Leading Remotely: Insights from the Founder of a Virtual Practice

With the spread of COVID-19, many law firms were unexpectedly forced to shift to remote working. For many legal practitioners, this is a significant challenge. To support lawyers in continuing to serve their clients through these uncertain times, we looked to one of our clients’ extensive experience in remote practice.Lisa Stam is the founder of SpringLaw, a virtual law firm advising exclusively on workplace legal issues for employers and executives. SpringLaw has been virtual since its founding in 2017. “We’ve got lawyers across Ontario and [the virtual nature of the firm] allows us to tap talent and service clients in a way that resonates with how they’re running their business already,” says Stam.

What are your top three pieces of advice for colleagues who are managing a remote team for the first time?

1. Be deliberate and proactive around how to stay connected to juniors and make them feel engaged and a vested stakeholder in the organization. Lawyers need to think about human resources, maybe for the first time in some places. Every other company has done that already. They have teams to think through how to keep everyone motivated. The traditional way for lawyers has been to give them a nice monetary carrot for hitting a certain number of hours a year. Life is way more complex than that. Lawyers now need to think about what will motivate people, what will keep them happy and engaged?2. Check on people’s stress levels. We’re dealing with so many panicked clients right now. Entrepreneurs are really struggling with how their company will survive this unprecedented moment. People are worried about losing their jobs. People are losing their jobs… it’s heavy and I think firms, managers, and partners need to check in on the stress levels of their staff, employees, and lawyers.3. Trust that your people are going to be productive working from home. The sense that everybody wants to work as little as possible is just not true. There is always going to be some small percentage of society that’s going to be maybe not as productive as the rest. Let it go. The majority are actually really delighted to work from home, at least for a temporary period of time, especially at a time like this.First of all, lawyers docket. We can still see the amount of time that they’re working. I don’t think that we need to worry about that. I know there’s going to be an adjustment period for many people working from home for the first time, but there’s work to do.I’m driven by the deadlines of my clients. There’s never an issue of self-discipline or anything like that. There’s work to do and so you just do it. I suspect that’s the case for far more people than most think.

The profession is very collegial, and people like the ability to connect with their colleagues... Since there’s a lack of spontaneous "walk down the hall" chats, how can a lawyer recreate this when working remotely?

I think that’s a leadership piece.At SpringLaw, we have a weekly, mandatory video call with the whole team where we walk through our client files and talk about issues that are coming up. Having organized, inclusive meetings where we all talk and learn about strategies for dealing with a difficult file or having a group chat where everyone helps brainstorm legal strategy, I think it’s as or more effective than relying on those casual chats.It’s also part of firm culture. You’ve got to build out the idea that it’s truly an open door for everybody to call and pick up the phone and have office hours, basically. I try to have one-on-one meetings with everybody. Granted, my firm has eight people in it. If you’ve got 200 people, you’ve got to subdivide this all up a little bit, but it’s just [a matter of] planning and thinking it through.

How do you feel clients perceive your virtual firm?

The clients love it. We get so much extra business because of [the virtual aspect]. They like the convenience of not having to come downtown and find parking. Clients like the convenience of just picking up the phone and talking to us. It should be that simple.Right now, we’re dealing with all of these small employers with tough business decisions to make around the workforce over the next couple of months. They don’t want to come to our office. And they don’t want to pay for me to come to their office. They want to pick up the phone.

For all the lawyers out there thinking about going virtual but aren’t sure where to start, what technology helps your practice run smoothly?

Everything we do is cloud-based. There are still lots of lawyers that really struggle with whether or not that’s secure. And they insist on having great, big servers in their own facility. I am curious how many of those will rethink the situation after recent events.When we set our infrastructure up, I mapped it out on pen and paper: what software will talk to each other? I didn’t need to hire a software engineer to do that. We now live in a world where we use Clio as our practice management, and that talks to everything and that’s cloud-based already. I’m on the Google platform which I find great for collaboration, we can all be in the same document and edit together. It’s like working beside each other and sometimes even more so because you’re on the screen together.We don’t have books, we try to make our knowledge management as digital as possible. We have a couple of different AI tools and online research tools, including Blue J Legal’s Blue J L&E. All of that is so easy to do digitally and doesn’t require IT support to set up. There are so many tools available online that are kept current and up to date. I don’t need someone to come in and replace my loose leafs because we’ve got up-to-date internet resources already.

About Lisa Stam

Lisa Stam is the founder of SpringLaw, a virtual law firm advising exclusively on workplace legal issues for employers and executives. She practises all aspects of employment, labour, privacy and human rights law, with a particular interest in legal issues arising from technology in the workplace. Her practice includes a wide range of entrepreneurs in the tech space, as well as global companies with smaller operations in Canada. In addition to the day-to-day workplace issues from hiring to firing, she frequently blogs and speaks on both the impact, risks and opportunities of social media and technology issues in (and out of) the workplace, as well as the novel ways in which changing expectations of privacy continue to evolve employment law. She spent three years in union-side boutiques and seven years at Baker McKenzie advising global employers, was a co-founding partner of an employment law boutique in 2014 and launched SpringLaw in 2017.

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