Leading Questions: Fenwick Top Talent Officer Connects in Crisis

Aug. 21, 2020, 9:00 AM

Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players to find out what their lives look like in the age of work from home.

Neha Shah Nissen became Fenwick & West’s first chief talent officer in January. She is a member of Fenwick’s senior leadership team, sits on the executive committee and compensation committee of the firm, and co-leads the senior management team with the firm’s chief operating officer. Nissen splits her time between the firm’s San Francisco and Mountain View, Calif. offices, and oversees the administrative departments focused on attorney recruiting, legal personnel and training, practice management, corporate social responsibility and pro bono, and diversity and inclusion.

Bloomberg Law spoke to Nissen about how she’s working to meet clients’ changing challenges, advocating for diverse talent, and shooting hoops to help focus and relax. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: Describe your day to day routine.

Neha Shah Nissen: My routine has shifted dramatically since we began working from home. Previously, I was commuting from Marin County, two to three hours per day, four days per week. Since mid-March, when we all started working remotely, my commute time has been taken over by video meetings. I try to spend the first hour of each morning preparing myself for the workday, and preparing my boys, ages 12 and 15, for distance learning. Then I jump into a marathon of back-to-back video meetings until evening. Once those wrap up, I try to unplug completely so that I can be totally present for my kids, especially since they can no longer engage in after school sports and activities the way they used to. I have always been a night owl, and that is one thing that has not changed. So once my kids are ready to go to sleep, I log back on and get more substantive work done in the late hours of the night.

BL: What’s the hardest thing about working from home?

NN: I miss the energy and camaraderie that come from collaborating with my teams in person. Even the brief person-to-person encounter in the hallway, impromptu visitors dropping by for a chat or unexpected coffee break, creates a sense of connection and community. And while I don’t miss my daily commute in the least, I do miss the downtime my drive sometimes provided for listening to podcasts or music, and taking some quiet time for myself.

BL: What is something your firm is doing that has been really helpful?

NN: We have been prioritizing frequent communications from firm leadership during this public health crisis. These communications have kept our attorneys and business professionals connected as we work from home, and hopefully have given them a sense of comfort as we convey how we are putting the health and well-being of our people first as we continue to focus on the long-term success of the firm. Weekly emails and monthly town hall video conferences have kept the lines of communication open. Fenwick has also provided all employees with a work-from-home stipend and wellness dollars to help them improve their home equipment and ergonomic setup. That has been very well-received.

Neha Shah Nissen
Courtesy of Fenwick & West

BL: How have your clients’ needs changed during the pandemic?

NN: As Fenwick’s chief talent officer, my focus has been to make sure that our attorneys and business professionals are able to continue to provide excellent client service despite the enormous challenges that 2020 keeps delivering. The firm has been extremely busy responding to client needs during the pandemic. Clients have needed to navigate new laws like the CARES Act, financing and capital needs are more urgent, and entire businesses have had to switch gears to an online environment—all of which drives intense client demand. In the first several months of the pandemic, we on the senior leadership team met every day to make sure the firm was successfully meeting this demand while also supporting our people’s needs through the disruption. In more recent months, I have also been very focused on guiding Fenwick’s response to the call to action for racial justice, including supporting our diverse talent and making sure we live up to our values as they relate to diversity, equity and inclusion. We are also keenly aware that we have a responsibility as a law firm to advance the cause of equal justice in our broader communities, and we are answering that call through targeted pro bono and community service efforts, internal education and training, charitable contributions, and client partnerships.

BL: What kinds of technology are you using? Any challenges while working remotely?

NN: Fenwick provides a lot of choices around technology and tools that empower us to communicate and collaborate freely and effectively. I use everything from Zoom to Webex to Skype to Microsoft Teams to Jabber to Smartsheets. Our IT team deserves a tremendous shout out, because the challenges of working remotely have been minimal from a capability standpoint. So my biggest challenge while working remotely is to remember to take breaks, because technology enables us to work around the clock if we don’t force ourselves to hit pause at times during the day.

BL: What is your number one piece of advice about working from home?

NN: It’s to ask for help when you need it. We are not simply working from home, we are sheltering at home from a contagious virus. Some people are alone and feel isolated, others are working in homes with vulnerable family members or with children at various stages of development who are distance learning. There is no one-size-fits-all fix to what individuals within the organization may need during this unprecedented time, and so we encourage people to reach out when they need help and support, and we work to find solutions that fit their unique circumstances.

BL: What’s your favorite working from home story that made you laugh, shake your head, or just throw up your hands?

NN: At last month’s firmwide town hall, our chair introduced the firm to his family’s new “pandemic puppy,” who wiggled around and licked his face. His 13-year-old daughter also made a guest appearance as the family dog wrangler. Another time, I was on a team video call when one of my team member’s young daughters wandered in wearing a unicorn hoodie. I was so excited, I had to show her the fuzzy unicorn slippers I wear every day during work, which meant admitting to my team that I wear fuzzy unicorn slippers every day to work.

BL: What do you do to de-stress or take your mind off work when you’re trapped inside (or limited in where you can go)?

NN: My oldest son is a basketball fanatic, and he doesn’t have as many outlets for playing the sport he loves right now, so we bought a pop-a-shot basketball arcade game and put it on the back deck. I thought I was getting it “for the kids,” but I have to admit it’s a great stress reliever and helps me focus on the present moment. There is nothing better than leaving the desk after a long day, grabbing one of my kids, and seeing who can sink the most shots in the time limit. And on the rare occasion that I beat my teenager, I feel like a rock star.

To contact the reporters on this story: Mary Ellen Egan in New York at maryellenegan1@gmail.com
To contact the editor on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com
Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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