisis. Staff are being furloughed, and working practices are having to adapt rapidly in these unique circumstances. With daily announcements in the legal press, law firms and in-house functions are no exception as they prepare for the worst whilst hoping for the best.

‘Discretionary’ spend on the softer people initiatives will inevitably be scaled back in favour of battening down the financial hatches. That approach may well be the immediately prudent course, but management should not forget why those initiatives are necessary or underestimate the enormous cultural shift that is underway within organisations. Finding ways to understand the impact this crisis is having on staff and steer people through it with compassion and positivity will be key to businesses surviving in the long term and may even present opportunities for them to evolve and thrive.

Below are a few thoughts on what legal management should be thinking about:

1. Understand individual challenges. It’s a much-repeated assertion that the virus does not discriminate. But organisations need to recognise that people are affected differently by the restrictions and stresses on society. Management must actively question the impact of individual circumstances and take proactive steps to balance out pressures within a team and how these pressures change or evolve during the COVID-19 pandemic. Blanket performance assessments (for example using annual billable hours targets or how quickly someone responds to an email) are unlikely to fairly assess what staff suddenly have on their plates. If there is a culture of ‘game face’ - where people do not feel able to say they are struggling - senior lawyers and management should take the leap and self-disclose some of the personal pressures they are grappling with to start the discussion. It is important that check-ins of this type occur regularly as challenges and pressures may change throughout lockdown and as the pandemic continues.

2. Stay in touch. Staff may continue to be furloughed. Those who are will almost certainly be concerned that they are forgotten and will not have a job when the government support scheme ends. Proactively communicating with them and making them feel part of the team is an absolute necessity to help them manage that stress, whatever the final outcome for their role.

3. Share the financial pressure. Senior and revenue generating staff may well be the most critical right now but furloughing more junior and supporting staff is likely to give rise to tensions and suspicions that those with high salaries are being protected. This dynamic needs to be carefully assessed and decisions sensitively communicated, as shown by the recent public response to the now reversed decisions by highly profitable football clubs furloughing staff on low wages without millionaire players or management taking a pay cut.

4. Empower devolved management. Tone from the top is important, but culture can vary widely within any organisation so individual managers need to each be free to make decisions and communicate in whatever way works for them with support from HR and Management, offering flexible solutions for their teams. However, managing a wholly remote workforce is not easy. Those with management responsibilities also need help to ensure they are coping and engaging in the way that their people need.

5. Build a community role. The British bicycle company, Brompton, has rallied resources to provide its bikes to NHS staff so they can avoid public transport. McLaren has rapidly developed a new type of ventilator. Burberry is making PPE gowns for NHS staff. Businesses will be familiar with the normal individual and team pro bono activities that organisations generally encourage. But could this be an opportunity to build a much stronger team ethos across an organisation by encouraging ideas to support our society and economy through this crisis?

6. Plan for the what next. This crisis will end. But then what? People will have lost friends, family, and endured significant stresses in their lives that may persist. Rather than breathing a sigh of relief and returning to ‘business as usual’, organisations would be well advised to take stock and work out how the experience can bind a team together as a result of the shared experience and effort. Check in with people. Find out what did and did not work. Find out what the new normal should be and what lessons can be taken forward. Did the technology support a sense of team, what fell through the gaps in the approach taken by management and staff, what more could have been done by central management to set a strong tone from the top? What can your organisation do to continue to build a sense of wider purpose in the day to day.

Managers should also consider what ‘business as usual’ looks like in a phased reduction or post, lockdown era. Not all services will be up and running at the same time which may impact how employees can transition back into the office or to full time working capacity. Conversations and individualised transition plans will need to be considered as part the wider business continuity plans, to ensure that support is provided and there is a transparent and practical approach to work and business



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