Managing partners roundtable

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Stephen Bowman
Bennett Jones, Toronto

This roundtable session, held on 19 November 2020, brought together law firm leaders from five countries on five continents to talk about shared and divergent experiences living through a global pandemic and a global economic recession. The panel discussed these questions: Where are we now? What have we learned? Where do we think we are headed? in the context of the people who practise law and work in their firms, their client relationships and their evolving use of office space and technology.

Each of the panel members described their own experience in their own city and legal market. There was much in common – lease negotiations with landlords, rapid adaptation to remote work, online video meetings and a continual focus on mentoring, training, wellness and mental health – but some very interesting differences and insights too.

Mary Wilson is the Chicago-based managing partner of Dentons, and works in the second-largest office tower in the United States. Access to the offices by public transportation and elevators creates severe limitations and it has been necessary to arrange for a booking system to manage the number of people seeking to come into the office each day. The response has been to ‘tech up’ as a key part of the response to what Mary referred to as the ‘new dynamic’, the benefits of which include greater teaming across practices and offices. Mary also made the observation that the pandemic is necessitating greater attention to diversity, equity and inclusion issues, as the impacts of the pandemic have hit different groups in society more or less severely and she added a cautionary note on the tendency of people to fall back into traditional patterns of behaviour at the expense of equity and inclusion.

In one of the largest cities in the world, Lagos, Nigeria, Gbenga Oyebode, chairman and co-founder of Aluko & Oyebode, has also faced the challenges of transportation in a big city. Due to limitations of the public transportation system, those who are unable to drive to the office (more than 90 per cent of the firm's associates) have been permitted to work from home, and this arrangement has been more successful than expected, and a more flexible approach to working from home may prove to be an enduring legacy of 2020.

In Thailand, the incidence of Covid-19 cases has been extremely low for many months and the Bangkok office of Tilleke and Gibbins has been fully open since June 2020. Co-managing partner Tiziana Sucharitkul reported that even when the firm asked people to work from home, many resisted (particularly associates), reflecting the desire to maintain social connections, the preference for government officials to have in-person meetings and perhaps due to some extent to general cultural factors.

Javier Petrantonio, managing partner of Bomchil in Buenos Aires, also noted that younger lawyers were most eager to get back into the office, although the local lockdown requirements may keep their office closed until, they hope, 1 March 2021. Javier's unique challenge among the panel members was the recent onboarding of a new practice group. The process required a combination of virtual and in-person meetings and the firm included its senior associates as part of the onboarding team who helped welcome the new lawyers to their firm and culture.

At Vinge, in Stockholm, CEO Maria-Pia Hope had the challenge of moving the Stockholm office into new space in the midst of the pandemic. Their new offices are designed to provide each lawyer with his or her own office, which is a very good arrangement for minimizing the transmission of virus, and also conducive to concentration and deep work, but does not reflect the growing interest in hotelling, flexible workspaces and hot-desking.

The session closed with a few comments on issues relating to clients. Tiziana observed that as co-managing partner of a firm with seven offices in six countries that handles a lot of inbound foreign investment, limitations on travel abroad to meet clients and law firm referral partners was a significant concern. This was echoed by Maria-Pia who commented on the challenges of securing new client relationships when traditional ways of meeting new people were constrained. In the context of existing clients, Mary remarked on the shared experience of clients and their lawyers, with everyone facing common issues in their homes and their professional lives, and in these stressful and uncertain circumstances she noted the desire of clients to have a partner in thought leadership and creativity.

The biggest take-away from this session was the fact that the overwhelming focus of the discussion, reflecting the overwhelming preoccupation of the law firm leaders who so generously gave us their time and their views, was on people – their wellbeing, their career development, their relationships with colleagues and the teams in which they practice. This was very much the case with clients as well. Simply put, the discussion focused on the human element within the various law firms and the profound importance of the trusted advisor relationship externally.

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