Leading Through Crisis: Strategies for Communications, Management, and Cultivating Resilience
By Gina Rubel
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced law firm leaders to pivot into often-uncomfortable territory, presenting unique management, communications, and mental health challenges.
I recently moderated an Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) webinar offered to its global membership of in-house counsel and private practice attorneys as part of ACC’s Lawyers Wellness series. Our panelists, Renee Branson, Certified Resilience Coach and Founder/Principal of RB Consulting, and Bradley Tellam, Firm Counsel and Chief Operating Officer of Am Law 200 law firm Stoel Rives LLP, provided actionable steps to manage, communicate, and maintain resilience through challenging times.
Q: How has the communication style of your law firm changed during the work-from-home era?
Tellam: I’d like to say that we had a strategy on the very first day that we were starting to work from home, but we were just feeling our way and it has really been an interesting experience. We had a brand-new managing partner begin on January 1. Top to bottom, we have really worked on the communication level and, frankly, it starts with her. She has a great tone, and she really set the stage. Our management team comprises our CFO, our managing partner, our chief administrative officer, and me. We went from meeting once a week on Monday mornings to 8:30 a.m. every day. And regardless of when we’re all back at the office, I think we are going to continue those meetings.
Q: How have you empowered your attorneys and professional staff during this time, and do they have authority to make communications decisions?
Tellam: It’s a cascading communications effort. At Stoel Rives, we have empowered midlevel management to establish clear lines of communication with their teams. We have given them the authority and power to communicate with our people in a way that they really haven’t done in the past. The firm’s managing partner speaks weekly to the practice group leaders and office managing partners, as well as the directors on the staff side, about the efforts they are taking to ensure their folks are feeling like they’re still part of the team. It has really changed the culture of the firm in a way that brings the 10 offices more closely together and has empowered people who typically may not have that sort of firmwide visibility.
Q: Within the context of leading a law firm through the current COVID-19 pandemic, how do you define resilience and its relationship to wellbeing?
Branson: I used to describe resilience as the ability to bounce back from something, but it wasn’t. The definition was missing the mark. True resilience is the ability to bounce forward from crisis or change, because that’s the difference between just having survived something to really thriving. If we are able to get through something and be able to adapt and learn from it, that’s true resilience.
Tellam: Now we’re not on airlines anymore very much, but remember the oxygen rule: Take care of yourself first. I feel like we’ve just been working on adrenaline for the last 60 days.
Branson: As a leader, being vulnerable is a willingness to admit that we don’t always have the answer right away. No one could have predicted the magnitude of this pandemic, and for a leader to stand up and say, “this is difficult and a little bit frightening for all of us, and we’re going to learn and get through it together,” feels very vulnerable. But this transparency establishes trust that deepens relationships between leaders and their teams, both now and going forward.
Q: When nearly all lawyers and law firm staff continue to work remotely, what are some techniques on which leaders can focus to create work/life balance?
Branson: It is important to create intentional boundaries to help reverse the blurring of traditional lines between home life and work life. Some of the things you can do include playing a beginning-of-the-day “pump-up” song or music that signifies the end of your day; physically leave your work space to simulate a ”commute” that sets a buffer between work and home; keep your work out of your bedroom; and incorporate calming and self-soothing techniques into your day to lower your anxiety level – such as exercise, meditation, or time outdoors.
Rubel: I told my staff recently that I was leaving Thursday afternoon and taking off Friday, and that I was going off the grid to our mountain house. Now, I did sneak a peek at emails and texts, but there was nothing pressing, and I actually felt rejuvenated for the first time in two months by just shutting down a little bit. So, I encourage everyone to do that. For regular work days, it’s my Peloton ride in the morning, which serves as my old commute. It’s my time to just be by myself, lock the door and get somebody else encouraging me to be my best self for the day.
Q: How can law firms ensure they are meeting their employees’ needs?
Branson: We must look at this through the lens of trauma, and people experience it both acutely and chronically. With the sudden transition to working from home and the indefinite nature of that situation, we have experienced both. People express their anxiety and stress in different ways, so it is important to approach people as individuals and tap into emotional intelligence. While some may verbally express feelings of anxiety or depression, others may experience warning signs such as chronic headaches, gastrointestinal distress, sleeplessness, and insomnia. To address individuals’ needs, firms can provide mental health checklists to help employees identify symptoms they might be experiencing that relate to mental distress, ensure that firm policies comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provisions and local law, and mindfully balance employees’ workloads as they return to the office. Firms also may want to update the employment lexicon with a language palette that resonates with your audience. Consider removing the term “nonessential worker,” because everyone wants to feel that they are essential.
Q: I recommend that lawyers tap into the ACC and other membership associations that provide partnerships with mental health and financial counseling. What are some of the other resources to which law firms can direct employees who may need additional assistance?
Tellam: We are really trying to help everybody navigate through this in a way that protects them overall. All of the states in which we have offices have lawyer assistance programs, and we ensure that people are aware of these resources, especially for lawyers who are in distress or facing addiction issues that they’re covered. Our malpractice insurer has also done a really nice job of flagging a lot of these issues relating to mental health, and we circulate that information to our people. We have also developed a whole COVID-19 resource page for both our clients and our internal folks. I think this all tends to help people feel like somebody has got their back.