How Law Firms Succeeded During the Pandemic

Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 26, Number 6 (July/August 2022), pgs 18-20.

By John DiGilio, Firmwide Director of Library Services, Sidley Austin LLP

Communicate meaningfully, set boundaries, celebrate successes, and be empathetic.

For most of us in the law firm library world, the response to the pandemic felt a like a fire drill that we have been preparing for our entire careers. We have long talked about electronic resources, serving clients at a distance, virtual learning, and so much more. Conference after conference and through innumerable articles, we have been lamenting the slow pace of change among firms when it comes to fully embracing these possibilities. Yet wise was the person who said that necessity is the mother of invention. All that hesitation ended abruptly when the world went into lockdown under the rapid spread of COVID-19. Not only did we successfully make that transition from office to remote, but we did so almost overnight. Rising to the challenge, however, came at a price. Staff reported being overwhelmed. Some even burned out. Currently, we are in the midst of a chaotic job market and what is being dubbed “The Great Resignation.” As a manager, I knew from day one that a big part of my job was going to be making sure that my team had the space, flexibility, and respect necessary to not only pull off a successful transition, but to do so in good health and good spirits.

Communicate Meaningfully

We knew immediately that electronic communication was going to be one of the keys to successfully move from in-office to remote working. But even when we were in the office, one of the biggest issues we faced was the ever-growing glut of emails, texts, and instant messages we were already receiving. “Email overload,” for example, was already a very real and pressing problem. Now that communicating was no longer as simple as walking down the hall to talk to colleagues and co-workers, we expected this issue would compound itself exponentially—and it did. Within weeks of going remote, we were all using at least three virtual meeting platforms and two instant messaging programs in addition to what we already had on both our computers and smartphones as well as tablets. We were wired for speed and confusion!

For my team, I made the decision that while anyone was free to make use of any of the tools being offered by the firm, there would be certain base expectations. Everyone was asked to stick to one of each of these communication platforms. This way we could easily see who was available, everyone was guaranteed to see important messages and announcements, and we did not have to do a lot of jumping between applications to connect with our colleagues. This helped reduce some of the communication fatigue that was evident early on. Everyone was also asked to attend one monthly all-department meeting in which the various service directors talked about projects completed and those underway.

I also decided to encourage a meaningful approach to virtual meetings. I knew we would be adding a good number of online social events to make up for our lack of in-person gatherings, so I wanted again to make sure that heaping those on top of an already busy schedule of administrative and work-focused meetings did not overwhelm our staff. We needed to reduce unnecessary meetings, or what I call “meetings for meetings’ sake,” and ensure that the ones we were scheduling were kept tight and efficient. Everything of importance would be recorded to take pressure off those with conflicts, pressing projects, or who were not even on the clock at the time of the meeting. Not only did I preach this gospel of efficiency, but I also had to lead by example. Entire schedules were rethought and redone. But it was worth it. With remote working likely here to stay, this practice is going to serve us well going forward.

Set Boundaries (Yours and Theirs)

It was not just the surge of electronic communication and virtual meetings that worried me when it came to my staff. I was worried about the overwhelming nature of our work week. As library and research professionals, our commitment is to provide the highest quality of client service. Even before the pandemic, it was commonplace for us to work extra hours, take work home, and simply go above and beyond the call of duty. However, there were some very tangible delineators between work and home—a big one being the commute to and from the office. With the advent of remote working, those boundaries became blurred. I heard stories of people skipping breaks, working well beyond their shifts, and even putting in time on scheduled days off simply because it was easy to do so. Not being in their homes with them, the prescription here was a bit trickier.

Having presented many seminars on work-life balance, I knew that we needed to make a group effort to ensure that healthy boundaries were drawn. I asked each of my directors and managers to join me in making work-life balance a mantra in our department and to again demonstrate this by example. Checking in on team members needed to include questions about whether they were getting enough downtime and scheduling fun activities for themselves. Staff were encouraged to share their adventures and methods for decompressing via the department newsletter and during social gatherings. Over the holidays, we even created our own team cookbook and encouraged everyone to see how many of the recipes they could master. Here again, with working from home becoming part of the new norm—and with remote workers opting for hours outside the usual—this is going to be an issue we will continue to confront head-on in the months ahead.

Never underestimate the in-person power of a high five, a pat on the back, or even a thumbs-up from a manager or colleague. This is something we lost during the pandemic when it was recommended that we not even come into contact with one another.

It is worth noting here that perhaps the least disciplined team members in this area were myself and some of our other departmental leaders. We wanted so badly to take care of our staff that we were not practicing what we preached. I knew this early on from the instant messages, texts, and emails that came at the oddest of hours or long after I knew that person was supposed to have been done for the day. Team members watch and often emulate what their leaders do. By constantly putting in the extra hours ourselves, we were also compounding the pressure on our staff. This has gotten better as the pandemic has lingered on, but we still have room for improvement here. We featured some work-life balance education for our leadership team this past spring.

Celebrate Successes

Never underestimate the in-person power of a high five, a pat on the back, or even a thumbs-up from a manager or colleague. This is something we lost during the pandemic when it was recommended that we not even come into contact with one another. Combine that with the fear that many had regarding being out of sight and out of mind and you get a perfect storm that could make even the most loyal worker feel unappreciated. All of us need positive reinforcement on a regular basis. The challenge here was coming up with meaningful ways of letting the team know that we saw and recognized their efforts.

Here we got creative and made the process interactive. We used our department newsletter to recognize the many successes and highlight some of the kudos the team received each month. Everyone was encouraged to toot their own horns here, with leadership ultimately deciding what to print and feature (let’s be honest, that was virtually all submissions). Getting staff names and wins in print was only the first part of the push, however. We also created an avenue by which the staff could recognize each other. This was done via a weekly email from me to the whole department and copying our chief. Team members were asked to send in nominations for recognition every Friday. An anonymous panel of non-interested judges was then tasked to help me choose a winner. I dare say it has become fun to keep this program rolling, and it really makes a difference for our team members to know that their colleagues and co-workers appreciate their hard work.

Be Understanding (Within Limits)

Finally, and this almost goes without saying, we all had to learn to be more understanding of and flexible with one another. Working remotely injected a whole new set of distractions and disruptions into our schedules and day-to-day processes—children, pets, wonky technology, reduced availability from the doctors, dentists, and other professionals who we rely upon for our own personal well-being, maintenance, and . . . you name it. We not only needed to prepare for things to go sideways, but also to give each other the grace and space needed to deal with those disruptions. This by no means meant creating an anything goes atmosphere. Professionalism and a focus on client needs were still paramount. It did require that we all learned quickly that we were in this new, uncharted world together. It meant cooperating and collaborating with and coming to the aid of each other more than ever before. Believe it or not, this was actually the easiest of the lessons we learned during the pandemic. It was like we were made to work this way (and if you have read any of my other articles, you know that I believe we were). I am in awe of how our team and so many other teams in firms around the world rallied to not only survive the changes COVID wrought, but to thrive during the crisis.

Let me conclude with a bit of the obvious. This pandemic is not over. The numbers are trending in the right direction now, but none of us can comfortably say what will come next as far as that goes. What should, however, be obvious by now is that many of the changes we made during the period of lockdown are here to stay in some form or another. The concerns I mentioned above are going to be with us for a long time to come. We need to take stock of our successes, learn from what did not work, and steel ourselves knowing that it will take more than the veritable shutdown of civilization to compromise the great work that we do. It is precisely at a time of optimism such as this that we need to get off our laurels and run with the lessons we have learned. I call it “future-proofing,” and it is one of our superpowers in this industry.

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