How You Communicate With Your Firm — Everyone In Your Firm — Will Define You For Years

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve joined a video lunch to talk about how legal services professionals around the world are continuing to work and continuing to find ways to communicate effectively during the global pandemic.

Early in discussions, it was clear there was an attorney/staff division at law firms. That’s wrong, but not so surprising. What I found galling is what little regard some firms had for support staff early on in the crisis and how the divide grew in the days that followed.

While many attorneys were allowed to work from home almost immediately, support staff were required to come into the office to retrieve, print, and ship documents to the lawyers working remotely. It’s also clear that while many firms worked hard to find ways to create flexible work environments for attorneys, those same firms haven’t done the same for their support staff.

Treating support staff as second-class citizens is a mistake. And how firms communicate with and treat their workers — all workers — will define them and reverberate for months and years to come.

Billionaire Mark Cuban made the observation this week in terms of larger corporate brands, cautioning that putting business over safety will define a company for decades. “Not only is it smart to take care of your employees, but it’s also good business and that’s the way I’m looking at it,” Cuban told MSNBC.

We’ve already seen backlash and backstepping by firms too quick to try to go back to business as usual. In fairness, many firms have been doing right by their employees from the very start. They were quick to cut nonessential activities and make accommodations and adjustments for their support staff. And, importantly, when some employees were treated differently than others, they explained why and worked quickly to address the disparities.

But many others have employees who’ve been grumbling and outright angry about how they are being marginalized. This comment continues to stick with me: “My life is not as valuable as our attorneys.”

This is a good time to think through how you’re communicating and how you want your firm and its management decisions remembered during this crisis. Some ideas to think through follow:

  • Put safety and people first.
  • Be quick with the latest news and updates. Silence feeds paranoia, guessing, and rumors.
  • Let employees at all levels know you care by communicating that management is working to find ways to adapt and address the needs of all employees.
  • Be sure that managers at every level are doing regular check-ins with all employees.
  • Be direct and transparent about your firm’s state of affairs. You never know where a good idea is going to come from. An employee invested in the firm’s future will be more willing to jump in with creative ideas to support business continuity.
  • Model safe behavior. If you are only rewarding employees who take safety risks to continue operations, then the message is clear: the firm values business and profits over people.
  • Finally, continue to monitor how and whether you’re reaching employees in the most effective way. And don’t forget to invite feedback, hear out and address concerns with respect and empathy.

Molly McDonough is a longtime legal affairs writer and editor. Before launching McDonough Media, she was editor and publisher of the ABA’s flagship magazine, the ABA Journal. She writes about access to justice at A Just Society.

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