Ruchie Chadha, president of Smokeball, explains how law firms can create healthy internal communication, even when employees are working remotely.
Though the practice of law is rooted in understanding rules and procedures, a great attorney must also be a great communicator. Whether you’re advocating for a client in court, asking the right questions to get to the truth of a matter, or serving as a sympathetic ear, attorneys understand the art of communication is nuanced — and vital to our profession. That goes for communication within our firms as well. Trust, candour, and expediency — the knowledge that your colleagues are reliable, give honest advice, and act quickly in urgent situations — are the bedrock of the best law firms. And without healthy, open communication, none of these are possible.
Great communication takes work under any circumstances, but it’s even more difficult without daily, face-to-face interactions. A study of 60,000 Microsoft employees, who went from 18% remote to nearly 100% remote in March 2020, found workers were siloed, less dynamic, and less likely to make new connections.
The law profession’s inherently personal and collaborative nature has made the transition into remote work difficult for many firms, significantly affecting communication, company culture, and work-life balance. Among the legal community, more than half of lawyers say mentorship and training (57% and 52%, respectively) have suffered because of remote work. Without investment in these areas, attorneys lose their incentive to commit to a long-term relationship with your firm.
It’s no longer enough to work in survival communication mode — remote or hybrid work models are here to stay. More than three-quarters (76%) of lawyers now want to work remotely at least one day a week, and more than four-fifths (83%) of millennial lawyers say it’s very important for their law firm to have work-from-home options. Partners need to evolve their long-term internal communication strategy to ensure the long-term health of the firm. Here’s how.
Start with a blank slate
We’re living in an unprecedented time — so throw precedent out the window when it comes to your communication policy. (No, this doesn’t come naturally to lawyers.) This doesn’t mean you can’t keep what’s worked for your firm in the past 18 months. Consider this to be Communication Plan Version 2.0 — not version 1.2.
While partners and owners always have the ultimate responsibility — and ultimate say-so — over major firm decisions, ask for and include the opinions of every person who works at your firm when revamping your communication policies.
- Survey your entire firm. Include topics like communication cadence and response time, work-life balance, culture-building and mentorship, and communication tools and channels used. This can be anonymous (for smaller firms) or organised by job title or department.
- Determine your short- and long-term goals. These can be straightforward, like researching and implementing new communication tools or keeping a regular meeting cadence, or more nebulous, like a greater sense of work-life balance, support, and interconnectedness. Set benchmarks and survey (and re-survey) your teams.
Most importantly, your communication policies should inspire a firm culture where everyone feels like a valued member of the team.
Incorporate your new communication processes and policies
Part of the process of building Communication 2.0 should include naming an internal communication champion. This person should be tech-savvy, diplomatic, and an enthusiastic proponent of your firm’s culture.
- Empower without micromanaging. Yes, it’s important to measure productivity, and tasks and clients can’t fall through the cracks. But employees still need to be trusted to take ownership over their work. Communicate regularly about deadlines and progress, check your firm’s productivity metrics and have tough conversations when needed, but employees are generally happier in a supportive environment, not a punitive one.
- Use what you learn. Communication often reveals ability and experience beyond what’s obvious on paper. And different people might be better at different tasks while working remotely versus in person. Don’t hesitate to adjust responsibilities and workloads accordingly.
- Implement the right technology. Your firm likely already has added technology for virtual chat and meetings. Part of your goal should also be to create a sole source of truth using legal practice management software, giving everyone visibility into every matter for a consistent client experience.
Tips for better communication law firms can implement right now
- Adopt an all-hands-on-deck mindset. Communication and culture are everyone’s responsibility.
- Get rid of the guilt. More than half of attorneys say both their work-life separation and their mental wellbeing (60% and 52%, respectively) have suffered since the onset of the pandemic. Create a safe space to speak up about mental health and encourage attorneys and legal staff to take the time they need. (Don’t forget to model this behaviour yourself.)
- Encourage informal connections. Your daily stand-up meeting shouldn’t be the only time your team gets face time. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of attorneys say an informal mentor has played either a significant or crucial role in their career.
While these steps can help your firm plot its remote/hybrid communication strategy, there’s no one right way to communicate. Just make sure you have a plan that works for everyone — and enforce it.