The mass adoption of working from home has thrown a lot of management practices up in the air. General counsel had to work out the best ways to motivate and organise their team on the fly. At The Lawyer’s Smarter Working Week event, Caroline White-Robinson, head of knowledge management at Shoosmiths, hosted a roundtable that allowed GCs to share their experiences of managing remotely during the last year.

Caroline White-Robinson

Switch from process to output assessments

Although people rarely vocalised it, one of the main inhibitors to mass working from home adoption was trust. Managers were concerned that without overseeing their colleagues in person, there was a risk that productivity may fall. However, for most managers the pandemic has proved the opposite. Legal workers have maintained or even improved their output. “We are now more concerned with output than process. As long as people deliver the work on time we don’t mind how or when they do it,” explained one panel member.

Another panellist said he liked to view his staff as “their own businesses”, saying he “views each of them as their own legal function, responsible for managing their own work”. This focus on the end product has empowered legal staff to become more independent and effective problem solvers. However, the risk is that if totally left alone lawyers may then start feeling disconnected. This is why one GC emphasised that it is “still important to make sure you are available to help if the wheels totally fall off”.

Developing talent

For experienced lawyers, an output focused strategy works well because they know how to complete tasks. The main concern for most GCs is how to educate the younger members of the team and how to onboard new employees, especially when the individuals concerned aren’t hugely socially confident.

One GC has found it difficult to manage a paralegal that joined just a month before lockdown. “She is not very confident on the team calls and she also gets anxious when I asked her to go on a walk,” explained the panellist. One suggestion was to “normalise being silent on a video call”. The benefit of video calls is that it is acceptable to be quiet in the background whereas people are often expected to contribute to physical meetings. “It can be a great learning opportunity to attend a high-level meeting you wouldn’t otherwise be able to,” said a lawyer.

Legal department visibility

As well as it being difficult for new starters to make their presence felt in legal departments, it has also been tricky for legal departments to stay visible to the rest of the business while confined to their homes. At the best of times, in-house lawyers have lamented the difficulty of being seen as more than a cost centre and justifying increased budgets.

A GC admitted that her team “had fallen a little into the background during the pandemic”. To address this issue, the business created an internal legal website that company staff could visit. It showed who worked in the legal team and what their specific roles were. They also introduced a ticketing system which enabled them to accurately track the amount of work that was being done. “This was good as it enabled us to show the board how hard we were working,” explained the lawyer in question.

Although in one case the pandemic increased the board’s visibility of the legal team. “I am now more visible to the leadership because we used to be on different floors but now we have an equal footing in the meetings,” said the GC. “I might have less visibility below my level, but I have more visibility above it,” she continued.

Growth mindset

To close out the roundtable, Caroline White-Robinson asked the panellists their opinions on the difference between a ‘growth’ and a ‘fixed’ mindset lawyer. A growth mindset means the person thinks that intelligence and talents can be improved over time whereas someone with a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is fixed. The consensus was that growth mindsets are better suited to the modern legal environment, especially given that the remote environment favours self-starters.

The type of business often determines the mindset of the employees that work there. “We are a tech start-up and I think a growth mindset is necessary to be successful here. The company is constantly changing and you need that attitude to keep up,” said a GC. It is unsurprising then that a ‘growth mindset’ is a requirement that is included on all their job adverts.

One GC that just arrived at a more established business has been trying to manage a diverse team, with a broad range of ages and mindsets. “There are lots of lawyers that have been here for 30 years and there are some new younger lawyers that have more pronounced growth mindsets,” she explained. To keep everyone pulling in the right direction over video call is an exhausting experience. 

“It can be difficult to keep the energy levels up across the business when it’s all done on Zoom. But there have definitely been some upsides to this experiment,” said a delegate. This was a sentiment that was shared by all at some stage of the last year.

Comment

Shoosmiths LLP was delighted to lead a roundtable on the subject of remote working. Many thanks to all of the participants for their lively debate and valuable contributions which certainly made the time fly by.

It was pleasing to hear that technology has been so widely adopted and although everyone acknowledged what a challenging year it had been, it seems that individuals have adjusted, and any fears around lost productivity are unfounded.

The group agreed that one size fits all certainly won’t work but by employing a growth mindset, talented individuals will certainly have an opportunity to thrive.

And last but certainly not least, intentionality seems to be the key take home from the sessions. Interactions need to be thought through to ensure that visibility is maintained, and isolation is prevented.  Outputs need to be considered and rewarded thus “trusting” that everyone is performing to the best of their ability.