The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us all into a crisis of uncertainty. How does one stop a global pandemic? How long will it take to bend the contagion curve? How should the business community respond, to both the public health and financial challenges? How we as a nation, as individuals, and as businesses respond to these challenges, will reveal and test our values.
Sheppard Mullin’s Organization Integrity Group (“OIG”) helps our clients lead through their values. But, how do you lead with values in the face of an unprecedented threat that is impacting all of us at the same time? The media reports daily on the challenges governments, businesses, and other organizations face in attempting to balance their social responsibility to contribute to eliminating the public health risk against their competing obligations. Schools, for example, must weigh the public health benefits of closing against multiple other social services they provide: education, childcare, and, for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide, regular meals. Businesses must consider their obligations to their owners, employees, and customers. We are also seeing that many companies are considering how they can support those who are on the front lines of responding to this crisis as well as those who are suffering from it.
Law firms, including ours, are issuing blog articles, client alerts, and other briefings about the legal issues arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic – and rightfully so. But here, we discuss how law firms, including ours, have attempted and should attempt to balance the competing challenges we face as we attempt to serve our clients, protect our employees, and defend our values in the face of this unprecedented public health crisis.
Presently, all of our attorneys and employees are working remotely, except for a handful of essential personnel in each of our offices. We, like each of our peers, have become, a virtual law firm. That sudden, unplanned transformation presents a potential threat to our organizational integrity. Law firms’ core values are premised on client service, which is driven to a great extent by collaboration. Our bottom line is dependent on our people delivering high-quality legal services, wherever and whenever they are needed. The idea of meeting those needs on a telework platform took some getting used to, not to mention the technological challenges it presented.
Additionally, one of our firm’s core values is collegiality. We firmly believe that our success is tied directly to the relationships we are able to build with one another and our clients. We believe our longstanding team approach gives us a strategic edge in meeting our clients’ diverse legal needs, mentoring associates to partnership, and as important, promoting a work environment that is engaging, energizing, and professionally satisfying. In words particularly meaningful in the current crisis, we are a close-touch organization. We have resisted the trend in the legal profession toward remote work. Thus, for us, transitioning from our desks to (in some cases) our dining room tables is not merely a technological challenge, it is a challenge to one of our core cultural values and, thus, to preserving our organizational integrity.
As all of us continue to adjust to the our new operating environments while also attempting to prepare for what may be next, we discuss these fundamentals drawn from our experience trying to stay true to our culture. We suspect many, if not all, will ring true as you work to maintain your organization’s culture in the face of sudden, unexpected, and, with regard to Coronavirus, unprecedented threats.
1. Know Your Values. You need to know your organizational culture, values, and priorities before they are threatened by a crisis. For us, the remote work trend taking over the legal community shined a spotlight on our value of maintaining a collaborative work culture long before the Coronavirus. We had considered, debated, and ultimately rejected following that trend. Thus, when confronting the Coronavirus threat, we already knew our culture and its value to us. That knowledge informed our response.
2. Embrace Your Culture. A crisis is the time to embrace, not abandon, your culture. As the Coronavirus threat became imminent and the need for decisive action apparent, we could have turned inward, leaving the decision-making to a small-group of established leaders. Instead, however, consistent with our culture, we opened up our decision-making broadly, drawing upon the experience, insights, and expertise possessed across the firm. In framing your response to a crisis, remember, invaluable knowledge, skills, and experience can reside anywhere in an organization.
3. Assess Your situation. Because we are committed to working face-to-face, we perhaps were not as prepared as some other industries (like IT, say) to leap into remote working. Our first step was to assess what we had, what we needed (essentially a gap analysis), and how to get where we needed to be. For us, that entailed ensuring our technology was capable of supporting a 900-lawyer virtual law firm. We developed a plan to test our systems using small test groups in a few offices, then going office-wide, and, ultimately, firm-wide.
