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Stellar Performance: The importance of communication in a hybrid working world

The new "Stellar Performance" report shows that lawyers themselves want to change the way they work and see communication as the key to that change

The challenges of 2020 have given many law firm leaders around the world the opportunity to reflect on the way things have been done in the past and whether the industry needs to refresh its methods going forward.

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This year almost 2,500 private practice lawyers — 89% of which were partners — took part in new Stellar Performance research from Thomson Reuters. The results were clear: Lawyers themselves want to change the way they work, and they see the key to success for both themselves and their firms is promoting more effective, empathetic communication.

Last year, this group of client-nominated lawyers reported that they wanted a hybrid approach to remote-office working, with an average of two days working from home per week. Now that we are further along the course of the pandemic, that sentiment is here to stay with almost all lawyers who took part in our survey reporting that they want to work in this way, with differing balances of home and office time.

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The initial fears that this would have an adverse impact on clients’ own experiences is also proving to not bear out in reality: 84% of respondents to our Sharplegal survey of corporate law department leaders say their experience working with external lawyers has not been frustrating even with the lawyers being outside of their normal office environment. In part, this is maybe because almost three-quarters of these client-nominated lawyers feel like they are able to communicate with their clients about boundaries.

Internal communication is critical as well, our report shows. Throughout the pandemic, these client-nominated lawyers have reported that their biggest challenges were collaboration, business development, and training junior lawyers. Reducing the formality of day-to-day work and involving junior lawyers more in tasks like client calls were cited as two of the three factors necessary to making hybrid-remote working a success within the firm. The third factor? Regular communication that extends beyond email to include phone calls and video chats, with partners carving out time within their day to host office hours for either their clients or the junior attorneys in their teams.

With the world changing around them, respondents to this year’s survey also highlighted the skills they believe to be increasingly important — for themselves and for the junior members of their teams. Chief among those skills is communication. Establishing responsive communication and discussing clients’ objectives were seen as key skills to maintain, while asking better questions to understand the clients’ business was highlighted as a skill to develop.

These needed skills range from the theoretical (understanding business fundamentals) to the practical (understanding clients’ business and the industry in which they operate) and underscore the importance of strong communication. Indeed, there was another group of skills highlighted — those that the stand-out lawyers recognize as increasingly important, but that they rarely recognize in themselves. This group of skills includes concepts focused on adaptability, matter management, and better use of technology. Like the core theoretical and practical skills, strong communication is needed to effectively introduce these skills into to the law firm/client relationship.

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Lawyer well-being is another key topic of the remote-hybrid future the industry now faces. A majority, 60%, of law firm lawyers surveyed say working remotely has positively impacted their well-being. With 1-in-2 lawyers previously reporting that their performance has been adversely affected by their mental or physical health, the importance of well-being goes beyond the individual’s needs and clearly impacts the overall strength of the firm as a whole.

Our research has uncovered that the foundations of greater well-being are related to three factors: clarity, control, and support. This year, however, lawyers have also told us that effective communication is key to their well-being.

Many lawyers and legal organization leaders have taken the time this year to reassess their purpose, whether in terms of the clients they serve, the firm to which they are dedicated, or the overall meaning of their profession. It’s therefore unsurprising to learn that buying into the firm’s vision, understanding their role in helping to achieve that vision, and being treated fairly on the firm’s path to achieving that vision are three of the key drivers of lawyers’ happiness with life at their firm. This happiness, of course, requires structured top-down communication that takes everyone at the firm into consideration. Successful tactics in this area include holding senior reviews of communications, creating an expected cadence of communication (such as weekly or monthly) rather than ad hoc updates, and utilizing different communication channels such as video and email to share the message.

While the full Stellar Performance research covers many more topics than are touched on here, the recurring theme of strong communication is a clear theme throughout, rising as a way both leaders and lawyers can overcome the challenges that they inevitably will face in the year ahead.


Download the Executive Summary of the Stellar Performance Report 2021 here:

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