July 29 2020

Challenging times or new career opportunities?

Sebastian Hartmann

In this interview we discuss important aspects and impacts of COVID and post-COVID times, along with the opportunities to change legal and other professional services for the better.

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We are truly experiencing unprecedented and challenging times, but what are the changes we are facing? Is it just about working remotely and using more digital tools? What would you recommend to business leaders right now?

Well, the use of remote working and digital tools has gone through the roof these past weeks and has allowed firms to continue their services and survive. But this does not necessarily represent much of a deviation from the traditional ways of working, I think. Nonetheless, the situation has helped firms and clients alike to realize the fantastic possibilities which technology is opening up for multiple professions. This recognition will have a long-term market impact.

I think many firms are only just realizing that virtual client engagement models and better digital client journeys may require much more than just “working from home” and using video conferencing. Taking a look at the websites of established peers, and especially service marketplaces, I can sayu that highly networked or digital solution providers may hold some “inspirational cues” about the future. We now find even more pre-scoped crisis response services, free checklists, templates, and tools, or self-service digital risk exposure assessments for clients.

Of course, these emerging, often much more digital solutions and new client engagement models need to be echoed by internal adjustments, as well. All ranks across the hierarchy of an organization need to understand this – and rise to the challenge, which may even be distributed between external and internal roles. Distributed leadership and agile management approaches are not some semi-utopian fantasies, but the structural response to increasing uncertainty and required responsiveness and flexibility.

But the situation may still be tough at the moment for many firms, right? How may one strike the right balance between the short-term crisis response and the long-term adaptation to a changing market environment?

Dealing with emerging profitability or even liquidity responses is clearly a key pillar amidst a crisis. The unfolding economic downturn will further tighten the screws on the shortcomings of the past. I would, therefore, recommend working through both short-term and longer-term optimization levers, such as automatic time capturing, effective realization management and recovery rates, cash collection, sourcing (e.g., contingent workforce) or shared delivery approaches. And, last but not least, standardization, digitization, and automation of delivery activities and processes.

Some of these levers may not hold immediate returns – so the earlier a firm starts to address them, the higher the likelihood to survive or even thrive in a harsher climate. Last but least, the natural reflex to cut all non-essential costs needs to be avoided (as long as possible): it is crucial to keep an eye on the competitive landscape and even more swiftly evolving market trends – both during and after a crisis. I think many firms can seize this moment to outpace their competitors. Innovation efforts and investments in the ecosystem and technology foundations of many firms are critical ingredients to success going forward.

What would you recommend to an individual lawyer, consultant, or other professionals regarding their client work and dialogue?

The individual professional (lawyer, consultant, accountant, marketer, expert) is typically most successful through a strong focus on clients‘ issues and challenges. This mindset is probably even more important in a crisis, like the current COVID-19 pandemic, or its aftermath and the expected economic downturn. I think it is essential to broaden the client dialogue beyond the typical addressees. For example, if we discuss the corporate legal market, it may be helpful for a lawyer not only to address the client’s General Counsel, but also the business leaders, legal operations managers, or the Procurement division. Ask about current challenges, offer points of view and some relevant expertise. The resulting conversation creates a much more holistic and business-led lens on the challenges faced in the current situation. It may also be essential to demonstrate much greater flexibility and a willingness to invest in the survival and success of your clients – and your relationship with them (“To bill or not to bill”).

Could this even be a career opportunity?

Good question. The sudden need for virtual collaboration and engagement models these days has vast implications on everybody‘s ways of working. Here, the individual professional can definitely shine – both within a larger firm or even as a solo practitioner. Familiarizing yourself with available new tools to connect with clients and colleagues and rethinking your delivery activities in a digital world is one of the best investments of your time. Many industry observers are also expecting an accelerated digital transformation across professional services – so the earlier you adapt as an individual, the better for both your clients and firm.

I see. So, how do you think this is going to impact leadership and management structures, self-understanding of roles and expectations?

Individual professionals need to consider the overall situation of their firm – and understand its mechanics. It may be difficult for firms’ leaders, who are dealing with the crisis from all angles and both for clients and their own firm, to seize every opportunity in this dynamic environment. But the nature of the partnership model and the high degree of individual flexibility, as well as talent found in professional services firms, is a great strength. It allows for this weight to be distributed on many shoulders – and much faster than in many other industries. So, let your firm‘s leadership know that you are up for the challenge – and demonstrate distributed, collaborative and mindful management approaches individually.

OpenText’s Mark Barrenechea said it nicely in his Fast Company article a few weeks ago: “I would encourage leaders not to miss the moment. Reconsider your office footprint. Invest in your digital systems. Trust your people and embrace new ways of working. This is a once-in-a-generation moment to address the equity, flexibility, and design of our organizations”.

Article author:
Sebastian Hartmann

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