4. Get Ahead of the Curve. As the virus spreads through the nation, we are seeing evidence that cities that immediately appreciated the nature of the risk and acted promptly are experiencing greater success in flattening the curve, than those cities that equivocated. The same is true for organizations. Once a threat is identified, it is advantageous to act quickly and decisively, for example by transitioning to a remote work platform.
5. Communicate. It is no secret that the gossip mill is the fastest form of communication, and it seems to accelerate in a time of crisis. A firm’s management should send frequent messages to share what it knows, what it does not know, and what its plans are. At our firm, these messages were typically first communicated to key leaders in the firm, such as office managing partners, practice group leaders, and our professional managers. The messages kept firm leaders ahead of the information curve so that when questions arose they were in a position to share and reinforce management’s message, clarify confusion, and quell unfounded rumors. We then quickly convened all personnel in multiple different forums, to keep everyone informed.
6. Listen. Communication is a two-way street. It is critical that management solicit feedback. Assuring your constituencies, owners, employees, clients and other third-party stakeholders that you want to hear from them, increases the information available to you as you navigate the crisis. It also reassures your stakeholders that their needs and interests inform your decision-making.
7. Don’t Lose Sight of Your Mission. The purpose of crisis management is to survive. It cannot be permitted to divert all your attention from the business’s needs. A crisis by definition overwhelms your operating systems. Crisis management demands the ability to distinguish the immediate from the important. The ability to prioritize is essential. Make sure your business units have what they need (even if it is less than what they want) and are reporting what they are hearing from their customers. For us, internally, that meant ensuring business continuity with respect to both technology and personnel. Externally, it meant setting up teams to ensure that our attorneys had the information they needed to respond to the many questions posed by our clients.
8. Be Compassionate. Crises induce stress and people respond differently to stress. Crisis response will demand extra effort, potentially over an extended period of time. Some will rise to the occasion. Others may shut down. But everyone will be affected in some form. Yet, the collective commitment to waging the battle can discourage people from submitting to weakness, doubts, or anxiety. Additionally, a business crisis easily can have personal repercussions. Extra-long days can burden family members, for example. Personnel are trying to balance family and child care obligations with working from home. In the current crisis, the inability to come to work also can deprive personnel of an important social support network. Similarly, worry about the health risks to family members can be a source of great anxiety. Encourage your personnel to communicate their needs, including to an employee assistance program if your organization offers one. But don’t leave them on their own to take care of themselves. Pay close attention to how they are responding and do your best to give them the support they need.
9. Plan for What’s Next. Eventually the crisis will pass, but what’s next? Will it be back to business as usual, which is more likely in an acute crisis but less so in a prolonged one such as the current one? Post-crisis will there be a new normal? For us, we are thinking about the implications of remote working over a prolonged period for our collaborative culture. No doubt we will find ways of preserving our culture during this crisis, but what about after? Will it be back to business as before or will our response reveal new ways to preserve a collaborative, close-touch, culture among colleagues who work remotely? That is a question we are wrestling with as we also attempt to manage through the current crisis.
Those are our 9 lessons derived from our experience. We realize that it is traditional to offer 10 tips but we decided it more important to offer our nine good tips rather than delay to develop a tenth. We followed the maxim, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Oh, wait …
10. Don’t Let the Perfect be the Enemy of the Good. Crises invariably force you to act in the face of limited and imperfect information. It is easy to mistake meetings and deliberation for action. Don’t fall victim to paralysis by analysis. Make the best decision you can, on the best information you have in the time you have to act.
As we all grapple with the effects of hunkering down in order to do what’s right, Sheppard Mullin’s Organizational Integrity Group is reflecting on our own response and the challenges we are facing in this time. These are extremely difficult issues, and we still do not know all the ramifications of our choices. We look forward to staying in touch with you as we all work to defend our organizations’ integrity from the threats posed by the current health and economic crisis.
*This alert is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice and is not intended to form an attorney client relationship. Please contact your Sheppard Mullin attorney contact for additional information.*