Episode 20: Leading a Law Firm Through A Global Crisis with Michelle Friends, Executive Director of Fairfield & Woods, P.C.

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Leading a Law Firm Through A Global Crisis with Michelle Friends, Executive Director of Fairfield & Woods, P.C.

In this episode of On Record PR, we’re going on record with Michelle Friends, the executive director of Fairfield & Woods, P.C., based in Denver, Colorado. In her role, Michelle oversees all aspects of firm operations including staffing, marketing, information technology, human resources, finance, and strategic planning. Michelle is a member at large on the Legal Marketing Association board of directors. She has held many roles within LMA. Michelle is passionate about her work in the legal industry. She also serves on the Colorado Judicial Institute board of directors and chairs, the development committee. The organization works to preserve and enhance the fairness, impartiality and excellence of Colorado’s courts. Prior to the legal industry, Michelle worked in the nonprofit sector. She holds a master’s of science and legal administration from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a master of applied communication with a concentration in public relations and marketing from the University of Denver.

Can you tell us about your educational background?

I started in community college, and then later on I went back and took a little break when I moved to Denver, and I went back and started to pursue my education again in marketing. At that time, I was really set on being a marketer, and I pursued my master’s in applied communications and concentration and loved it. I came over to legal, and as I was trying to open doors, learn more and show my commitment to my future, I decided to go back and get my master’s in science and legal administration, which I just finished this past December. I strongly believe in academics. They show a level of commitment in whatever industry you’re in and it shows you’re taking it seriously.

Gina Rubel: Your degree in legal administration is really something that differentiates you, especially as an executive director, which I’m going to get into in a second.

I know that you’re very passionate about leadership and that you’ve taken some leadership courses as well. Can you tell us about those?

I’ve taken a variety of leadership courses and I’m always interested in them just because of the fact that they always teach me something new. Most recently, I did the Smith-Bucklin leadership Institute in 2017, and it was tough. It was the only leadership program that I will say I considered quitting, but I’m not a quitter. There was so much internal growth with learning how to take feedback. I got through it, and I would say that it probably sits with me more and more every day. That’s one of the things they tell you in that program that it doesn’t really start until it’s over. That was so true for me. I continue to reflect and think about all the books I had to read over the course of about six to eight months. I had 15 books I had to read, probably around 10 presentations, and papers, so it was quite a commitment. I was in school during that time as well. I share that with people, for me personally, how hard for me it was to do that, and it’s really changed me as a leader.

Gina Rubel: As you’ve already said, we’re always learning, and there’s so much to learn.

How did you become the executive director of a law firm?

The door opened for me because I took some chances and threw out ideas that were a little out of the marketing realm. It was also because I went back to school and showed them that I was serious about making that jump. When the opportunity came up, my firm went to market, and I had to put a plan into place about why I can make that transition.

What does it mean to be the executive director of a law firm?

It means learning every department and tying it all together. I’m never going to know every single aspect of HR, and I’m never going to know everything about the finance department, but it’s about hiring people that fill my weaknesses. You learn to tie those groups together. The marketer and communicator in me is what brings something new to that role. I think that we’ll see a lot more marketers and business development professionals start to take those roles because we are the ones that are driving dollars in the door. That’s really important now as an executive director. However, it’s not what that top seat has been like historically.

I’ve had to earn a lot of respect from lawyers that saw me as the marketing person. There’s also a fine line in being a leader where I’m willing to dive in and do the dishes, help clean up after an event, and do the most basic things. At the same time, I’m not the person that does all of those things all the time anymore. There’s a balance that you have to learn how to do. You’re rolling your sleeves up, but you’re also letting people know that they should still respect you when you’re doing a different job these days.

You have been forthcoming with information and strategy to support the entire legal industry through the COVID-19 pandemic. What drives your generosity?

