By Tiana H. Hardison, esq.

During the Height of the Covid Pandemic, many law firms across the country became 100% remotely operational. Law firms realized they could remain highly functional and productive while operating thanks to high-speed internet, digital capabilities, robust case management software, paperless document systems, and remote platforms like Zoom and DocuSign.  

We now know that a law firm doesn’t “need” everyone sitting in their office cubicles and meeting in literal conference rooms in order to get the work done. Law firms can remain functional and operational in a remote model, with most if not all your employees working from home- but should we continue doing so? What are the Pros and Cons? 

PILMMA (Personal Injury Lawyers Marketing & Management Association) works with law firms all across the country. Here’s what we’ve found out:

  • Some employees were MORE productive when they worked from home during the pandemic
  • Some employees were less productive when they worked from home.
  • Some employees couldn’t wait to get back to the office
  • Some employees wanted to continue to work from home- if not all the time, at least part of the workweek.

HARVARD STUDY

For the past five years (well before Covid-19), Harvard Business School Associate Professor Prithwiraj Choudhury started studying a number of companies that implemented WFH (Work from Home) or WFA (Work from Anywhere) into their long-term business models. His study included organizations such as TCS, Zapier, and even the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which alone has several thousand employees working remotely.

THREE BIG BENEFITS with REMOTE OPERATIONS: Dr. Choudhury’s research uncovered several benefits to both business entities as well as individual employees.

Employer Benefits:

  1. Increased employee productivity
  2. Decreased real estate/overhead costs and
  3. Hugely increased potential talent pool for new hires

Employee Benefits:

  1. Increased quality of life
  2. Better work-life balance and
  3. Financial benefits like the flexibility to live in other locations where living costs are lower and eliminating commute expenses  

Choudhury also notes that “Millennials seemed captivated by the idea that working from anywhere would allow them to become ‘digital nomads,’ traveling the world while still employed.”(Choudhury, “Our Work from Anywhere Future,” Harvard-Business Review, Nov/Dec. 2020)

And let’s face it – lots of Law Firm owners discovered they LIKE working from home, too. There’s something to be said for managing a law firm from your back porch in your gym shorts or jammies, right? It is only natural that some of your employees who spent months with the freedom to do the same thing aren’t eager to resume the post-pandemic work schedule with long commutes, business attire clothing budgets, and the inflexible trappings that come with working in the brick and mortar building each day. Some just want to spend more time with their pets.

But whatever the individual employee’s motivations may be, the bottom line is that, like in so many other ways – the pandemic changed the way many people think about life and work. As this blog posts, PILMMA is hosting its PILMMA Mastermind Meetings in Key West and this very subject was one of the big topics many of our lawyers wanted to toss around – there were strong feelings and opinions.

Some members think it’s great and want to embrace this newfound flexibility. Other law firm owners in the group think it’s a terrible idea and don’t have any intention of allowing a single employee to work from home ever again if they can help it. (If you want to find out more about PILMMA Mastermind groups and if we have a place for you, go to www.pilmma.org)

But like Dorothy in The Wizard of OZ, we aren’t in Kansas anymore. The post-pandemic world has changed us and the world around us. It’s changed how many people live, work and play. It’s changed how many employees feel about their work-life and home life. It’s changed how many laws firm owners view their business, too.

And here’s the reality: We all know that happy employees usually mean increased productivity, improved customer service and higher staff retention. That being said, even if you are conceptionally opposed to the idea of allowing continued WFH options, there are some benefits to the model that merit consideration.

Let’s Dive into them…But how do these benefits translate to the law firm setting? 

*Lower Your Real Estate Overhead

If you can maintain a number of your employees in a WFH capacity, you will definitely be able to reduce the needed office space/overhead expenses of maintaining a full office.

*Make Hiring Super Talented Employees Easier  

Hiring talented A-team players has always been a challenge for most law firms- Making the decision to hire remote employees means increasing the potential candidate pool exponentially.

You are no longer stuck trying to find the best employees from those available in your backyard- Now the whole country- or globe is a hiring option- This can prove to be a huge benefit for law firm owners.

But what about productivity? Prior to COVID-19, many law firms were reluctant (that’s putting it mildly) to allow employee WFH arrangements out of concerns about the risk for decreased employee productivity. 

Ken Hardison, Founder and President of PILMMA, has worked with many law firms who were forced to take their firms remote during the pandemic. I asked Ken to weigh in on the remote productivity results PILMMA members experienced when forced to implement remote operations.

*For most firms, about one-third of the employees became even MORE productive working from home! 

*However, another one-third were less productive than when working in the office

*The remaining one-third remained at the same level of productivity, regardless of whether they were working from the home or office.

Given these mixed productivity results, creating a hybrid-business model that allows your most productive at-home employees to remain remote while bringing the less productive ones back into the office could give your firm the best of both worlds. 

THE CONS/CHALLENGES TO SUSTAINED REMOTE EMPLOYEES: Despite the clear advantages of incorporating remote employee positions into your permanent business model, there are some downsides too.

  • Communication can be more difficult. 
  • Collaborative teamwork is more complicated.
  • Shadow training, personal mentoring, visual supervision, and the employee socialization that strengthens teams are made more difficult.

Fortunately, there are Best Practices that you can put in place to overcome these challenges. (The Best Practices below are just the tip of the iceberg. PILMMA is all about giving law firm owners the tools, strategies, and insights they need to Scale their firms for rapid growth and greater success. Check us out at www.pilmma.org)

BEST PRACTICES FOR REMOTE LAW FIRM MANAGEMENT

The 4 C’S: Communication, Culture, and Camaraderie and Case Management Systems

COMMUNICATION IS KEY: While communication is critical in any successful law firm, it is even more so when you and/or your staff are working remotely. You want everyone on the same page and working together to further the firm’s common goals. 

