With the ever-increasing move toward virtual law firm models, there is relentless talk about technology and how to use it to crank out your daily workload.  There is no end to the advantages of cloud-based technologies to streamline your operations, from administrative assistance to accounting to research, etc.  As the newness of cloud-based technology wears off and migrates toward general acceptance and even, shall I say it, excitement from lawyers?, it’s time to start some conversation that goes beyond productivity.  It’s time to talk about human engagement in light of warped-speed technological advancements.

With more and more firms moving toward a distributed and mobile model, new challenges are created with regard to the softer side of building a law firm.  It goes beyond the general “water cooler” stuff.  I’m talking about real, meaningful dialogue that happens when two or more people have the opportunity to sit face-to-face to advance a concept, project, relationship or business.

Here at Curo, we have people on our team from all around the country.  I think it’s safe to say that we all agree we are excelling at building a team that is cohesive, collaborative, creative and successful in proving that distributed models can and do work very well.  And I know I can speak for everyone on our team when I say that we are having a ton of fun together despite not being under the same roof.

So how is it done?

1. Make Engagement a Priority

It is important to be intentional in making sure that you don’t lose the personal interaction with each other despite the miles that separate your team. Technology makes it very easy to not engage yet still get stuff done.  It takes effort to make sure that people are actually flying in formation, and that’s all but impossible without human interaction and communication.  So much is lost and misunderstood when you can’t see body language and can’t hear tone of voice. Making the strategic decision to focus on personal interaction within your team helps avoid the natural pitfalls of technology.

2. Embrace the Technologies that Assist with Engagement

You may wonder why I am coming back to technology when I’m talking about human interaction, but that’s the beauty of it.  There are even technologies that help with keeping the focus on human connectivity.  Video chat platforms for internal meetings allow you to actually see each other.  You can see reactions, hear tone of voice, and see smiles when you greet each other.

You should also consider using an internal discussion platform like Slack for sending real-time messages to one another.  Slack can become your internal brick and mortar.  What I mean by that is anything that you would discuss with one another if you regularly gathered in a brick and mortar office can be discussed via Slack. The platform offers the ability to set up different discussion channels (i.e. Sales and Marketing, Tech Talk, Client Matters, etc.) and also offers the ability to send direct and group messages.  Slack allows team members to upload PDFs, Google Docs, Images and more.  (This platform has the added advantage of keeping your inbox reserved for communications better suited for emails and reduces the quantity of emails significantly.)  This is also where you can have your “non-urgent” conversations such as birthday greetings, congrats on jobs well done, funny stories, etc.  The real magic happens here with regard to building camaraderie and a team spirit.

3. Get together in person on a regular basis

As great as it is to be mobile and distributed, there is nothing that replaces getting together in person.  It can be very challenging to schedule and there are certainly costs associated with gathering your team in one location, but I speak from experience when I say that the return on that investment is through the roof.

Be sure to schedule regular meetings, perhaps quarterly, to get your team together in one place.  By doing this, you solidify the relationships that have been built via the collaboration tools described above.  For these meetings, have a well-designed agenda in order to maximize the benefit of the time you have together, but also build in time to just kick back and have some unstructured fun.  Not only do these get-togethers result in awesome productivity, creativity and energy, they further the existing relationships and create new ones.  This is especially important as you bring on new teammates who haven’t previously had the opportunity to meet their colleagues face-to-face.

4. Be consistent

It’s important to have time reserved on your calendars for communicating directly with your team.  Regularly scheduled all-hands calls as well as establishing a general expectation that your folks will log on via the available platforms is key in making this work. For some, video chat is unnatural and a bit unnerving, but by putting aside those comfort zone barriers, you will enhance confidence and create a feeling that what matters most is being truly present in the discussion.  (It’s hard to multi-task and get disengaged if others can see you checking your emails and working on other projects.

5. Have fun!

The key to all of the above is to not make it feel forced or awkward.  Have fun with it.  Build your firm culture by connecting at a deeper level that becomes natural and anticipated.  While it’s important to be intentional, don’t take it so seriously that it backfires and appears insincere.

Bottom line:  The more and better your team is interacting with one another, the better your firm performs.

Betsy Westhafer is the co-founder of CuroLegal, a company that provides consulting services, operations support, and flexible staffing solutions for law firms, and serves as the Chief Operating Officer.  In that role, Betsy works with division leaders to ensure that all services are being delivered with excellence and with maximum value to Curo’s law firm clients.   In addition, Betsy oversees all internal operations including organizational management, human resources, finance, and process improvement.  Betsy has over 20 years of business experience with a focus on startups and small B2B organizations.  She can be reached at bwesthafer@curolegal.com or at 800-406-7336.