Viewpoint – Thinking Outside the Box

Viewpoint – Thinking Outside the Box

Thinking Outside the Box

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on how firms can steer a course through turbulent air

Many firms are currently war-gaming the consequences of an expected slowdown. Break-glass procedures that were trialled and then mothballed for Covid are being dusted off. The biggest dilemmas are always how to stoke the engines of growth and what ballast should be jettisoned to maintain high-altitude profits.

In this Viewpoint, we consider how firms can steer a course through turbulent air.

 

Some distance has been travelled since the last recession, now languishing in the memory behind a contrail of growth that seemed to be bending towards infinity. But the engines are losing thrust; energy reserves are depleted; and that profit curve is logarithmic, not exponential. Pilots of the fleet are pondering how to get more from less, just as their clients are doing the same.

If the rise of US firms has taught the market anything, it’s that brand, not bigger, is best. This recognition has prompted many firms to promulgate a series of self-statements, for both internal and external consumption, as an exercise in brand building. In many cases, these aspirations are easier to meet in a tailwind than a headwind.

 

Internal messaging

In a perfect world, brand values propose themselves unbidden as decision rules directing how firms should behave when difficult choices need to be made. Firms who claim that ‘people are our biggest asset’ will be expected to put their partners’ money where their mouth is, not to swing the axe. Those promoting themselves as ‘lifestyle’ brands or ‘nice places to work’ will be trusted to put wellbeing and livelihoods ahead of PEP.Likewise, firms promoting themselves as ESG and D&I activists will be expected to hold fast to their ideals, notwithstanding the cost premiums that these initiatives can entail. But no good deed goes unpunished: it might not be long before associate cheerleaders move on from being placated with reduced carbon footprints and the like to demanding that firms stop acting for ‘toxic’ clients – those from oppressive regimes, using child-labour or operating in pariah industries such as fossil fuels and tobacco. Brand and profitability may collide.

Whatever a firm’s brand values suggest, all firms operate with an unspoken idea of what constitutes bedrock PEP, below which they will not willingly go. This will be tested as the revenue tide goes out, forcing them to show their hand on issues such as cost-of-living bonuses, redundancies and partner promotions.

If job efficiencies are required, leaders will wonder whether whole cost centres can be dispensed with, in preference to a thousand tiny cuts. For instance, the traditional role of the PA has all but disappeared, yet a core group remain because they are held to be competent and blameless in the demise of their function. In a similar vein, there is unspoken suspicion about a gap between the many outputs and the few outcomes in a number of business services and knowledge management roles that warrants close inspection. There are back-office functions that exist only to operate the technology that was meant to replace them. Will the brand values that preserved these inefficiencies now permit their removal?

In their ongoing search for savings, leaders are also unlikely to overlook the deserted flightdecks and engine rooms of their firms’ offices. It is clear now that home-working suits some people very nicely and others not at all. Hybrid working is arguably a fudge that satisfies no one, as demonstrated by low levels of compliance with the ‘recommended’ mix. The unknown quantity of this great work experiment, however, is its long-term effect upon employee loyalty to their firms’ brands. The values that drive employee retention should be what dictate to leaders whether it is right to cut back on premium square footage, call everyone back in, or hold tight.

 

External messaging

Brand values are also employed when seeking to fire the engines of growth. This begs the question: ‘where does work come from?’ Law firms need to remember that they sell a personal service, instead of expending time, effort and money promoting a product which is identical to their competitors’ product and which they do not own or control, namely the Law itself. Marketing which explains the Law, in effect describing its features and technical specifications, brings no obvious advantage because firms cannot guarantee that the Law will support clients’ commercial objectives or leave them free from damage or injury.

Worse still, this product is largely invisible to its prospective buyers because it exists mostly outside the horizons of normal commercial activity. Law is the “box” that businesses operate inside. Promoting the box for the wonders of its structural engineering is irrelevant to, and doesn’t engage, the audience. On some level, firms know this, because they do this promotion mostly without evaluating what work it brings in.