I think there’s something I love about LMA. There are so many people out there that have helped me over the years and have coached me into doing different things, and have been supportive, even with just getting my degree. Mark Beese, an LMA hall-of-famer, was a teacher in the program that I applied for. I went and watched his class once, and our good friend, Timothy Corcoran, was there presenting it. I got to see two of my mentors in that program. At that point, I didn’t want to go back to school and Mark was a reference for me. That generosity in our community is inspiring. It makes you want to get involved and share what you know.

I started by answering some questions on a Facebook group, and I started to share information about what I was looking at and what I had learned from others. I was obviously starting to keep tabs on COVID-19 and how it was affecting law firms and businesses in general. I started to share it, and eventually I kept going with it. I became this person that a lot of people have reached out to for information. Also, I mentioned that I want to see the economy reopen. That’s good for my firm, it’s good for our clients, and economies are driven by competition. I want the competition to open. Why? Why wouldn’t I also educate other businesses in my office or in my community about being healthy and safe when they bring people back? People need this information. I want to see the economy back and then help people be safe and healthy.

We talked a little bit earlier about how you did some pseudo tabletop planning before your governor shut down the state. Can you tell me why you did it? How did you make that happen, and what have you learned from it?

I would say that early on I got involved with COVID-19 because of the LMA Annual Conference and our need to analyze whether to cancel or postpone it. I was pretty aware of what was going on with COVID-19, and I was seeing it spread rapidly. I told my executive committee that I was going to send out a communication to the firm and let everybody know that we were monitoring it. We knew it was out there, and I broke that down by saying, “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s what you need to know, and here’s some CDC resources.”

I got a few people that were like, “It’s nice you’re doing this, but we don’t really need it.” It started to spread and it was getting more intense. I had two attorneys that were traveling abroad. I gave it to them, but I said, “I think you guys should quarantine. I don’t want to force it. I’m going to give you the choice.” They both came back and decided to quarantine, and then I had someone that ended up getting tested. We called a firm-wide meeting. We were continuing to tell people how we were monitoring this, but within 10 days of that first email communication, we shut down for IT testing. I felt strongly about that.

I had heard a couple other firms mention that it wasn’t as widespread quite yet, but I was like, “I think you should do this. We should see how our network is going to work during this time.” Luckily for us, we had just been through a lot of upgrades, through me taking over as executive director this past year. I spent a ton of time on improving that. So, a lot of people give me some credit for that as if I foresaw this. I didn’t. I was just making our IT department stronger. Luckily that benefited me. A lot of convincing to close down for a day, and send everybody to work, from home. I got my management team on board to do that, and we closed that day, and we did not reopen. That ended up being our last day in the office.

We closed on that Friday. I sent a survey out to people asking about their IT issues. That Sunday was probably my first ever management meeting to assess what happened with it, and to assess whether we should open on that Monday morning. We have a pretty cool email-to-text system that we use. And at that point in time, we distributed text to everybody along with an email that said we will not be reopening on that Monday. And I have to say that first day I thought this is great. I’m going to be home for two weeks and I’m just going to get caught up, I’m going to get all these projects done that I’ve been working on. And my life has pretty much been COVID-19 ever since. It never really lifted.

So, some initial communications–my firm’s culture and my predecessors probably wouldn’t have sent that first communication. That was probably the marketer. Being that communicator that stepped up and said, “I think we should acknowledge that we know COVID-19 is out there.” And yeah, again, I was the crazy one. And even when I presented the rules and policies to the firm last week, I even kind of joked in my presentation to people about how my timeline was still crazy here. Now is about the point where everyone started to think that I wasn’t completely crazy anymore.

What has changed in the way you communicate with people as a result of the pandemic? What have you learned?

I think because we’re virtual, I have learned a level of empathy towards my staff in the way I communicate that I maybe didn’t have before. When you’re writing an email, you have the chance to slow down and analyze the situation. I’ve learned that a lot in dealing with minor crises, from operations reacting too quickly to something. I’ve learned to take the time to relate to people. As a leader and manager, I have to learn to read between the lines. During this time, it’s important to be more gentle and empathetic with people than we typically are in law firms. In law firms, I think we’ve learned to have thick skin. Originally, we had to fight through tough layers, but now that’s all shifted. I’ve had lawyers who have had people pass away, so it’s important to be caring to them. I’ve seen a different side of those lawyers in those communications. I think this has been such a shock to society, that there is a lot more love and caring out there.

