BY MEGAN PAQUIN
Earlier this year, when crisis management was declared one of the top practice areas for 2020, no one would have predicted that law firms would be facing an existential crisis of their own. The COVID-19 crisis has tested all of us in many ways. It will continue to do so as businesses across the nation cautiously reopen. Yet, even with some semblance of “business as usual” on the horizon, crisis management is not a linear process. Recovery requires advocacy, an often-neglected strength of lawyers when it comes to their own business and business development.
Historically, attorneys have been risk averse, viewing communication as a liability. However, research shows that transparency creates trust—and trust matters when it comes to building relationships with existing and new clients. Law firm leaders who embrace communication as a form of advocacy stand to mitigate the economic risks of the COVID-19 crisis, develop new competitive advantages and emerge stronger.
To begin, resist the urge to react. Become comfortable with being uncomfortable with the evolving state of the crisis. When every other law firm is reported to be slashing salaries and furloughing staff, resist the urge to immediately follow. Your mother would say, “If your friend jumps off a bridge, should you?”
Instead, routinely assess your law firm’s risks against the daily deluge of news and information about the virus. Each day, review and make updates based on the information that is currently available. Time stamp and maintain a record of these updates to learn from and adapt as the situation continues to evolve. Over time, this routine allows leaders to begin to see the forest for the trees and uncover the hidden strengths of their firm. It also lays the foundation for communicating about decisions in ways that build confidence in the firm’s competencies and trust, overall.
Develop a monitoring protocol and learn from others. In crisis, organizations, law firms included, tend to isolate themselves and focus on containment. Instead, assign a member of the crisis team to look outward. This individual should constantly review media and other sources of information about industry response and impact. How are your clients and competitors communicating with external audiences? Is the reaction to those efforts positive, neutral, or negative?
Incorporate information that could have an impact on your own operations within the daily risk assessment to gain broader perspective as you make decisions. Consider also looking outside of the legal industry and evaluate other professional services providers and your clients’ industries. Take note of how their actions differ from yours and you might find creative solutions to shared issues.
Create action plans based on the risk assessment. What trends are you seeking as you update the risk assessment? Are these trends indicative of a potential future crisis? Assign specific members of the crisis team to develop a specific action plan to address those issues. Then, conduct a brief tabletop execution of the action plan to test it. If your firm already includes action plans for various crises, skip to the tabletop exercise and revise based on your team’s effectiveness in exercising under the current circumstances.
These exercises allow your firm to carefully consider the impact of actions before they are taken. Crisis often begets crisis as smaller issues snowball into major problems, or indirect issues like a hurricane compound the primary crisis. Developing and testing action plans in real-time helps to build your crisis management plan over time and ensure your law firm is prepared for whatever comes next.
Draft communications templates. This crucial part of the crisis management plan is the most overlooked and remains critical as we get back to work over the next several months. Every action plan should include a template for communication, including a cascade for the ideal flow of communication in and out of the firm. As communications become necessary, law firm leaders can simply update the template rather than creating statements from scratch under stress.
Test the communications templates in your tabletop exercises along with the action plan and invite diverse audiences from within the firm to weigh in on its effectiveness. Does your statement about the canceled summer associate program resonate with your new first-year attorney? If so, you can be confident in a positive response from students. Are your staff encouraged by your firm-wide email or left with more questions than answers?
If few questions emerge, your communication is likely demonstrating effective leadership. Solicit feedback from outside of the immediate crisis team, evaluate their comments and concerns in your risk assessment, and revise your action plans and templates as needed.
Finally, repurpose your work and drive revenue from your reputation. Just like your record in the courtroom demonstrates your effectiveness as a lawyer, the management of your law firm reflects your strengths as a leader. Consider a proactive strategy to communicate your success in crisis management. Share with clients the importance of having a plan and reference the success of your own. This will demonstrate competence that will give clients the confidence and trust to call you when they are facing a crisis, virus-related or otherwise.
You can also template your risk assessment worksheet and offer it to clients, and use this to open the door to conversations about how you can help your client navigate the crisis and build resiliency. Consider how the communications templates you develop can help clients facing other crises as well. For example, could your external statement if an employee becomes infected with COVID-19 help a future client communicate about foodborne illness? Is your remote work plan helpful for a client who is considering permanent office closure because of COVID-19? If it was helpful to you, chances are it will be helpful to them—and that you can be paid for your great work.
All in all, it is important for law firm leaders to take the long view on crisis management. Use this experience to create new protocols and procedures that ensure sound decision-making and allow you to differentiate your leadership in the legal market. Consider the future use of your crisis management strategies as a potential revenue-driver—a “silver lining” to advocate for your business on the path to recovery.
Megan Paquin, APR, CPRC is vice president at Poston Communications, a national media relations firm providing strategic communications, crisis management and litigation public relations counsel to professional services firms and leading corporations.