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Virtual Roundtable Discussion: Global Legal HR Directors

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Ambition was delighted to host a virtual roundtable for an exclusive group of Law Firm HRDs. There was representation from 7 different International Law firms with HR leaders based in locations across the UK and Asia, including London, Manchester, Hong Kong and Singapore. It was great to be able to compare and contrast, across multiple jurisdictions, some of the challenges and opportunities that exist within our law firm clients during this current climate. Whilst protecting the confidentiality of the roundtable, here is a summary of the key discussion points:

It is a challenging time for Law Firm HRDs 

Everyone agreed that this had been one of the most, if not the most, challenging periods of their careers as HR leaders. With the current COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has been dealing with something unparalleled without pre-existing policies and procedures in place to help manage it. Furthermore, those in HR functions have been managing a particularly high volume of questions and queries that are far from the norm. This meant their job scope and roles were being stretched and blurred into areas they were not necessarily qualified to cover.

This testing period is particularly true of certain markets like Hong Kong who have also dealt with political protests and unrest in the preceding 12 months before the coronavirus pandemic.

One positive outcome for the majority of HRD’s on the call was that the hard work and additional support is being recognised by the firm and its people. It is the first time HRDs have experienced their own firms’ employees reaching out to ask how they are (usually they only go to HR when they want something!). This period has further underlined the critical role of HR leaders, and the wider business services function, within a law firm.

Wellness and Engagement a priority 

Health and Wellness was a key area of discussion, and it was great to hear many firms prioritising wellbeing more. There have been plenty of new ideas generated across the last couple of months in all the firms from online tea breaks, virtual wine tasting, global kids creches and psychotherapist sessions. Personal connectivity between colleagues has notably increased and, in a lot of cases, never been better. Never before have so many people met their colleagues’ kids, pets, seen their living rooms and seen Partners in very dressed-down attire, which has worked wonders in bringing everyone together.

Additionally, greater global and regional collaboration seemed to be a common theme, and some of the extra engagement has helped drive this. However, countering fatigue has been somewhat of an issue for firms. There still seemed to be several examples of staff working even more excessive hours due to not ever exiting their workspaces and feeling extra pressure of being present and being seen to be doing more. To help address this, firms are starting to monitor login times and highlight to line managers.

Remote Working is working (mostly!)

Unsurprisingly, those firms who have been promoting more agile working policies longer were seeing far easier adoption and less business disruption than those firms and locations who had cultures very much centred around being in the office. HK offices were generally more prepared to work from home as they had already experienced some prolonged periods of remote working through the protests.

Firms are monitoring productivity closely, and there was some opposing feedback on how remote working, versus general market conditions, was affecting productivity. For example, one firm reported an immediate drop in productivity in the Middle East from working from home, but that has now gradually risen back as people adapt. Whilst certain practice areas are busy such as litigation, restructuring, employment and insurance, there had still been challenges with the physical closing of courts, although that seems to have been somewhat eased with online hearings. Others reported an increase in productivity and efficiencies, but it will require some time to assess what is working and what is sustainable.

One firm gave employees a small budget to spend on technology to ensure they were set up at home effectively, which has been well received by staff.

What happens next?

Most firms have plans to return to offices using a phased approach with those roles that can’t operate at home to return first (catering, facilities, some IT). They are also offering optional working from home for at least the remainder of the year. There was some discussion on whether some roles would become obsolete and whether firms were overstaffed in certain areas. It was widely agreed this period had helped accelerate a lot of change that needed to happen, pandemic or not. With a different way of working expected, there was also discussion whether employment contracts would change in the future with agreements based purely on deliverables with no fixed hours/days?

Remote working seems to be on the whole working successfully, and firms have adapted well to the changing requirements of its employees. Well after the pandemic passes, it’s likely employees will place even more importance on flexibility, work-life balance and health and wellbeing. This period has given much more confidence to Managing Partners that this new way of working can flourish.

How firms treat their employees during this time will be remembered. Managing Partners need to ensure they are leading from the front on driving culture, showing compassion and championing health and wellbeing initiatives, to ensure firms are retaining and able to hire the best talent well after the coronavirus pandemic passes.

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