During the pandemic, it often seems like the only certainty is more uncertainty. What in spring of 2020 seemed might be a disruption of a few weeks turned into one that lasted months. The promise of spring 2021 veered off course with the emergence of Delta. Will the new “Delta Plus” variant throw yet another curveball? Time will tell.

All of it has required law firm leaders not only to manage different situations, but to manage differently—to cope with ongoing uncertainty.

Law firm leaders themselves are feeling the burnout of this environment, The American Lawyer recently reported. For those who forge ahead, and forge a path for future leaders, there’s much to be learned about management strategy.

“The pandemic has caused me to reflect and to reprioritize,” said Michael Stein, managing partner of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden in Hackensack, New Jersey. ”It’s probably a continuing journey.”

“What matters most to me is a sense of community, a shared bond of humanity,” Stein said, and, perhaps most importantly, “a sense of purpose.”

All of those elements, and more—taking things day by day while also taking the long view—have gone into navigating the uncertainty of the past 19 months (and counting), firm leaders recently interviewed on the topic have said.

‘We’re Throwing Money at Creating Our Culture’

Brian Donnelly, managing partner of San Francisco-based midsize firm Farella Braun + Martel, said his firm urged its members to take solace in the strength and wherewithal of the institution.

“We assured people that over our 60-year history, we, like every other firm, have had some really good times and some bad times, but we’ve always come out of the bad times,” Donnelly said.

But during COVID, coming through bad times required being dynamic, not static, in approach. That has meant being flexible about work arrangements and reemphasizing a commitment to wellness, Donnelly said.

And at Los Angeles-based midsize firm Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman & Machtinger, part of the approach is an 1,800-hour target for billables, rather than a more ambitious number, as well as more pro bono opportunities, which he said forges connections.

“It’s supporting our lawyers, and what they want to do other than just coming to the office billing hours and leaving,” Baradaran said.

He added, “We understand that there are trade-offs, and we’re a very successful business, but we decided to invest in tangible things that make our culture and our environment special. Sometimes, it comes at the cost of profitability, or how much profitability, and that’s OK.”

Baradaran said, “Directly or indirectly, we’re throwing money at creating our culture,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s who we are, and who we attract.”

Farella Braun’s Donnelly agreed that successful management moving forward required a combination of commitment to core values with an innovative approach to the future.

“As we start to contemplate how we want to operate in the future, I think we’re stressing to people that we didn’t hit the pause button, we really hit the reset button,” Donnelly said. “And we’re trying to envision how we want to operate for the next 60 years.”

‘Be Solid About Your Firm Values’

Susan Myres of Houston matrimonial boutique Myres & Associates said, “As a small firm leader, I feel as if I have been tap dancing since March 2020 … but those who’ve been most successful navigating this crisis have had to learn to be flexible, to rethink our ways of doing everything, to spin on a dime and keep on readjusting—and it’s not over yet.”

She said, “In other words, nothing forces creativity and resourcefulness more than disaster. Always have at least Plan C ready to launch.”

Myres offered the following advice to firm leaders going forward:

“Be solid about your firm values.”

“Remember that you have a limited amount of control.”

“Pick the fights that really matter to the success of your firm and be consistent.”

“Try to find some fun in what is going on.”

Finally, she added, “it’s a cliche to say, ‘embrace change.’ But the fact is that, whether you embrace change or not, change will embrace you—or throttle you, if you’re not prepared.”

‘Plodding Along Will No Longer Suffice’

Todd Patterson, founder of 90-lawyer IP firm Patterson + Sheridan, agreed that embracing change is a key leadership ingredient in the new environment.

“We have discovered once again during the pandemic what an advantage it is to never rest on your laurels. A law firm leader ideally is capable, not only of thinking ahead, but of having what I might call a visionary mindset.

“The leaders of the future will not only have to keep up with changing business trends, but will have to really grapple constantly with how to do things better. If you are accustomed to flexibility and an effort towards continuous improvement, then you are less likely to be completely flummoxed when a serious crisis arrives.

“Steady, reliable plodding along will no longer suffice. Future leaders will have to be nimble and flexible as a matter of course, not just when an emergency occurs,” Patterson said.

‘Rely on What We Know’

Several leaders (of much larger firms) echoed Stein’s comments about community and purpose.

Ted Blum, managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s Atlanta office, which has roughly 105 lawyers, said, “You control what you can control. … There are macro-currents you can’t control. You focus on the micro-currents you can control: building culture, collaboration, communication, empathy, driving people, being empathetic where people are but also propelling people toward the work they [do]. All of those are key stakes in the ground to be successful.”

Mark Stewart, managing partner at Ballard Spahr, said the firm has returned to its principles amid ongoing uncertainty.

“[We said] every decision we make is going to be with an eye towards those things. In some ways it made the job easier because we had decided the path we were going to take,” Stewart said. “With the future at that point unknowable, you can be grasping or trying to react to the moment, or you can say, let’s rely on what we know and see how that applies to an unknown situation.”

Grant Palmer of Blank Rome noted one last important element of leadership—important in any environment, though especially important in the current one.

“If I didn’t stay positive, how could others stay positive in light of certain changes?” he said. “Positivity is kind of contagious.”

Alaina Lancaster, Kenneth Artz, Max Mitchell and Everett Catts contributed to this report.