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Running down our capital assets? Part one – The health of our people

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Let’s face it, law firms have had a good pandemic on the whole. Most of the Managing Partners that I talk to are anticipating (after a very nervous start) to have either their best, or their second-best year ever, in profit terms. That’s good news for the profession, and especially so for the law graduates that I see each year who, piled up with debt, worry about whether there will be jobs for them to go to.

But, and I think it is a big but, the capital assets of law firms are suffering. For once I don’t mean money, but I mean the health of their people, the strength of their client relationships and the culture inside their firms. Many Managing Partners are equally concerned – “We are spending our cultural capital when we work remotely” one told me. Another talked of living off the relationship capital of the past with clients. And a recent survey of law firm clients mirrored this, with a substantial majority of clients saying that their relationships with law firms were weaker now than 12 months ago. These are all signals of danger ahead.

All very understandable, but what can we do? I have been interested to see different firms approaching these issues in different ways, so I wanted to look at each of the three areas in turn and explore possible actions that will preserve these capital pillars of a firm.

The health of our people

Even my most introvert friends, who initially almost welcomed lockdown, are now missing the warmth and nurture that comes from meeting regularly with other humans. And working at home has been especially hard for those with young children, and young people living in shared or just cramped accommodation. I saw an initial flurry of team quizzes, drinks after work (I was impressed by the one that delivered a variety of cocktails for people to make and try at home) and similar team get togethers. But it’s clear that these are no real replacement for the day-to-day mingling and banter that used to form an important part of daily working like in Europe and the Americas (Asia and Australasia seem to be closer to reclaiming some of this).

One of my colleagues has been carrying out research in this area for a number of large law firms and a new approach is emerging as a potential bridge to keep people sane during what looks like a much-extended period of lockdown. In the USA I hear talk of office returns in the summer, but in Europe I hear more often September or October 2021. Even then, no one predicts a complete “return to the old normal”. So how can we help our people to stay sane during this period?

What changes can help?

One solution emerging is to use a “Counselling Mindset”. There is a good model for this approach. Many years ago, law firms asked Partners to act as coaches to their teams (and to each other). In fact, Daniel Goleman in his seminal research on business leadership*, identified the coaching style as one of the most effective in practice. This wasn’t about all of those in leadership positions giving up their day job in order to retrain as professional coaches. But it was about understanding coaching principles and the huge benefits of supporting staff to develop their own solutions and realistic timetables, rather than just seeking to tell them what they must do. All of the Partners that I worked with and saw trialling and practicing this coaching approach spoke well of the results.

A Counselling Framework uses a similar approach to coaching, but is more willing to explore the emotional content of a person’s current position. This is where we are starting to see a real difference. Rather than simply checking in on a colleague’s well-being and being satisfied with standard response of “I’m fine” counselling digs further. Honestly, at the moment, no one is fine. It’s about recognising that and creating a safe space for these emotional responses to be uncovered and supported. This research is at an early stage, if you would like to take part in this research and understand more about how your own staff are coping in the pandemic, please get in touch.

What we have seen so far is Partners, in particular, need now to set aside actual time for themselves and their team to support each other through this difficult period. Time invested in a supportive way (we would say in a counselling way) will, we believe, pay off many times over in the next couple of years.

In part two of this insight Kevin looks at the erosion of Cultural Capital – the glue that holds the firm together.

*Leadership that Gets Results. Daniel Goleman. Harvard Business Review Reprint R00204