• Keith Wells

"Battening down the hatches" won't do

"Let's just get through this" thinking is not going to be enough. It might work in the very short term - and in many ways, it has to - but it carries an assumption that things will go back to how they were before. Or, even worse, that they should.

Whilst we don't want to leap on the "nothing will ever be the same again" bandwagon, we do think there are some areas in which that will be true. Here are five starter thoughts:

Purpose. Some firms were claiming to be defined and led by a higher sense than just making money. Now, all firms and their clients are bound to ask "What are we for?" As some businesses found innovative ways to contribute to the response to (and hopefully, recovery from) this pandemic, how did the legal sector react? What did it bring to communities and to society, that made dealing with the COVID-19 disruption and devastation better? Any firm that has found its 'purpose' to be irrelevant or gone missing at this time has, in Warren Buffet's imagery, been exposed when the tide went out. Clients, and employees - present and future - will be wondering quite what role law firms actually play in their lives.

Client plans. Whatever they are, and whatever they contain - rip them up. Because whatever they were built on no longer exists. Client organisations don't know whether they're going to be in business, let alone what they'd like their lawyers to do for them. And bombarding them with 'crucial updates' on the pandemic, or self-serving so-called 'Thought Leadership' pieces is making things worse, not better. If there's any firm that genuinely wants to be a 'trusted partner' (as opposed to wanting to be seen as one) now is the opportunity. But it's going to have to demonstrate not only a real understanding of all of the nuances of that client's business, but also a true sense of generosity and willingness to work in new ways, within new frameworks and with new uncertainty.

Innovation. Finally, the sector might realise that this doesn't automatically mean 'technology'. Or 'digital'. Attention and budgets have been diverted disproportionately towards one area of activity, when real innovation is about finding new and better ways to do everything. Firms need to interrogate themselves for what they need to be really good at, and dedicate themselves to achieving that. New commercial terms and relationship definitions; internal structures and responsibilities; skills and behaviours...the more focused the demand for 'innovation' is on one person or office, the less it will be embraced as 'the way we do things'.

People. Pressures were already building for firms to create more 'modern' cultures, with ideas like purpose, diversity and work-life balance in the wings . COVID-19 has forced some new behaviours and standards into the spotlight, even before the stage has been built. Remote working is one thing, remote decision-making another: what have firms revealed about their values and priorities? Which will continue in this 'next normal', and which will try to re-assert the old ways?

Positioning. Those firms who are first to make the transition to this modernity will transcend the traditional and narrow definitions of their market. They will attract clients and talent on the basis of being 'world class', comparable to the best businesses in any sector for sharing the same beliefs and principles as their stakeholders. The clarity of "What we stand for" and "What we do" will create new levels of commitment from the people firms need most to be successful in the future.

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