Rethinking leadership approaches in light of Covid-19 – individuals matter!

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Stephen Revell
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Singapore


Stephen Revell, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Singapore; Secretary-Treasurer, IBA Law Firm Management Committee

Sara Carnegie, Director of Legal Projects, IBA Legal Policy & Research Unit

Keynote speaker:

Sternford Moyo, Scanlen & Holderness, Harare; Member, IBA African Regional Forum Advisory Board; IBA President-Elect


Deborah Enix-Ross, Debevoise & Plimpton, New York; Vice Chair, IBA Bar Issues Commission

Kate Romain, Bredin Prat, Paris

Moray McLaren, Lexington Consultants, Madrid

Tiernan Brady, Clifford Chance, London

The session took place on 30 September 2020, at 1500-1600 BST. We had a tremendously lively session, with nearly 300 participants. The session began with some interesting comments from President-Elect Sternford Moyo. He emphasised that in these difficult times, ‘social distancing’ sent the wrong message; it needed to be a more complicated phrase – ‘physical distancing, social cohesion’ – we needed to help each other more than ever given the challenges each of us are facing. Sternford also underscored how many fascinating sessions would be available during the IBA’s Virtually Together Conference throughout the month of November.

We then sought to look at the challenges that individuals within law firms are facing at the moment and what true leadership can do to help with these challenges. We began with each of our panellists telling their own story of challenges.

Tiernan emphasised the need to communicate openly and regularly with all individuals within the firm and not differentiating between lawyers and ‘non-lawyers’. He was clear that although messaging and approaches needed to be consistent across a firm, different offices and different groups faced different challenges and these needed to be addressed.

Moray talked about the need for transparency of messaging – not to hold back on the bad news or else trust will be lost. Moray also then began framing the debate by talking about the difference between management and leadership and that these times need true leadership, not mere management. All panellists acknowledged the challenges of effective communication using remote tools and that such style of communication is not really a permanent solution.

Kate noted that her firm had originally tried a formula of sorts to make sure the partners were calling everyone. This soon broke down as they were not natural conversations. Instead they are now focused on creating social groups where people know each other and speak regularly and naturally. And although partners remain involved, it now involves all members of the firm. Kate also spoke of the challenges some of her colleagues faced working from home with children at home, either because they are pre-school or because the schools are closed. This can be both actually disruptive but also challenging to get the work-life balance right. Work-life balance is a real challenge and Deborah noted the ‘never switch off’ problem because it is too easy to sit at your desk at home and continue working. Kate agreed and referred to it as the ‘pyjama’ problem. Getting up and starting work in your pyjamas and realising late in the evening you are still working and you are still in your pyjamas!

Tiernan reiterated the need to work hard at connecting people and making communications effective. He also noted however that the reality was that many people are missing seeing their colleagues and as the return to work takes place, one of the key benefits is restoring that social interaction which is hard to replicate in other ways. Moray also talked about some of the challenges he was talking to law firms about in terms of behaviours that were developing as a result of working from home that were easier to deal with when working in the office. These included individuals, including partners, holding onto work that should be delegated and generally a less ‘sharing and teamwork’-based approach. He also referred to the challenges of effective supervision without it looking like big brother monitoring. Working remotely – where everyone is remote – is a very different way of working and Moray emphasised the need to establish some good ground rules for such a different approach – he further emphasised the need for these working arrangements to be discussed openly and communicated across all employees, both lawyers and business services.

Deborah highlighted the need to proactively reach out and ask open questions about how people were feeling. She also talked about the challenges of working from home and the demands that places on family life, including the need, in her case, to buy a generator (and this is in New Jersey!).

The debate continued for all of our time and beyond and the key themes to emerge were:

  • the need for regular and open communication;
  • the need to have totally inclusive messaging to the whole firm and not even hint at there being a difference between lawyers and non-lawyers;
  • to be thoughtful about the information provided and to be honest and open with that information, even if there are elements of bad news and uncertainty; and
  • the need for leadership to be very focused on individuals and to be embraced by all, not just ‘management’.

The session ended with Sara Carnegie of the IBA’s Legal Policy & Research Unit curating various questions from the audience for the panel. We could have talked for another hour at least.

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