Keeping human connections in a hybrid model take work
Life at Missouri’s largest law firms is mostly back to normal. Travel has resumed, lawyers and staff are in the office frequently and business is humming.
At the same time, law-firm life remains tinged with the pandemic that has now claimed 1 million American lives and is not yet over. Many firms have just now begun to hold large office gatherings. Particularly for firms whose operations span the nation or the globe, the potential for new lockdowns remains.
But perhaps the biggest shift is in the way that human connections that once were taken for granted have gained a new currency. After more than two years of working at home and communicating through computers, law firm leaders now see the need to strengthen the bonds that underlie firm culture. In interviews, the same words came up repeatedly: Deliberate. Conscious. Intentional.
“If you’re purposeful about it, you can maintain the positives that have come out of this new environment without bringing back the negatives and concerns about the way interactions were handled prior to the pandemic,” said Cameron Garrison, managing partner of Lathrop GPM.
This is no small feat. As Missouri Lawyers Media documented in the Money 2021, firms began 2020 fearing that the pandemic would trigger a financial catastrophe but ended the year with across-the-board growth that would have been impressive even in a normal cycle.
As this year’s reporting shows, 2021 saw similar gains for Missouri law firms, with nearly every firm showing growth in revenue or profit or both. With that growth has come the need to hire more attorneys in what firm leaders described as the tightest market for talent and labor they’ve ever seen.
That, in turn, has meant integrating new associates and lateral partners into firm culture without the benefit of the proverbial water cooler.
“That obviously is one of the downsides of only being in a remote atmosphere,” said Allison Murdock, the managing partner of Stinson. “It just takes a lot more effort and intention to make someone feel a part of the firm and give them an opportunity to meet everyone that it’s good for them to meet.”
Steve Baumer, co-chair of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, agreed.
“We want to do it on a sustainable basis where we are bringing people up from the lower levels of our ranks so they advance in their careers,” he said. “Investing in their careers, taking the time out of busy days for the mentoring and training and development — that is going to inure ultimately to the benefit of our clients over the long term.”
There is certainly a bottom-line benefit to intentionality. Madeleine McDonough, the chair of Shook, Hardy & Bacon, said the firm conducted a number of complex trials in fully virtual settings during the pandemic. As courthouses have reopened and trials resumed in person, travel is increasing. But if the pandemic taught firms anything, it’s that flying to another city for a one-hour hearing doesn’t always make sense.
“I would say the biggest change is that maybe people are a little more thoughtful and intentional about whether the travel is necessary in every situation,” McDonough said.
There’s also a dark side to working virtually. Chase Simmons, chief executive officer and chairman of Polsinelli, said it’s harder to spot when firm members are struggling mentally or emotionally as they handle heavy workloads from the solitude of their homes. One of his biggest worries, he said, is burnout.
“We’ve now got a number of lawyers who are into their third year working at a pace that we don’t necessarily expect of them, and doing so with the backdrop of the pandemic,” he said.
As a simple method of bringing people together, Simmons said the firm encourages shareholders to show on their calendars when they’ll be in the office, so that lunches and meetings can be organized when a critical mass of people are around.
“In the past, the assumption was that most people were in the office most of the time,” he said. “Now that assumption doesn’t hold true for everybody.”
All of Missouri’s largest firms have embraced hybrid work models to one degree or another. Pat Rasche, the managing partner of Armstrong Teasdale, said he never would have predicted a few years ago that a large law firm could operate remotely and remain productive. But he doubted the firm would ever go fully remote.
“People want that human interaction at work and to make those connections,” he said.
Husch Blackwell, however, has embraced the virtual model for at least some of its attorneys. Catherine Hanaway, chair of the firm, said some are fully offsite, while others come in two days a week but have no permanent office space. Even the 60-70 percent of lawyers who are “permanently” in the office aren’t there every day, she said. The arrangement has helped break down barriers across the firm.
“Our whole model is based on industry expertise, and people have really embraced that,” she said. “Now they can find that anywhere in the country and work pretty seamlessly. They’re not just walking down the hall and grabbing the first person they see.”
Several firms described holding their first major in-person retreats earlier this year and being stunned at the level of enthusiasm, as well as at the sheer number of newer attorneys who had never met each other face to face.
“It’s amazing how much energy we came back from that with, and it’s also amazing that it had been almost two and a half years that seemingly went by in the blink of an eye,” Pat Whalen, chair and managing partner of Spencer Fane, said of his firm’s retreat in February.
Whalen said there is no going back to the old way of doing things. But, he added, that doesn’t mean that all the lessons of the pandemic have been learned yet.
“Bottom line,” he said, Spencer Fane is “embracing this experimentation that is not complete, and it probably won’t be complete for another year.”