Is there any language that you’ve stopped using, or that you’ve been more mindful to use in a different way because of the way it comes across?

I don’t like to say, “The return to normal.” I don’t think that we know what normal is going forward. A lot of times, I think of it in the same aspect as 9/11– we never traveled the same after 9/11, the way that TSA operates. You can’t go to the gate and see our loved ones arrive anymore. It’s a very different thing, and we’re going to have that with the pandemic as well. Things are going to change. We’re going to have a generation of people that are going to think social distancing is the norm. Every generation has that big thing, whether it was a tragedy that defines them in a way. And we’re going to see that, and we don’t necessarily know what those aspects, or traits of those people, are going to live, but we have to be mindful of that.

This is going to change us. It’s going to change how older people socialize. It’s going to change how we act in crowds. If anything, it’s the new normal. Again, I don’t love that word for those reasons, but that’s the big thing that I tried to get away from. We might not ever have our entire team in the office the same way again. Actually, during this pandemic I had one employee that asked to go virtual and wanted to move out of state.

There’s also a different way of even responding to my partners and what they want, and the demands that they have. I have to learn that right now. How do I explain something to this person, or how do I protect the staff member that doesn’t want to come back but has someone that thinks they should be there?

There’s a different line as an executive director that I had to learn that wasn’t necessarily how things were before. I never used to draw that hard line, but we are going to have to think about that differently. I think that open and honest communication is important.

What are some of the key considerations you think listeners need to think about in the future? What have you learned that you think is going to be relevant in the next few years?

As the pandemic itself starts to settle, I do think there’s going to be a lot of legal work. We’re going to see people that are going to go into litigation over how PPP loans went out, how they dealt with their employees. So, I do believe this is going to drive a whole new practice group area that’s going to exist for quite some time. We know things like litigation drag, so you have to think about what kind of work does something like this drive right now, but there’s also going to be long-term work there. I think that’s something for people to think about. The other thing I tell a lot of people right now is just look at other industries.

Right now, it’s time to learn from everybody and see what everyone is doing. The legal industry tends to be slow to change, but right now is the time to push technology. Get rid of the marketing things that are legacy that you don’t want to keep around. Now’s the time for change to occur. Technology is going to be a big part of that. That’s here to stay. But also working from home. Before this, nobody ever had a good work-from-home policy. Nobody really had a “go to” thing. Well, now we know we can do it.

There’s going to be a flexible environment. Having more people work virtually is going to last. I also think that with technology now, like with Zoom meetings, we’re going to be able to connect more around the world. So, we’re going to have this different way of connecting. But, I think we’re all still going to be very connected. Don’t be surprised that clients, friends and family might be more inclined to FaceTime you or Zoom you, than to pick up the phone and call or text you. This is now how we interact. The social component and how we, as humans, want to be connected is going to change too.

Gina Rubel: When we were speaking earlier, you asked me how we plan. We’re so used to being strategic planners in legal marketing and in any leadership role where you’re running a business or helping to run a business. And my answer is two weeks at a time.

Michelle Friends: Which I think is great. I think initially I took in a lot of information, but it’s been so many plans. I wasted time on plans that fell apart or things that just didn’t come to fruition.

Gina Rubel: Or, you reuse them when they do come to fruition. And, the other side of this is we’re going to be back to day one at some point when we have to close our offices again. And that’s very likely the scenario because we’re seeing that in other countries right now. From everything we’ve learned, we need to be ready to re-institute, but we’re going to be stronger, more efficient, and more effective.

There are always silver linings and we have to find them. We have to identify what has changed in our world that has been an improvement on the past that we’re not going to let go away, even when we return to whatever we return to.

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