The Daily Huddle: If you have not already done so, start hosting short daily “huddles” where each employee shares:

  • their “win” from the day before,
  • what they are planning to work on today, and
  • what, if anything, they are stuck on

This meeting should be short, no more than 6-8 minutes.

 * If your firm is too large for this to be practical, try daily huddles with your department heads, and have them conduct subsequent daily huddles with their individual department members.

 *Set these short meetings for an odd time, such as 9:37or 8:18 so that everyone is likely to remember them. Conduct them religiously, every single day. 

This simple routine is a powerful means of communication, allowing you to know what is supposed to be happening each day, and keeps all team members aware of how what they are doing fits into the bigger picture. It also allows problems to be dealt with quickly, at the start of the day, rather than festering and resulting in a day or two of wasted time. You can easily hold these quick but important daily meetings via phone conference or zoom.

Weekly & Monthly Firm-Wide/Department Meetings:

Host a longer Zoom meeting once a week as well as a monthly meeting. This is when you can take the time to obtain direct feedback from team members.

  1. Discuss new ideas,
  2. Troubleshoot, and
  3. Engage in collaborative problem-solving.

*The Zoom format ensures everyone has virtual “face time” with one another, thereby strengthening the sense of “team.”

*Make them In-Person when you can: Although you can accomplish a great deal via audio conferencing and Zoom meetings, you should still strive for regular In-Person meetings weekly, monthly, or quarterly. 

There is no substitute for the bonding that occurs when the entire team can come together in one place, collaborate, socialize and absorb the personalities, non-verbal cues, and so forth from the other team members. 

Establish concrete Processes/Procedures:

When you have remote employees, they can’t physically shadow one of your top staff members to learn the ropes. Thus, it’s important that you have your firm’s processes and procedures up to date and memorialized so that all employees and specifically new employees, can clearly see what they are supposed to be doing, step by step.

It is also a good idea to assign an actual mentor – a more experienced employee in their department – that is “on-call” to reach out to new employees regularly. That way, new hires can get quick answers and advice as they are learning their position.

Culture/Core Values: While it is more challenging to create your Firm Culture when you are not all in one place together, you can do so with concerted effort and some creativity. For example, at the start of each weekly Zoom meeting, identify and discuss one of your Core Values. Let it be a theme for the month, reiterating it in the daily or weekly meetings. 

Make a Point to acknowledge any employee who has exemplified these core values during the last week. Ask for feedback/suggestions from your staff as to how your firm can better implement these values. Create a system for encouraging and receiving employee suggestions in these key areas:

  1. how to make the firm money,
  2. how to save the firm money,
  3. how to save the firm time, and
  4. how to market the firm.

Acknowledge the suggestions and reward employees when you implement their recommendations. Remember, whenever we feel our contributions matter, we are more likely to feel vested, try our best, and feel increased job satisfaction; It’s just human nature.

Camaraderie: One of the biggest things we lose when we work remotely is a sense of fellowship and socialization with our colleagues and coworkers. Conducting conference calls and Zoom meetings will help, of course. However, those are somewhat formal in nature, and you want your team to get to know each other and appreciate one another genuinely.

  • Set up a virtual bulletin board, where staff members are encouraged to share pics of their kids, pets, homes, gardens, etc.  
  • Designate crazy hat day or t-shirt day and encourage everyone to wear them on the firm Zoom calls-
  • Encourage employees to jump on the conference calls or Zoom meetings a few minutes early for conversation/socializing.
  • Designate special Zoom lunches where employees just hang out together.

There are many ways to create community and foster relationships once you begin to look for them.

Case Management is Critical: Law Firm Owners Need Peace of Mind                                      

While there may be a host of great reasons to allow employees to work from home at least part of the workweek – you, as the law firm owner, still need peace of mind. You need to know that the work is still getting done and that the quality of work product and client service isn’t compromised. Right?

If you are going to continue to employ staff that are working remotely, Case Management Systems are critical. You need to be able to pull reports on all your employees’ work for the day or week. You need to be able to see and assess if they are generating sufficient case notes, getting demand packages out the door promptly, etc. You need to be able to check your staff’s overall productivity.

Just because an employee wants to work from home doesn’t mean it’s best for them or the firm. It’s really a case-by-case and employee-by-employee analysis. As should be the case across the board, every employee needs to know that you will be inspecting your expectations. Running reports. Evaluating productivity.

Knowing that you are systematically reviewing their output makes employees less tempted to do other things when they should be working. And if it’s INTAKE, you absolutely must be conducting Ghost Calls (Secret shopper style calls that are recorded) to ensure that your valuable leads are being handled properly both in the office and elsewhere.

If you want Ghost Calls for your Intake Department but don’t have time to do it yourself – PILMMA’s Ghost Calls for Lawyers does it for you. We conduct the calls and send the recording and our detailed analysis and scorecard straight to your inbox. To find out more, go to www.lawyerghostcalls.com  (PS – PILMMA Mastermind Members get these calls free as part of their Mastermind membership!)

Some businesses have found that the benefits of a remote or remote-hybrid model are so substantial that they are making it a permanent post-pandemic shut down. (Twitter, Facebook, Shopify, Siemens, to name a few)

The bottom line for law firms is that there are both pros and cons to hiring remote or semi-remote employee’s long term. You may decide that having a nation-wide talent pool to draw from when hiring new employees is highly desirable or that decreasing your firm’s physical real estate expenses and overhead is a savings too significant to pass up or that a number of your employees have been far more productive working from home than they were in the office.

Whatever reasons you consider making remote work a permanent fixture in your firm, the foregoing best practices will help you make those efforts rewarding and successful.