The first rule of marketing is that there is no such thing as a neutral act. Marketing which promotes the box reinforces the firms’ limitations in understanding their own brands, and doesn’t explain why clients should instruct them ahead of their competitors. Whilst one response to a recession might be to reduce headcount by the number of people engaged in marketing the box, a better one would be to focus on articulating and distinguishing the benefits of the service that a firm provides. As anyone who has switched firms knows, each one is properly different and those differences merit some careful unpacking.

Like it or not, a firm’s brand is what its customers and employees really think of it. As law firm leaders buckle up in readiness for turbulence ahead, it’s a good idea to maximise support for all the sources of competitive advantage at their disposal and, in doing so, to articulate as a brand a firm that knows the value of thinking outside the box.

Viewpoint – Revolving Doors

Viewpoint – Revolving Doors

Revolving Doors?

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on associate retention

Most business jargon derives its usefulness less from the idea it contains than from the issue it avoids. We talk of ‘human resources’, for example, so as not to be derailed by the consequences of choices affecting people – their livelihoods, relationships, ambitions or wellbeing.

Likewise, when those humans choose to withdraw their resources, we use the word ‘retention’, to accentuate the positive and gloss over the circumstances of departure.

 

This abstraction provides a commercial framework for thinking – reminding us, if you like, that business is the pursuit of a purpose for profit, rather than for people. As Marx would put it, the role of ‘human resources’ in business is to provide labour, deploying the ‘means of production’ to create surplus value. Whatever ‘human resources’ may do by way of desiring, fretting, complaining, suffering or leaving takes place outside the scope of this capitalist framing.

 

Legal business

Legal services, however, require a special kind of proletariat. The product is knowledge; the process is intellectual; the labours are of the mind; the instruments of production are highly-conditioned thoroughbreds. This is not an enterprise you could run like a Dickensian sweatshop. Could you?

In essence, this depends on how you categorise the labours of the mind. According to Hannah Arendt , there are three kinds of human activity: labour, work and action. Labour is a means of survival; work builds something of lasting value; and action expresses identity and purpose.

 

Mixing cocktails

The practice of law seems to be a cocktail of all three: there can be drudgery; there can be outputs of lasting value; and there can be self-expression sufficient to mark it as a vocation. Ask any bartender for his cocktail secret and he will tell you that it’s all in the proportions. Were you to order a ‘Dickensian Sweatshop’, however, you would taste the bitters whichever way it was mixed.

So, if associates leave with a bad taste in their mouth, they might have concluded that they were little more than human resources providing labour for your capitalist enterprise. Whatever their work builds, they may themselves not last to see. Whenever they act, it is to assert a client’s identity or their firm’s purpose. They might think that they practise a vocation without agency, except in the act of resignation.

To be considered good enough for partnership these days, associates must shuffle down an elongated funnel, complicated with salaried antechambers and labyrinthine assessment gateways. 20 years ago, partnership might come 10,000 billable hours after qualification. Nowadays, it is more like 20,000. Such double measures would be enough to make many people question the wisdom of their labours.

 

Self-replenishment

Such questioning poses an existential threat to law firms not because it challenges them to pursue a different purpose for profit, or to pursue the same purpose for the benefit of people instead, but because their pursuit cannot continue without the partnership replenishing itself from the ranks of associates. It is this need for self-perpetuation that necessitates firms being run with an eye to the interests of successors as well as incumbents. But it’s doubtful if that many firms would pass an audit against this measure of their decisions on billing targets, promotion and reward.

The solution is not simply to revert to the status quo ante. It is to accept that the actions of your firm’s lawyers unfold an identity that alters as one generation hands over to the next. Self-perpetuation entails each firm becoming whatever its future partners want it to be.

 

Future generations

The standard caricature of Gen X – those currently occupying leadership positions – is that they are driven, self-reliant, pragmatic, non-hierarchical and perhaps a little cynical. The caricature of Millennials – your current associates – is that they are team-oriented, optimistic, demanding, fickle and perhaps a little self-regarding. If these short-hands are at all true, it supports the idea that current conditions favour the former over the latter: that partners are more suited to working alone, from home, than their associates; that they provide less management oversight, feedback and support than associates want; and that they are unrealistic (and maybe even cynical) in expecting associates to wait longer and work harder for promotion than they had to themselves.

