7 reflections on working with lawyers during COVID-19

7 reflections on working with lawyers during COVID-19

09 January 2022 By Stuart Barnett

The lessons of the last two years offer much insight into this coming year, writes Stuart Barnett.

  1. You need time off. Time off is probably not enough.

Call it burnout, brownout, or just run-down. COVID-19 has taken its toll, a toll not necessarily seen in metrics, obviously. In general, law firms are doing very well. But everyone needs some time off, a break.

The challenge for those super active minds is detaching yourself from work, and this most likely needs a strategy. Switching off tends to be a learned skill, and one only developed in practice.

The benefits of switching off are many. You can only get them by doing it.

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  1. Working from home blurs the work/life balance.

Great to not have to commute, be able to pick up kids, put the washing on. Not so great for having a natural bookend to the day. There is no simple solution to this, but definitely, setting boundaries is a vital step. 

  1. Culture is set by your senior partner or the partner you report to.

Working from home only heightens the fact that how you experience a law firm will depend largely on the culture set by your supervising partner and, to a lesser extent, the people in your team, regardless of what your firm’s values might say. Different partner, very different firm experience.

If you are a partner: you are setting the culture.

There are some great leaders out there: you tend to realise your managing partner/supervising partner is a great leader after you leave.

  1. It’s all about the money; it isn’t about the money.

Worried about talent wars? Be the great leader. This isn’t easy, and most likely, if you are a fantastic lawyer, not your natural skill set. It’s a process, but one that can be fast-tracked with some good mentors and guidance.

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It’s rarer than it used to be, but unfortunately not extinct: you can smash the metrics and be a very poor leader.

Talent wants more than just money. The challenge is that talent is not a homogenous commodity; they are driven by different things. Good leadership understanding the drivers of your team. This is an art.

  1. Wellness and mental health are now a larger part of the conversations in law firms, but no one gets promoted for their exceptional wellness practice.

There are some really good mental wellbeing policies and practices put in place throughout COVID-19, but very few are talking about where mental health ends and competency starts. If you can’t do the long hours or keep pace, is that a mental health issue?

A toxic culture is not solved by everyone being more resilient.

  1. If you don’t set your work/life agenda, your work will.

The cost of success in the law firm is long hours and heavy workloads. Some people are better at this than others. Those that set boundaries have more sustainable careers.

I spend a lot of my time with aspirant partners developing and refining business plans and partnership applications and with partners building practices; more attention is given to how these might be achieved in a sustainable way.

At the heart of every good BD plan should be a discussion about how this is done in a sustainable, personality-adapted way.

  1. Hybrid workplaces are here to stay, but they are not a natural fit for BigLaw.

Hybrid is a great idea, but maybe a compromise solution to the fact that law firms did well with the office closed – something unheard of and completely unseen prior to COVID-19 – and the reality that many people still want an office experience.

To make it work effectively, lawyers need to ensure they get both the benefits of working in the office and working at home. If you turn up to the office and have almost no human interaction, you might as well have stayed at home.

Stuart Barnett is a thought partner and coach.

7 reflections on working with lawyers during COVID-19
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