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React, Rethink, Reimagine: How law firms have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic

Just as the world’s medical professionals’ fight against this pandemic is far from over, our firms’ responses to managing in a changing world are also far from over.  The legal sector’s response to the pandemic has morphed from a sprint into a marathon, with the emergence of three key stages: React, Rethink, and Reimagine, as Peter Owen, founder of Lights-On Consulting explains.

The first government mandate to ‘work at home if you can’, necessitated a sprint-like, fast-react, ‘get things working in any way you can’ approach.

Then, as remote and hybrid working patterns began to settle, law firm leaders and their IT teams and advisers began to take a longer-term and more strategic view to rethink and reimagine a future for their firms in a post-Covid world.

Throughout all this, there has been an ever-growing and essential reliance on technology to communicate, work and progress the business, whilst being able to ‘work anywhere’.

Thinking back to the ‘React Phase’ of March 2020

During the initial phase of the pandemic, the sprint if you like, we were all made nervous with the fear of the unknown, fear for the health of our nearest and dearest and a general sense of unease at how long this would last for.

Whilst each law firm had a different technology infrastructure, the pandemic gave everyone a focused goal – to work at home effectively and efficiently.  Many firms had to effectively build a pontoon to ‘do the job.’

The pandemic also accelerated some projects: a roll-out of video conferencing may have been on the agenda, but its adoption was expedited by the homeworking requirement.

Thankfully, everyone was in the same boat.  Most clients were also working from home; they too had to contend with bandwidth issues, homeschooling, elderly care and Zoom/Microsoft Teams fatigue.

Training provision also had to be delivered remotely, with ‘screen takeovers’ and existing training models stretched to make them work.  IT support teams had to react to deliver technical support to lots of individual remote ‘offices’.

Huge amounts were delivered at pace – and firms should congratulate themselves (and their IT teams!) for this.  Headaches around printing, IT security and inventory management (do you know exactly what kit everyone has at home?) all had to be tackled and pragmatism has often been the order of the day to keep things working.

The pontoon had done the job – but it must be recognised as a temporary solution.

The ‘Rethink Phase’

During the rethink phase, successful law firms addressed the ‘react’ phase actions and began to embed improvements in remote support.  However, many of the technology features that were implemented within the ‘react’ phase are still here.  The question is, do you want them to become permanent?  Are they fit for purpose or do you need to rethink them so that they are suitable for the firm now and in the future?

  • It is also important to make sure that your IT teams and service desks are supported and feel connected. Having battled through the ‘react’ phase, IT teams need supportive management and a focus on their wellbeing.
  • In effect, using technology, you need to recreate the environment you had in your support desk where problem identification is easy. It was far easier with people in an open-plan room to spot the escalation of similar support calls indicating you had a major outage starting – now, it is not so easy and you have to rely on technology, or constant monitoring, to spot emerging problems and react quickly.
  • You also need to replace the morning “stand-ups” when you quickly and efficiently delivered an update to all your support staff personally and were able to read the room and see who “got it” and permit questions and challenges. This is harder to re-create in a virtual world.

Other key considerations in the rethink phase include:

  • Planning for feature releases, Microsoft 365, patching and patching technology;
  • Establishing more permanent home working set-ups;
  • Security review and improvements – we still have to maintain certifications;
  • Reviewing disparate technologies rolled out in the react phase to ensure they match the long-term strategy for the firm;
  • Considering your usage of landline telephony;
  • Post-room / paperless solutions;
  • Reviewing warranty support on laptops and other equipment and understanding what you are covered for;
  • Planning for updates/upgrades that might break support connectivity between you and your customers leaving you disconnected and unable to repair the damage from the update!
  • Re-establishing inventory management after the rapid switch to homeworking.

The ‘Reimagine Phase’ – a springboard for change

Our conversations with clients, together with wider market surveys, do suggest a need for strategic acceptance of long-term change in working practices.  Law firm leadership teams have the opportunity to consider and to ‘reimagine’ what sort of firm they want to become, and to use the experiences of 2020 as a springboard to establish new ways of working.

As one example, the Managing Partner Forum’s monthly tracker of 26 CEOs and C-Suite members at mid-sized professional services firms suggests, 46 percent of law firms expect to have half of their workforce working from home after the pandemic.

This is very similar to a wider survey conducted by Harvey Nash (Harvey Nash CIO Survey 2020), which found that 43 percent of CIOs believe more than half of staff will remain homeworkers.

