Remote working has put distance between lawyers and clients, but it has also reconnected them
By Alex Geisler
We didn’t have much time before the Coronavirus lockdown to wonder what it’d be like. If we’d had more time to think about it, maybe we’d have been fearful. What would social distancing mean in a work context? Businesses would have new and urgent problems, but how would stakeholders engage, collaborate and solve them? How would external lawyers support businesses with these new and urgent needs? Even if we could travel to clients’ offices, there’d be no-one there. Would lawyers become disconnected from businesses?
This would be one way of looking at it. But a better way would have been to view it as an opportunity, and anyone who did so would’ve been proved right. If the lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that people will always adapt. As with anything in life, if you can’t change your situation, you have to adapt your personal response to it. In this case, the adaptation was a shift towards leaner working methods, and lawyers have played their part.
For me, this confirms my long-standing belief that ‘lean lawyers’ exist everywhere. These are folks with lean instincts and matching work methods. I know a great number of lean lawyers here at Duane Morris, and I see examples of lean practice in all corners of business. Whether these people call their methods ‘lean’ matters not. They might use words like client-oriented, solution providers, effective, efficient or even nimble. Or they might just call it knowing the businesses they serve and giving good client service. Regardless, these are all synonyms for lean practice.
Then came the lockdown, and the community of lean practitioners grew significantly. This was commendable and inevitable. Businesses have existential problems and need quick actionable advice. Suddenly, of necessity, businesses and their lawyers have had to find leaner methods to deal with almost every daily task.
Let’s put this in a context. Suppose a routine project produces an unexpected hiccup. Pre-lockdown, this might have justified internal stakeholders and external advisers all jumping on planes, trains and automobiles, to have in- person meetings. As we discuss in Lean Adviser, these events can be well planned and executed, or they can be wildly inefficient and ineffective. Now suppose the same issue arises during lockdown. The solution won’t be a road trip next week, it’ll be a virtual meeting today. Special consideration will have to be given to meeting goals, sequencing and structure, as well as to what materials to pre-circulate and how to capture output. The lockdown lean effect isn’t just the elimination of travelling time, now the participants have to think about refining almost every task for remote working.
Pre-lockdown, a multi-party, in-person meeting was an accepted norm. Participants had the luxury of creating beautifully crafted work product to present. They’d throw a bunch of papers into document bags and onto laptops, and get on the road. The meeting would often be long, and attendees might grandstand, improvise, or even fade. Often the participants would go their separate ways to reflect on the issues, and maybe send follow up reports. Decisions got deferred. In that setting, it’d be a challenge just to track the issues, navigate the papers and access the key data. How many meetings have you seen come to a standstill when somebody says “you know what, why don’t we all go ahead and take a break, get some fresh coffee while Kevin looks in the document bags or Sally makes some calls, to see if we have that report?”. Sound familiar? Try doing this in a remote working setting and it starts to look very clunky.
Virtual meetings are different, they’re shorter but need more and different preparation. They demand good structure, key materials, clear agendas and well-defined goals. This extra time spent in preparation delivers shorter and more productive meetings. Attendees have a shared focus, key issues are isolated and decisions are taken. As with meetings, so with reports. More prep time, but a better product. Sure, it can be more difficult to produce a short report, but it works way better than the superficially impressive long form. Not only do people actually read it, but they alight on key points without having to find them buried in the text.
In all these ways, the business of doing business has changed. New methods have been found, and business people and lawyers have become leaner. This gravitation towards lean practice isn’t new, nor is it a temporary bout of modernity. For as long as I can remember, well before I called it ‘Lean Law’, I’ve seen clients rewarding lean behaviours with repeat business. Then they began voicing it, and it only got louder. Now clients use RFPs to demand better methods from law firms.
If finding new methods is the first step, then developing a lean mind-set is what follows. When this is over, business people won’t forget, or lose their appetite for remote working, crisp reporting or quick solutions. With one or two notable exceptions, almost every business that survives the pandemic will be significantly poorer, and looking for ever greater cost savings and efficiencies. This is a perfect storm for change and those who gravitate towards lean lawyering will find that their skills are in demand more than ever.
 A series hosted by Law.Com focusing on lean practice methods