As firms have learnt, the solution to this problem is not money. Loyalty comes at a cost, not a price. Earning loyalty costs a meaningful reallocation of time away from fee-earning and towards activities centred around associate well-being. None of this time need be considered unprofitable, however, as long as the measures of profit are extended beyond the merely chargeable.

Instead of asking what role associates can play in the life of the firm, firms should be asking what role they can play in the lives of their associates. Their aim should be to build a culture of mutual recognition, in which reciprocal praise and gratitude are normalised. Currently, associates have to fill out their own appraisal forms, volunteer their own self-criticisms and propose their own stretching objectives. These should be scaled back in favour of conversations designed primarily to recognise good work, as an explicit counterweight to the gratitude, praise and thanks that is all-too-often left unsaid by clients. The logic of this extends to partner performance management too.

 

Employee listening

For leaders, this is a task that requires labour, work and action – hard toil to ensure the firm’s survival, build something of lasting value and rearticulate the firm’s identity. The question of what a partnership fit for its future should look like can only properly be addressed to those who may inhabit that future. If the caricature fits, Millennials will view themselves as essential to these discussions. But it cannot be an exercise in faux-engagement: what you would be offering up for negotiation in any ‘employee listening’ exercise is the very culture through which your firm currently expresses itself, in exchange for one which can perpetuate itself better through retention.

Expect your associates to have views with which your partners disagree on subjects that they might prefer to brush away – such as the value of office attendance, the speed and thresholds for promotion, the responsibilities of management, the kind of clients for whom it is desirable to act, the possibility of spreading the same amount of work among a greater number of people, and the way the cake is divided.

All Managing Partners know that they can only lead where others will follow. The causes of associate attrition are, perhaps, obvious to anyone with open eyes, however carefully they may be sheathed in jargon. The real issue, maybe, lies in persuading partners to do something about them. What is called for is a different kind of revolution, comrades – a radical shift in the way partners engage with their teams. For this, jargon will have to be dispensed with, and replaced with plain speaking.

Viewpoint – What’s the Office For?

Viewpoint – What’s the Office For?

WHAT'S THE OFFICE FOR?

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on weighing the issues for and against working from home

It’s easy to characterise hybrid working as a simple tug-of-war between workers and bosses, leavening the analysis with self-serving anecdotes but glossing over the complexities of the debate. By now, most people have chosen their camp; the priority for law firm leaders may be to reappraise the position from which they instinctively recoil.

 

For

On the face of it, there are few kinds of work and worker better suited to working from home than law and lawyers. It is a well-paid profession, so the homes in question are likely, mostly, to have space for an office of sorts and the technology needed to connect it to the firm’s systems. According to psychologists, lawyers are more likely than not to have introverted tendencies, making them well-suited to working in a calm and solitary environment, such as home. And the work itself, whilst varying according to specialty, generally involves multiple versions of reading and writing, mixed with thinking, all of which can be done in units of one. Even when legal business is transacted in teams, such as major transactions or disputes, the work is commonly diced into individual chunks.

On top of this list of pluses, there are other excellent reasons to do with health and safety. Many people understandably don’t relish travelling to the office because they risk infection both in transit and in situ; more than one third of people now extend this to colds and flu as well as Covid, according to the latest ONS research. Why risk sharing indoor space with colleagues whose right to data privacy entitles them not to tell you whether their prophylactic regime is up to date for vaccinations, booster shots or lateral flow tests? If a risk management strategy can’t inhibit the spreaders of infection, how can it be adequate?

Finally, and most emphatically, it seems churlish not to allow WFH to become a right rather than a privilege when a lawyer’s lot already entails a sort of always-on availability. The transparency of time sheets is enough to discourage any shirking; what is wanted is not carte blanche to mash up the recreational with the occupational, just a little breathing space to smell the roses while working the soil. This is why WFH has so much pulling power as a recruitment tool: it saves on office costs, loses nothing in billable time, and keeps the spinning plates of work and life in balance. It’s a model so compelling, it begs the question why firms need an office at all.

