2 min read October 2021 — The 9-to-5 schedule is a thing of the past but practicing law in a hybrid model is also a challenge, according to Lisa Spencer, president of law firm Henson Efron. In an interview with Invest:, she discussed changes in services and in hiring practices, while also talking about what makes the Twin Cities different from other areas.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for the legal sector today?
One of the challenges that we’re dealing with is remote work. When we started at the beginning of the pandemic, it was new, and although we had to get used to it, we liked it. Now, we’re starting to move to a phase where we’re Zoom fatigued. I also think that we’re missing out on face-to-face communications with each other, reading body language and things like that, that are important to the work we do as lawyers; we are a service industry and we need to engage as human beings. Although there are some advantages to remote legal work, including cost savings for clients, we’re starting to miss out on that face-to-face interaction and it shows.
Where do you see the biggest changes in the services you provide?
In the beginning, everybody was more settlement-focused because we couldn’t get into a courtroom, and the courts were a little slow to respond. That put parties in the position of facing a different reality, one that pushed them to try to work out issues without court involvement. And parties, for the most part, were unsure of the future and wanted to settle. Then the courts caught up with technology, started holding trials and hearings remotely and the landscape shifted again. We’ve learned that some aspects of court interaction work well by Zoom and I believe they’ll carry on post-pandemic. Others don’t work well at all. For example, trial by Zoom is less than ideal but status conferences with the court by Zoom is a good use of the tool and a cost-saver for clients. Mediations by Zoom can work well too. In family law, emotions run high. When people are in their homes and they don’t have to drive Downtown to a mediator’s office or drive to a courthouse and appear in front of a judicial officer, it brings a client’s stress level down and that’s a good thing for resolution of their case.
But still, what we’re missing is the teamwork and productivity that comes from face-to-face interactions. The creativity, that ingenuity, happens when your “brainiac” talent is engaged in discourse in a room together. That needs to happen no matter what area of law you practice.
What is the difference between bigger and smaller law firms in terms of hiring and retaining attorneys?
Young lawyers who are attracted to big law firms go there with the intention of working on exciting, complex legal matters, and they are not wrong that they will find that experience and the promise of making more money. Research shows us, though, that Millennials and Gen-Xers are not enticed by money in the long-term. And sometimes, they are viewed as a commodity rather than a potential future partner. When we hire, we look for a new associate who wants to work on those same exciting, complex legal matters, and whom we see as a future partner that will carry on the legacy of this law firm. We hire people we want to train in the profession of law. That can be challenging in a remote work setting – new associates need that personal, face-to-face interaction to learn the service-oriented business of how to be an effective lawyer. The difference between a firm our size versus larger firms is that we all know each other, and we have vested interest in making our new hire a future partner. We invest our time and energy in that person as a future partner from day one.
What are the advantages of being in the Twin Cities?
I think it’s the Midwest ethic. Generally, we’re hard-working, collegial and respectful of each other in working toward resolution, especially in family law. I’m a member of a national organization called the AAML, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and when I go to conferences, members from other states will often comment that Minnesota is a leader in the nation on alternative dispute resolution. Our focus is on how we get families, especially those with children, through their divorce, one of the worst times in their lives, with as much dignity and respect for each other as possible. We’ve made progress in finding innovative ways to get to settlement because we believe that a courtroom is the worst place for individuals to resolve their family law disputes.
What was your firm’s response to the social unrest in Minneapolis?
We had a number of employees who were closely affected. I live in a quintessentially beautiful Minneapolis neighborhood. I also live within walking distance of where George Floyd was murdered. Some of our employees live within a few blocks of where it happened. Being that close literally brought the unrest home. In response, we had to be supportive of each other in new ways. That meant being more attentive to people’s emotional states. Many of us did what we could to get out and do community work but, honestly, much of that community work was just taking care of each other.
What is your near-term outlook?
Financially, we’re in a good spot because our lawyers are busy. We’re doing fine. The next challenge is to look within our firm culture and how we’re going to respond and thrive within the hybrid work model. That’s not just a challenge for our firm, but society as a whole.