Origin Legal's interview with Stewart Vandermark
Last week, Jason Nottage has taken some time out to discuss all things 2020 with Stewart Vandermark, chief executive of leading East Midlands law firm Nelsons. Stewart qualified in 1994, joined Nelsons in 2001 and became chief executive in 2017. During this interview, we discuss 2020, the summer behind us and Nelsons’ response to working through a global health crisis.
It is great to speak with you Stewart. Nelsons has proved to be good at coping with disruption following the renovation of your Nottingham office. Did you find some of those experiences helped the firm as this crisis hit the UK?
It does feel like we coped better than we dared believe with these difficult and challenging times.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve invested in refurbishing our Nottingham, Leicester and Derby offices as we wanted to create workplace environments that aligned themselves with our vision and values.
Our can-do approach and commitment to empowering our employees to work in the ways that suit them – without being stuck at their desks throughout the day – meant we were well set up to cope with this unexpected interruption. We have long invested in technology – so for example most fee earners had Surface Pros and we have a full electronic filing system - has allowed work to be done in a more agile way and certainly helped teams to adapt to home working more quickly.
At the start of lockdown what was the response and strategy from Nelsons to make everything work?
Innovation has been key in allowing for such a smooth transition. As mentioned already, we’re lucky that we had previously invested in Surface Pros and fully electronic working, meaning our teams had the necessary technology to enable agile and secure home working instantly – allowing them to quickly and easily engage with, and service, clients from home as they would in the office.
A focus was then placed on innovating through the crisis to assist remote working and the client experience by enhancing and developing these existing ways of working, with as many functions as possible being automated. This has been a key priority through this period.
From the outset we challenged our teams to make clear to clients we were very much open for business even if the offices were closed; and be proactive on social media. This has driven unprecedented levels of PR success during these months.
We also wanted to support our employees through it and early on had a strategy designed to ensure we utilised government schemes (such as furlough leave) with a view to bringing everyone back. We did not want to lose the momentum we had been building; and wanted to be in a position to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that we anticipated may open up. With business holding up well, I am pleased to say we now have nearly everyone back from furlough.
Obviously at the start of lockdown there were time pressures, how long did it take for everything to work effectively?
As the severity of the coronavirus pandemic became apparent at the beginning of the year, we spent a lot of time working out how we’d continue to function remotely and what technology or support would be needed to allow us to do so. I recall challenging our management team to ensure that, whatever happened, we would be able to continue our business with as little interruption as possible. We spent time thinking through all the different scenarios that may happen and working out how what gaps we needed to plug to ensure if the offices were closed, we could continue to work as seamlessly as possible.
These preparatory measures ensured that the transition to home working was made quickly and efficiently. I was sitting in our Bar watching the Prime Minister’s statement being aired with some of our management team when he said that those who could work at home, should work at home. Within 20 minutes, all of our employees received a text message to say that from then on, they would be working from home.
It was a moment I will never forget, but we were confident we were ready. Of course, you then have to hope the preparation pays off and the technology works as planned – but it did, and we had all employees able to continue a high level of service to clients pretty seamlessly.
Can you tell us about any initiatives Nelsons created to help employees during this very difficult time?
Having gone from three bustling offices to working from home and having employees who were in different living situations, we were keen to ensure that all members of the team remained engaged, felt supported, and didn’t retreat into their shells.
The key to ensuring this didn’t happen has been communication. Starting a weekly blog, which is posted on our intranet, has not only ensured the team are aware of the rapidly changing developments of Covid-19, but it also keeps spirits high.
The ability for me to communicate directly and first-hand what is happening across the company has been well received. It also allows me to remind people of our vision, values, behaviours and purpose, and illustrate their importance to our culture. This has, I believe, been a powerful tool.
Other communications strategies we implemented include weekly HR elevenses and bi-weekly ‘beers with ears’ sessions to allow the team the opportunity to talk through anything they needed to raise with our senior management or simply socialise with other people.