 

Against

On the other side of the ledger, there is evidence that WFH is a protest song sung most lustily by those with childcare responsibilities, with a choral imbalance that should set alarm bells ringing. Let’s just say that some find the office a welcome respite from family responsibilities; and others find that co-location eases the challenge of serving both masters. Those who choose WFH will not expect their careers to suffer as a result, yet that is precisely what may happen: it creates the risk of becoming invisible when exciting or urgent projects arrive, when queries need answering, when feedback is wanted, in meetings and, most of all, when distress signals are being emitted.
Ironically, this could mean that it is both discriminatory to deny those with childcare responsibilities (primarily mothers) the right to work remotely, and discriminatory to let them – unless a concerted effort is made to equalise any kind of disadvantage to which they might be exposed. This is unlikely just to be FOMO: be prepared for claims that your sparsely-staffed office has reverted to a bastion of male privilege and preference.

As for the debates about mental and physical wellbeing, let’s not forget the many for whom the threat lurks principally at home – in isolation or in company – and who yearn to escape their domestic incarceration. Beyond this cohort, there are others whose self-esteem is inextricably bound up in the status of their role – and, by association, that of their employer – which they might feel is demonstrated to much greater effect by a steel and glass structure than it is by a cottage kitchen or man-shed. What can replace the corner office, free chai lattes, power dressing and late-night taxis as high-scoring commodities? Do firms really intend to sell their art, decommission their entertaining suites and renounce all other fungible tokens of prosperity and good taste? Not if they fear a status downgrade.

If law firms splinter into virtual silos, they might become less healthy places to work. Only in the office do intense personal rivalries soften, through mutual reliance. Only in the office do you get the buzz from others that you need to make it through an all-nighter. Only in the office are there people who understand what makes it so agonising, and yet so necessary, that you will miss that fancy dinner, that long-booked city break or the kids’ third bathtime in a row. Only in the office is the weight on your shoulders really understood for the toll it exacts. Only in the office do the non-fiscal benefits of partnership make their value fully appreciable.

Sometimes, an expected change gives way to another because, in the first movement of parts, something precious is uncovered that was barely noticed before. Offices can be vibrant, stimulating and even enjoyable places to work; when attendance is spread out to ensure ‘cover’, these benefits will be less apparent. By requiring everyone to be in regular attendance together, firms will be expressing renewed confidence in their strengths as communities, rather than as a network of solitary satellites.

 

The modern office was never supposed to be a battery farm that would compare badly with its free-range counterpart. Let home take over as the default place of work if you want to be a ‘virtual’ firm. If not, call everyone in so that you can restore the office’s function as a cathedral to partnership, to high status, shared values, shared goals and shared successes – a place where work comes to life as well as life comes to work.

 

If you are interested in this Viewpoint, please contact dick@tyler-wilson.co.uk or james@tyler-wilson.co.uk.

Viewpoint – Bill Back Better

Viewpoint – Bill Back Better

Bill Back Better

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint on the outlook for law firm leaders

While lockdown launched many of us into a still pond of domesticity, tranquillity and flexibility, law firm leaders were plunged into battle stations. To keep their ships afloat and successfully navigate the maelstroms of crisis management, remote management and change management, many will have summoned their inner Churchill.

With the recovery phase now underway, we offer a Viewpoint on the qualities required for the next stage of the voyage.

 

One of the after-effects of Covid is that new words have entered the collective lexicon. In addition to furlough, epidemiology, herd immunity and WFH, we also learnt a word for the after-effects themselves: sequelae. The sequelae of Covid for patients, collectively known as Long Covid, are notable not only for the diversity of symptoms but also for their severity and duration. The pandemic sequelae may be no less idiosyncratic in the mark that they leave upon law firms.

In this Viewpoint, we redefine the six leadership styles identified by Daniel Goleman (‘Leadership That Gets Results’ in Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000, pp.78-90) – all rooted in emotional intelligence or EQ – to outline the qualities required of the Long Covid leader.

COMMANDING …

… because crises can set in fast and leave no time for consensus-building. Leaders drawn from a largely reactive business (such as law) may need to hone their skills of horizon-spotting and war-gaming, learn to plan for the unexpected and get ready to face down concerns and challenges with decisive action and the look of someone not for turning. In our experience, hard decisions are often better for being made by a small number of people. Two is often the ideal number – delays and fudges will only become baked- in as more cooks enter the kitchen.

