As part of The Lawyer’s Business Leadership Series, Reed Smith’s EUME managing partner Tamara Box says the lockdown experience will make it easier to convince remaining sceptics that remote working has no effect on productivity levels

What does a post COVID-19 world look like for Reed Smith?

We were already on a path to redesign our workspace to encourage more collaboration and flexibility; the WFH directive simply accelerated that activity. Overnight we transformed from a firm of 30 global offices to a firm of more than 3,500 people simultaneously working online from locations all around the world.  Because we had been preparing for this type of agility already, our IT systems were in place and ticking away efficiently. This experience has made it easier for us to convince any remaining sceptics that structured, rigid office protocols can, in fact, be abandoned, with no reduction in productivity or quality of service.  In the future, remote working will be the norm and offices will become places of overt and intentional collaboration.

Tamara Box
Tamara Box

The way we allocate work to our associates and colleagues has changed as well. Because remote working has made every professional equally accessible and visible on our screens, many of our partners have discovered that there is a wealth of talent and expertise that may not be sitting right outside their door. Any unconscious biases that may have disadvantaged those in minority groups or women in the past have hopefully also been reduced as we have become more intentional about our allocation of the work so as to redeploy effectively any spare capacity. A great by-product of a difficult circumstance!

Going forward, we expect that a new generation of lawyers will be attracted to the more agile style of working that gives them a better quality of life while still delivering the high quality work product that firms and clients demand. Those who choose not to work in London or any other major city will likely have options that don’t diminish their career prospects or their business development opportunities; those who do live in a major city will see their commuting time reduced and more of their personal time restored. A more egalitarian, balanced, and diverse workforce will be happier, more productive, and more creative.

What has been your biggest learning thus far from the current situation?

I think I’ve learned some patience, but I’m still the poster child for the old adage, “Please give me patience, and give it to me right now!” I’m eager to get back to the implementation of our business and office strategy, to the development of some new technology offerings, to the challenge of helping clients manoeuvre their own businesses out of the economic difficulties that may have beset them – and I’m eager to do it in person, not just on screen. The new normal will no doubt be a different experience for many of us, and I always love doing something different.  I’m a builder at heart, and I can’t wait to start building again but I know we need to have some visibility first. Where is that patience now?

But you’re probably more interested in what we’ve learned as a firm. I can say that we’ve all become much better at modelling different scenarios for what happens when each of our jurisdictions gets back to working in an office. Whatever the future brings, Reed Smith “has a plan for that.” We have also confirmed what we always believed about our colleagues and partners: we are a cohesive, resilient, adaptable, and loyal bunch. We also genuinely care about each other, a fact that has been evident as we have collectively worked through the threats to our personal health and to the health of our firm.

We have also learned that leadership is at work at every level and in every location of our firm. Not all of our leaders have a title or a managerial position; many are working under the radar as they unobtrusively guide and support their peers and co-workers.  During the crisis, these unacknowledged leaders have ensured that no one feels overwhelmed or alone, and we have learned just how vital they are to our organisation.

How can firms stand out from the accountancy and law company crowd?

When law companies began to make a splash in the commercial marketplace, many law firms reported feeling “under threat”. Predictions about the demise of traditional law firms took over the headlines; panic seeds were sown further when it became clear our clients were not only willing, but even keen to work with the law companies.  A year later, I think I speak for the industry when I paraphrase the words of Mark Twain to state categorically: “The reports of the death of traditional law firms has been greatly exaggerated.”

But law companies are here to stay too. And that’s okay because there is room in the professional services world for all of us. The important thing to remember is that we, like our clients, have choices: we can develop a business model that utilises our strengths and positions our firm in the market niches where we excel, or we can start a race to the bottom by trying to grab every instruction, even those where we cannot be both profitable and competitive. Only the former will result in long-term success.

To illustrate my point, I want to tell you about my classic car, a 1969 baby-blue Mercedes Pagoda I call “Audrey”. Each year, I participate in a week-long, all-female road rally in France, a trip for which Audrey must be prepped and tuned. For those services, I take the car to a mechanic in Oxford (more than an hour’s drive away) who specialises in cars like mine and who knows intimately every detail needed to put Audrey in tip-top condition. His services are not inexpensive, but I am confident that he knows what he is doing and that he does his job effectively and efficiently.

In addition, we have an SUV that we use as a family car (sorry, it doesn’t have a name).  It too gets an annual check-up as well as regular maintenance for things like MOT, oil change, etc. The family car is serviced by a local mechanic, as these services are more commonly required and plenty of expertise for them exists at locations much nearer my home. As expected, we pay less for these more routine services than we do for those performed by Audrey’s specialist.

Both businesses are profitable. Both have business models that revolve around positioning themselves in a market that take advantage of the volume and type of work for which they are most suited. Indeed, they are even know to refer work to each other, recognising these differentiators. This kind of business definition is what the legal industry needs to not just coexist but also thrive in a world that offers a smorgasbord of choices to clients.

Personally, I have welcomed the emergence of alternative legal service providers. They have kept us on our toes, made us think clearly about what role we want to play in the marketplace and with our clients, sharpened our focus on innovation and efficiency – and even offered opportunities for us to partner to continue to deliver to clients the best possible service, most efficiently and at the best price point. As a result, we have all more precisely aligned our strengths to our mission and our clients, and I believe both the legal industry and the clients are better for it.

If you could be stuck in lockdown with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be and why?

This is a no-brainer: it’s my family!  My son makes me laugh and feel happy to be alive every day. He’s a cuddler, so I get lots of hugs, just what I need when I’ve been working in my home office from dawn to dusk. And I couldn’t have a better partner for lockdown than my husband, James, who perks me up by bringing little snacks and coffee when he thinks I am flagging while on yet another video call. He is so often in evidence that my clients and colleagues have taken to asking how they can get such “deskside service”.  I know that makes me lucky given I’m stuck with them.