How is the Legal Sector responding to, and learning from, the pandemic?

Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions works with over 40 law firms in the UK alone. On 1st April 2020, Bright Horizons hosted a webinar exploring the impact and insights from the global Coronavirus pandemic for law firms. The event was hosted by Iole Matthews, Coaching & Consultancy Services Manager with guests: Justine Thompson, Head of Inclusion & Diversity EMEA & Asia, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP; and Dana Denis-Smith, CEO and founder of Obelisk Support and Founder of First 100 Years and now Next 100 Years (‘Celebrating the past to shape the future for women in law’)

Top tips for law firms in our current times:

Justine Thompson, BCLP LLP

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate! – don’t underestimate the importance, both informally and on work-related matters. Thompson reports a huge priority on communicating with clients right now, understandably. What’s refreshing is the renewed energy found in connecting with clients & colleagues as human beings. Seek out ways to connect with internal teams and individuals in creative ways: from daily ‘water-cooler’-style catch-ups remotely, through to team video calls wearing whacky outfits. Though bear in mind that people need to be able to figure out when they have too much of this. Diaries have not emptied so let people be wise in managing their own time.

2. Be very flexible, pragmatic and kind regarding people’s home circumstances. For everyone, the biggest thing is the uncertainty: there is anxiety, not knowing how things will pan out, and isolation. For parents, juggling home schooling, it can be really tough right now: show support & flexibility. Don’t be prescriptive – what works for one may not work for another. Also, pay attention to the impact across the firm, including junior colleagues too. There are Junior lawyers, first seat trainees who joined a few days before home-working – this is a challenging transition. People in Admin roles, whose day-to-day tasks are usually very paper heavy, might feel lost with the sudden changes. Link people with external support; be flexible, pragmatic kind.

3. Resource people, and let your IT teams be heroes: Justine Thompson sees among the positives that people are getting better and more creative in using tech to communicate, including (sometimes reluctantly) using video. It’s time for a huge shout out to IT professionals, including those within BCLP who are stepping up, taking the initiative to audit what tools people have and what they need, reaching out to help those less digitised to be more so; making sure equipment is delivered.

Dana Denis-Smith, Obelisk

1. Focus on the team and their sense of purpose: everyone responds in a different way and their personal passions & purpose come in to it. How can you help them connect with their purpose, such as through charity work? Already, many people from Obelisk volunteered in the First 100 Years campaign. Now, some in the Obelisk team have family in the NHS or they have wanted to align with the essential and returning workforces in some way. Obelisk has been able to provide services to support in this area, to do so at a reduced rate, or pledge a share of profits, which the team finds purpose in doing: some lawyers didn’t know how else to help.

2. Focus on thriving, rather than warnings: Be inventive and resourceful: can you wrap service lines around your team’s availability to help them flourish? Try to avoid bombarding your people with notes on how to cope. You should offer tips & tools on how to thrive & feel positive but be careful not to panic them more!

3. Make peace with co-working at home and keep moving! It is a new reality. Many of us may be used to working from home, but it happens by ourselves, meaning we still have a new and difficult adjustment as a household right now. If you have family at home, you need to bring your family in on it, and agree how to work with each other in new ways. And keep moving, physically: set targets; find out what works for each of you – your way of achieving 10K steps without social contact. Keep focused on outcomes with your exercise.

What will law firms stop, start or sustain as a response?

Even during a pandemic, it’s important as far as possible to be strategic about what we carry on, what we close down and what we can continue. This remains true despite happening at pace. It matters that – where possible – programmes designed for longer-term impact and engagement can continue. What does this mean in practice?

 At BCLP, the firm has sustained several key programmes even in these changed circumstances:

· Coaching provided by Bright Horizons Work+Family Solutions continues to be a vital resource for those combining work and family, including parent transition coaching. Justine Thompson reports speaking with one lawyer recently who found this coaching invaluable particularly now, citing the value of being able to draw on someone who isn’t your manager, to gain an independent perspective, and have an objective, coaching-style conversation.

· Other initiatives to continue include the firm’s Amplify programme, a female-only personal impact programme culminating in participants giving a TED style talk for clients and colleagues. The programme increases the visibility and profile of women within BCLP.

· The firm’s exciting ‘Partner 101’ programme also rolls on; unpicking what’s involved in becoming a partner, with the intent to level the playing field. Aimed at those who aspire to partnership at the firm, or those who are curious, Partner 101 offers a series of sessions building an in-depth overview of the BCLP partner promotion process, including timeframes, business case requirements, the stakeholders involved and other insights.

At Obelisk, alongside, a continuing emphasis on ‘virtual first, other ongoing initiatives include:

· Supporting resilience and mental health are more important than ever: this has included running a session with Law Care on building resilience, and providing access to coaches to help lawyers with resilience and wellbeing, as well as being alert to picking up signals, which may not be so easy in lockdown. People are caught in lockdown in different ways – some with family, some without. Set up smart ways for people to communicate their needs, for example with instant messaging so you can be alerted to urgent needs.

· ‘Women Who Will’ – an initiative to identify future women leaders which will continue.

· And the firm’s global Photography competition for lawyers carries on, with the theme of ‘displacement’ – set before the rise of the novel coronavirus but now especially apt!

What will be the lasting impact of all this?

Justin Thompson celebrates the way this enforced change to working patterns will ‘finally will bust through remaining barriers about agile working for those used to coming in to offices’ and new habits will be formed, within and beyond the firm.

Dana Denis-Smith comments that each crisis amplifies good & bad behaviours. We are seeing new realities dawning in areas of the economy, not all for the good. There are positives: Dana is seeing the stars and breathing fresher air in central London, and seeing people understand the need to shop locally in the longer term. However, we must be careful not to downplay aspects around equality that could be left behind.

· Denis-Smith comments that one challenge among many is that of sustaining the progress made on women’s pay and on closing the Gender Pay Gap. ‘In wider society, women tend to be on the front line and underpaid – we need to continue to sing their praise’.

· In the home, there will also be an increase in abuse which we need to be aware of, and to acknowledge.

· As a campaigner, Denis-Smith is determined to avoid remote working getting a bad name: we must not leave people thinking that this – done in crisis mode – is what we mean by remote working.

· What about our young people, including aspects such as University admissions – there are many question marks. How best should we set them up to thrive?

Iole Matthews wraps up this interesting conversation concluding that it is important not to romanticise the crisis – it holds promise for a rethink though is not in itself a solution to climate change. We must remain vigilant on matters such as the perception of women, and also of flexible working since the current arrangements do not in any way represent the norms of home working where childcare would be in place. However, among the positive impacts, values and kindness do come to the fore.

Justine Thompson enthuses that the crisis is in some ways a great leveller in the workplace for law firms – all are going through this, whether partner or new trainee. In a relatively newly-merged firm, this situation permits a new confidence & comfort in connecting virtually with global colleagues. Dana Denis-Smith adds that we should keep noticing that our people continue to work, in spite of everything; and we should remember this. Trust people.


Jennifer Liston-Smith 

Head of Coaching, Consultancy & Thought Leadership at Bright Horizons UK