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Personal tales from the wild side part 2: what’s the new normality going to look like after lockdown?

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Paul Marmor
Sherrards Solicitors, London
pdm@sherrards.com

 

Moderator

Paul MarmorSherrards Solicitors, London and Co-Outreach and Education Officer IBA Law Firm Management Committee

Speakers

David Burgess, Legal 500, London

Robin Wittering,  Egorov, Puginsky, Afanasiev & Partners, Moscow

D’Arcy Kemnitz,  National LGBT Bar Association, Washington DC

Moray McLarenLexington Consultants, Madrid

Horacio Bernardes NetoMotta Fernandes Advogados, Rio de Janeiro and President of the IBA

Marilu CapparelliGoogle EMEA, Milan

Chris HinzeHogan Lovells, Washington DC

Stephen BowmanBennett Jones, Toronto and Co-Chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee

Rolandas ValiunasEllex, Tallinn and Co-Chair of the IBA Law Firm Management Committee

Ning ZhuChance Bridge Partners, Beijing

 

Following the first webinar on how to navigate through lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our panel got together again to consider what the new normality is going to look like for the legal profession across the globe.

Paul Marmor, Head of Litigation at Sherrards Solicitors in London and the supervising Co-Outreach and Education Officer for the Law Firm Management Committee, facilitated the session. Paul opened with the key observation that there are clearly many leaders who have struggled to adapt and adopt new working practices and technology, whereas others have happily and eagerly embraced change, carrying many of their partners and colleagues with them, but the challenge is to determine where the pendulum will end up.

David Burgess, Publishing Director of the Legal 500, based in London, took on the point and said: ‘One of the key things that’s really beginning to come out is that, whilst there was initially a zealous drive for working from home and how fantastic it was, looking at the positives, we are now seeing a flip back to the other side, that actually we are really missing that human connection and sociability.’

David explored the challenge for firms in terms of moving their businesses along, handling collaboration and legal disruption, but his sense is that, in terms of general counsel, they are beginning to be able to breathe and start looking forwards.

In terms of looking forwards, David shared some news on a new podcast series being produced by the Legal 500 on just these kinds of issues, available through the Legal 500 website and all good podcast providers.

In the light of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ensuing protests, D’Arcy Kemnitz, the Executive Director of the National LGBT Bar Association in Washington DC, shared some thoughts on the alignment of the civil rights movement and the evolution of the gay rights movement, and as she said: ‘The LGBT movement has really thrown its weight behind the #BlackLivesMatter campaign.’ D’Arcy explained that, notwithstanding the Covid-19 pandemic and the concerns they had that diversity and inclusivity would fall down the agenda, ‘it’s also been fascinating […] and to some of us thrilling, to see the AMLAW100 [the leading United States law firms] add their voice in support of the demonstrators, unusually not standing behind a cloak of objectivity', where they would normally maintain a neutral silence.

D’Arcy also shared a few thoughts on Bayard Rustin, who was the architect of Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington DC, which led to his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech. D’Arcy explained that Bayard, as a gay Black man, who had to stay in the closet during his public work, stated shortly before his death in 1987 that the gay rights campaign was the future of the civil rights movement, and as D’Arcy said: ‘We can use his words as an inspiration.’

Moray McLaren of Lexington Consultants, based in Madrid, observed that law firms have been able to move to remote working, generally speaking, with much more ease than was expected, and it ‘has not been as challenging as first thought'. He also observed that while revenues may have fallen for a number of firms, typically by around 20 per cent, law firms had been ‘able to manage their financial hygiene well, in terms of billable hours, invoicing and collections, so that financial issues are much less of a concern than originally thought.’

However, Moray shared intelligence that there are exceptions in some countries where there were pre-existing issues, but overall matters have not been as bad as expected so far. There have been challenges on a more local, firm-by-firm basis, where some partners are much quieter than others, but where the market will come back. Another challenge has been firms misfiring internally, in terms of a lack of collaboration and increased competition, perhaps with some partners holding onto work rather than getting it onto the right desk. An issue which is emerging is the problem in supervising junior lawyers in their learning and development, and some issues concerning career paths, which are a lot harder to navigate through remote working than perhaps they would be to deal with in person, in an office environment.

