LIVE and learn

A brand new Briefing event brought law firm strategic leaders together to tackle common challenges, from workspace redesign to galvanising more intense change. Richard Brent reports

The guiding principle of Briefing LIVE 2022 – on 22 March – was to build the very best opportunity for senior legal business leaders across firms’ functions (operations, finance, technology/innovation, knowledge, business development, and more) to discuss the strategic challenges that truly matter to – or perhaps even threaten – the organisation the most after two years of often intense transformation.

The day’s collaborators were therefore strongly encouraged to vote in advance for problems that it would be most beneficial to tackle as a group. Would it be, for instance, hitting reset on cultural values or brand identity for the new world of work? How to measure the firm’s social value? Or rethinking the resourcing of workload with an eye on changing career expectations as much as efficiency and profitability?

In the event, two fronts for possible action rose to the top – mammoth management levers of the moment both, and with potential for pivotal change. What is the mix of ingredients that firms need on the table to keep the workplace of 2022 a stimulating one that maximises their chances of key talent retention? And what does the next generation of office space really need to deliver to the same end? It was a surprise to nobody at Briefing that catering for talent was the common thread.

Adapting the World Café method of structured ideas-exchange, our leaders now moved from table to table to dissect the difficulties and surface options with new faces (but the same sets of sticky notes) each time. As new people arrive to take on one of the topics, they’re briefed on what has been covered by the earlier group, plus any consensus that is building – so ideas for improvement can effectively snowball, and connections, patterns or striking divergences perhaps emerge.

Building better

The question of what a hybrid-working era office should prioritise is somewhat complicated by the fundamental of offering choice, we heard. Of course, some space that can facilitate effective hybrid meetings is required – but it was felt that technology provision is currently only really keeping up with change. It isn’t yet able to lead it.

Improved process may trump the introduction of new tech in any case – and remember that IT can also work against what you’re trying to achieve if it isn’t clearly having the right impact on people’s working lives.

More broadly, one idea to arise was the demand for a “destination office” – also thought key to our second priority topic, in fact, of keeping people well engaged with the business. Space should have a “home from home feel,” some found, so that office and home-working environments don’t feel like such separate experiences.

But at the same time, different roles are likely to have some different demands (that may or may not be met). For example, do the firm’s various partners and other very senior decision-makers still want an area to call ‘their own’? And will a firm’s decision about that influence their appetite for voluntary office face time?

It’s not all about the furniture and refit to all the right specs though. Collaboration spaces will require a collaborative culture to function, driving certain behaviours, whether formally expected or otherwise. The ‘watercooler moment’ of old needs more than a convenient place in a corridor.

As one concluded: “The office of the future might not even be an office – it’s part of the package, but there’s a lot more to consider.”

A strategy for stimulation?

As for the matter of addressing your working environment more generally, our groups found further balances to be struck – between intellectual purpose, for example, and a wider sense of values that also encompass respect for wellbeing. Responsibility means more than just responsibility to the business and colleagues in terms of work.

Newer recruits may also question your values, or even perhaps those of your clients – and should this fact be welcomed and channelled in particular ways?

For another group, this one could really be as simple as “taking the time to understand” the workforce as a collection individual journeys. Career paths through law firms are no longer as cut and dried, and even where partnership is a priority there’s a “tapestry of effort” (in a nice turn of phrase) that requires more commitments from people than racking up their billable hours.

Although optimism was expressed in a direction of travel that’s seeing more opportunities for a greater breadth of business skills and backgrounds within law firms, values such as trust and transparency must now be backed up by evolving clear key performance indicators that recognise more rounded contribution.

Colourful thinking

A second piece of collaborative work then saw attendees energised to contemplate action by rotating a set of ‘thinking hats’ (see above). This methodology – based on a book by Maltese psychologist, philosopher and consultant Edward de Bono – asks your group to take a challenge and attack it by channelling particular modes of thinking – positive, creative and critical. The idea is to build up, and perhaps strip away, options to arrive at a feasible solution for change.

Groups brainstorm a situation in several strict 10-minute intervals as follows:

The white hat  – Establishing the facts that lie behind a challenging situation and selecting something useful to change.

The yellow hat – Focusing only on the positives and opportunities that should, or could, flow for individuals or the organisation if change were introduced.

The green hat  – Being creative with solutions, expanding horizons and challenging conventions. What could you try that is truly different, regardless of how successful it’s likely to be?

The black hat  – The time to critique ideas. Why won’t ideas work – either in part or overall? What are the limiting factors?

The blue hat  – Summarising and deciding: After ‘black hatting’, can you review all the different thinking that has flowed and arrive at a practical example of organisational improvement?

For this exercise, groups could select from three areas:

• Managing to communicate change more effectively

Catering for a range of internal needs, encompassing both digital natives and digital resistors

Maximising value to the business following investment in technology

Here are some examples of what emerged.

Strengthen strategy for change

The benefits of communicating change more effectively are:

• Communication drives action.

• It should improve both the firm and the quality of working life for employees.

