The past two weeks have felt more like two months. Awareness of the coronavirus has thankfully spread at least somewhat faster than the virus itself, and America seemingly transformed over the course of a few days from a bustling megapower to the land of 327 million shut-ins.
Things seem bleak. In no particular order: thousands have died worldwide, and countless are sick; most public gathering places are closed; employment has been disrupted; basic medical provisions are already in short supply; and our healthcare system is preparing to be overwhelmed. Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread. We’re stuck in our homes, trying to get work done, trying not to compulsively check the news for updates, and no one knows how long we’ll have to stay like this. We’re living through a period that will be taught in our grandchildren’s history books, and it’s damn stressful.
But adversity creates heroes. Within my own firm I’ve seen leader after leader stepping up and sacrificing of themselves to help their colleagues through this difficult time. While I don’t generally discuss details of my own firm in this space, today I’m breaking that rule and naming names of some — but far from all — of the extraordinary examples of foresight, hard work, and selflessness I’ve seen these past few weeks.
You can’t prepare for a problem until you realize the problem exists, and for that I have to give huge credit to Dean Seiveno, our Chief Enterprise Officer. Dean put the coronavirus situation on the firm’s radar way back in January, when it was still seen as a distant problem confined to China. Dean saw the problem that coronavirus could grow into, however, and began working with others in the firm to plan and prepare for the issue long before it was common to do so.
A centerpiece of the plan Dean helped spearhead was equipping and training every single employee of our firm to work remotely if and when the time came. Some called the planning an overreaction — a needless exercise for something that likely wouldn’t affect the U.S. or the firm. Dean knew better. He soldiered on, working with others to put contingency planning in place while still meeting the firm’s general technology needs. Beyond that effort, Dean led the charge to coordinate with other firms’ enterprise and IT teams to share best practices and spread their knowledge as far as they could. Because of their efforts, the transition to remote working and social distancing in the office has been far smoother than it otherwise would have been.
When the shutdown began, our Chief People Officer, Cheryl Mostrom Cecil, was on the front lines. Our firm’s planning, which Cheryl played a critical role in, helped us deploy our COVID-19 plan without causing panic, but that left her in the center of a firestorm of inquiries about school closures, travel situations, PTO issues, and every other type of question that might arise about the human impact of the coronavirus. Cheryl answered every single one of those questions. She didn’t use templates; she took the time to craft a thoughtful, tailored response to every inquiry she received.
Once last week I left the office around 10 p.m. As I was leaving, I stopped by Cheryl’s office, where she was still typing up email responses. I said “I hope you’re going home soon.” She responded “I’m right behind you, I just want to get back to a few more people.” Foolishly, I believed her. She stayed up, late into the night, putting our people at ease and providing them access to resources to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. She prepared a comprehensive FAQ for the entire firm to access. She calmed fears and soothed worries.
Day after day, question after question, Cheryl keeps going. If we don’t have a policy in place, she proposes a pragmatic one. When employees need to talk, she picks up the phone. All of this has had great cost to her personal life. She’s put sleep on the backburner. She’s put her life on hold. And she’s done it for no reason other than she cares about people in ways that transcend any written job responsibilities or org chart. This is not about “doing the job” for Cheryl. It’s about doing what’s right.
Caring For Those Who Care For Others
The heroes I’ve mentioned above are extraordinary, but they’re drawn from the small subset of my colleagues I get to see on a day-to-day basis. We’ve had similar examples throughout our firm. I know there are many other brilliant, self-sacrificing people working every day to ensure operational continuity at firms and businesses around the world. There are heroes at every level, in every job, in every office, who deserve to be seen for what they’re doing.
The coming weeks and months will test even the best-prepared firms. For those firms that make it through to the other side, allow me to suggest that any success they might see probably didn’t come from a wise managing partner or a brilliant practice group chair, some great individual who saw the future and rose to meet it. Rather, the real leadership in a crisis comes from the trenches. It’s the people who don’t get the spotlight, but who put in the hours, come up with the good ideas, develop and implement the fine detail work, who make success possible. They don’t plan for accolades, and in many cases won’t receive them, no matter how meritorious their work has been. But they work tirelessly, compassionately, and thoughtfully to care for others, and for that they can’t be commended enough.
And unfortunately, they often aren’t commended enough. Undervalued MVPs like the ones I’ve described here are often not firm attorneys. As a result, they often fail to receive their full measure of credit for their accomplishments, because a law firm’s successes are usually presumed to stem principally from attorney efforts. That presumption is wrong, and it makes their accomplishments all the more noteworthy. As a rule, they’ve figured out how to do their jobs effectively and efficiently, despite the resistance they routinely receive from the lawyers they support, who tend by nature to be skeptical, critical, and resistant to change. Despite not having a J.D., or perhaps because they don’t, these humble leaders are the beating heart of any firm.
To my fellow firm leaders reading this, please do me a favor these next few weeks. While you take care of your people, look out for those who are taking care of others. Search out the people outside the spotlight who are putting others ahead of themselves, and let them know they are seen and appreciated. When push comes to shove, it’s those quiet heroes who make all the difference.
James Goodnow is an attorney, commentator, and Above the Law columnist. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School and is the managing partner of NLJ 250 firm Fennemore Craig. He is the co-author of Motivating Millennials, which hit number one on Amazon in the business management new release category. As a practitioner, he and his colleagues created a tech-based plaintiffs’ practice and business model. You can connect with James on Twitter (@JamesGoodnow) or by emailing him at James@JamesGoodnow.com.
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