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Law firms need to brace themselves for challenging times ahead. This is the how.

A clear and straightforward guide for those looking to shore up their teams

The next 10 years will be pivotal for the legal sector. With increased competition, disruptive technology and greater uncertainty following the shockwaves of Brexit and the Trump presidency; the sector is facing a myriad of challenges and opportunities. It will be a firm’s ability to tackle and profit from these challenges effectively that will determine which ones come out on top.

The firms that not only survive but thrive during these testing times will require teams to be fighting fit, with an abundance of flexibility, creativity and tenacity to apply to the task in hand.

FLUX: This is the How is a clear and straightforward guide for those looking to shore up their teams, and their firms for the challenging years ahead. It offers advice to the individual, the leader and the firm; and is supported by the latest research from Cambridge Judge Business School. This is the How looks at five key areas:

  • Leading virtual teams
  • Tackling unconscious bias
  • Mentoring that works
  • Building your resilience
  • Robust succession planning

We kick off the first in this series with a look at how leaders can support and manage virtual teams.

Leading virtual teams

What do you mean you’re not in the office?

At her desk? Sometimes. Around for lunch? If you’re lucky. Available and at work? Always. You hope. Flexible working is key to a successful work-life balance for women and men, and almost universally available tech means that it is easy to implement. But managing flexible colleagues – whether you are in or out of the office – is another matter.

“At the moment, I’ve got lawyers working in Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Sydney,” says Pattie Walsh, partner at Bird & Bird’s International Employment Group’s Asia Pacific practice. The broad challenge, she says, is around making sure that individuals have a sense of belonging to the team when they may never have been physically in the same room as each other. It’s easy for her, as a team leader, to interact with each team member, but what happens when they need to interact with each other? For that, they need the virtual equivalent of the water-cooler.

Bonding around the virtual cooler

Walsh says that this may sound trivial, but without the usual mechanisms for social interaction, the virtual water-cooler is essential. “I run a weekly video conference to bring all our offices together, outlining what we’re doing for particular clients, and that’s valid and appropriate,” she says. “But another recognised and critical purpose of that meeting is that we spend time talking about frustrations, challenges and sometimes personal things that are going on. It’s formally creating a space that might not normally happen in that kind of a meeting.”

Sophie Vanhegan, partner at City boutique firm GQ Employment Law, agrees that building in time for updating and regular communication is essential. Her team has a short weekly meeting to gauge capacity and find out what everyone’s doing that week. Those who aren’t physically in the office will dial in. There’s also a monthly group meeting where any issues can be raised, from the lack of Earl Grey teabags in the kitchen to a problem with the bonus scheme. “We also share what’s traditionally more management-style information with the broader team,” she says. “So that might be financials, where we’re headed strategically, or what our targets are for the coming year.”

Life management sorted

Virtual working isn’t just about having a career spanning continents: it’s also a powerful life management tool – which Vanhegan’s firm has realised. “Obviously, it’s easier to pick up your children from school or childcare without the commute,” she says. “But a lot of our team – myself included – feel that you can sometimes be more productive when you have a big piece of work to do. You can get more done, because you don’t have a commute on top of your day.”

Normalising work outside the office

At Herbert Smith Freehills, partner Catherine Howard is just one team member taking advantage of the firm’s award-winning ‘agile working policy’, which encourages fee-earners to work one day a week from home, regardless of whether they have children or other responsibilities. “I find I naturally save some of the more complex and thoughtful tasks for my agile day,” says Howard. “Being at home somehow provides the peace to think about the more difficult tasks.”

A recent survey showed that, after a pilot of the scheme, 89 per cent said it had improved their work-life balance and 75 per cent said they were more productive. “It’s eroding that perception of home-working as only something women with children do, as a concession. It normalises working out of the office, and reinforces the fact that people who aren’t in the office are nonetheless doing just as much valuable work as those in the office.”

Not everyone necessarily wants to do full-time virtual working of course. “Having a strong team culture is still important,” says Howard. “To ensure juniors get properly trained and know-how is naturally transferred between team members, you need people in the office for a significant portion of their weeks.”

Lone wolves need not apply

That means that if you’re either applying for or recruiting for an entirely virtual team position, you need to think hard about working style and preferences, as the most effective virtual workers aren’t necessarily the ones you would expect. “People think that you need to be a ‘lone wolf’ when you’re working without the normal team infrastructure,” says Walsh. “Actually, you need enhanced communication skills, and the ability to reach out and communicate in different mediums. You need to show more initiative than you normally would, simply because of the practicalities. You might need to make a call on something in the middle of the night.”

At GQ, for example, flexibility is a key cultural value. Vanhegan says her one day a week working from home is valuable, but she likes her time in the office, dealing with people face to face. All GQ team members are able to work from home between one and three days a week, as long as they are in the office two days a week. And even their flexibility policy is flexible. Previously, Tuesdays and Thursdays were ‘core days’ when everyone was expected to be in for team meetings. But in consultation with the whole team a few months ago, it was felt that not everyone had to be there for team meetings. People could dial in. So the firm trialled the new plan.

Cede control, improve retention

It’s clearly working: not a single lawyer has resigned in the firm’s six-year history. Many of GQ’s lawyers, Vanhegan included, have Magic Circle or big city firm backgrounds and have walked away from pay or benefits that can’t be replicated in a smaller firm. But the flexibility, Vanhegan says, has huge value. “If you want flexible working, present it to management in a positive way. It’s often approached from the perspective that the benefit is only for the employee, not for the business. When you have flexible working in place, it tends to engender better buy-in from your team. They feel more valued. That in itself will lead to enhanced performance and productivity.”

And when all the pieces of a virtual team come together, says Walsh, it’s extraordinary to see what they can achieve. “It’s a richness. We all learn from each other. We all have different perspectives – which you need because now there’s no longer just one place where the clients come from. They could come from anywhere. We could be anywhere. That’s how business is these days. So to have teams that work that way is just as critical.”