When a crisis hits, your clients and the community at large are desperate for guidance, reassurance, detailed instructions, and honesty. This is the most important time for firms to communicate their values and vision. Finding the right ways to express resilience, strength, and compassion can help firms gain loyal team members and long-lasting community trust for the years ahead.
Part 1: External Communication
In the example of COVID-19, courts closed, deadlines were deferred, and many struggled to pay their legal bills. This only increased the responsibility to communicate with clients.
A unified voice is particularly important if the legal team is dispersed across different locations. In any situation, create a strong Crisis Communication Team. The speed of messaging is crucial, which means the team needs to be small, agile, and with full authority to speak for the firm.
Always approach your communication goals from the perspective of your clients. What do they need to know from you right now? What are the problems they’re experiencing? Every message should center around their needs.
Make sure your communication answers these questions:
- Are you still open?
- Are you accepting new clients?
- What services are you providing?
- How can you best be reached?
- Do you offer remote services? If so what kind?
- What precautions are you taking to keep your clients and community safe?
- Where can clients get the best updates regarding health and safety recommendations?
- How can we help you?
There are a number of locations where you can disseminate this information.
- Use automatic document generation to create personalized emails for all clients.
- Create your own disaster-specific webpage and link to it from a banner on your homepage.
- Post on social media.
- Create helpful blog posts addressing common questions your clients might have.
- Update your Google, My Business profile with new hours and contact information.
In addition to widespread messaging, you’ll need to connect with clients regarding how the crisis will affect the status of pending matters and cases. Determine how you wish to discuss financial concerns with worried clients as well, as financial and social turmoil can leave many clients strapped for cash.
Part 2: Internal Communication
How you communicate with lawyers and support staff during a crisis will also shape your success in the months and years that follow. Prompt and compassionate communication will encourage a stronger bond among coworkers and greater long-term loyalty to the firm.
Ideally, you already have a communication plan in place that you can follow. If not, quickly create a strategy for regular, prompt, and clear communication about expectations and policies.
This might be a dedicated channel in your messaging app just for important announcements. Some firms and businesses have developed information hubs or wikis to keep people informed. If employees know what to expect with a communication strategy, they will also be less likely to fall for harmful phishing scams.
Communicate quickly, even in the face of uncertainty. You might be tempted to wait until more definitive information comes through before you reach out. But even amid uncertainty, your team needs to know that their firm is at least working on answers.
When you provide updated policies and expectations, make sure you also explain the context around them. Share which trusted sources helped you make your decisions. Build unity around a shared concern for those outside of the firm as well—your families and community.
Examine your firm’s legal obligations to workers. Consider all the workplace protections enshrined in the NLRA, OSHA, and ADA. The Society of Human Resource Management can also provide useful guidance. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, the Society of Human Resource Management put together several COVID-specific resources for employers, while the CDC published its own interim guidance for employers.
Be mindful of the way your treatment of support staff may differ from your treatment of lawyers. Are some being asked to endanger their health and well-being, while others are immediately allowed to work from home? Writing for Above the Law, Molly McDonough reminds us:
Treating support staff as second-class citizens is a mistake. And how firms communicate with and treat their workers — all workers — will define them and reverberate for months and years to come.
Part 3: Evaluate
When the crisis abates, take what you learn from your experiences with internal and external messaging, and update your disaster and crisis communication plan so it’s available to your firm in future events.
For more information on managing a firm through times of crisis, check out our No-Guide to Remote Legal Work