INSIGHT: What Law Firm Leaders Can Learn From Cuomo’s Pandemic Actions

April 1, 2020, 8:00 AM

As an adviser to law firm leaders, I’ve always been interested in the question of what qualities are necessary to be an exceptional leader. And during these days of COVID-19, like many others, I want to hear from someone I trust who has a solid command of the facts. What I turn to each morning is the 11 a.m. press conference delivered by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

I’ve continued to watch these conferences day after day, for both the clarity they offer me as a New York citizen, and to experience true leadership during a time of crisis. I greatly admire how Cuomo is both managing the multi-prong and massive challenge posed by the spread of the virus, and the way he communicates the important facts we must know.

Many of these approaches are practices that our business and law firm leaders can apply. The governor’s actions and how he engages with a concerned citizenry during these extraordinary times may be helping to rewrite the rule book of modern leadership.

Take Responsibility

During his March 23 news conference, Cuomo said, “I take total responsibility for shutting off the economy in terms of essential workers, but we also have to start to plan the pivot back to economic functionality.”

Some decisions law firm leaders will make during the days of and immediately following the new coronavirus pandemic will be unpopular. They will be upsetting. They may involve shuttering offices, forcing partners into early retirement, or cutting headcount of associates and staff.

While our economy will recover, and law firms will survive, painful intermediary steps will need to be taken. These steps will be difficult both for those who make the decisions and communicate them, and for those to whom the message is delivered.

Still, if the decisions are based on facts and solid judgment, leaders need to assume responsibility and personally be present to communicate these actions and why they are being made. This will not be the time to stay behind locked doors.

Explain the Process

The governor has explicitly said that if today the virus were to reach its most extreme potential, at its peak, the state would not have enough beds or ventilators to take care of its citizens. He followed this scenario by discussing the possible solutions, from both the public and private sectors, and described the steps that need to take place on the state and federal levels.

By hearing the unvarnished truth, in this case a frightening shortage of beds and ventilators, he brings the problem to his audience. Following up with an action plan, the possible solutions to get more supplies, the public is provided with honest, straight-forward information. This combination, truth-telling and a discussion of the options, provide transparency and trust.

The process of considering possible resources to help solve the problem illuminates the next steps he is considering and it gives a sense of order. We know that someone is in charge. We are given the assurance that while we know there are hurdles, thoughtful maneuvering by our state is being applied to these challenges.

Whether changing a compensation system or implementing a new strategic plan, true leadership involves clearly communicating why decisions are being enacted, and the process by which they were made. When the thought process behind a decision isn’t articulated, and there is a lack of transparency, even the most intelligent people will try to make sense of a story by developing their own plot line.

Present the Facts

“In 10 days, we’ve gone from testing 1,000 people a day to testing 16,000 per day. That’s more tests per capita than South Korea,” Cuomo said. He also showed slides to reinforce these points.

When presenting the facts as to why change needs to happen, it’s essential to be as clear as possible. Using facts and numbers and, when we can, a relevant comparison, is helpful.

A slide with a simple graph or a balancing scale, even though it may look elementary, can be incredibly helpful in comparing scenarios or discussing how a group weighs risks. Our attention span seems to be getting shorter with each year, and clarity and simplicity in messaging are vital.

Embrace Creativity

We’ve heard about ventilators being reconfigured to provide air to two patients rather than one and fashion designers volunteering to make masks.

Whether it means considering unique solutions, or exploring how to mitigate a problem before it becomes too large, it’s vital for modern leaders to be flexible and think out of the box.

While lawyers are trained to look at a problem and find the right answer, we know that if we put other people with diverse backgrounds into the room, we’ll find there may be more than one correct answer. Engaging cross-disciplinary and diverse groups in the process of devising solutions is one of the best ways to solve a problem.

Be Human

Hearing Cuomo talk about his daughter and the embrace and kiss he so badly wants to give her, or his concern over his 88-year-old mother, is not simply moving. It reminds us that this is as personal for him as it is for the rest of us.

Talking openly about the personal impact a business decision may have on you as a leader forges a connection between you and your constituents. It also allows people to trust that you have considered the personal aspects involved in your decisions.

It reminds them that the leadership process is not an easy one, and that genuine and personal thought was factored into the decision-making process.

Be Grateful

Cuomo has often, and repeatedly, thanked the health-care workers on the front lines for their true efforts to help patients in this crisis.

It’s easy to forget in the rush of a busy day, that recognition often means as much, and often more, than money. The main reasons lawyers leave law firms has little to do with pay. It is generally due to a lack of confidence in firm management and strategy, and a mismatch of firm culture, according to a 2020 study by Major, Lindsey & Africa and Acritas.

When your lawyers and staff are going through tough times and rising to the occasion to help one another, be sure to thank them for their support. A show of gratitude goes a long way to building a healthy culture and confidence in firm leadership.

Lessons in leadership come to us in various forms. It’s useful to ask what our troubling experience with Covid-19 will teach us.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Deborah B. Farone is founder of Farone Advisors LLC. She is the author of “Best Practices in Law Firm Business Development and Marketing” (PLI 2019) and is the former CMO of Cravath Swaine & Moore LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, where she was responsible for building both firms’ marketing departments.

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