• Communication can educate employees about the change that comes from compulsory regulatory requirements, for example, as well as things you wish to improve internally as a business.

A few potential blockers to these goals include needing a clear answer as to why your changes need to be introduced. It can be extremely difficult to ensure people truly listen to or read communications, and the time for this is often limited. People tend to deprioritise digesting communications on the basis it may have a limited impact on their lives.

This group came up with a number of options, ranging from desktop notifications to intranet posts, WhatsApp messages, ‘lunch and learn’ events, family days and town-hall forums.

The town-hall format was found to be a workable solution, as many had experience of these and had seen how well they land. There was agreement that it was important to run them on the firm’s time to ensure attendance delivers most benefit, and that the message should be delivered by someone who’s both personable and has authority. Top-down communication only works when this combination can be invested, and it should always start with the ‘why change?’ message.

Ensuring that any new tech equals transformation

Another group shifted from thinking about change in a single firm to an industry-wide technology objective. Initially, they zeroed in on factors specific to a firm: understanding end-to-end processes (and where within these processes clients really place value); properly interrogating and so understanding the underlying problem; drawing distinction between different user personas and their pain points; testing any investment against wider business strategy; and the value in firm-wide – or ‘master’ – data maps. 

Ultimately, with many of these factors common across law firms – user-base personas and needs, shared pain points, and sometimes a common client base – the solution was to advocate that firms could collectively benefit from challenging providers to develop offerings that solve issues at an industry-wide level, (reference, for example, the OneNDA project – the world’s first open-source Non-Disclosure Agreement, crowdsourced from contract law experts at several firms and in-house). Any individual firm will then differentiate itself through its ability to drive adoption of the technology in a way that truly responds to a razor-sharp understanding of its own end clients’ specific business needs.

Conquering the law firm digital divide

It was acknowledged that the pace of change had greatly increased in the profession since 2020, with some tools benefiting some users more than others. Individuals have seen varying degrees of value when these are applied to their particular roles, and the challenge is therefore one of winning more consistent adoption, particularly where tech might be regarded as peripheral. The group identified that nudging ‘carrots’ were needed as well as ‘sticks’ here – steering groups alongside better integration between systems were two options, but so was some element of ‘gamification’, recognising individual effort and again linking back to ‘why change?’

Time to be transformative

Fresh thinking and committed collaboration were also themes that struck with force during the ‘lightning talks’ at Briefing Live 2022.

Bea Miyamoto is associate general counsel, with remit for legal innovation, at Panasonic. Having lived in Japan for over a decade, a significant part of her role is identifying potential process improvements within the manufacturing multinational’s global legal and compliance team.

She underlines the importance of having clear desired outcomes to support long-term client relationships:

“We spend a lot of our days working on tasks and moving projects forward – it can be easy to lose sight of the real outcomes we want to achieve.”

For law firms and their clients, this comes down to realising value that may well be about more than price – repeat business or cross-selling for the firm, for example, and strategic business support for the client. But in spite of all the professed interest in alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) across the market, Miyamoto says requests for proposal are invariably returned with a broadly similar “reverse-engineered calculation” based on lawyers, discounts, estimates of hours and assumptions.

GCs, meanwhile, can find fixed rates even less transparent than hourly – so is there another way?

Pricing might, for example, instead involve a set of “adjusters” based on the circumstances of work within a certain type (complexity, novelty), but also considering quality of client service (proactivity, timeliness) after the event. Perhaps there’d also need to be adjuster on the client side – accounting for any unreasonable demands. Miyamoto could see such a scheme linking back to firms’ assessments/appraisals and even remuneration, she says.

If law firms are to commit themselves, she believes their clients also need to become more outcomes-focused when it comes to considering team diversity – rewarding continuous improvement rather than focusing mostly on box-ticking exercises that ignores progress across the industry more widely:

“Diversity isn’t a marketing tool, and we shouldn’t focus on talent selection to lend a matter an air of diversity. Arguably, we should be much happier working with a firm that’s making strides in improving its metrics around recruitment, retention and promotion of its talent.”

Duncan Eadie, former law firm IT director and author of Cold Feat – an account of crossing the Arctic’s remote Penny Ice Cap – then drew on that expedition’s perils to offer strategic leaders some advice for committing more thoroughly to reducing business impact on climate change.

All now need to decide whether to be observers or catalysts for change in the effort.”

Eadie fell through the melting sea ice on his trek (it was an earlier spring with the warmer temperatures) and he struggled to climb out. “The window of opportunity was short – and it was closing,” he says. All must play their part in influencing others. However he advises:

• Don’t surrender to panic, but remain intently focused on the mission.

• Stay upbeat and project hope – in spite of the clear evidence of dangers. “If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we can work together to tackle common crises,” he says.

• It’s easy to think you’re not moving, but start with smaller steps – persistence is key to making gains.

• Pull people with you, don’t push them away.

• Leaders have the power to unleash the potential of the young. “Be brave, don’t seek comfort in your elevated position, and take a lead,” he exhorted.