One of the more intractable problems that is emerging is the question of ‘what next?’, balancing those who have not got on well with remote working and those who think it is the way forward, with questions also emerging over the need for office space, where there may be less demand in the future. These are problems being grappled with at the moment to which nobody quite has answers, but which everyone is starting to think about.

Horacio Bernardes Neto, the President of the IBA, spoke from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and was able to confirm that ‘the IBA has never done so much'. There have now been well over 40 webinars since lockdown started, with the IBA being fully accessible to the world’s legal community, providing many services on a free basis. Horacio is very proud of the work being carried out by the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, which has been very active especially concerning what has been happening in China and in the US recently.

Horacio gave us some insight into the forthcoming annual conference, which is going to be held virtually in November, entitled ‘Virtually Together’, and it promises to be very exciting.

Marilu Capparelli, Managing Director, Legal at Google EMEA, based in Milan, spoke from the perspective of a general counsel. She began by telling us that Google was one of the first businesses to move to remote working and will be ‘equally careful when it comes to transitioning back to the office', which could likely take until the end of the year before they were back to office-working. Marilu explained that her team are ‘taking the opportunity to re-envisage how we work', and also ‘to look to the future and integrate what we have learnt from this period of working from home, and continue to search for innovative ways to hold events, and to engage with customers, suppliers and law firms.’

Marilu also explained that it has been harder to collaborate across teams, especially on new projects. Some of the challenges for general counsels have come down to managing a team remotely and adapting to change, but Marilu has been very keen to maintain as much contact as possible with one-to-one meetings every day with each member of her team. The theme that is emerging is that ‘there is a reprioritisation of the work'. Marilu said that they are learning to make the most out of the resources available.

Marilu’s view of the law firms she deals with was that they were behaving very well and, from the large to the smaller firms, were being creative and innovative. As a general counsel, Marilu really appreciated the support she was getting from the law firms she is dealing with. Marilu’s biggest pieces of advice to law firms are that she really appreciates those firms who ‘ask for feedback in order to improve', and that law firms should to think about the future in a more digital and innovative way, exchanging knowledge and experiences for the benefit of their interactions and dealings with clients.

Chris Hinze, Head of Communications at global law firm Hogan Lovells, indicated that the dialogue is now turning to the prospect of returning to the office, starting with the first basic priority, which is the health and safety of their partners, employees and clients. Hogan Lovells has hired a senior communicable diseases expert, a former acting commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, who has supported the firm in setting its return to the office strategy, including hosting Q&A meetings with members of the firm. As a firm, they have been very transparent, sharing that information with their staff, and with reference to the different timelines and different countries’ government guidelines, but also taking into account that different jurisdictions may have a more liberal approach. They are taking a cautious, carefully-managed approach to moving forward.

Hogan Lovells have been looking at the footprints of their office by reference to floor plans and how best to fit people in. They are about to run a pilot scheme in their Washington DC office, taking volunteers amounting to ten per cent of the workforce population, to see what the working environment will look like in practice, taking into account a host of issues, be that dealing with car parking, lifts, restrooms, reception desks and all of the matters we would normally take for granted. Meetings in person, even between those working in the same office building, are going to be discouraged in the short-term, favouring video meetings.

Chris reported that they have held a lot of town hall meetings with the staff and have been very open about their processes. They are also looking at ramping-up the office population slowly – staging to 20 per cent, 35 per cent and so on, and deploying ‘A’ and ‘B’, or ‘red’ and ‘blue’ teams for alternate work days or weeks.

Hogan Lovells have been pleasantly surprised at how well they have been able to function remotely, and, as Chris said, their chief executive officer commented wryly that they have been able to run a $2bn operation from his study – so it can be done. The question follows: ‘Why go back?’ and in any answer there must be a compelling reason to do so.

While this has all been playing out, particularly in the US, there have been three crises at once: on the medical, economic and now more recently the social justice issues which have come to the fore. Above all else, Chris emphasised the need for transparency on finances, on utilisation, billing, collections and bad debts, and also on compensation, where partners are being expected to take the lead and for there to be a sharing of the burden.

