As its first topic of focus, the Council of Luminaries has decided to have regular meetings to discuss the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal industry as they materialize. The objective is to identify developments in the market, at both clients and firms and to explore potential solutions and make predictions on where things go from here. Key takeaways from each meeting will be published for the public following each discussion.
The below meeting was conducted primarily with the client-side group.
Return to Work
None of the group members reported that their companies are hurrying to force a return to the office.
One group member’s company planned to take a two-phased approach, starting with pilots in each region, and simultaneously, a permanent return to work but only for certain groups. But they didn’t get much uptake for the permanent return. Most of the pilots have been postponed as well because of the rising numbers. They did start two pilots with a small number of employees and many restrictions. The employees are not in their normal workspaces, and there are daily meetings to gain an understanding of what the experience is. It has generally been popular. This is company-wide – not limited to the law department.
Another group member reports they are starting gradual segments – only those who need to come to work, the company has marked the floor, asked them to bring own food, etc. This is due to start in early August but may be pushed back. This company’s manufacturing lines have been fully up since May.
A third, whose global HQ is in New York, says their company has been cautious, in large part because the business does not really require people to be co-located. For the law department, in July they started to allow some essential workers back in NYC, mostly for those who felt strongly they needed to go back, Mostly it depends on people’s comfort levels. This member does not expect it will be anything close to normalcy in this calendar year. They also believe this is a great big reset on the way people are thinking about real estate – should there be more of a push toward WFH.
The recent wave of social justice has taken priority over “return to office” at many companies. Leadership has been focused on these issues. What can we do? How aggressively? Return to office has been second tiered. It hasn’t made much difference that everyone’s remote.
The social unrest has been an issue: people are feeling unsafe to return to city - not just due to Covid but due to unrest in cities like Seattle and Dallas where there’s been uncertainty with protests, etc. Employees have been expressing concerns.
Some employees are starting to ask if they will be paid more for coming back to the office, “if you want me to risk my life, pay for dry cleaning, pay for commute you should pay me more.” Others are asking for more if they work from home.
While some of our Luminaries’ companies have made a commitment to the employees to not lay off this year, some think that next year is going to be a rude awakening as the top line suffers. “Next spring bets are off on some of these promises.”
Work from Anywhere
Some are starting to ask if people will need cars. And what will happen with all that office space downtown. Facebook for example will allow people to live anywhere, but are adjusting pay downward for those who live in lower cost location outside of Silicon Valley. One group member wondered if they will start to look for people in lower cost locations.
Another group member reports that their company has already put some real estate projects on hold.
Th group also discussed what the office will look like, with a general disdain for open floor plans that do not enable privacy and confidentiality. Even in instances where legal is exempt, the walls are often not soundproofed, and the issue is not properly thought out. And hoteling makes sense on the surface, but has never really worked before, especially for women who can have a lot more stuff and can need more privacy.
Managing a Distributed Workforce
An even bigger question, perhaps, is how to manage remote employees. Many managers, especially in legal, tend to manage based on time spent. But that is difficult in a remote environment. Managers who manage by deliverables are more likely to succeed.
One Luminary pointed out the irony: We’ve been working to get firms off of hourly bills because the number of hours doesn’t really matter. We need to shift that thinking to our own people.
Another group member mentioned his company’s manager readiness program. Some people are good at managing people remotely. But many managers are not prepared to manage from a distance. It’s a skill, it’s hard and you have to be consistent. For example, you have to be sure to ask for action of your people, as opposed to just checking in. The company is starting to make it part of the leadership training.
There was an article recently that was excoriating those who monitor availability on Teams, etc., which is not a substitute for productivity.
It all goes back to goals and objectives – are they hitting those? We need to come up with a strategy for portfolios of legal work with clear goals and objectives and judge our people accordingly. It shouldn’t be a big leap. We should be able to assign work to outside counsel that way.
One Luminary mentioned that an impediment is the partnership model, which impedes innovation. But the key is to incentive firms to innovate so they can be more profitable.
Outside Counsel Guidelines and RFPs
One group member mentioned that their organization is rewriting its outside counsel guidelines and that currently it’s a poorly managed program – some of their firms don’t even realize they exist. - not even sure the firms know of it. They are trying to say that they don’t just care about results, but want to know how you the firm got there. For examples: quarterly business reviews, with diversity and mentoring, etc. “We want them to show some of the soft things that we are looking for partnership.”
They mentioned that one of the value-adds is they want to know actively understand how the firms are approaching innovation and driving cost down and keeping quality same or better. They want to know who is leading that and perhaps it should not be an attorney?
Another group member mentioned their RFP process for the panel. “We put a limit on how many people the firm can bring, but some of them have to be non-lawyers. One firm we really liked lost, and we told them it was because their LPM was not good enough. So they brought someone else in. Then we sat down at annual meetings. And it seemed that they were still just working the old way. We asked ‘What are you doing? Where are the dashboards?’”
“Where are the Dashboards” could be the title of a Legal Ops memoir.
Another group member mentioned that feedback can go into requests for fee increases and those measurements can impact their ability to get rates. Which they only allow every 2 years (and firms do not push back on the bi-annual timeframe).
It is also important to be careful on evaluations, as in-house counsel can nitpick on the scoring against the firms they really didn’t want to use. It’s almost a certainty that the data will have to be massaged.
It’s unfair - and you won’t get the results you want - if you don’t share your perspective of the firms performance and how they are being evaluated back to them. We’d love to have and share real-time data back to our firms every day. That way they could manage their people to those metrics on an ongoing basis. It’s the fairest way and the best way to affect change.