The Happiness Index survey that we use has also been an invaluable tool to measure the team’s engagement at this extraordinary time. A special set of Covid-19 questions – such as what changes employees would like to see continue, which is feeding into policy reviews of issues such as flexible working – were distributed and came back with incredibly strong scores.
Supporting local causes is also something that’s very close to our hearts and we didn’t want things to come to a standstill just because we have been working remotely.
We’ve hosted initiatives, such as our Dress with an Egg Day and 100 Miles in May challenges, which have enabled us to continue raising money for our nominated charities at a time when many are struggling due to the impact of the pandemic, while also bringing teams together.
Nelsons has always been a firm that prioritises client care, what was your (strategy) response with clients to ensure they were happy?
We knew from the start that it was vital we were proactive and outward facing while our employees began working from home. A strong emphasis was placed on ensuring clients would know we remained very much open for business; with teams being in close contact with clients and referrers from the outset.
At the heart of this was building on our continued investment in social media, external communications and PR activities. A focus was placed internally on producing informative content from the start of the pandemic to empower and assist businesses and individuals on their rights as we all navigated through these uncharted waters together.
During the period of lockdown can you tell us about some of the positive things you found that came out of Nelsons?
We’ve always been a strong, close-knit team, but that has intensified even further as a result of the lockdown, which has been amazing to see. We launched a private ‘Team Nelsons’ Facebook page so people could still interact with each other and share tips, which has proven incredibly popular, as well as a weekly ‘Lockdown Living With’ feature on our intranet. I think this time has really enabled people to connect on a much deeper level, which has helped to get us through these challenging times. I have received many comments that the work we have been carrying out in recent years to really define our culture, our values and our key behaviours has really helped everyone understand in these times what was expected; and helped make them stand out even more strongly and sharpened our culture even further.
As we move into the phase of returning to office spaces, what are some of the important things Nelsons want to achieve?
It’s only when you end up working from home full-time that you realise how much the buzz and company of others while in the office helps keep you motivated and working at your best. We have implemented creative ways to try and replicate that buzz, and while they have worked very well, none provide quite the same experience, and we’re definitely looking forward to the day we can be reunited once more.
We’re currently working on plans to open our offices in the coming weeks, and when we’re able to, we’ll be finding a way to celebrate and thank everyone for being team players with real can-do attitudes, which have gotten us through these strange and challenging times.
Going without an office is something I never imagined we’d have to go without, and it’s strange how much you take the little things for granted until they are taken away from you. However, thanks to our commitment to communicating with our team, the Nelsons spirit continues to remain high as we enter our sixth month of working remotely.
As we begin to return to the offices, we definitely want to find the right balance between teams being and working together which is so important but recognising what we have learnt about how we can work remotely. We are working on a new working from home policy to empower our employees to be able to find the right balance between what the business needs; and allowing individuals to work more flexibly to give them a better work-life balance.
Obviously, the memories of 2020 will live long after the pandemic has gone. Do you see any long-lasting changes to the legal profession and the way law firms operate?
When Nelsons first opened in 1983, our competitors’ doors were closed during lunch times. Because we were new, we had to think outside the box, so we offered a 24-hour service, with lawyers printing their home phone numbers of letterheads and business cards. This allowed clients to contact solicitors out of hours, something that was then very rare in the legal industry.
And today, we continue to innovate and challenge the traditionally fragmented workplace structure in the sector. Early on, we got a hold of an IT agenda that is still with us today, which has proven valuable during these times, especially as it has always been our priority to be as responsible as we can do clients and engage in a way they want to engage.
That desire to push ourselves forward us to allow us to serve our clients has been a constant throughout our evolution, and I believe that the pandemic will push other, more traditional law firms to do the same.
Like the rest of the world, I think video technology has found a place with us. We have always held physical meetings, but I can now see us making use of this sort of technology as it works well and will save a lot of travel and interruption.
We are bringing in a series of innovative solutions to allow our fee earners to use their IT even more effectively in delivering their services; with a blend of in office and at home working.
Stewart and Jason have worked together since 2001 when Jason introduced Stewart to Nelsons.