In this article, I outline what the near future will look like for law firms and legal departments, what people want from leaders during times of crisis, and four commitments leaders need to address as they plan to lead through a crisis.  

What the next two to three months will look like

As of this writing (March 16, 2020), we can make some predictions about what the next two or three months will look like for law firm and legal department operations.  The Covid-19 virus will continue its rapid spread throughout the United States and Europe, roughly doubling known cases every three days.  Many states have already closed their schools and universities.  Gatherings more than 50 people are prohibited in some states.  International travel is restricted and the U.S. government just announced that they are considering domestic travel restrictions.  “Social distancing” is the new catch phrase. The list of law firms that are closing their physical offices increases by the hour, requiring lawyers and professional staff to work from home.  

Clients are also experiencing significant business disruption.  Every industry sector is being affected by the crisis, as witnessed by the deluge of  Corona virus emails I receive on an hourly basis.  Many clients are moving towards closing physical offices and setting up work from home systems.   Clients will prioritize their operational and legal needs, focusing on business continuation issues, delaying some cases and transactions until the dust settles.  Some matters and regulatory work will continue through the crisis, and certainly new matters will arise that need immediate attention.  Many courts will shut down or move to emergency staffing levels.

It is unclear how long the crisis-induced recession will last, but if we can look to China and South Korea as models, it is possible that the crisis might be limited to the first half of 2020, with only lingering effects in the second half.  

Many law firms will be operating in virtual mode.  While this will certainly test the IT infrastructure of firms, it will also bring challenges in teamwork, communication, oversight, time reporting and a range of productivity and management issues.  

Underlying all of this are strong emotions of anxiety and fear by many people, adding to the significant mental health stress already experienced by legal professionals.  

What people need from leaders in times of crisis

Researchers Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote in “The Leadership Challenge” that people primarily look for four characteristics in a leader:  honesty, forward-looking, competency and inspiration.  Let’s start here.

Honesty:  In times of crisis, people want their leaders to tell them the truth and be transparent about the situation and the challenges they are facing.  They want to trust their leaders, but to do so, they need to feel like they are getting the whole story and are being kept in the loop as things develop.  Tell the truth and be open about the risks, opportunities, and how you need each person to contribute to the effort.   

Forward-Looking:  People want to know that their leaders are looking down the road, anticipating the challenges that are coming their way, and that they have a plan to deal with those challenges.  This is particularly important in this dynamic environment.  It doesn’t mean that  you need to have a crystal ball, but you need to be talking about the future, what people should expect and that your plan to deal with it.

Competentcy:  In times of uncertainty, people want to know that their leaders are competent to carry out their plan to deal with the myriad of challenges facing the organization.  They will judge leaders not on their experience or oratory skill, rather their ability to act decisively, delegate to other competent leaders, and illustrate that they have the capacity to effect action through the crisis.  

Inspiring:  People look to their leaders in times of crisis to encourage them to reach beyond themselves and meet the challenge.  In a health crisis such as this, leaders should appeal to professionals to not only “go home and work”, but to higher levels or collaboration, client service, and community service.  

I’ll add a few other characteristics: stability, care for others, and integrity.  During the great recession, some firm leaders acted without these characteristics, showing their “true character” to professionals and staff. While people didn’t voluntarily leave their jobs during the recession, some firms experienced very high turnover and lateral moves once the economy recovered.  

Stability:  People look to their leaders to be both stable and provide stability. While it might seem like most people would welcome a work from home situation, many people are unsettled by the disruption to their routine.  Many lived through the last recession and are afraid of losing their job, healthcare coverage, retirement savings and dreams of the future.  They look to their leaders to assure them of stability and predictability.

Care for Others: People look to their leaders to care for them.  They want to know that their contributions are valued and that they are important to the leaders of the organization.  Take some time to care for others, and encourage a community environment.

Integrity:   Say what you will do and do what you say.  Walk the talk.  Lead by example.  Leaders that have integrity stand above those that don’t.  

The Role of Leader in a Crisis

Your business continuity plan outlines what your firm needs to do to serve clients and be open for business during a crisis.  Here are some ideas on how to lead during this time.  Make a crisis leadership plan by considering four commitments:

1.  Commitment to Yourself and Your Family

You may have heard the airline analogy, “put your oxygen mask on first before helping others” when referring to self-leadership.  Leaders need to be in good physical, mental and emotional condition to lead others.  Get sleep, eat healthy, practice good hygiene, meditate, and clear your head before making decisions.  Address the needs of your family and those around you so they can be supportive and a source of balance in your life.   In your plan, write down what you need to do to sustain yourself and your family during this time.

2.  Commitment to the Organization

During times of volatility and uncertainty, leaders need to:

– Set the tone.  Recognize fear and anxiety, but remain confident, hopeful and focused. 

– Communicate frequently, to the point of over-communication.  Consider an “all-hands” video meetings for firm updates.  Use email, social media and one-on-one phone/video chat. This will become increasingly important as the work from home period extends into weeks or months.

