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4 May 2020

Five Best Practices for Internal Crisis Communications in Small and Midsize Law Firms

Internal communications is a vital part of any law firm’s communications strategy—a fact that becomes all-the-more apparent during emergencies. How you communicate and act in times of crisis can define your reputation and shape your firm’s brand.

But there’s good news. Thanks to their ability to adapt quickly, small and midsize practices have a considerable advantage over larger firms, specifically when it comes to implementing internal communications plans related to the coronavirus pandemic.

That said, there are a handful of things to consider when developing an internal crisis communications plan for your firm. Here are some tips to help.

Five Best Practices for Internal Crisis Communications in Small and Midsize Law Firms

1. Think Three Steps Ahead

The most important communications principle that law firms need to remember is that internal and external communications need to reflect the same message.

“You have to assume that whatever you communicate internally will eventually be leaked,” says Cari Brunelle, a founding partner at communications firm Baretz+Brunelle. “So, make sure the message you disseminate internally matches the message you are delivering to the public.”

Brunelle also stresses the importance of being realistic about the situation and planning for the future, even when it’s uncomfortable. “You have to think three steps ahead,” she says. “And always be prepared for the unimaginable.”

For example, what if an employee unexpectedly passes away? If that were to happen, how would you communicate that to the rest of the firm? Though unpleasant, it’s important that firm leaders ask themselves the tough questions now to prepare for the unexpected down the road.

2. React Quickly and Strategically

It’s no secret that firms should be ready to act fast during a crisis, as the circumstances surrounding the situation can change quickly (and often). Firm leaders need to stay current on the latest news and be ready to make fast decisions.

Even outside of a crisis, firms must have solid communications strategies in place and be ready to disseminate information quickly during an emergency. For example, if a partner is suddenly involved in a scandal, how will firm management control the message? Waiting days to address the issue could be detrimental to the firm’s brand, so leaders need to act quickly.

3. Be Inclusive—But Not Too Inclusive

One of the biggest communication mistakes firms fall into, is making decisions in a vacuum. “Some firms mistakenly make big decisions with only a small group of firm leaders, but you need to include other key role players as well,” Brunelle notes. “For example, during [a quarantine order] your HR manager might tell you, ‘We have several employees who can’t do their jobs remotely right now.’ Or your IT support personnel might tell you your server can’t sustain the load of your full workforce operating from home offices. Well, those are crucial pieces of information that the leadership group needs to know before making a decision about remote work.”

Communication will be smoother and more effective if all necessary stakeholders have a say in important decisions.

At the same time, you don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen. So, while firm leaders need to make sure they have representation from key groups, they should be selective and keep the group relatively small so that they’re not gridlocked with too many opinions.

4. Approach Job Cuts Tactfully

The reality is that law firms of all sizes must make tough decisions in the face of a crisis. But it’s important to think ahead and balance financial needs with firm culture. “A pandemic, for example, is not the time to lay off underperforming staff or to adjust your secretary-to-lawyer ratio,” Brunelle warns.

Maintaining both firm morale and public optics are critical. While salary cuts and furloughs may be unavoidable, layoffs should be a last resort. If you do have to make the difficult decision to lay people off, let the partners know first. Have a clear plan as to who will tell whom, and at what time. When you communicate the news to the rest of the firm, try to offer some hope, such as “Like most other firms, we’ve had to make some hard decisions, but in 90 days we’ll reevaluate the situation and try to bring people back."

5. Lead with Compassion and Empathy (and Listen Well, Too!)

As you strive to communicate better, you should work to be a good listener as well. During times of crisis, employees will undoubtedly come to you with concerns. Take their questions seriously and address them as quickly as possible.

Lead with compassion and empathy—put yourself in other people’s shoes. Keep in mind that no one is their best self when under stress, so try to offer an extra measure of grace in your interactions with your colleagues. You won’t regret it.