VISIONARY …

… because firms will inevitably be knocked off course when the iceberg strikes if it is uncertain or meandering. Aspiring to be number one in ‘something to do with clients’ is not enough. Few firms stand out in the current market, arguably because their partners are too preoccupied with the wind in their rivals’ sails to worry about the cut of their own jib. Firms that can look past PEP league tables to find an identity rooted in something they are already good at stand a markedly better chance of maintaining cohesion during darker days. This sense of identity will also help them set a bottom line in the current salary wars, by respecting the need to protect working culture and well-being from an ever-upward ratchet of billable hours.

DEMOCRATIC …

… because employee activism may be the latest flavour at work, fuelling both a demand for more empathetic, listening leadership and also an increasing sense of generational divide. It is now the oldies who feel ignored in the modern workplace, according to recent surveys. Partners who recall ‘sucking it up’ by the gallon as they clambered up the mudheap find it hard to accept not being seen as role models by the next generation and baulk at also being expected to recalibrate their ears to Millennial sensitivities. The Long Covid leader will understand that the office weather is very local: there will be crosswinds and squalls along every corridor, testing their empathy in many directions at once.

COACHING …

… because high-performing, self- motivated partners dislike being told what to do as much as they dislike being forced to decide issues outside their expertise. Long Covid leaders must allow decisions to be cascaded to the right level, and exert their influence without ever grabbing the tiller. Besides, all partners must be coaches now: to be a boss over Zoom is to provide a telescopic form of oversight hardly suiting the micromanager. Yet to be a coach is also to be a sounding board and a counsellor – roles that may require your partners to attend the office more often than they might wish, to support the newly-qualified and trainee cohorts already there in their droves.

AFFILIATIVE …

… because, following the WFH diaspora, trust is paramount. Thanks to the ingrained discipline of time-recording and the inherent professionalism of staff, productivity has not only held up, it has undermined the Taylorist arguments for standardisation, centralisation and oversight. The Long Covid leader understands that lawyers are more racehorse than pit pony, and that they will do their best wherever the going is suited to their style. Partners join for money, but stay for culture. The Long Covid leader will therefore want to enable the best work rather than the most work. The affiliative style means being available to everyone, but handpicking the few to take advice from. A leader’s best ideas are almost always borrowed, so first they must be heard.

PACE-SETTING …

… because there is still merit in electing the lawyers who make the greatest success of their own business in the hope that they can sprinkle their magic onto the whole business. Your firm’s best partners are likely to excel in at least three of the four areas of leadership focus: clients, people, finance and structure; they will offer an example to lead by, modelling dynamism, demanding expectations and a relish for competition; and they can offer an attractive representation of the firm that boosts its standing with external audiences – clients, competitors and media.

 

In firms where a change of leadership is on the horizon, the possibility of losing an election can deter even the most confident candidates. This prompts a Kennedy-esque challenge to ask not what candidates can do for the firm but what the firm can do for the candidates. How about inventing some light-duty leadership roles in which they can showcase or develop their skills without compromising their billings? What about commissioning some informal polling and screening, to give candidates an early glimpse of their prospects? Why cannot every candidate be given a support team, and perhaps a coach, to polish and perfect their campaign and manifesto, so that the election is apt to resemble more a beauty contest than a horror show?

In short, the clearer you are about the qualities you need in your Long Covid leader, the easier it will be to bill back better. That way, your firm’s plan for ‘succession’ won’t turn into a TV melodrama.

Viewpoint – Hybrid Working

Viewpoint – Hybrid Working

Hybrid Working

A Tyler Wilson Viewpoint where we present the case for and against hybrid working

For many people, the case is now made for a permanent shift to hybrid working. We can see the benefits but we think there may have been an over-correction. In this Viewpoint, we present the case for and against hybrid working, and offer our thoughts on how it might evolve.

 

RECOVERED TIME

For professionals, one of the benefits to emerge from the pandemic was the recovery of lost commuting time. Anyone accustomed to an outsized working day could teleport between work and home, creating a new work-life balance and a whole new way of living. Back bedrooms were commandeered as offices. Exercise was taken in daylight. Families were reacquainted around the lunch table. Mental health, measured as self-reported contentment, soared.

More than this, sceptics who protested that productivity would suffer were, largely, shown to be hasty in judgement. Most people donated some of their recovered time to the employer’s side of the ledger, leaving everyone in credit. Non-specific ‘business reasons’ for refusing previous home-working requests began to look shaky.