  • One large regional law firm’s detailed analysis suggests its staff working practices will be along these lines:
  • 15 percent full time in the office – people who can’t work from home, junior members of staff and those needing supervision
  • 75 percent ‘agile working’ – a mix of home and office
  • 10 percent full-time homeworking
    • This mix probably feels familiar to many readers and, once the exact balance is worked out, you need to assess the knock-on effect on infrastructure and peripheral requirements – IT, HR, facilities and so forth.
    • Health and wellbeing must also receive detailed attention. Familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Without understanding this, a law firm won’t change.

As well as promoting good mental health, law firms need to be thinking about physical health.  If people are sat at their computers at home and not moving much during the day, consider what you can do to promote good desk health and getting up and about, in order to avoid a series of bad backs and long-term health niggles in the future.

Another great idea from a Lights-On client was to change the default Outlook meeting time to 20 minutes.  This keeps meetings focused whilst giving 10 minutes for overruns, debriefing, preparing for the next meeting and a chance to catch your breath before the next video call.

Another simple tip is to get into the habit of booking time before a meeting to prepare, and time after a meeting to write up notes and actions.  These can be colour coded using Outlook categories, so you know it is preparation and wrap up time. Booking preparation and wrap up time allows for far more productive meetings and prevents your PA or others (or more importantly dissuades you) from booking you in back-to-back meetings.

What about reimagining IT in our law firms?

Law firm leadership teams will need to work extra hard to address the wellbeing of our IT teams and to celebrate successes.

Working practices will start to shift with people working from home on a longer-term basis.  Early birds will want to start working earlier and night owls will be working later.  This will mean that service hours also need to extend.  How will you staff this?  Planning is essential to deliver this as service must feel the same whether you are at home or in the office.

Do you need a single ‘support’ contact number? Call Vodafone, BT, British Gas and you have one number that is routed accordingly.

Talk to your IT director about cybersecurity and ensure you are comfortable that your measures will protect all the ‘villages’ as well as the castle.

Revisit the decision to keep servers on-site.  A move to the cloud removes the tether to your real estate and provides more flexibility.

Embrace paperless working.  Many law firms have been battling with a transition to a paperless environment.  One of the benefits of the pandemic is that ‘paperless’ is no longer a bad word – paper ‘lite’ is no longer enough and now is the time to drive your firm towards as paperless an environment as clients, the courts and third party services will allow.

The need to take a holistic approach.

In our experience, the firms that have been the most successful in adapting to the Covid environment are those that have taken a holistic approach.  They have recognised that it’s not just about the technology, the IT department, the lawyers or the clients – it’s how they work together.

It’s understanding that you can’t simply roll out a new piece of technology without considering how you will provide the support, how you will train it, how you will encourage usage – and how it impacts on other areas of the firm, including governance and regulatory matters.  Above all, as you may now be a little “separated”, it is important to consider your colleagues in other support functions and how it might impact finance, facilities marketing and so on.

As a simple example, take the Zoom vs. Microsoft Teams debate.

Back in March 2020, many law firms deployed Zoom for their video calling.  It was cheap, it was easy, and it worked.

Then, as firms had time to properly think about their communications and their remote working telephony and collaboration, Microsoft Teams emerged as a contender.

You’d just got your people comfortable using Zoom… and then you had to get their buy-in to Teams and overcome resistance to change: the ‘oh not another bit of tech / not another platform to learn’ type reaction.

Zoom, in the main, constrained itself to Video Conferencing and so was a “safe option”.  Out of the box, Microsoft Teams delivers facilities for people themselves to set up file sharing sites, presence and calendaring with externals which could ride rough-shod through your collaboration and document management strategies, let alone security, and can be somewhat cumbersome to administer if your people are not au fait with Micrososft365.

This is where you need a holistic approach across the technology, your IT team and your people, to ensure not only a successful roll-out, but that your other practices such as document sharing, and client confidentiality are not compromised.

In other words, the more forward-thinking firms have taken the time to draw a breath and think strategically and holistically about the interplay between technology, the IT department and their lawyers.

It’s clear that change has happened.  Fortune has favoured the bold and now is the time to embed new working patterns and practices.  Out of the awfulness of the Covid-19 pandemic can come an enormous opportunity for your firm to reimagine its future, invest in technology and in your IT team.

Peter Owen

Peter Owen

Lights-On Consulting Limited
Peter is the Founding Director of Lights-On Consulting with over 30 years’ experience in IT. In addition to leading the Lights-On team, Peter provides high-level practical and strategic consultancy to several legal and professional services firms.