Chris picked up on the points raised by D’Arcy, and said that they, too, had addressed in their town hall meetings some of the issues that had arisen from the death of George Floyd. Just recently they encouraged their staff to take Friday off as a day to ‘think and contemplate’ and, indeed, as an AMLAW100 company they have been very active in confronting the racial injustice issues that Floyd’s death has highlighted in the US.

Paul observed that, in parallel with the on-screen discussion, the webinars have really benefited from input from the audience, in terms of questions, comments and feedback, and he was keen to thank the audience and, indeed, inaugurate a new prize of an IBA baggage tag, in honour of the IBA’s director, Mark Ellis, who came up with the original idea for the baggage tags in the first place. Although a light-hearted point, Paul was keen to stress the importance of the audience’s contribution and announced on air that the winner of the award for the most valuable contribution to the first ‘wild side’ webinar was Gordon Hollerin, a partner with Scottish law firm Harper MacLeod, with his suggestion that ‘I guess I am far from alone in having been forced by lockdown to work from home. I’ve been amazed at how well it operates and how efficient and flexible it is. What does the panel think the long-term implications of this will be for law firms in terms of how we work in the future?’ Paul explained that this question had given rise to this second webinar, and he thanked Gordon and, indeed, the entire audience for all their contributions, which really added to the webinar experience. The question was an appropriate point to bring in Stephen Bowman and Rolandas Valiunas in their respective management roles.

Stephen Bowman, who managed Bennett Jones’ Toronto office for over ten years, set out some of the challenges that they are dealing with, where in normal times they had 400 lawyers and support staff working from their office in Toronto. The building has never closed, but, with 75 per cent of the workforce habitually using public transport to travel to work, there has been little appetite for people to come into the office, with perhaps 25 people being in the office at any one time. Stephen said that those numbers were going to start increasing and they are seeing more appetite for people to come in, but there are logistical issues. Their building alone accommodates 10,000 and there is currently only one exterior door in use, and only three lifts with three people allowed in each at any one time.

The firm has issued guidance for its staff that nobody should be walking around the office unless there is a specific purpose to do so, and Stephen said that, in his case, as a managing partner, he usually manages by walking around and chatting to many people in the course of a day, in person – so that represents a big challenge to his particular style of management and leadership.

When all was said and done, Stephen came to the conclusion that having had a paradigm of what they thought the workplace looked like, which was that one went to the office on Monday morning and came home on a Friday night, now they are seeing ‘a system where now they are seeing a fragmentation of different needs and a fragmentation of preferences, and ultimately there is going to be a fragmentation of work styles to represent the future.’

Rolandas Valiunas, Managing Partner of Ellex, speaking from Vilnius, Lithuania, had some insight that many are experiencing across the globe, in terms of leadership, where there was something of a tug-of-war between some partners who are very happy and content working remotely and others who do want to get back into the office, but the question of leadership, mentoring and looking after the more junior lawyers is a challenge, in a context where nobody is really expecting a return to normality before January or February 2021.

Rolandas was very open that actually the firm has surpassed its financial performance expectations, and, in five months, growth exceeded 15 per cent. However, he still recognises that a great deal of uncertainty is yet to come, and in just a few months’ time things could change, so that is hampering their planning and is one of the biggest causes of concern – in other words, it’s the uncertainty as to what lies ahead.

Ning Zhu, Managing Partner of Chance Bridge Partners in Beijing gave us all cause for hope on the basis that China had been the first into lockdown, and one of the first countries to come out of it. Ning reported that lockdown restrictions are really easing and the public are no longer forced to wear masks on a compulsory basis. Restaurants, shops and offices are opening up and life really is returning to normal. That said, there is still economic uncertainty and they are aware that their clients’ businesses are under a lot of pressure, and perhaps that is manifesting itself in the type of work they are now seeing, which includes a proliferation of litigation instructions.

As Paul concluded, the signs are there that there is light at the end of the tunnel, with some kind of normality returning, albeit that many things may be rather different from the pre-Covid-19 world.

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