Balancing act – how to manage expectations and your firm’s financial interests

As law firms reopen, Sharon Glynn asks how they can manage competing client expectations and their own financial interests now that attitudes towards work have been transformed.

As we emerge from the pandemic, work – and life – look different. Priorities have shifted. Returning to pre-pandemic ways of working and living won’t be easy.

Employees are asking themselves some big questions as firms begin to reopen.

Must I be at the office full-time – or even close to it – to do quality work? Am I willing to resume my lengthy daily commute to and from the office?

Employees have reaped financial and quality-of-life benefits from not commuting.

Indeed, in a recent survey by inCase, law professionals were asked about the prospect of returning to work and what aspects were most important to them.

The top response was retaining the option to work from home and 62% of respondents hoped to retain some flexibility within their role after the pandemic.

On the other hand, some employees may be yearning for a return to pre-pandemic life.

Junior lawyers may feel their career path is less clear, with fewer of the conventional opportunities for osmotic learning available.

Managers, too, may be wary of the long-term consequences of managing a far-flung team.

Law firms are making important decisions as well. The expense of urban, upmarket real estate may now seem unnecessary – particularly if employees are commuting to the office much less often.

(And according to this Financial Times report, statement buildings may actually seem old-fashioned, as offices are reinvented for the new environment.)

Are satellite offices and scaled-down urban real estate the answer? If real estate and teams become less concentrated in one location, what can be done to preserve the strength of the firm’s values and brand?

Of course, client expectations will play a significant role in how employees and firms manage all these concerns – and firms may feel those expectations may not have changed much in the past year.

Clients may expect the same high level of service and accessibility they had before the pandemic and during it, when many employees were working longer hours from home.

Forging a new path

Law firms will likely feel some push and pull from both employees and clients. They may also be swayed by competitors who are committed to the concept of a large firm with teams working face to face.

(Indeed, some senior partners at UK law firms have spoken out recently about their preference for full-time, office-based work.)

At a time when uncertainty remains about what the return to office work will look like, firms will need to quickly find their footing.

How can they best balance the needs of employees and clients alike?

Be up-front in your communication with clients to ensure continuity of service

Be clear with clients about who is supporting them on which projects and on which days.

“I say on my email footer that I work four days a week and what those days are, so it is always clear when I contact someone,” says Jon Hyde, director in the professional indemnity team at DWF Law LLP.

“I also called my key clients when I went part-time and let them know. I was touched by how supportive they were.”

Encourage employee flexibility when it’s possible – but respect boundaries

Sometimes it will be challenging to meet client needs within a team’s allotted working hours, and managers will ask for help and flexibility.

But regularly expecting employees to work into the evening or on weekends – or implying it’s necessary to get ahead – can damage morale and lead to burnout.

“I have a degree of flexibility, so if necessary, I will work on my non-working day to meet a client need, but those are exceptions as everyone is generally very supportive,” remarks Hyde.

“I think if you are organised and the clients know they can trust you, that goes a long way.”

Use tech tools to manage moving pieces, build relationships and foster trust

The increased comings and goings of employees will require more sophisticated scheduling tools to manage work.

Further, many of the technologies we have used to maintain contact during the pandemic will still be needed to keep employees connected with clients and each other.

“Recorded podcasts, in which different members of the firm can produce monthly updates to clients, are a great tool,” says Katie Heiden of Lockton Brokers, following her participation as a panellist on the recent Travelers Build Back Better webinar.

“They have a good reach, can help introduce new faces to clients and they only need to be a few minutes long.”

Look for new ways to connect

On the occasions when a team is together at the office, employees should maximise their interactions with senior colleagues and with each other.

When junior colleagues are working remotely, they should be invited to virtual meetings and mediations on a non-chargeable basis, so they can benefit from osmotic learning wherever possible.

Embrace the idea that we can bring our whole selves to work

One positive of the pandemic has been that the juggling of responsibilities in and out of work has been on full display – and we have had to flex to accommodate each other’s availability.

Clients have been operating in this environment as well, so they may be more understanding of new ways of working than firms might expect.

We have all had to be flexible in managing competing priorities throughout the pandemic, and as we emerge from it, continued flexibility will be needed as firms find their best path forward.

As firms prepare to bring people back to the office and manage ongoing remote work, it will be critical for them to make a clear-eyed assessment of the potential risks they face in managing teams and client work.

From there, they will benefit by using technology to elevate remote interactions and manage team schedules, and by communicating clearly, so employees and clients alike have realistic expectations about work in the post-pandemic environment.

Travelers Europe is an affiliate partner of the Law Society.

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