  Spend time listening to people at all levels of the organization.  Develop a “kitchen cabinet” beyond your direct reports so that you have an idea what is happening in different departments, offices, and practice areas.  Look for points of vulnerability that need to be addressed.  

  Chart the way forward.  Develop a clear plan to serve clients and keep staff safe.  Be clear about what type of commitment, activity and attitude you need from each member of the organization to make the plan successful.  

  Share your forward-looking vision for how the firm will continue to serve clients and take care of one another.  Share your strategy and priority of issues.  Tell people what to expect in the coming weeks and months.  Address their uncertainty.  When things change, communicate those changes.  Articulate what you expect as an outcome in a positive way. This is your vision.

  Get things done.  If you are not a naturally organized person, deputize a chief of staff to help you.  Delegate tasks to competent managers. Hold them accountable in frequent one-on-one meetings.  Convene short status progress meetings so your executive team knows what each other is doing and so they can share best practices and identify areas of improvement. Re-emphasize your plan and what the organization needs for every individual to make it successful.  Find ways to support your team and direct reports.

  Identify areas of vulnerability in executing the plan and develop alternative approaches.  Evaluate tactics by asking, “What should we start doing differently?  What should we stop doing?  What do we need to continue doing?” regularly.  

  Seek feedback regularly so that you can adjust your tactics quickly.  

  Celebrate success – when something in the plan works well, share the success with others.  We can all use some good news right now.  

  Empathize with those experiencing hardship.  Some organizations will experience the illness and death of employees.   Reach out to their families and the organization with empathy, support and resources.  Be authentic and generous.

Write down your guiding principles for leading your organization during this crisis, as well as the key management tools and activities you will use to carry our your plan (such as 30 minute morning executive team calls, one-on-one accountability calls, connections to various departments and leaders throughout the firm, emails to key constituents, etc…).  

3.  Commitment to Clients

As a leader, consider how you and the firm will support your clients throughout the crisis.  This commitment is both operational (how to mobilize the firm’s resources to serve the clients) and personal (how you will connect with clients to evaluate current and future needs and the firm’s response to those needs).  

  Identify the most important matters and cases in the firm.  With the cooperation of the primary attorney or point of contact, reach out by phone to these clients to listen to their concerns and offer assistance.  Key client contact should be a daily task. 

  Communicate to all clients via mass email and social networks regarding your firm’s plans to continue service and protect the safety of clients and staff.  Keep them updated on changes to your plan.  Work with your PR professionals on messaging.

  Develop internal management mechanisms to assure that client work is on track and meeting client’s needs.  These may include having supervising attorneys having more frequent video chat check-ins with their client teams, increased reporting to practice/industry group leaders on progress of key matters and the use of project management software and scheduling tools to assure that key deadlines are being met.  

As part of your leadership plan, write down the specific actions you will take to assure client care during this disruption and how you will personally reach out to key clients.  

4.  Commitment to Communities

Our organizations rely on the communities where we live and work.  Look for specific opportunities to help others – both institutionally and personally – on a daily basis. Consider how your firm can re-allocate resources in order to:

  Replenish local food banks.

  Provide pro bono legal services for individuals and small businesses affected by the downturn.

  Buy gift cards from local restaurants and vendors who typically rely on your staff for business.

  Provide discreet aid to individuals and families that are experiencing hardship.  

Your leadership plan should include specific items to support your communities and their changing needs throughout the crisis. 

Opportunity to Build Loyalty

An attorney once told me a story about why he is so loyal to his firm.  Early in his career, he was severely injured in a motorcycle accident.  The firm’s managing partner took personal interest in his care and recovery.  His salary was maintained during months of rehab and his family received meals and emotional support from many people in the firm.  The firm supported him in his re-entry to client work over time.  He and his family feared the worse, but the leaders of the firm took personal interest in he and his family. “No matter what happens,” he told me, “I’ll be part of this firm.”

This crisis is an opportunity to build loyalty by showing strong leadership in your commitment to yourself and family, the organization, clients and the community.  The people in your organization will remember how you and the firm managed through this crisis, and will measure their commitment to the firm – both now and in the future – on how they perceived the actions of firm leadership.  


Mark Beese is President of Leadership for Lawyers, a consultancy focused on helping lawyers and other professionals become stronger leaders. He provides training, coaching and consulting in the areas of leadership development, innovation, and business development. Mark is an adjunct faculty at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and former adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. He is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inductee in the Legal Marketing Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement.  Mark has held senior leadership positions at AmLaw 200 and 100 firms, including Chief Marketing Officer for law firms Holland & Hart and Hodgson Russ.  His clients include many firms on the Global 50, AmLaw 200 and Big 4 accounting firms.  He is a frequent speaker at legal industry conferences including the ABA, LMA, ALA, PDC, INTA and legal networks.

For more information, visit www.leadershipforlawyers.com and www.designthinkinglegal.com.

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