Lessons from NewLaw firms on handling the COVID-19 crisis

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] June 29, 2020

The agility of NewLaw firms has been clearly demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis and presents lessons that traditional law firms would be wise to learn and implement, writes Catherine Brooks.

With the COVID-19 outbreak and the requirement to work from home, law firms have been quickly forced to pivot and set up systems to try to sustain their businesses.

Many traditional law firms have had to scramble and fundamentally redesign their services to maintain productivity, but most NewLaw firms have had the luxury of being able to continue to provide support for their clients with minimal disruption, even at the peak of the pandemic.

Benefits of NewLaw

NewLaw firms are uniquely placed to take on the challenges that COVID-19 poses because they have been set up to be agile and flexible.

These aren’t just buzzwords: being flexible and agile means being adaptable and willing to try new things. It means more than just saying that you’re a flexible and agile business, and then returning to those ‘traditional ways of working’.  It must form a core component of your business structure and be embedded into your daily processes.

One way in which businesses can foster this way of working is to ensure that they have the correct infrastructure in place. This may mean, for example, moving away from the traditional paper file to an online document-management system or the cloud; streamlining the management of team workloads; and providing your employees with the tools to remain interconnected (that is, phones, laptops etc).

For firms that have never embarked on such a journey before, it can be a scary experience to pivot to something completely foreign, and this can often lead to to scepticism and aversion. However, with many new graduates and young lawyers easily becoming disillusioned with the constraints of the traditional law model, there is a strong shift towards  look at better ways of working, and COVID-19 offers a unique opportunity for bigger firms to take the leap of faith.

Staying adaptable

During COVID-19, there have been many stories of traditional law firms that just haven’t been able to move into the work-from-home transition as quickly – or as seamlessly – as NewLaw firms. This is because of a lack of process for this type of situation, but also the reliance on outdated systems and structure, which make it difficult to pivot.

By contrast, at the outbreak of COVID-19, NewLaw firms were prepared to transition into the ‘new normal’ – and, as long as everyone was interconnected, where you worked from didn’t  matter. Although COVID-19 has shaken up the industry immeasurably – including NewLaw firms in part – firms such as Law Squared have experienced a much smoother transition because of the inherent focus on the flexibility of the model.

But what about clients?

Fortunately, what NewLaw firms have been able to do, relative to other pockets of the profession such as BigLaw, is keep continuity of service for our clients regardless of these external factors. So for us, it’s business as usual.

On the other side of the coin, many traditional law firms have noted a disruption in productivity levels, even after some have already brought back particular partners and senior staff into the office. The transition to working remotely and flexibly has been a massive undertaking for some, and from all reports has led to some level of brewing discontent with their clients because they just weren’t ready or able to respond quickly enough to the crisis.

From a NewLaw perspective, though, there typically hasn’t been this level of client disruption and this has been the advantage of the NewLaw model during these unprecedented times.

Pain points – and solutions

Throughout this abrupt transition, BigLaw and NewLaw firms have come up against differing pain points. For BigLaw, the big concern was the movement from the office environment to the home environment and navigating the competing needs of business productivity against the needs of the client. In turn, for NewLaw it was about the need to tweak existing systems of work already in place but which could be better optimised and adapted to work for everyone during this unprecedented time.

Despite being forced into this transition and having to navigate it as it comes, a lot of good has come from weathering this storm, as it has forced firms from both sides of the fence to consider new ways of working. What we have learnt through this transition is:

  • that traditional ways of working are not conducive to everyone, and the concept of the ‘traditional workplace’ is becoming a thing of the past;
  • that a relationship built on mutual trust between employees and their employer is highly conducive to creating a more satisfied and productive workforce;
  • that staying connected is the key to ensuring that your employees feel supported and stay motivated; and
  • that remote work and flexible work is not something we should shy away from as it can pay dividends, both for the employer and their employees.

What lessons can traditional law firms take from NewLaw?

In my opinion, there needs to be an acceptance that there are always ways to improve, and that we should be constantly adapting our service offering and the way we deliver it. There was no way that firms (including NewLaw and traditional law firms) could have completely prepared for an unprecedented health and economic crisis, but recent events show that firms which were in the mindset of adapting were more easily able to pivot once it did hit.

At Law Squared, we are always looking for new ways to change the conversation that people have around lawyers. We want to look at ways that we can improve how we work as individuals and as teams for the betterment of our clients. With this in mind, we were already set up to work from home and we believe that our clients felt this.

Some of the key tips that we would give to law firms are:

  • continue to focus on fostering interconnectedness, both within the team but also with your clients and partners;
  • have an open approach to flexible working and remote working (and use this to target prospective employees that you might not otherwise be able to hire);
  • have the right infrastructure in place to deal with changes to the workplace (such as ensuring that your IT systems are effective and accessible to all employees); and
  • focus on your recruitment of new employees who are adaptable and enthusiastic to learn new skills.

If firms take the opportunity to establish a more adaptable and agile workplace that is client-centric and values-driven, they will reap the rewards that NewLaw firms have already enjoyed. But if they fail to take heed of the lessons that COVID-19 can deliver, it is likely that the divide between traditional law and NewLaw will only increase. This will lead to further disenchantment for not only their employees, but for the traditional law firms and their partners, too.

Catherine Brooks is an Associate Director at Law Squared and an accredited specialist in workplace relations. She is also the author of Let’s Make It Work, Baby!