 

SHIFTING TERRITORY

From this realisation emerged a bandwagon. Hybrid working was commandeered by recruiters as a must-have for candidates, and as an opportunity for employers to cast a wider net and to fill urban posts at rural rates. Employers, feeling bounced into something they weren’t sure about, kept their own counsel, nursing the nagging doubt that they were giving away useful ground. Until now, it had always been their prerogative to stipulate a worker’s place of work.

From here, the debate shifted to a virtual plane. Amid talk of Zoom fatigue and the difficulties of generating group discussion, there grew an acknowledgement that something was lost by translation online. Video conversations mirrored an awkward sidewalk dance with another walking straight at you – embarrassed pause followed by simultaneous blurting; problems with muting and unmuting; then an increasing tendency to retreat behind that black rectangle. For those of a more extravert demeanour, garish backgrounds became the Hawaiian shirt of Teams calls. Worse still, we might be treated to glimpses of domestic undress or idiosyncrasy that crushed a carefully curated professional demeanour.

 

TUNING IN AND OUT

Efficient? Yes. Effective? Not so much. Sure, banal watercooler moments were avoided, but it’s arguably harder to fake ‘nice’ and ‘interested’ on a Zoom call. Those who habitually dominate airtime are even less able to read a virtual room, it seems, exacerbating the urge to tune out. Via Zoom, we have all seen too much of what we cannot unsee. The momentary slipping of the professional veneer in mid-livestream. The blatantly flickering attention. The unconcealed yawn. Those interventions by pets or family requiring an abrupt choice between the domestic and the professional.

Stepping back, there is ample justification in the idea that any change in working practice is to be welcomed if it mitigates the 24/7 treadmill. As cautious supporters of the move to hybrid working, what surprises us most is not how its enthusiasts wish to present WFH as a fait accompli, as if there is nothing left to talk about, but that home set-ups have largely been left to operate as a Wild West.

 

UNIFORM STANDARDS

For reasons that are not their fault, some people’s homes are not fit to be offices. Where are the standard issue firm-branded backgrounds? Where are the dress codes? Where are the core hours of availability? Most of all, where are the minimum specification broadband speeds and phone signals? Where is the research into client preferences? Where is the research into the work types (and ergo the job roles) more suited to be done face-to-face or in solitude?

There are already signs that employers want to recoup some of the ‘commuter premium’ from their payrolls, calling into question whether employees will continue to share the benefit of their recovered time. There is an emerging consensus of a 3/2 weekly split between work and home – but on what basis was this decided, and for whose benefit? For professionals required to be perpetually on call, the commute used to be the only time when you could reliably be incommunicado. It is reasonable to suppose that some may conclude they were better off the way things were.

 

GENERATIONAL DIVIDES

Equally, we have seen only light-touch suggestions about coordinating days spent in the office. From the sprawling masses outside pubs in the City and Central London, two things are apparent. First, Thursday is the new Friday, suggesting that employees are shortening their weeks to suit their own lives rather than their employers. Second, anyone under the age of 35 seems in no rush to return to their domestic idyll once the work day is ended.
For them, the office is where they watch, listen, learn and develop through close supervision. It is where they have others’ experience on tap to answer their questions. It is where they can become immersed in complex transactions without taking on a prominent role. It is also the fulcrum of their social lives. Who is taking care of the next generation? Who is taking care of the new joiners?

 

CHANGING ROOMS

If hybrid working is here to stay, it must surely follow that the future of offices will be very different. Instead of dividing time between work and home, a division according to task would require a more radical transformation of space. There might be fewer single-occupant boxes (since solitary work is better done at home) and more collaborative spaces. There might be more cameras, to allow others to sit in on calls or meetings from remote locations. There might be dedicated training spaces – one of the few things generally accepted to be less successful online. There might be more breakout and informal catch-up spaces. As a few firms have already pioneered, there might be free food and drink in more copious outlets and choices. Above all, you should understand what work your staff are here to do and how it will get done.

If hybrid working is to survive, it must be a benefit to employers as well as a perk for employees. The aroma is alluring but there is some way to go before the blend is perfected.